Posted by: structureofnews | November 26, 2011

Simple Complexity

I’m not a fan of Angry Birds – if it’s free internet games I’m looking for, I’m much more partial to Viking Defence at Miniclip (blame my 11-year-old son) – but I realize I’m in the minority here if you add up all the millions of hours spent hurtling virtual birds at virtual pigs.

So it was interesting to read a long, detailed post on the design of Angry Birds and why it’s as successful as it is – and that holds lessons not just for the design of news games, but for all the interfaces we create to try to pull readers/users into more-immersive experiences of our content.  I won’t try to summarize it – you should read it yourself – but it made a great point about simplicity and complexity.

The idea behind simplicity isn’t that the interface should only have a few moving parts, but that it’s designed to be easy for first-time users to quickly understand how they’re supposed to interact with the app.

Simplification means once users have a relatively brief period of experience with the software, their mental model of how the interface behaves is well formed and fully embedded. This is known technically as schema formation. In truly great user interfaces, this critical bit of skill acquisition takes place during a specific use cycle known as the First User Experience or FUE.

That’s not necessarily true of many of the apps out there, whether news-related or not.  True, everyone needs to invest some learning time into using any new interface, but there’s a limit to what any reader will do without an obvious payoff.  It’s also true that Angry Birds – or Viking Defence – has the advantage of drawing on established laws of physics and our memory of cartoon behavior.  No one needs to explain what the likely consequences of releasing a slingshot with a bird in it are.

News apps and news games have a much higher hurdle; there are fewer well-established metaphors for exploring information – walking through a library, say, or exploring a map – and that makes learning how to navigate complex databases more of a chore.  Nonetheless, it’s a reminder that we should tap as many real-word analogs as possible to make it easier for first-time users to get accustomed to us.

At the same time, it’s important – as all good game design demonstrates – that gameplay gets increasingly complex as players/users get more proficient.

What makes a user interface engaging is adding more detail to the user’s mental model at just the right time. Angry Birds’ simple interaction model is easy to learn because it allows the user to quickly develop a mental model of the game’s interaction methodology, core strategy and scoring processes. It is engaging, in fact addictive, due to the carefully scripted expansion of the user’s mental model of the strategy component and incremental increases in problem/solution methodology. These little birds are packed with clever behaviors that expand the user’s mental model at just the point when game-level complexity is increased.

That helps keep users more engaged as they get familiar with the basics.  Obviously, it’s important also to have a mechanism that lets people  stay at whatever level they’re comfortable with, so they don’t get frustrated.

All of this may seem like commonsense to designers of games – but it’s still pretty alien thinking for journalists.  And as more and more of our interaction with readers comes through real interactivity on digital platforms, it’s increasingly critical that we learn to master these concepts.


  1. […] That’s why giving readers hooks they’re familiar with can bring them into a piece; and adopting digital game techniques might be able to suck them in deeper, once they’re […]

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