Halloween weekend, I was at my family’s home in Illinois, playing with my sister Aleksa. She’s eight years old and crazy about video games. I’ve been teaching her to play the old classics from when I was her age.

Some of the most innovative user-interfaces are found in video games. Why is that? I have a theory.

Users of business/productivity software complain loudly when an interface differs from what they’re used to. Rightly so — time spent learning an unfamiliar UI is time not getting work done. Business software is rightfully cautious of UI experimentation.

Gamers, in contrast, are willing to invest time and effort in learning a new, unfamiliar game. Novelty is part of the value. Gamers will learn a specialized interface, if it’s efficient and well-suited to the tasks the game requires.

So I like to analyze the UI of games to see what lessons they have to teach. Even a very old game may hide a great idea that has been forgotten — or never learned — by the wider world of software design.

Today’s example comes from The Legend of Zelda (copyright 1987, Nintendo):


(Image used without permission)

The Legend of Zelda plays a distinctive eight-note melody when you discover a secret — e.g., finding the one loose block that can be pushed to open a path. (If you’ve played a Zelda game, you’re probably hearing the melody in your head right now.)

This “discovery fanfare” is interesting from a UI perspective because of how much it manages to communicate. Most video game sound effects are stimulus-response: whack something with your sword and it makes one noise; pick up a coin and it makes another. But the discovery fanfare is semantic. Not a response to an elementary action, but an indication of what that action means to the ongoing story. It’s like the game is winking at you, to say “Yup, you got me — that’s the answer.” It means not just “You found a secret”, but also, “I understand what you just did.” “This thing you found? It’s important.”

Hearing the discovery fanfare makes you feel smart. It’s about the strongest positive feedback that it’s possible to get from a video game. Such reinforcement is a big part of what makes The Legend of Zelda so addictive.

But how is that relevant to non-game UI design and/or web design?

Positive feedback is important. It lets the user know that the system “understands” what they’re trying to do. Lack of feedback creates pure frustration.

Watch any first-time user of the Unix command line. They type a command, hit enter, and nothing visibly happens. At that point, many people get confused or worried. What happened to the command? In fact, silence means that the command executed successfully. But this is a hard idea to grok, because it’s contrary to all our instincts.

On the Web, how many times have you seen a message like this one?

“Please do not click more than once – it may take some time for the form to be processed.”

Why are users clicking more than once?

Maybe because the first time we click, nothing happens. Nothing visible or audible, anyway. In fact, an upload is being processed, but silently and invisibly. Since there’s no feedback, our instincts tell us, “You didn’t click it hard enough. Better do it again”.

The “Don’t click more than once” warning in text is ineffective. It’s just not strong enough to overcome human nature.

I bet we’d send many fewer duplicate POSTs if some kind of visible or audible congratulations happened in response to clicking the “submit” button. Not for every form — just the large multi-page ones. After all, completing those forms is at least as difficult as solving a Legend of Zelda puzzle, and a lot less fun. Don’t we deserve some celebration afterwards?