Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been participating in the beta test of upcoming game Starcraft II. In an interview with Gamasutra magazine, the lead Starcraft II designer, Dustin Browder, had this to say about the data they have collected from the beta test:

The danger with a lot of this data is that you have to be very careful how you use it. With unit stats, I can tell you that, for example, in a Protoss versus Terran game, 12 percent of the time the Protoss build carriers. And when they build carriers, they win 70 percent of the time. You could say, “That must mean carriers are overpowered!”

That’s not really true, though. It could just be that as you get towards the end of the game, if the Protoss have the extra resources to waste on a bunch of carriers, they’re probably going to win anyway.

Of course, it doesn’t mean the carriers aren’t overpowered either. That stat alone actually tells you nothing. It’s a very dangerous stat. If you listen to that stat, you can make all kinds of mistakes

If we look at the stats and we say, “This doesn’t actually back anything we’re experiencing online,” I’m very suspicious of that number. We get information from a lot of different sources, and then we use the other sources to refute or corroborate. We look at another source and say, “You know what? What they’re saying online matches my play experience, and it matches the stats. This seems real. Let’s talk about what some possible fixes can be.”

So very, very relevant to Test Pilot and Firefox!

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Lost Garden is a blog worth following if you’re into usability topics. It’s primarily about video game design, but it’s game design from a psychology perspective and its insights are highly applicable to other kinds of software design as well. I first heard of Danc, the author of Lost Garden, through his presentation called Princess-Rescuing Applications, which is about how video games are actually highly targeted teaching tools in disguise, about how the sensation of “fun” comes from self-directed learning in a safe environment, and how we can apply that lesson to make productivity software easy and even fun to learn.

Now it seems like someone at Microsoft -specifically Microsoft Office Labs – has taken that lesson to heart and created a game meant to teach Office skills. It’s called Ribbon Hero. Lost Garden has an in-depth post about it here.

Even if “Ribbon Hero” doesn’t sound very exciting to you, I think this is an idea with a lot of potential and an exciting approach to improving usability of large, complex apps. I’ll be keeping a close eye on its development.

Edited to add: After watching the Office Labs video, I think one thing they’re missing in the current prototype is that the way the tasks are described to the player uses a lot of Office jargon, e.g. “change the orientation from portrait to landscape”. This jargon is in itself one of the barriers to learning complex productivity apps, so I think Ribbon Hero would be better if it described challenges without jargon, and made learning the terminology part of the game process too.

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.
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THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY
Infocom interactive fiction – a science fiction story
Copyright (c) 1984 by Infocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
Release 31 / Serial number 871119 / Interpreter 0 Version

You wake up. The room is spinning very gently round your head. Or at least it would be if you could see it which you can’t.

It is pitch black.

>flip lightswitch
I don’t know the word “lightswitch”.

>lights on
There was no verb in that sentence!

>turn on light
Good start to the day. Pity it’s going to be the worst one of your life. The light is now on.

Bedroom, in the bed
The bedroom is a mess.
It is a small bedroom with a faded carpet and old wallpaper. There is a washbasin, a chair with a tatty dressing gown slung over it, and a window with the curtains drawn. Near the exit leading south is a phone.
There is a flathead screwdriver here. (outside the bed)
There is a toothbrush here. (outside the bed)

>get out of bed
Very difficult, but you manage it. The room is still spinning. It dips and sways a little.

>take nightgown
I don’t know the word “nightgown”.

>put on dressing gown
You’re not holding your gown.

>take gown
Luckily, this is large enough for you to get hold of. You notice something in the pocket.

>put on dressing gown
You are now wearing your gown.

>reach in pocket
I don’t know the word “reach”.

>empty pocket
I don’t know the word “empty”.

>take stuff out of pocket
You used the word “stuff” in a way that I don’t understand.

>open pocket
Opening your gown reveals a buffered analgesic, pocket fluff, and a thing your aunt gave you which you don’t know what it is.

>take pills
I don’t know the word “pills”.

>take medicine
I don’t know the word “medicine”.

>take buffered analgesic

In Ubiquity 0.1.1

CmdUtils.CreateCommand({
  name: "get-stuff-from",
  takes: {url: noun_container},
  preview: function( pBlock, dirObj ) {
    pBlock.innerHTML = "Gets the stuff that is inside your " + dirObj.summary;
  }
});



From the Inform manual

An Inform verb usually has several English verb words attached, which are called synonyms of each other: for instance, the library is set up with

“take” = “carry” = “hold”

all referring to the same Inform verb.

Hitchhiker’s again

>take aspirin
You swallow the tablet. After a few seconds the room begins to calm down and behave in an orderly manner. Your terrible headache goes.

>get toothbrush
As you pick up the toothbrush a tree outside the window collapses. There is no causal relationship between these two events.

>hold screwdriver

Taken.

>carry robe
You are already wearing it.

In the latest Ubiquity source build, as of yesterday afternoon

CmdUtils.CreateCommand({
  name: "get-stuff-from",
  synonyms: ["take-stuff-from", "take-stuff-out-of", "empty", "reach-in"],
  takes: {url: noun_container},
  preview: function( pBlock, dirObj ) {
    pBlock.innerHTML = "Gets the stuff that is inside your " + dirObj.summary;
  }
});