I have a great many “strong convictions” about conventions, or so I have discovered over the past week as I thought about this month’s Round Table topic. By “strong convictions” I mean to say baseless opinions about good design, how to achieve it, what works, what doesn’t, and a raft of other topics. It comes from knowing a lot of theory, but having little practice. In truth, I had a much longer and deeper post about conventions, user interface, and bringing non-gamers into a gameplay space. Lots of theory. Something I should probably stay away from.
I’ve also had my ass kicked by a strange combination of work, head cold, Animal Crossing, and Fraggles. The first two led me into not wanting to do much but enjoy the latter two. Also, Katamari. Hopefully more on some, or all, of these things in other posts… On with the conventioneering!
The first thing I’d like to do is forward a definition of a convention. A convention is an arbitrary pattern within any information space that is recognized and adopted by designers and users. Joel Spolsky refers to is as a “mental model” held by users and programs alike. If the mental models of two interacting entities match, then there is recognition and compatibility. If, however, they differ, there is confusion, frustration, and the need for at least one party to adapt. Invariably, the hard-coded model forces the other to change.
Conventions are a short hand in most design. They are a series of well recognized mental models that will provide a specific user-base access to your design. In UI, this is the 3D button, or the check box, or the underlined link. In games this is the right thumb-stick to move the camera, or the Tank-Healer-Assassin-Mage class system, or the Jump-On-Enemies-To-Kill-Them. If you use a convention, then your design can be understood with ease. If you subvert, invent, or break conventions then users must adapt to your system before they can fully use it.
Should conventions be used? Of course. Without conventional design there would be impenetrable barriers between technologies. People would never want new software, or hardware, or books, or music. Does using only conventions produce stale technology and design? Yes. Innovation demands new design, which leads to new conventions or adaptation of older ones. Are all widely accepted conventions representative of best methods? Of course not. Conventions are publicly agreed upon and are therefore often bloated and inefficient.
Can you do better? Should you try? I would have to say that sometimes you should. But mostly you shouldn’t. If you are trying to create something mainstream you need to use conventions that are broad, intimately understood, and easy to learn or teach. New conventions are none of these things. New conventions are for narrow audiences, cutting edge design, and the leaders of the pack. The middle 80% won’t go near your work until everyone else is doing the same thing. So how do you win? How do you innovate without alienating?
Saving the Baby
My first example of new design, focused on the mainstream, that appears to buck convention is the iPod. Apple’s little music player that could. But what makes the iPod so special? Is it sleek physical design, or funky advertising? Does success come from supporting software and media, or a brand name backing? I would argue that there is one thing that caused the iPod to stand above the competition, both past and present (excepting the Zune, jury’s still out on that one). Interface.
Apple innovated by adopting broad, and unused (by MP3 players of the time), interface conventions to make navigation easy. By utilizing the same principles as a dial, users were easily able to understand and better navigate the information provided through the touch wheel. By providing a familiar file system, and a large screen, the information could be clearly displayed. The difference between the iPod and its competitors became ease of use through a non-cryptic interface.
And this line of thinking follows into today, and games, through the Wii. By subverting existing interface conventions Nintendo intends to make video games accessible to a broader demographic. The controller is a remote, found in nearly every couch across America. Everyone from your 2 year-old nephew to your 96 year-old grandmother knows how to operate a remote.
The primary interface the remote provides is a point-and-click system. No more highlighting with the left hand and selecting with the right. Just point at the screen, and click. Even movement is a convention we understand far better than current game controls. How many people, when swinging a sword, or tennis racket, thinks about twitching their thumbs? It is easier to have the interface be the action.
Engineering has let us remove some of the layers of interface. We don’t need to invent new conventions to create new forms of digital play. Sometimes it is as easy as finding old conventions – hidden conventions – that make more sense. It is simplicity through better conventions.
Additional reading includes Joel Spolsky’s online book User Interface Design for Programmers. If the idea of creating an interface has ever scared you, confused you, or caused you to pull your hair out, then you should read this.