In an earlier post, I noted how some best practices for designing boardgames apply to the technology design process. Today, I'll throw in another analogy that might explain why the user experience for high-tech products often falls short of the mark.
Games people play
People who think up boardgames face difficult design challenges. Not surprisingly, they don't get it right on the first try, or even on the fifteenth. Since the criteria for making a top-notch boardgame are difficult to meet, designers "playtest" their games repeatedly. Objective opinions are important, so this QA process involves as many "playtesters" as possible.
Each criterion is important. Obviously, games need to be fun, not just tedious die-rolling or card-playing exercises. What makes a game subjectively fun, however, depends on several elements. To delight your audience, the game has to pose an interesting challenge. People often deride Monopoly, for example, because it doesn't pose any interesting choices. Roll, move, buy property or pay money, repeat for several hours.
The game also needs to be balanced, obviously, so that one player doesn't easily crush the others. Balance has subtle aspects, such as keeping the game competitive even when someone pulls out ahead (the "runaway winner" problem, or its flip side, the "beat on the leader" problem).
Another challenge is replayability. Some games don't provide different possible outcomes, or give room to explore different strategies, to merit more than one play. While chess may not appeal to everyone, it's undoubtedly one of the most replayable games, allowing for different strategies in the opening moves, middle game, and endgame.
Are you experienced?
As important as these individual criteria are (including a few more I haven't mentioned), game design isn't simply addressing each of these items in a checklist. Many bland games meet all of these criteria, but just don't provide that great of an overall experience. (The old warhorse Settlers of Catan is my favorite example.) Other games might not be perfect on every score, but they're still a hoot to play. (On my top 10 list, Cosmic Encounter fits that description.)
The best games provide an experience. For example, party games like Pictionary or Apples To Apples are all about creating an experience (often unintentionally hilarious) that's more important than who wins. If Pictionary didn't give every team a chance to win, however, the experience would suffer.
And in many cases, the experience is actually a byproduct of the rules. Boggle, for example, makes a task that no one would do on their own, arranging random letters into words, into something that can be pretty fun.
In thinking about the experience you want to create, it's important to keep in mind the person for whom you're creating it. For someone who occasionally watches a WWII documentary on The History Channel, Axis & Allies might create the right kind of experience. For a more die-hard history buff, a more detailed simulation of World War II, such as Europe Engulfed, would be a better choice.
I put a spell on you
By now, you probably see where I'm going with this. Technology products need to meet particular criteria, too. Don't force the user to make too many clicks to perform a simple task. Don't overwhelm the user with too many choices. Make it clear which part of a multi-step task the user has reached, and how to move backwards and forwards in that sequence.
Meeting these criteria might make a product tolerable, but you won't necessarily have created a good experience for the user. You may also have overlooked the sort of experience that fits the user. For example, most workflow tools have highly complex UIs that appeal to a particular kind of technical user who wants a very big palette of states, actions, decisions, and outcomes. Business users, on the other hand, want a more paint-by-numbers approach.
Creating the right experience can pay off, as Apple has shown repeatedly. Just as attractive components helped the "Eurogame" phenomenon, the aesthetic appeal of Apple's hardware generated enthusiasm among people who otherwise saw desktop computers and cell phones as an unfortunate necessity.
But even Apple's experience isn't for everyone. Until the Mac OS included a dual-boot capability, Apple's coolness factor didn't convince software engineers to buy their hardware. Now, Apple has created a particular user experience for that technical audience which shares only a few elements with the consumer market. (And Apple still might have blown this opportunity through bad design decisions.)
Already, we've seen signs that technology products don't get the testing they deserve. In some technology companies, usability testing is, to be frank, is either cursory or non-existent. Even when engineering teams ask users for their feedback on particular UI components, they're probably missing the much bigger picture. If you want to capture and keep users, you're going to need to do more rigorous "playtesting," with the goal of creating an overall experience.