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Episode #3 Adding New Features Can Literally be a Game Changer - UX Immersion Podcast

January 21, 2016  ·  12 minutes

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When your user gets value from your design, they’ll likely make using it into a habit. They’ll keep coming back, forming more habits as they continue to get results.

When we add new features, we often force them to break the habits they’ve carefully formed. That’s what makes our users upset when we change the design unexpectedly. Their old habits no longer deliver the value they once did, and now they have to form new ones.

In this episode, Jared learns from Amy Jo Kim how game designers approach the problem of introducing new levels, weapons, and other features. Amy Jo shows how the way game designers think can be easily applied to your designs.

Full Transcript

Jared Spool: Welcome to the UX Immersion Podcast. I’m Jared Spool.

Imagine it’s a day like many other days. You head into the office, only you’re cutting it close to make that first meeting on time. That’s when you suddenly realize you don’t know where the meeting is. You fire up your calendar to find the conference room, and pray it’s not too far away from your desk.

Only overnight, while you were sleeping, the upgrade fairies swept in and installed a new version of the calendar application. With a completely new interface. And it all works differently now.

That's a problem. You didn't ask for a new interface, but now you have to deal with one, at a most inconvenient moment.

Amy Jo Kim: There's a really, really simple solution, which is just create a different product for the newcomers, and let the old timers either opt in or not. Photoshop's been fighting that battle for years. Their answer is come out with something different. The old one isn't broken.

I'm Amy Jo Kim.

I am an entrepreneur, startup coach, and social game designer.

Jared: Abrupt, wholesale changes are a surefire way to alienate, and likely frustrate your primary users. Using the product has become habitual. Now your users are forced into a new landscape with no guidance or transition period. To quote the great American philosopher, Homer Simpson, “Going cold turkey isn’t as delicious as it sounds.”

This is a problem that application designers have been dealing with for eons. But there’s a different community of designers who have developed successful approaches. Games designers.

Amy Jo: In game design, skill building and mastery are the through line in the sense of a narrative or a movie, because your experience over time does take the form of a narrative. You are the hero, and it's your journey. You, the user.

Jared: In Amy Jo's experience, framing your customer's journey in terms of that narrative timeline identifies what your users need at the specific point they are at. Whether you’re designing for new users to help them to form those habits or introducing current users to a feature, you need to actually plan for and design both of those behaviors.

Amy Jo: When you're designing a customer's experience over time, there are different ways to frame it. The way I frame it, which is coming from game thinking, is to talk about four stages, discovery, onboarding, habit building, and mastery.

If you start with really who is using, playing your app, or your service, your game, you're using your piece of hardware, your fitness app, band, or whatever it is, that user is going to have that experience over time. Those four stages are useful for abstracting how you think about engaging the user at each stage.

Jared: No matter how good our first release is, our designs need to get better. We learn that the first version could always be improved. Our knowledge comes from users who have discovered and started to use the design. There’s a better way to use it. There are always new features we can add.

But, there’s a risk in adding new features. They can improve your design, especially for new and incoming users. But if not properly introduced, you can create headaches for the current users who have existing expectations of how the design works. How do you avoid failing your most loyal users?

Amy Jo: In terms of product design, and game design, and cool interface tricks, there's many, many, many things you can do to introduce new features. Many of them look like onboarding, because part of onboarding's job is to introduce new features. Every feature is new to the first time user.

The bridge there, in terms of introducing new features, is create experiences that make the features worthwhile. Then work backwards from there. That's where it's contextualized like sometimes it's a contest, sometimes it's a fun little thing.

Jared: An existing user is a new user when it comes to new features. When you introduce a feature, you’re turning your most seasoned users back into beginners and restarting their journey. Making those new features worthwhile ensures that people will keep coming back. The first step in that process, though, might not be what you think it is.

Amy Jo: Section one is actually not onboarding and discovery. Section one is habit building and mastery. Even more so, habit building comes first when you're designing -- bringing an experience to life.

For that, habit building and mastery those are the stages of regulars and enthusiasts. Regulars are people that are - it’s day 21. They're using it. They’re our regulars.

Jared: In Amy Jo’s experience, it takes regular usage of 3 weeks before the user makes the functionality of your design into a habit - something they do comfortably all the time. Day 21: That’s the critical target that you are shooting for to make beginners into regulars, and continue them on their journey.

Amy Jo: But enthusiasts are the people that go deeper and master your system, experts -- the super fans. Whatever it is in what you're doing, there's always two to five percent of people that just go nuts. Then they often want to go deeper and they want something more.

Jared: You need to ensure that your new features are habits that your users want to build. Only when you’re sure they want to build habits and master the new features, can you turn your focus to how they’ll find out about those new features.

Amy Jo: Discovery is turning visitors into first time users. Discovery is like, "What is this? Should I even bother? Is it for me?"

It's your marketing. It's your ads. It's the word of mouth. It's whether discovery is social, or whether it's through ads, or whether it gets handed down through IT.

Discovery happens in different ways, so it's important to understand how this discovery happened for what you're doing.

Jared: You need to ask yourself, do you truly need your existing users to discover these new features? Are you clear what’s in it for them if they do? Maybe they can get by with the existing functionality, while you leave the newer designs for your new users?

If your existing users need the new features, then you have to help those users discover them. But this doesn’t mean putting a huge billboard ad in your designs, fighting for attention for every new feature. Some of the best products slip their new features in under the radar, letting users discover them almost accidentally, by having them appear at just the right moment.

Once users discover the new feature, you then need to help them start using it. That’s where onboarding comes in.

Amy Jo: Onboarding is learning the ropes and you can define on-boarding in different ways. For some companies, it's two months. For some companies, it's the first time, 10-minute experience. But on-boarding is where people learn the ropes enough that they can get some value out of it.

Jared: If you’re learning to play guitar, you don’t jump right in and play complicated solos as soon as you touch the instrument. In turn, without any guidance, you don’t know where to put your hands or what to strum when. You tend to approach learning in chunks: notes become chords, chords become scales and over time the act of playing becomes second nature. That’s when you’ve made the activity into a habit.

Amy Jo: Habit building is beyond onboarding. Onboarding is usually either a simple loop that you do a few times, or it's a one-time experience that's an arc of an experience. But habit building is always some kind of loop. It's the day 21. What is the core activity that people are doing that's drawing them back?

Then mastery is what you give to that two percent that wants to really go deep, and if bothered to master your system. In gaming, we call that the "Elder Game." Usually, you're giving them a new kind of game to play -- a different kind of role to play. Earned privileges, earned powers.

However you do it, if you model those stages. At each stage, you ask yourself, "What does this person need to learn right now? What is it they're learning? What skill are they building?" There's always something. It might be a trivial scale, but there's always something that people are learning.

If you start putting people into learning, what are they learning during on-boarding? What are they learning each time they log in on day 21 and day 60? What are they there to learn? What skill are they building? If you ask yourself that, then you're organizing your whole experience around the through line of skill building. If you want to create a compelling experience, that's a great way to organize it.

Jared: When you play a game, often the first few levels are the on-boarding process. You learn how to jump, run, access inventory, and make your way through your journey. Helpful messages and scenarios help you understand the environment and controls. You learn how to exist in the game and eventually master it.

Just like application designers, game designers add new features, such as levels or situations all the time. But they don’t expect the user to figure it out on their own. The game designers return to onboarding, then help their users build new habits, guiding those users on their journey to mastering these new features. New is new, even for experienced players and understanding where they are within the context of their journey, the designer appropriately addresses their needs.

The users are the heroes of your design. Understanding what your heroes need at each point of their journey will turn beginners into masters. Even when we’re changing the game by adding new features.

The UX Immersion podcast is brought to you by the UX Immersion: Interactions conference, which will be April 18th to 20th in San Diego, California.

Now, if you’re struggling to help your users master all those great features you’re building into your designs, you need to spend a day with Amy Jo Kim in her full-day workshop on using game design approaches. She’ll share the vast experience she’s gained from working on games like Ultima Online, Rock Band, and my favorite The Sims. We’ve put a detailed description of everything you’ll learn from Amy Jo on the conference web site,

The UX Immersion podcast is produced by myself and Sean Carmichael. You can find more information about the UX Immersion podcast on iTunes and at the UX Immersion: Interactions conference web site,

The music for this episode was provided by Eric Skiff.

We'd like to thank Amy Jo Kim for being a part of this episode.

You’ve been listening the UX Immersion Podcast, part of the growing UIE Podcast Network. Thanks for listening and for encouraging our behavior.