One good example: Beautiful usability

I often write about poor user experience, so today it’s a pleasure to write about a wonderful experience in gaming, a pure example of getting it right.

This week I picked up a game on the iPad, called Contre Jour. The game is an excellent example of crafting an experience that is wonderful to look at, engaging, fun and so simple to learn that you never feel too challenged.

Visually the game breaks some rules – mostly black and white or sepia with limited content and not much going on, it still manages to present an exotic, interesting and engaging environment perfectly. Emotionally it engages instantly, evoking a sense of nostalgia and sadness that’s hard to ignore. Aurally this is backed up by a lilting soundtrack that tugs gently at the heart-strings. A sad, unmoving main character focuses that emotion, and before you know it you’re drawn in to see what’s going to happen next.

From a usability perspective, there is a challenge here – although the main aim of the game is to make this character move around the screen, you can’t affect him directly. Instead you must morph the landscape and use various swing and sling devices to get him to where you need him to be. So, how is that communicated to the user?

Expertly, as it happens.

Small, clear hints appear as needed, one step at a time, in context to the element you need to learn. The first time you need to morph the landscape a finger appears with text asking you to slide your finger to modify the ground – with an arrow, confirming the direction. Move your finger, and after a few seconds the note disappears. As you morph the landscape, an outline appears around it so you can see just how far it will deform. Across the screen a flower grows next to the exit point, it’s tip a black arrow pointing towards the exit.

Simple, clean, visually hard to miss. And emotionally incredibly pleasing to play. As you deform the landscape the character – who consists of a small ball, a cape and one blinking eyeball – makes noises that suggest emotional responses to your actions – he laughs when he swings, gets angry when he falls, looks bored when you do nothing.

The menu system consists of just a few icons – rewind (to replay the level), FastForward (to move to the next one), and a series of squares (to see the list of levels and choose).

More hints appear as you move through each level, each only when needed, and only until you’ve taken note and used them. The game proceeds on a wonderful curve of difficulty that has you deeply engaged before it starts to become difficult enough to slow you down.

In my opinion, this is a perfect example of getting user experience right. The game is so simple my five year old understood it instantly, and yet is challenging enough that both adults in the house are stumped halfway through. It’s emotionally engaging enough that you love the experience, and feel a connection to the ‘little round dude’. It’s unique enough that it brings great interest to the table, and it uses interface communication perfectly, to the point where it almost doesn’t feel like there’s an interface there at all.

Great game, great experience.