Modern user interfaces could learn a lot from Tecmo Super bowl

My fellow NFL enthusiasts from Canada and I were engaged in a conversation this past weekend regarding “the best hit in NFL history” which lead to a Youtube search of “Christian Okoye Steve Atwater.” If you’re an NFL fan, you know what video clip we were in search of. However, instead of the mind blowing Steve Atwater hit we were seeking, the majority of search results were actually of the classic Nintendo cult hit “Tecmo Super Bowl.”

Watching these old clips from the game, frustrations of just getting spanked 38-0 in NFL 08 on the Xbox 360, and a recent Collabomatic UI design session reminded me how simplicity is often a design decision that is overlooked in favor of using every bell and whistle in the book.

In the old Nintendo classic, functionality was dead easy. Offensively 8 plays were at your dispense, defensively, Quarterback controls were limited to 2 buttons (cycling through intended receivers with ‘A’ and throwing with ‘B’). Madden 2008 on the other hand allows for about 9 formations, each with 20 plays, each with audibles, players in motion etc etc. Obviously, Madden appeals to power users.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a time and a place to cater to the power user and allow for highly customizable functionality, but I do believe that the in 99% of software interfaces, customization hasn’t delivered enough value to make up for the loss of ease of use.

I think that most if not all software systems start with simplicity being an initial goal; but I see a couple obvious reasons why this goal becomes convoluted.

1. As you start to gain traction, some percentage of users start to ask the “how do I” questions. Because we’re geeks and always looking to make people happy, the easy non-confrontational solution is to build this feature if it’s not already there.

2. As your system progresses, other technologies (hardware, supporting libraries, platforms, frameworks) become available for usage. Because we’re geeks and want to be using the latest and greatest, we often leverage these systems, This is one of the things that Tecmo Super bowl resisted doing. When the game was moved from the Nintendo to the Sega Genesis, the decision was made to stick to using just 2 buttons, even though the Genesis made 3 buttons available.

Neither of these reasons is deserving of catering to the few and sacrificing simplicity.

Off to the Seahawks game.

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