Those of you that know me know that I really enjoy cooking. Well, really, I enjoy eating good food, but I’ve found that the easiest (and most inexpensive) way to get good food it to make it yourself. So, tangentially, I enjoy cooking.
As a result, I spend a lot of time online looking at various interesting recipes on the internet (and through cook books, but this post is mostly about the internet). One thing I’ve found is that most sites that offer a good deal of recipes, are lacking in their actual usability; not because they’re not designed like other sites, but because they’re designed exactly like other sites. Most of them are designed as simple lists of categorized articles or blogs, with ratings and comments. This may be fine for most blogs or new sites, but cooking is this inter-related web of techniques, derivations, substitutions, and adaptations that (in my mind) can’t be served properly by this common model, but does lend itself well to the web in general. The problem is that people get locked into this core method of usability, and don’t realize that it doesn’t work in all situations.
This, in my mind, actually violates a core tenant of usability in information systems: get the information that the person needs to them as quickly as possible, and allow them to access related information quickly and easily. For cooking, this is not just related reciepies. This may mean linking them to information about the techniques required for a particular recipie (creating a roux, blending a soup, searing a piece of meat, grilling, broiling, etc), the potential ingredient substitutions (can I substitute different types of mushrooms, stocks, water, etc) or additions (can I add garlic, Tabasco sauce, or rice to this dish, and where). Additionally, potential side dishes, wines, derivations (versions of the same recipe that use similar but different ingredients) and nutritional information are all common things I want to see with a recipe, but rarely see in any web recipe outlet.
And don’t get me started on comments. 90% of comments of recipe sites are worthless: “This tasted great! I will do it again!” is pretty common. But that last 10% is sometimes useful. “Lightly salt the zucchini to drain the moisture first,” “Added garlic to this dish and it really brought out some of the flavors,” are good comments, and are related specifically to an ingredient, addition, or substitution, so why are they at the bottom of the page instead of where it might be useful to me?
What does this have to do with games? Well, nothing really, but it does point out an alarming trend in general usability: this idea that once you’ve found one system that works, you tend to apply it to other systems where it’s not as useful, or (worse) where it doesn’t make sense. So, when you’re designing your user interface for your next game, just think to yourself for a second: “Am I designing this interface this way because this is the easiest and best way to access this information, or because it’s the way it’s always been done.” You’ll be surprised how often you answer yes for the later, and find another, better way to do it.