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What is the job of a Games UX Designer?
My personal definition of the role. Hot takes included
Welcome to Thrifted Design Leadership, the free! weekly newsletter where I share design leadership tips I’ve gleaned over a decade working with startups, tech giants and experimental indie game devs ✨
We need to get over ourselves
As a discipline, games UX designers are neurotic about how we are defined. We need to get over ourselves!
Back in the day, game interfaces were often created by a game artist who picked the short straw, from a vague wireframe thrown over the wall by a game designer.
Due to this history as the neglected middle child between art and design, we have an urge to declare ourselves different and unique; beholden to neither. Even the title ‘UI/UX Designer’ is seen as a misunderstanding of the craft at best, an insult at worst.
Yes, UX and user centred design is its own skillset and discipline, with a rich tradition from human factors outside of the arts. I know- I wrote a thesis on it!
But in games, the way that users understand information is primarily visual (with audio and haptic coming close second).
If you don’t have at least a cursory understanding of visual design, and how the layout and feedback of a page affects player perception, you’re not doing your job. Even if you’re a super technical UX implementation engineer. And yes, that includes form, typography and colour.
If you’re worried that might be you- read this amazing article on Graphic Design for Game Designers from Christina Wodtke. That’ll get you started!
The UI/UX/UR continuum
Game user experience designers sit on the continuum of research, art and game design.
The job of a game UX designer is to create the most engaging, entertaining, (insert your game pillar here) experience for the player, by whatever means necessary.
Unless you are working purely an art or research role, you’ll likely be doing a bit of all three.
All jobs along this continuum are, vaguely…
Get a task/problem/question
Research the shit out of it
Create a visual and/or written response to the prompt
Get stakeholder buy-in for others to implement your proposed solution.
The more we, and our organisations, can accept that our discipline is inherently fluid depending on the needs and stage of the project, the happier we’ll be. And the less time we’ll have to spend writing bloody role descriptions…
Game UX is a glue job
First- read the ‘Being Glue’ article. If you’re a woman in tech, it will change your life. If that doesn’t apply to you- read it anyway.
The conclusion the article comes to (tl;dr) is that glue work is the work that makes teams get shit done and it is inherently undervalued and often taken on by women, due to societal expectations of our strengths.
What else does that sound a bit like? Oh yeah, game UX design.
User-centred design methods are the work that makes great game design sing. It’s the work that gets the player focused on the beautiful vista around them, as opposed to getting stuck menuing. It’s the work that makes engineers care about fixing the QOL bugs, after they observe a playtest where users struggle.
My mentor Mike Nagle once told me the job of a product designer is to ask questions. Not make buttons. I agree, with the caveat that these questions change as you move through your career.
As an IC, you ask…
What patterns fit this feature? How is the player’s understanding affected by what they’ve just done before this? What problem are game design actually trying to solve?
As a lead, you ask…
How does this feature tie to broader product strategy? How does this pattern and design align with with the work of my other designers? How do we make sure research is listened to and actioned?
As executive leadership, you ask…
How is design supporting the broader goals of the business? How can our process align better with other disciplines? How does our hiring strategy affect the candidates that end up in the role?
User experience is a job for inquisitive people who want to get to the bottom of difficult, complex questions. It is getting the team, product or company on the same page about what you want the end user experience will be, and how you’ll get there. It is glue!
Are you UX glue? Do you fundamentally disagree with me? Hot takes are always appreciated!! (anything for the algorithm…) Comment below! 💖
Notes from the editor
Thanks again for reading! This is my last week of work before sabbatical- aaaa!!!!!!!!! So who knows what next week will be- maybe just a comic :) If you’re reading this, I hope you’re having a lovely March. Spring is almost upon us!