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Looking to Games for the New User Experience: What Other Website Interfaces Can Learn

Games have come a long way since the 1980s when gamers—in the modern video game sense—were a young, fringe lot. The intervening thirty years have changed the gaming demographic drastically. Gamers no longer exist as a subset of society. Nearly everyone games. The average social gamer, according to a survey from early 2010, is a forty-three year old woman—not the stereotypical pimply faced teenager.

In 1990, it might have been okay to have your complex military simulation game come with a 200-page manual explaining the ins and outs of the game. These days, with a much smaller portion of the gaming population falling into the “hardcore gamer” category, game designers have learned that they need to bring new users up to speed as promptly as possible.

This process of bringing new users up to speed quickly, generally called “onboarding” (a phrase borrowed from the Human Resources term for new-employee orientation) has been well-tuned in the past couple of  decades as games have become more complex and interactive while attention spans have become shorter.

A single help screen might have sufficed for Space Invaders, but for a complex modern game such as Batman: Arkham Asylum, with dozens of button combinations that have different meanings depending on the context and order pressed, one such screen would be overwhelming. In addition, forcing a new player to memorize such a screen before being able to play the game would lose players pretty quickly. Games are supposed to be fun, after all.

Games deal with this complexity in a number of innovative ways that are applicable to domains outside of games.

Go Straight to the Action

One of the hallmarks of a good role-playing game (RPG) is the ability for users to tailor their experience based on their own tastes and preferences. The downside to these powerful customization systems, which let you choose among a multitude of different races, sizes, and colors for your avatar, is that when placed at the very beginning of the game experience, they act as a barrier to the game itself. Users may not want to take time to customize their players before they know what they are playing.

Oblivion, a 2006 award-winning RPG in the Dungeons & Dragons mold, features twenty-one different character classes and dozens of customization options. In lieu of forcing the player to decide blindly what class and character they want to play for the next 100 or more hours of the game, Oblivion takes the player through an action-packed level before asking them to take time to customize their avatars. Users get an introduction to the story, a quick tutorial, some goblins to attack, and then—after their appetites have been sufficiently whetted—users see the full customization process.

Contrast this with your standard web application, which requires a user to make the commitment of choosing a password and entering other profile information in addition to an email address just to play around with the app. Users would often prefer to get started with the application and deal with the drudgery of creating an account later. The alternative, using “lazy registration,” lets users get right to the meat of an application and saves the account creation for later.

On, we tried both methods of onboarding. Initially we forced users to create an account prior to trying any of the language courses. This led to a high bounce rate, so we split-tested with the alternative: giving users access to the first ten-minute scene of each language without registration, and only requiring registration after they have played through an entire scene.

As expected, this led to a much lower bounce rate and had more people playing through the initial scenes. Unfortunately, however, the total number of sign-ups we received actually went down after the change. Users were less likely to take two actions—playing the demo and registering—than they were to give us their email right from the beginning.

Onboarding failure, right?

Not exactly. We looked at the user accounts themselves and found there was a dramatic difference in the quality of the account created, to the point where a lot of the register-first accounts were essentially worthless: users either gave fake email addresses, unsubscribed immediately, or never returned to the site. Even though the numbers were better for register-first, the total value created for the site was significantly less. So while the first-level metrics didn’t make the lazy-registration seem like a win, looking deeper at the data told a different story.

Start Simple and Hold the User’s Hand

Go to a standard website and you’ll see at least a few dozen links on your standard landing page. In Gamification by Design, Zichermann makes the case that web designers and game developers treat onboarding very differently. Web designers tend to “throw a huge number of options at a player to make sure a player does something, anything.” If you click on any single link, you’ll go to a page with myriad additional options.

Compare this experience with that of a modern game, which generally presents a very simple initial interface (with “Start a new game” highlighted for you) and then begins an in-game tutorial that walks you through the initial mechanics of play.

A great example of this is Angry Birds, a casual game that has reached worldwide-phenomenon status. An oversized “Play” button leads directly to the game. A simple graphic succinctly demonstrates how to start playing, with new mechanics for different projectiles (birds) introduced by a concise diagram instead of an in-depth explanation. The nature of the game lends itself to experimentation, since no move is fatal, and within minutes of play, the user is engrossed in hurling multiple different types of birds across the screen.

Looking at a landing page for a piece of software as an onboarding problem gives you some insight into how best to drive conversion. Treating the page as a traditional website with hundreds of links gumming up the works isn’t necessarily the best approach.

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) application provider 37signals has written extensively about their use of A/B testing on their landing pages to track and test conversions. Looking at the evolution of the landing page for their most popular application, Basecamp, over the years, gives us a good idea of where the data has pushed them to get users to sign up and use the product (see figures). In each iteration, the call to action has gotten larger and more pronounced, while the number of visible links has started to go down.

The 2011 version of the page takes it a step further; no longer does the page even look like a standard website; rather, it’s designed almost like a brochure, with a single pronounced call to action at the bottom of the page. Part of 37signals’s ability to reduce information comes from users having a stronger brand recognition for Basecamp as they arrive, so they need less information to convert. But we’ve had similar results on a number of our own sites. Reduce the information overload and give people a clear course of action to get started and you’ll be rewarded.


Before any users can experience your awesome application, they’ll need to be able to get started. Especially on the web, where attention spans can last less than a second, nailing the onboarding process is essential. Looking to games, which have mastered the art of getting new users up-to-speed painlessly, is a great way to get started. Always seek out ways you can break the process into a more tailored experience, and do away with details that impede the get-going exploration of your product.

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