From CS160: User Interface Design Sp12
The application that I evaluated was Hearts of Iron II, a strategy wargame set during World War II.
Hearts of Iron II is a strategy wargame set during World War II. The game consists of a number of screens -- a map of the world and a panel each for technology, production, diplomacy and statistics. While the goal of the game can be free-form, for most users the goal is to produce a victory for your nation (or alliance) through various channels (military, diplomacy, science, ...) However, the game has an interface that is notoriously difficult to use and that players of other strategy wargames tend to find incomprehensible.
Heuristic: Help and documentation
The production screen displays a list of items that are currently being produced. For each item being produced, there is a set of numbers denoting unknown statistics for that particular item (circled in red in the screenshot above). I would assume that they are useful statistics about the item, such as the firepower of a cannon or the range of an aircraft carrier, all of which would be crucial when I need to decide which items to keep producing and which items to cancel.
Unfortunately, I have no idea what each specific number refers to. I tried hovering over a number and clicking them to see if a dialog box would pop up with an explanation, but the game merely displays a generic "Progress is going at full speed", which tells me nothing.
This is a severe usability issue that occurs frequently -- the first-time user cannot figure out what these numbers represent, and the impact of these numbers is very important, as not knowing what they mean makes it impossible to strategically determine which items are worth producing. Furthermore, while a user can learn what the numbers mean through extensive Googling, they may not remember exactly what corresponds to what, making the problem a persistent problem as well.
Heuristic: Consistency and Standards
When viewing the map of the world, we can navigate to different areas and select units that are stationed within those areas. In the case of the screenshot on the left, I selected a set of units stationed in Liverpool. Once selected, details about the unit will appear in the left sidebar, denoted by (2) in the diagram on the left.
In the left sidebar with details about the unit, I noticed two bars right next to each other, one green and the other orange. These two bars are meant to be statistics about the unit, which I discovered once I hovered over them and a pop-up dialog provided an explanation.
However, the details provided by the pop-up box do not match the information provided by the two bars. Let us take the example of the green bar -- it represents the organizational morale of the units and the pop-up box tells us that it is 52/52. However, when we look at the graphic of the green bar, only slightly more than half of the full bar is filled with green. Generally we would take this to mean that the units are only at half their full morale, but that is clearly not the case once we examine the pop-up box.
This is a relatively common problem. Users will often glance quickly at the stats bars for their units to get a sense of which units are doing well and worth using in battle. While the problem is not very persistent as users figure out that the graphical stats bars are meaningless, they should still be fixed to provide non-misleading and speedy information to users.
Heuristic: Aesthetic and minimalist design
In displaying the items that are currently under production, Hearts of Iron II has arrows for each item in the list in order to allow the user to shift the item up or down within the list (or to move the item to the top of or the bottom of the list). However, this is an unnecessarily cluttered interface. These arrows don't need to be there, as the interface could have allowed users to drag the list items to their correct locations. Most users can figure this out intuitively, especially if they've used other applications, and having four arrows just adds to the number of buttons available on the screen.
Furthermore, I actually had a hard time determining what the arrows meant -- at first I thought I could increment the amount of the item being produced by clicking on the arrows, and then I realized that didn't explain what the double arrows meant. Getting rid of them and allow users to move the items in a more intuitive manner would make the interface a lot clearer.
Although the problem occurs rather frequently (any time lists show up), it's not difficult for users to ignore the problem altogether. It only makes the interface more cluttered but does not take away from any crucial functionality. It is mostly a cosmetic issue and thus should only be fixed if there is extra time.
Heuristics: Visibility of System Status and Consistency and Standards
There are two heuristics violated in this particular set of actions.
In order to build any item, we use the "Start Production" button. In the screenshot on the left, I was about to press the "Start Production" button to build a Hawker Hurricane fleet of planes. The second screenshot displays what occurred after I clicked on "Start Production" -- the game displays a list of items under production and my recently-created fleet is one of them.
Consistency and Standards: While the previous screen called the unit "Hawker Hurricane", the second screen changes the name to "No. 14 RAF Fighter Group", making it quite difficult to locate my fleet of planes. This is an attempt at realism gone wrong -- in real life a fleet of planes for a particular country would not take on the name of the type of aeroplane because that would result in fleets having the same names. However, in the case of a game, it makes it difficult for us to find the fleet we just created -- the interface is being needlessly realistic.
Visibility of System Status: The system could do a much better job of keeping the user informed as to what the actions the game performed after the user clicked "Start Production". The screen afterwards has all my items under production displayed, and all four items are displayed with the same style, making it difficult to tell which one is the one that I just created. It takes quite a bit of effort to scan the list and search for the specific item recently created in order to confirm the creation. The game interface would be more useful if they could highlight the most recently created item.
Both heuristic violations occur frequently, whenever the user decides to build units. Both problems are also persistent, as each time the user tries to create new units, they will have to search for their newly created unit under a long list and finding it will be further complicated by the name changes.
Heuristic: User control and freedom
The above screenshot shows the diplomacy panel, and in the bottom right corner there is a panel of sliders that lets us control domestic policy. Each of these sliders can only be moved one position to the left or right each year. However, it is very easy for the unassuming user to accidentally click on one of the + or - buttons and have no way of turning back. It is impossible to undo slider accidents, which is especially problematic for first-time users who had no idea that their actions would be permanent, especially if they are used to similar games that allow undo-ing. It would be best to warn first-time users that their actions are permanent so that they can be more careful about what they do.
While the problem occurs whenever the user wishes to change their domestic policy, it is not a persistent problem. Users will eventually figure out that their actions are permanent and will be more careful in future ventures with domestic policy.