An Introduction To Evolutionary User Experience
Some thoughts on computer history, long-term user experience and technology with friction
In this post, I want to discuss a concept that came to mind: evolutionary user experience.
We often think of UX as a limited, just-on-time interaction with a product. Although, we all keep finding memories of old pieces of technology, in spite of their imperfections.
Better yet, some pieces of technology actually create specific user experiences that establish themselves as landmarks in our personal or even collective history.
We might recall that it was the first time we could do this or feel that... Digital technologies, old computers and particularly old computer games are likely to create such memories because of their interactive nature. Technologies are creating new mental categories that structure our minds over the long term.
Sometime, those pieces of technology are evolving in a continuous stream of enhancements; some get stuck in the part; maybe others will re-emerge.
I want to illustrate my thoughts with a fancy example: the Mode7 graphic mode of the SNES game console.
When I was a kid, with friends, I was deeply engaged in the famous (16-bit) console war. I did love and prefer my Megadrive (or Genesis) by far, and for many reasons. However, I was impressed by the so-called 'Mode7'1 graphic capabilities offered by the SNES hardware.
What was Mode7? It was a graphic mode that created a 3D perspective effect, enabling some games to display a character moving over a level map, in different directions.
F-Zero (edited by Nintendo, 1990) on the SNES hardware, a great example of the Mode7 look and feel.
At the time, on 16-bit consoles, most games represented the player's character in a 2D profile view, some other games tried to represent a 3D environment with debatable success. Isometric perspective was a popular trade-off to work around these problems.
With Mode7, the effect was stunning: we had the feeling of moving a character in a smooth and fast way across colorful maps with a relative sense of multidimensional freedom (in most games, the vertical axis was a bit limited, though).
Actually, nerds knew it wasn't real 3D. Some powerful computers were able to render actual 3D experiences that did not look the same, but this would not be possible on such hardware. Indeed, the SNES hardware did not have proper 3D rendering capabilities.
So, how did Mode7 succeed in creating an immersive experience?
Mode7 was an application of rotation and zoom operations on a traditional 2D tile map. You build a 2D map of your level, tilt it to create a sense of perspective, and then rotation on the vertical axis and zoom will move the player's eyeball across the map.
All other objects were implemented as usual as 2D sprites varying in size and occluding each other and varying in size (size consistency effect) for our brain to make sense of these fancy pseudo-3D worlds.
Genius. But wait, it was also ugly.
The rotated map was obviously extremely pixelated, letting some distant areas stand out against a vague background of colorful uncertainty; it felt distorted as there was no real elevation, although some visual cues suggested otherwise... Let alone the jerky looming sprites effect that was common in racing games of this era.
Yet, it was and still is a unique experience. Why?
On the one hand, we did have a clever hardware and software hack. On the other hand, the human brain tried to make sense of it. The visual world presented did have a desirable visual property to induce depth perception and fast-paced movement: texture gradient2 and optical flow3.
A texture gradient is very often used by artists to reinforce the impression of perspective in paintings. Repeated patterns on ground surfaces exhibit converging lines and variations in visual density that are directly linked to our perception of depth. This information tells our visual brain what our point of view is in a 3D scene.
When in motion, these textures generate optical flow. Optical flow is the apparent movement of objects in our field of vision. Motion and texture gradients generate a rate of change in visual information that is specific to our direction and speed of displacement.
Without 3D hardware, the Mode7 was emulating minimal visual cues necessary to the perception of depth and 3D motion.
Interestingly, the evolution of game console hardware did not justify copying this graphic mode extensively. 32-bit consoles provided actual 3D rendering capabilities, and aside from some notable exceptions (like Sonic CD), they remained a step toward a solution rather than the solution itself.
Certainly, imperfections play a great role in building long-lasting memories of a product. Imperfections we had to adapt to are actually as important as what was intuitive and easy-to-use.
These memorable experiences are filled with friction.5
For sure, frictionless has become a paradigmatic goal in UX design with the rise of new platforms and media. Frictionless is great if you want the intersection mechanics to remain unnoticed---and forgotten. Which might be the case with most service-oriented products. In that case, actual interactions are not the core added value of the product. They would rather disappear. Less is more.
Old computing did not make technological interfaces disappear. Interface and interaction mechanics were part of the technology.
Most new digital services leverage our preexisting mental models; that's a good practice for large audience usability engineering. However, retro-computing shows us how low-friction technologies were producing new mental models instead.
To some extent, frictions are somewhat related to the playful aspects of interactive technologies, which are not limited to video games. Frictions may generate more challenging tasks and deeper cognitive processes. Maybe UX needs a concept of desirable friction as a parallel to the concept of desirable difficulty6 proposed in education sciences.
To conclude, the history of computing should not be reduced to a mere history of technological improvements, it's also a history of user experiences. User experiences evolved with technology; technical breakthroughs and disruptive use cases are creating new mental models.
Evolutionary User Experience (EUX) is not about nostalgia; it is about how human experiences with technology evolve: how it improves, reproduces, disappears and diverges. EUX has a lot to tell us, not only about the history of computing and human-computer interactions, but also about how we project our reasoning and imagination into computational worlds and how these worlds are impacting our mental models in return.
Ericson, J. (2022). Reimagining the Role of Friction in Experience Design. Journal of User Experience, 17(4), 131--139.