Conformity in User Interfaces

I’ve been an NBA 2K player for upwards of 2 decades now. As is the case with popular video game sports franchises, the series releases a new game every year right before the season starts1, with updated rosters and rule changes and tweaks to the graphics and gameplay and a new mode or two to entice fans to shell out for this year’s version of the game. It has proven to be a resilient model of game development with a dedicated fanbase, even if non-sports gaming enthusiasts make fun of how little you get each year for $602.

One of the tweaks that the 2K designers have always made to refresh game is updating the game’s chrome and interface. Somehow, the graphics department finds new ways to display the scoreboard, the prematch team matchup screens, the menu layouts, and other frequented areas of the interface. Game UIs are often bespoke systems, optimized for that game’s specific needs though with nods to genre standards and norms. That is, every game strives to make its gamer feel like they’re navigating its own universe, but they’re usually designed to stay familiar enough to not impose a steep learning curve3.

Contrast that with other areas of computing and software, where conformity is encouraged for interfaces standardized across the operating system. This serves to make interfaces immediately familiar, which helps makes them easier to use and also adds a measure of trust to the user4. Custom interface components are increasingly discouraged; they take a ton of effort to implement across hardware devices and may break with future OS updates. If there is a tradeoff, it would be a less-optimized user experience, where power-user functionality is gated behind clusters of sliders and buttons and form fields and orthogonal menu items that just take more effort to navigate and renavigate.

The example that always comes to mind is the radial menu in Maya, a professional 3D modeling program. Also known as marking menus, the interface doesn’t fit aesthetically with modern UI’s square angles and thus is not a part of any standard OS-level component, but has been shown to be a very efficient way to select menu items, something that power users who put in the time to use appreciate. In fact, Microsoft Office’s OneNote app experimented with a radial menu in an earlier version, and then took out the interface in a later update, much to the consternation of some of its power users.

All this makes a reasonable case for making complex apps for power users with the mindset of games development—custom interface components, bespoke look-and-feel5, and even making use of game rendering engines. If the vast majority of apps should be striving towards interface conformity, then those who put in the time to deviate from the norm are almost game-like in their specialization; hopefully, not just to make it palatable to charge for a fresh coat of paint.

  1. This year is particularly weird, as the NBA season normally starts in October so the game launches in September, but the league is going through pandemic-induced playoffs right now.

  2. Now \$70.

  3. Exceptions, of course, exist.

  4. It’s no surprise that some scam popup ads try to show fake system UI elements, often poorly.

  5. Some already do this; Adobe Creative Cloud apps prioritize looking and feeling like Adobe apps first.

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