What can we learn from computer games?

Computer games are actually a pretty good place to start if you are looking for user interface inspiration. Unlike the tiresome timesheet that everyone is forced to use even though they dislike it, users can just walk away from a game if it is awkward to use or frustrating.
A few years ago, you used to get a new game and then spend an hour reading the manual in order to learn how to play it. Sometimes the manuals were works of art. The only problem was that many people (especially men) hate reading manuals and would rather dive in.
The gaming industry has responded with in-game tutorials – almost every game now starts progressively. The first few minutes are spent learning the basics, and then new functionality is added periodically as the gamer progresses. At any point in time, only the skills that have already been introduced are needed for each task.
This serves several purposes – the gamer feels they are making progress, as they keep moving on to new challenges, but they aren’t frustrated by the need for skills they simply don’t have yet. The process also encourages ‘Error free learning’. This does NOT mean that the gamer makes no errors when playing the game, but that they learn the correct way to use the game functionality the first time. So even if they can’t shoot a particular enemy, they know how to shoot. One of the principles of error free learning is that you learn something faster and remember it better if you perform the action with no mistakes the first time you do it.
So – what can we take away from this? Firstly – consider the difficulty curve of your system. Is the user required to perform some difficult tasks right at the start? Is there a way to ease them in to the experience? For example, if your product has a complex set up stage, can they get started with defaults to start off with, and then move on to the more complex configuration later on? Can you direct them to start with really a simple task that they can complete quickly, before encouraging them to try harder tasks? Most importantly – can you make learning fun and engaging? Gamers can be incredibly persistent – and can spend hours working out how to solve a particular puzzle, but only if they are having fun.

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