Elements of effective game-based emotion design

Bill Fulton

Bill Fulton is the founder of Ronin User Experience. He started and led Microsoft Game Studio’s user research group.

Bill Fulton of Ronin User Experience describes his empirical yet emotional approach to game design and how it relates to customer engagement.

Interview conducted by Alan Morrison and Galen Gruman

PwC: When you look at how games are being designed and how game design approaches could be improved, what shortfalls are you seeing?

BF: The problem is that the people who are most competent and best situated to design and develop games—and this is true of all kinds of designs, not just game designs—are the least qualified to remember what it’s like not to know what they know. The curse of knowledge is that you know so much you can’t remember what it’s like to be ignorant of the topic.

PwC: So what’s an antidote to the curse of knowledge?

BF: One antidote to the curse of knowledge is to do empirical testing of the intended target market. It’s not good enough to let people who understand linear algebra and programming make Excel for Microsoft. Excel is a product for people who don’t know linear algebra, don’t understand matrices, and aren’t programmers. And yet they need to be able to use that product to crunch numbers for themselves.

That gap in knowledge leads to massive frustration on the part of end users who often simply can’t understand the instructions they’ve been given. So the antidote is to constantly check yourself and make the experts acknowledge that their target is not as educated as they are.

You do a test and see where things break down, where people don’t understand instructions, where they don’t understand feedback, where symbols don’t mean the same thing, and where icons don’t mean the same thing.

PwC: How do you engage the right people with what you’ve just empirically designed?

BF: One of the limitations that business puts on itself is that it cares only about a few things, and not the whole thing. For instance, profit maximization is obviously a goal, but business generally takes a very narrow approach to how to accomplish that. A squishy psychologist like me would say that happy workers are better workers, but it’s very hard to quantify how that’s going to maximize profit.

But it doesn’t make it not true. If companies fail to measure that happiness and work on it, then they’ll maximize profit in the short run, but they’ll wonder why they’re not getting more out of it. Over the long term, they will have unhappy workers, and their turnover will be terrible.

Game designers try to engage the whole person and not just a narrow slice of a person. They look at the range of human experience, which can be broken down into three components: feeling, doing, and thinking.

In the same way that every color we see can be broken down to red, green, and blue components, every human experience can be broken down into those three experience components. One of the things that game designers do to maximize engagement is try to use all three of those components as opposed to just one or two.

PwC: And businesses, by contrast, stay focused on just one thing?

BF: In most places in the business world, the focus is solely on behavior and a little bit on thinking, and almost nothing on emotion. That’s essentially like trying to paint a picture using just yellow. You could, but it’s not going to be as good a picture, or it’s going to take a lot more skill to make a just-yellow picture interesting compared to one that has a full range of color.

If game designers are going to pull a person away from every other voluntary social activity or hobby or pastime, they’re going to have to engage that person at a very deep level in every possible way they can. And so they try to engage thinking, doing, and feeling at the same time.

PwC: If businesses haven’t really thought about design in terms of engaging customers from an emotional standpoint, how do they start?

BF: First of all, start with it as a goal—not a lip service goal, but a goal. The goal is this: People should love our product.

Most businesses want people to see the value or benefit of their product, and not consider price. They never come to the conclusion that it would be better if people loved their products.

It’s much harder to pull away customers who love your stuff. But that love is not an explicit goal and therefore no one ever works toward that. Even if you make it an explicit goal, then you’re at the point of asking, “How do we do that?” Well, that’s where you start to get into some other very squishy things.

User experience designers ask themselves, what would cause someone to love this? If every car came in matte black, there would be a lot fewer people who love cars. The designers know that color and shape, things completely separate from a car’s usefulness as transportation, play a large role in whether one loves a car.

To get a healthy chunk of sales and a lot of customer loyalty, car designers know they need to inspire love. Now this is true in some cases and less true in others. With a sports car, it’s absolutely true. Perhaps with a very sensible four-door sedan, it’s less true.

PwC: Should every situation be a fully engaged situation?

BF: Every situation certainly doesn’t have to be. If you’re a key designer, investing all the effort you can into making sure your customers love their house keys, for example, is just a waste of effort. But if there’s not a reasonable amount of liking even mundane designs, then you’re in trouble.

“Emoticons have nothing to do with the strict requirements of communication, but they have everything to do with a fuller, richer, human communication.”

Let’s take a look at instant messaging [IM]. That’s just a communication tool. But people developed emoticons in e-mail, and then IM turned them into even more interesting-looking things. They have more funny pictures of emoticons in IM. It sometimes seems like over half of the development effort is spent making emoticons look good, animating them, and so on. Emoticons have nothing to do with the strict requirements of communication, but they have everything to do with a fuller, richer, human communication.

And people grow attached to emoticons. They dislike it when the emoticon they want to pull out doesn’t look as good in this IM client or that IM client. Their feeling about emoticons becomes a reason not to switch IM clients.

PwC: Where do businesses choose to apply this emotional approach besides products and services? Inside the enterprise there are training activities, for example. Should there be an emotional component to the training that folks have to do?

BF: Absolutely. The problem is that there is an emotional component. If you don’t design it, then you’re not controlling the emotional component. So in other words, training is a very, very emotionally fraught scenario.

For one thing, if you’re a participant, the need for training means you’re ignorant at something or else they wouldn’t send you to training. For another, there’s a reason you’re there, whether it’s fear of losing your job or motivation to try to move up or improve your skill set. And then there’s the post-training aspect of it. Did the training actually help me? Did I use my time well? A whole slew of emotions occur in something like training.

And if an instructional designer doesn’t try to shape that into something that is a positive and good experience, then people will wish they hadn’t taken the training. They’ll bad-mouth it, perhaps, or they won’t take full advantage of it, because they’re not prepared emotionally to maximize the value of that training.

PwC: Can you give us an example of a service where the emotional component has been controlled effectively?

BF: Sure. Let’s take the airlines Virgin America, which shows a video of the announcement for using seatbelts and other safety measures. The company uses a little humor in the video, and it uses some very pleasing graphics. Virgin America spared passengers the attempt by flight attendants to be friendly and funny. Those attendants have given that speech 1,000 times and can’t imagine anyone doesn’t already know it, and so they have to become these great actors or desperately look for some way to keep it fresh. Instead, Virgin made one really good short video, which is actually amusing enough that I still watch it more than I ever watched the other flight attendants present the information manually.

Virgin thought about the emotional experience at the beginning of a flight, where the first major thing travelers think is, “Great, we have to try to act like we’re paying attention, but we’re not.” Virgin flipped it around and with just a little bit of humor and a little bit of investment, changed it to a minor positive for the experience of flying on Virgin America.

PwC: You’ve published before on incorporating social functionality into games. You’ve seen the evolution of so-called gamification as it relates to social platforms. What are you seeing right now? What’s happening in that space that our readers should be aware of?

“I’d say that the social world is still underappreciated and misunderstood. We are slowly fumbling toward better social software, and Facebook is a step. It is one of many possible steps. Despite its clumsiness, I’d argue it’s a huge social benefit to people.”

BF: I’d say that the social world is still underappreciated and misunderstood. We are slowly fumbling toward better social software, and Facebook is a step. It is one of many possible steps. Despite its clumsiness, I’d argue it’s a huge social benefit to people.

The great frontier that people are fumbling their way toward is helping people socialize with others who like the same things they already like. We see this on Twitter: you can follow comedians or famous people or whatever and can already share a like of them. You can’t quite socialize with other people as much, but there is an aggregation of people around common interests. Pinterest is another one that’s beginning to aggregate people around common interests and let you socialize with people who already like what you like and love what you love.

One of the things I love about games is that you already share a love of a particular game and then you have the opportunity to socialize with people who also love that thing.

PwC: It seems that some of the shallower approaches to gamification could seem like manipulation. What about the negative feelings that might result from just a partial solution to the problem, say in a social context?

BF: Yes, poorly designed social is very dangerous. Poorly designed emotion in general is very dangerous. Humans are very good at detecting disingenuousness. Clumsy emotion design will feel terrible. It feels worse than doing nothing. But it doesn’t have to be bad or heavy handed. You can find designers who can think about that aspect of design.

I would very, very carefully test game mechanics applied to business processes before you release them. Make sure that the goals you had for the emotions you’re trying to achieve are in fact being achieved. But that’s what you do for everything. If you want to make a car that can go 40 miles per gallon, you must test it to see if it gets there. And if it doesn’t, you must revise it until it does.

Designing for emotion is definitely in its infancy. I’d say a great number of companies don’t even have it as a goal yet.