Friday, September 24, 2010

Bad UI makes my kid cry

I was on a phone call last week when my 5-year-old son, Rowan (who is learning how to read), rushed into my home office. He was panicked and crying over a video game he had been playing--Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again!, a downloadable game for the Nintendo DS.

As soon as I figured out he was crying over the game, I knew what happened--bad UI made my kid cry. When I first encountered the problem (detailed below), I thought it might be an issue, but I cautiously hoped for the best. Unfortunately, my optimism was defeated by poor user interface design (and a little bad luck).

The problem is evident on the screen below:

Do you see the problem?

Why did anyone think it was a good idea to put the "ERASE DATA" button on the same screen as the button used to start the game ("Main Game")? Even worse, "ERASE DATA" is right under the start button, in the same color, making it really easy for someone to press it by accident if they aren't paying close attention.

It probably would have been smarter to bury the "ERASE DATA" button in the options somewhere, one or two levels down. Keep in mind, this is a game that's suitable for little kids, even if they can't read yet. That said, I warned my son about the button, but he pushed it anyway by mistake. I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.

After he pushed the button, he knew he did something wrong, and was faced with this screen:

(You can't see it in the still image, but the red 'no/cancel' button flashes here.)

In a panic, Rowan wasn't sure which button to press. A red button got him in trouble to begin with, so he thought it was the wrong choice, and it probably didn't help that it was flashing at him ominously. He pushed the less threatening (and non-flashing) green button, and all was lost. Hours of gameplay, wasted. Total crying meltdown...

It might have been better if the 'no/cancel' button was bigger and pre-highlighted, and certainly not flashing red.

On that note, the oft-pressed "Main Game" button should not have been red. Having the most frequently pressed button be red might make players less likely to see red as a warning.

In my experience, Nintendo usually does a great job with usability and user experience. This time however, they dropped the ball. In any case, I helped my son complete all the levels we finished previously, so everything turned out okay, and he got a real life lesson on the consequences of bad design.

With all of that said, Minis March Again! is a great game. I think it's actually quite educational, with lots of problem solving (remember "Lemmings"?) and custom level building to stretch one's creativity. Just watch out for that "ERASE DATA" button, and you'll have lots of fun.

*Special thanks to my Opera-colleague Thomas Ford for suggesting today's blog title.


  1. For me Rowan was stupid, you only need to read.
    But I think Pokémon series have a big problem of showing "Cancel" in menus instead of "Back", it can be confusing for some people.

    1. Don't be an idiot, he's only 5...

  2. @rafael The first step in making progress towards greater usability is to avoid the tempting thought that "it's the user's fault". Designers need to serve people with different kinds and levels of ability (and in this case, I'm not going to fault a 5-year-old who is still learning how to read). Helpfully-placed text does not excuse poor design decisions.

    re: Pokémon, I can see how "cancel" could be confusing for people wanting to go "back".

    1. Look at I found while looking for some Nintendo bad UX in the web! Haha, your post!

      My sincere apologies... I don't know what I was thinking about when I say it was your kid's fault. After the terrible placement of the erase data button the green button to confirm you want to erase all data begs to be selected. :(

  3. Hm... You're possibly right...

  4. Great post, Law. That UI is awful. I immediately saw the erase button was badly placed and colored. The flashing ominous "don't erase" X is also a wonderful story, even if it traumatized Rowan. I heard the other day that many top UI professionals hate to work on games, so it can be difficult to get good people in that department. I believe it's because games are big moving targets in terms of final design and that means you have to rework the UI several times. Also probably lots of game designers are hard to work with, hehe.

  5. Hi Greg!

    On the other side of the coin, I've always thought we might need more game designers (such as yourself) to help produce better user experiences in software outside of games.

    For example, Glen Murphy--one of the designers of Google Chrome--talked about Wipeout (on Playstation) being his favorite video game. He loved the game's UI and how everything about it conveyed "speed", and it was an inspiration to the Google design team as they created Chrome.

    The world of game design definitely has its share of brilliant UI people we can all learn from.

  6. I have seen some bad UIs, but that data deletion button really is dangerous placed. Touch screens, especially, should be careful to not have such easily accessed buttons.

  7. Good article, a shame about your boys data though.
    I think with regards to UI this was a really terrible mistake for them to have made. Buttons which lead to opposite outcomes (play game/delete data) should never look so similar and be placed next to each other.

  8. My kids also encounter this kind of problem. I don't know how to fix it.