Designing Intuitive User Interfaces

Now we're going to move on to something that you'll find in all games: the user interface. The user interface isn't just what keys to press to get the player to move; it's also the opening menu, the configuration screens, and the in-game, onscreen buttons. Designing a useful, intuitive, and attractive user interface is one of the most important aspects of creating a game. Lacking a useful interface can make a game no fun to play.

User Interface Design Tips

When you are creating the user interface for your game, the basic rule is to keep it simple, descriptive, and fast. Here are a few tips:

  • Keep your user interfaces simple and uncluttered. Not every option has to be presented to the user at once. Instead, you can keep the most common or most useful options on the main screen and provide an easy way to view the less common options.
  • Make sure every option or button is easy to get to. If it takes too many clicks to find certain functionality, it will frustrate the users.
  • Use Tooltips. Tooltips are pop-up descriptions that appear when your mouse lingers over a particular object. They can tell you what a button does or give status on other user interface elements. Tooltips are a quick way to answer the question "What's this?" Swing has Tooltips built in, so it's easy to implement.
  • Give the user a response to every action. This can be as simple as playing a sound or displaying the wait cursor. Also avoid pauses between the time a user clicks something and when the action occurs.
  • Test your user interfaces on someone you know. What a button does might be obvious to you, but to someone else it could be confusing. When you test to see how someone else might use your interface, don't say anything—just watch to see what the person does and take notes. Remember, in the real world, when users play your game, you're not going to be right next to them telling them what to do!
  • After some people test your user interfaces, ask them what they think would be easier or more useful. Also ask them whether the icons make sense. Don't hold them back or say things like, "But the code won't work that way." Just listen and take everything into consideration. Who knows, later you might find a way to make the code "work that way" after all.
  • Be prepared to overhaul your user interface if it just doesn't work. You might have spent days coding and creating icons for what you thought was the perfect interface, but don't fret if you have to throw it all away. If it's to create a better game, it's worth it.

Finding friends or relatives to help you test your user interface shouldn't be too much a problem, but if it is, you can always lure people with goodies such as free pizza.