What Can Super Mario Odyssey Teach Us about UX Design?
What did I do on my two weeks off over Christmas? Well, I didn't go to any parties. I didn't even drink!
I stayed in on New Year's Eve, and except for the odd family meal, I mainly played Super Mario Odyssey and put on a little weight.
Which, to put it bluntly, was the way I wanted to spend my Christmas. It was awesome!
But it wasn't time wasted.
The new Super Mario Odyssey doesn't just combine all the nostalgic fun of my childhood with the technology and graphics of today.
It's also brilliant in that it teaches you about User Experience (UX) and design, while keeping you joyfully entertained.
Most people who are not UX designers will wonder what could possibly be learnt about building websites and user interfaces through a game.
But designers can get inspiration from anywhere, and the Mario games have always been consistently simple, aesthetically pleasing, user friendly and quick to learn.
Isn't that what we all want from the systems or websites we design?
Why Visual Design Can Be Just as Important as Ease-Of-Use
Looking back at the way the first Mario game looked, it's fair to say it wasn't great.
But for its time, the graphics and what the designers did within the 8-bit pixel range was impressive.
Fast forward to now, where the new open world game can only be described as beautiful!
There has been a lot of debate in the UX community about the importance of attractive visual design. Some believe that visual design doesn't matter.
As one StackExchange user points out: "If the user can find the information he or she needs because of thoughtful information design, then he or she would be satisfied despite of the quality of visual design."
I can understand what they're saying. Some sites and software can still be popular, yet visually unappealing.
However, the old cliché stands tall. A picture paints a thousand words, and when it comes to design - people's first impressions are based mainly on the visual design.
There are exceptions, and useful functionality can win a user over, despite an undesirable design.
When I first landed on Amazon in 1999, the overall aesthetics of the website didn't exactly fill me with design envy.
In all honesty, I didn't feel comfortable giving them my payment information. Their site looked untrustworthy to me.
However, after half an hour (I was still on a dial-up modem), I managed to find the rare book I wanted and through the user reviews, author pages and the 'BookMatcher' engine (now evolved into Amazon Recommendations) - I was converted.
It was an ugly website, but it was easy to use, had elements like the 'BookMatcher' which delighted me, and the overall impressive usability ensured my trust had been well and truly gained.
Being the exception to the rule is hard, and unless your project is groundbreaking in terms of offering something unique that users want, you need to put a lot of effort into the visual appeal of your project.
Designers should always strive to make their designs visually appealing - and obviously Amazon agrees, as they tend to evolve their visual design year after year.
If you can get the UX of a website right, then why not impress your users from the start with a beautiful design?
“…the degree of [a] system’s aesthetics affected the post-use perceptions of both aesthetics and usability, whereas the degree of actual usability had no such effect.”
Don Norman – Author of The Design of Everyday Things
In other words, visual design has as much of an effect on the overall experience as actual usability.
Coming back to Super Mario Odyssey (which, it should be said, sold over five million copies in its first six weeks, and is the fastest-selling Mario game to date) - if it looked like the original 8-bit Mario games, it wouldn't have been nearly as successful.
Information Architecture - How to Get It Right
The Super Mario Odyssey gameplay is impressive - each and every kingdom within the game feels rich, expansive and unique.
They all offer a completely different feel and design, which keeps users wanting to return for more.
But at the same time, they keep the same consistent elements - so the player knows what's available to them, and what's expected.
For example, each one includes a boss battle, a shop and other reoccurring features - whilst a mission that involves gathering and planting seeds only appears in kingdoms with lots of greenery.
How does this help us design better systems and websites?
Well, it helps us define content types for large scale sites, while maintaining coherence and understanding throughout the user's journey.
Even on a massive website like BBC.co.uk, each section has its own look and colour scheme to allow the user to identify where they are.
It also keeps the navigational elements consistent, so users feel comfortable and know how to get around the site - no matter what page they're on.
Nintendo's designers and development teams have organised the structure of their content the same way a UX designer would approach designing the Information Architecture of a website.
They utilised prototypes, card sorting exercises and brought in their own travel experiences from real-world places to give the game an organic sense of structure that the players could easily understand.
“When we had all of those different prototypes, those different play ideas, we also started thinking; Well, what kind of location can this fit into? What kind of location would be fun for this play idea? For example, if we came up with a gameplay idea that kind of required ice or snow, maybe a slippery surface - we would have to think that would be fun to use in a place that had ice or snow.”
Kenta Motokura – Nintendo’s Director
Keeping It Simple Reaps Mass Appeal
Nintendo's design philosophy enables them to grow whilst preserving clarity over the years.
Focusing on their main principles (The Story, Simplicity and Immersiveness) has allowed them to create one of the best games of 2017.
By keeping the controls simple (only allowing the player to either jump or throw ‘Cappy’ - Mario’s very friendly and useful hat, at something), even a novice user can pick it up quickly.
When a player sees something for the first time in Odyssey, they only have three options to see what it is:
- Hit it
- Ground-pound it
- Jump on it
This stays true to the simplicity of the first Mario game, and helps the player build a sense of confidence that makes them want to play again.
Super Mario Odyssey's storyline also stays true to the simplicity principle.
Princess Peach has been kidnapped (...again!) and you, as Mario, are going to save her. By keeping it simple, a vast number of players can pick it up and go.
This is one of the many reasons why Mario appeals to all types of people.
We can learn a lot from Nintendo's design philosophy. If all designers try and stay true to a simple design, the world would be a less confusing place.
Maybe advocating design principles within our teams and companies will allow us more freedom to challenge confusing elements and push UX more, instead of rushing to add a widget that hasn't been thought-out very well.
Why Nintendo Is Good at Appealing to the Masses
Super Mario Odyssey is a vast world.
Because of the open world design, you can (and I did) spend days playing it.
If you’re a hardcore player, you can go on to finish all the side missions, learn special moves to get to places you were previously unable to gain access to, and collect moons and coins until your hearts content.
Or, if you just want to complete the main game, it can be done within a few hours.
Like many Nintendo games, Super Mario Odyssey appeals to two types of players.
The hardcore gamers who are rewarded with extra content and the other users who don’t mind missing out.
Both are happy with their experiences.
Social Media platforms work in the same way.
There are users who just drop in and rarely provide any content or actions, and then there are users who post about every bite of food they have eaten.
By appealing to both types of users, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest - you're capturing a large chunk of the population.
The ones who post are usually rewarded with acknowledgement from their peer group, whilst the ‘lurkers’ tend not to care about receiving acknowledgement.
We all like designing based on specific user profiles, but can your site or software be desirable to a larger audience?
Could a simple change prevent excluding a subset of users you haven’t previously targeted?
I could discuss this a lot further, but instead I'm going to stick to my principles and keep it simple.
If my family are reading this, as you can see, I didn't waste my Christmas playing video games - I was merely researching UX!
Actually, I'd go so far to say that if my boss is reading this, that I should be given a few days off the next time a Mario game is released.
For, you know, research...