Round 1 of Zebulon User Testing: It’s Confusing

It’s pretty much taken as gospel in the web startup world that nobody is the usability design guru they think they are. An iterative approach of: rapid prototype; put in front of a few people to get their feedback; and repeat is the cheapest and fastest way to design the things people use.

I know this. But it’s still tough to put your baby out there and then see how badly it fares.

I hit an early prototype milestone last week. The graphics are crude, but the game play works and it’s tricky but possible to win. Here’s what the game looks like:

Happy with my progress, I put a copy onto my iPad mini and went out to lunch with my old SurveyMonkey Seattle crew, so I could show them my progress. They were champs, and let me sit down with them one at a time so I could watch them interact with this game for the first time. I wanted to see if they could figure out the gameplay on their own, so I didn’t give any coaching or tutorial – I just handed them the iPad.

It was humbling. My friends were really nice, but it was clear that the interface was baffling. Which in retrospect, makes total sense. Here’s my key learnings:

Clicking (pressing your finger) is the primary interface; dragging is a secondary interface, and only works if there’s an obvious target and destination. 

In Zebulon, you drag ships between planets. And you click on planets to pick what that planet produces, or to see information about that planet. But you can’t make much of anything happen just by clicking on a planet; the gameplay is about drag ships between planets. This was not at all obvious to my poor testers.

Visual consistency is paramount. 

For the player attack ship, I had an orange-hued ship sprite. Because attack is red, right? But the enemies are color-coded as red. So red meant “enemy” to my testers, and they wondered why an enemy ship was orbiting their planet, when it was supposed to be their ship. (I changed the hue to green in the video).

There can only be one kind of power-up indicator. 

Nobody understood the difference between planets having two modes: building the planet,  and a finished planet which produces goods. I’ve been struggling with the visual indicator – I’m back to the ring which cycles from gray to green to yellow – but I need to go back to the drawing board on this.

Razzle-dazzle to fake it until you make it. 

People loved the fairly cheap visual effects that I tossed in – a particle emitter for ship engines, planets that “pop” a bit when you drag over them, ships in orbit, etc. Even though it doesn’t do much for game play, these bits of polish told my testers “this is a legit game, keep trying.”

This feedback is invaluable. But it’s demoralizing; I’m back to the drawing board on a lot of things. But it’s better to discover these problems as soon as possible. If anything, my take-away is that I could have started testing even sooner, and saved myself more time.

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