Enjoyable User Interface Heuristics

I just finished reading Thomas Malone’s 1982 paper “Heuristics for Designing Enjoyable User Interfaces: Lessons from Computer Games.” At just 6 pages, it’s a mere rowboat floating on the sea of my semester’s reading; but I found it exceedingly interesting and helpful. I’ll summarize just a few of his main points, and then include an outline of his interface heuristics.

Malone’s paper explains how we might create enjoyable, engaging ‘tool’ interfaces using principles from game interface design.  Tools, according to Malone, are systems that are used as a means to achieve an external goal; while ‘toys’ (or games) are used for their own sake.  One of Malone’s big points is that toy-like features can help motivate people to do boring tasks.

An important distinction between games and tools lies in difficulty level and mastery levels.  While games should be easy to learn and difficult to master, tools should be easy to learn and master (p.66).  Because the outcome of the external goal is already uncertain (for example “will this letter be well-written enough to land me an interview?”), tools should be as easy to use as possible; they should not get in the way.

So, here are the heuristics; I really recommend the paper in its entirety as well, if you have the time.

Heuristics for Designing Enjoyable User Interfaces

I. Challenge

A. Goal. Is there a clear goal in the activity? Does the interface provide performance feedback about how close the user is to achieving the goal?

B. Uncertain outcome. Is the outcome of reaching the goal uncertain?
1. Does the activity have a variable difficulty level? For example, does the interface have successive layers of complexity?
2. Does the activity have multiple level goals? For example, does the interface include scorekeeping?

II. Fantasy

A. Does the interface embody emotionally appealling fantasies?
B. Does the interface embody metaphors with physical or other systems that the user already understands?

III. Curiosity

A. Does the activity provide an optimal level of informational complexity?
1. Does the interface use audio and visual effects: (a) as decoration, (b) to enhance fantasy, and (c) as a representation system?
2. Does the interface use randomness in a way that adds variety without making tools unreliable?
3. Does the interface use humor appropriately?

B. Does the interface capitalize on the users’ desire to have “well-formed” knowledge structures? Does it introduce new information when users see that their existing knowledge is: (1) incomplete, (2) inconsistent, or (3) unparsimonious?


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