Games User Research Methodology Series: Usability Expert Analysis
A Usability Expert Analysis is one of many games user research methods we use at Player Research to provide actionable insight into a game’s usability and learnability.
This article outlines when a Usability Expert Analysis might be needed, what it consists of, and how it can be utilised in game development.
What is the Purpose of a Usability Expert Analysis?
The objective of a Usability Expert Analysis is to identify aspects of a game that could contribute to issues with player understanding and usability. Player understanding refers to whether or not a player knows what they have to do; for example, do they understand what their next step in the game should be to achieve their objective? Usability refers to whether or not a player is able to do what they intend to do; for example, a player may understand what their goals are, but are they able to effectively use the controls and tools at their disposal to successfully achieve those goals?
If left unaddressed, issues in understanding and usability are likely to negatively impact player experience when a game is released, from minor annoyances (that may have a slight negative impact on player experience) to progress-blocking usability issues (such as a core mechanic being fundamentally misunderstood). Unfortunately, most developers first hear about these issues late on in development, or even after released, when they hear the game “isn’t fun/enjoyable/good”. A Usability Expert Analysis can catch these issues quickly, and early.
When Should a Usability Expert Analysis be Done?
The short answer is that a Usability Expert Analysis can be carried out at any point in a game’s life cycle — if material for the game exists, a Usability Expert Analysis can be done. However, Usability Expert Analyses may be of particular value when used as an early touchpoint in the research pipeline of a game because of two key strengths:
1. A playable build is not required — Usability Expert Analyses can be performed on any testable materials. If the build has bugs and/or is unreliable, the researchers are able to work with/look past these issues fairly easily. We can even perform an analysis of wireframes, prototypes or GDDs, and this can be incredibly valuable when it comes to catching potential issues before any features are put to code. Additionally, if the build has bugs and/or is unreliable, the researchers are able to work with/look past these issues fairly easily.
2. Usability Expert Analyses are typically quicker and less expensive than playtests. Conducting them early, before the playtest cycle begins, means that any ‘low hanging fruit’ can be eliminated before players get their hands on the game. Removing these barriers allows for a deeper, more thorough exploration in future playtests.
Conducting Usability Expert Analyses early in a game’s life cycle can be useful for minimising issues in the long term. However, regular employment of them is vital for ensuring development remains on track and quality remains high throughout.
How does a Usability Expert Analysis work?
Here at Player Research the process involves a pair of researchers critically analysing a build, a feature, or any other test materials of interest.
During their analysis, the researchers aim to identify any potential issues of usability and understanding and where key user experience principles are being broken. The analysis itself involves a slow methodical approach, contextualised by our client’s aims for the research (e.g. a focus on the FTUE, or particular game mechanics).
In addition to usability issues, examples of good user-experience practice are identified; knowing what not to change can be just as important as knowing where improvements can be made. This also serves to provide positive affirmations for the development team — it can be hard to hear honest truths about their game, so being reminded of the best aspects confirms when they are on the right track.
Finally, the identified issues are prioritised in terms of their severity and collected into a digestible report containing actionable solutions. We’ll be writing about our report format in a future article.
Usability Expert Analyses at Player Research
At Player Research, we ensure that all Usability Expert Analyses are carried out by at least two researchers; this helps to increase both the thoroughness and the reliability of the analysis.
All of our researchers have relevant academic backgrounds in Human Computer Interaction, Neuroscience and Psychology. This expertise, combined with a wealth of experience running playtests, provides a unique and scientific perspective when carrying out a Usability Expert Analyses. This perspective allows us to see beyond the initial impact of a problem and anticipate how an issue is likely to have knock-on effects (positive or negative) on player behaviour in the long-term.
Each Usability Expert Analyses is bespoke to our clients. We don’t compare games to a set of heuristics, as is common in expert reviews more widely, rather we utilise our knowledge of human behaviour and psychological principles to better take into account the context in which issues are experienced. Design intent is paramount and considered throughout the analysis — it is where your intent is not met by the current and planned experience that is highlighted by our analysis.
A Usability Expert Analysis is an effective method to uncover usability and understanding issues for a game in development and is best used both early in the game’s life cycle, as well as part of a longer-term mixed-methods approach that also includes player data.
See our other articles for more information about the most common research methods we employ, and please feel free to get in contact to discuss creating a powerful and effective research strategy.
Written by Chloe Snell