From an hour-long excursion into the offices of developers of various kinds (designers, programmers, sound engineers, etc.), I remember most of all and in my own way sunk into the soul floor, almost entirely reserved for the UX-laboratory (User eXperience) In this place, consisting of several research blocks, the best specialists of the country study the behavior of gamers, conduct various experiments on them and, as a result, make World of Tanks better. Sofya Chebanova, the head of the UX laboratory at Wargaming, agreed to talk with me about creating a laboratory and such an unusual way of influencing the development of video games.
Tell the story of the appearance of the UX-lab in Wargaming. I understand correctly that by that time you were already a specialist in this field with some experience behind you?
Sofya Chebanova: In 2012, Wargaming was experiencing great growth: on the one hand, there were not enough hands to just “change cartridges”, and on the other, it was already possible to think about the development of more complex aspects of creating games. So, in the same year, we began to form a very strong team of UX designers for the whole post-Soviet space, whose main task was to make the lives of players easier by creating a convenient and intuitive interface, as well as ways to interact with the game. And in order to test such decisions with the involvement of players, a separate UX laboratory and the researchers themselves were required.
So our paths crossed with the company. By that time, I had already built one laboratory in St. Petersburg, at ITMO University, taught to students, and also worked as a user interaction researcher at the largest usability services consulting company in Russia at that time – UsabilityLab. So my experience in research was not bad, but I knew quite a bit about the application of these studies in games.
Let’s give our readers a brief virtual tour of your laboratory. What zones are there in it, and what kind of work is going on in them?
Sofya Chebanova: At first, my team didn’t have such a smart laboratory, and we carried out tests in simple meeting rooms. And only a few years later we managed to build the laboratory that you could see here. It consists of two parts: the respondent zone and the observation zone.
The respondent’s area is, in fact, the place where the player is all the time who agreed to take part in the study and help us improve the game. This room is designed as comfortable as possible and does not look like an office room or a home. This gives the player the opportunity to feel as relaxed as possible and not focus on work or home problems. At the same time, the room is filled with various equipment, which helps to fix everything that happens with the gamer. In our work, we use both a device that monitors the movement of the player’s eyes on the monitor, and devices that measure sweating, heartbeat and brain activity, as well as record everything that the player clicks on the keyboard and mouse.
The second area of the laboratory is the “observation”. It looks like a flight control point. Here you can observe everything that happens to the respondent, and especially a special translucent glass helps it, which on the player’s side looks like an ordinary mirror. The main task of the researcher is here: to be in constant contact with the respondent and conduct it through the research scenario, which consists of a set of tasks as close as possible to reality, and also to keep a record of everything that the user has done.
There is also room for our game developers in the lab. They come to see how the players understand the features that they came up with and, of course, are very worried so that the players liked it and was understandable.
How to understand what equipment to purchase for certain needs? Do you rely on the experience of Western colleagues in this matter?
Sofya Chebanova: The most honest answer is through trial and error. In fact, not many companies produce equipment that captures the behavior of the human body. And many of them are more or less related to medicine. The most difficult task is to assemble the equipment and the software that comes with it so that they work as a whole.
With fellow researchers from other (not only gaming) companies in the world, we constantly exchange some new devices, applications and ideas for improvements. And then we try how much all this works in our laboratory. Something, by the way, is being spied on by our colleagues from video production.
How often do developers themselves drop by your lab to see how the players react?
Sofya Chebanova: We do not have studies that developers do not come to. This, in fact, is a test drive of a feature they created before all players see it. Developers still have the opportunity to make changes to the functionality. They are also often interested in seeing how gamers look and how they play the game: how they communicate with members of their team, what kind of jargon they use for this. And they are very worried that the player will succeed.
Can you give a concrete example of how the opinions of the players helped to improve any aspect in your games.
Sofia Chebanova: The essence of tests with players in the laboratory is not so much that they collect their opinions, but more about observing their behavior and how they use the game’s interfaces in reality.
For example, in the last New Year’s mode in WoT, Players often had to smash existing toys by first selecting each of them separately. And this despite the fact that the development provided for a checkbox “select everything”, which was supposed to help gamers perform this operation quickly. As it turned out, almost none of the respondents could find it, because it was located in the wrong place on the screen and too small font was used for it. According to the results of research, the location and size of the font was changed. It seems that this is a trifle, but it forced our players to perform a large number of useless actions.
How to become a tester in Wargaming? Only selected gamers get an invitation or can anyone sign up?
We try not to invite the same player to the research twice, so there can be no question of any chosen people. Gamers who, according to their gaming experience, are suitable for the purpose of the study, receive an offer to fill out a questionnaire and take part in it directly in our games. If we are working on a game whose release has not yet taken place, we are looking for players in the appropriate groups on social networks.
Well, then we contact them and invite them to the laboratory for research.
Is it true that it is impossible to get education in the UX sphere in Russia and Belarus? Who do you need to study for in order to later move into this industry?
Unfortunately, a full-fledged higher education in the field of UX in Russia and in Belarus is very difficult to obtain. There are various related specialties and a huge number of short-term courses. Speaking specifically about UX researchers, not designers (because their knowledge and skills vary widely), they most often come from marketing, psychology, sociology and applied information technologies. And the rest is derived from courses, books and reports.
Can you advise anyone who is interested in this question, any methodological literature to learn more about UX?
I always recommend starting with classic books, such as Donald Norman’s Design of Familiar Things, Alan Cooper’s About the Interface, and Steve Krug’s Do Not Make Me Think. I also love the book about Game Usability – Advancing the Player Experience and the book about the brain of the player Celia Odent – The Gamer’s Brain: How Neuroscience and UX Can Impact Video Game Design.