The iPhone, Interface Design and Videogames

I’m in London right now, to “talk to other writers and translators, about translation”:http://www.crossingborder.nl/weblog_list_en.php?writerID=11&groep=1&columnID=28&jaar=2007&lang=en. Of course, I couldn’t resist raising the subject of videogames and, somehow, I also talked about interface design. I searched for a way to explain what interface design is all about and ended up using the word ‘communication’ a lot. Because in the end, what an interface does is enable communication between the user and the machine.

This afternoon I walked through the city with “Priya Basil”:http://www.priyabasil.com/ and the subject came to the “iPhone”:http://www.apple.com/iphone/ – I found it hard to avoid this, as Apple’s phone is being released here today. (I did apologize to her, saying I was going to talk about a geeky subject – again!)

I told her there are many phones with the same functions as the iPhone and that just about the only thing that’s different is the interface. I don’t use most of the features on my current phone, because I wouldn’t know how – mostly hindered by the confusing menus.

Essentially, this is a communication problem: the interface fails to convey what the machine has on offer. So ultimately, I stopped trying, like a husband and wife who aren’t talking anymore. Priya agreed. She doesn’t use most of the stuff on her phone either.

What I expect of the iPhone is that the streamlined, easy to use interface is going to make using its features much more accessible. Because of the interface, I’m finally going to be able to use things like e-mail, internet, calendar and maps when I’m on the road.

Things I could probably do on the phone I have now, but honestly, I wouldn’t know how – and wouldn’t want to, because if it’s as hard to use as it is to figure out how to set it up…

h2. Presentation

Communication has a lot to do with presentation. Just last night, we attended a lecture by a certain “Dr. Marina Warner”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marina_Warner – related to literature and translation, probably, though I haven’t the faintest idea what it was about.

From the first minute I knew it wasn’t going to work for me, because she talked in a monotone way using loads of difficult words. She almost never looked at the audience and was reading from paper, word by word. I was told that this is something academic – I’d say it’s bullshit.

I feel that any lecture’s starting point should be the assumption that the audience doesn’t know anything about a subject and is probably not interested, either. Dr. Warner’s first task should’ve have been to make a connection with me (and the rest of the audience).

She should’ve told me why her research is relevant to me and that she was going to present a lot of interesting ideas starting in just a few minutes’ time. And that at the end, there would maybe even be a paradigm-shifting revelation I could only understand if I were to listen closely to her story.

As something of a fan, I couldn’t help but feel that Dr. Warner, or perhaps the academic world at large, is in dire need of “a Steve Jobs masterclass on how to present something”:http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2005/10/apple_special_e.html.

h2. Game design

Recently, I read something a Nintendo designer said. I don’t remember who, maybe it was simply “Shigeru Miyamoto”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shigeru_Miyamoto. It certainly fits in with his philosophy. He said that, when focus testing “the new Wii platform game ‘Super Mario Galaxy'”:http://nielsthooft.com/super-mario-galaxy-lives-and-the-essence-of-mario, if a player kept doing something wrong, he wouldn’t blame the player – he’d conclude that the game design was suboptimal. Apparently, the game had failed to communicate to the player.

Similarly, Nintendo’s president, “Satoru Iwata”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satoru_Iwata said that one of the challenges of game design is to use as little in-game explanation text as possible, while still making the player understand everything. (He didn’t even get started about the manual, which should never be required reading.)

So game design is all about communication, too. What does the game I’m playing have on offer? It should be built so that I find out, bit by bit, without ever getting bored. What do I have to do? The game should tell me. Why do I have to keep playing? It should be obvious.

If I tell a friend, “I didn’t like game A, it’s only about shooting”, and she tells me, “What? You didn’t reach the racing part?”, that’s a lot like not being able to navigate the menus on my phone. Then, if another game comes along that does compel me to keep playing, that’s a lot like the iPhone.

h2. Apple Store

Later on, I said goodbye to Priya and continued by myself, on to the Apple Store at Regent Street.

A couple of blocks before I reached it, while waiting for a traffic light, a guy next to me pulled an iPhone out of his pocket. Almost immediately, a couple of guys inched closer to him and started to ask questions like, “Did you buy it already?” (“Actually, I got it in the US.”) and, “Do you like it?” (“Sure!”).

Then, when I got to the store, it turned out to be closed, because the iPhone isn’t going to be launched until 6 PM. That was a pity – I wasn’t going to buy one, but I did want to look around in Apple’s British flagship store. Luckily, a lot of geeks had lined up in front of the store, which is always nice to see.

I mean, it’s great that Apple has not only solved some of the communication problems we encounter every day when ‘talking’ to our machines, but that it’s also managed to convey this to so many people.