Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Wii Help Cat: A lesson in interaction design

The Nintendo Wii has an inexplicably complex help system. A cat wanders onto the screen periodically. If you move your cursor quickly towards the cat, he'll run away. However, if you are careful, you can sneak your cursor up on the cat, your cursor will turn into a hand and you can grab him. When you do, you get a tip about how to use the Wii dashboard.

From a simple efficiency driven point of view, this is a baroque UI that makes very little sense. Surely, just putting up a hint button that says "hint!" would have been more efficient and discoverable. This is what most programs do.

Yet, we know from long experience that no one ever reads the hints. Designers often resort to placing the hint dialog at the startup of the application so that the user is forced to jump through the hoop of reading one hint every time. Most people immediately turn this 'feature' off after using it once. Some users find it highly irritating and form the opinion that the developer is punishing them for using the product. They complain to their friends and write pissy rants to the help desk about why your product is horribly difficult to use. This is not the way to build a viral buzz.

The Help Cat uses traditional game mechanics to help acclimate the first time Wii user to the new controller and the dashboard. In the process, it provides an interesting test case on how game mechanics can be used help users master new functionality.

I've broken down the Help Cat user experience in several levels of mastery. At each level, you'll see the user happen upon new information and adapt their behavior accordingly. I'm using my atomic game mechanics system from a previous post as a framework for identifying the various steps in the process.

This admittedly gets a tad anal retentive, but bear with me. It is a good exercise in analyzing a user interaction and understanding what works and where it can be improved.

Level 1: Passive interaction
  • Action: User looks at screen for X amount of time
  • Blackbox: Cat simulation runs
  • Feedback: A cat walks onto the screen.
  • Mastery: The user realizes it is a cat and activates their known tools for interacting with the cat. There is a small burst of delight often in the form of "Holy duck boot! It's a cat"
Level 2: Active interaction
  • Action: The user moves their cursor in the direction of the cat
  • Blackbox: Cat simulation runs
  • Feedback: The cat runs away from the cursor.
  • Mastery: Wow! It acts a lot like a cat. The user becomes aware that the speed and location of their cursor is important to interacting with the cat and begins consciously practicing mastery of these basic tools. They form an initial mental model of how the cat behaves. This too is delightful.
Level 3: Improving skills
At this point the user is engaged and will often attempt to experimentally validate their mental model.
  • Action: The user begins varying the speed at which they approach the cat. This quickly become a case of seeing how close they can get to the cat before it runs away.
  • Blackbox: Cat simulation runs
  • Feedback: The cat runs away from the hand. However, if the cursor touches the cat it turns into a hand.
  • Mastery: The user has accidentally stumbled upon a new clue. The hand again is a symbol that taps into pre-existing conceptual tools. The user understands that they can use the hand to grab objects. This also ties into their knowledge that cats are an object you can pick up. A new goal suggests itself and there is a small burst of delight.
Level 4: Completion
Experimentation continues with the goal now being to catch the cat.
  • Action: The user exercises the tools from the previous stages of mastery. They move the cursor at the right speed towards the cat and attempt to get the hand to appear. They test out their new model of how the hand works by clicking frantically on the cat. .
  • Blackbox: Cat simulation runs
  • Feedback: When you successfully click on the cat, the help box appears
  • Mastery: The user realizes the purpose behind the cat. There is a large burst of joy as all the clues finally click into place and the pattern of clicking on the cat to get help is chunked in the player's mind. They read the tip and realize that there are likely more tips if they catch the cat again.

Benefits of the Help Cat
We end up with a variety of benefits from this less efficient, but more enjoyable interaction design. Each of these benefits goes beyond utilitarian expectations of a traditional hint feature.
  • Users actively attempts to 'collect' help tips. The process of gathering them is enjoyable so it isn't really work to learn more about the product.
  • Users also build critical skills in using the new control mechanism. All that pointing and clicking builds up muscle memory skills that make the process of using the Wii more enjoyable overall.
  • Lastly, the user is left with a positive product experience. They are delighted and are much more likely to promote the product to their friends.

Future improvements
As far as it goes, the help cat is pretty nifty. However, the help cat was likely added as a minor bonus feature and as such, has limited functionality. It is easy to imagine additional game mechanics that increase the usability, enjoyment and addictiveness of the help system.
  • Tuning difficulty levels
  • User achievement tracking
  • Virtual pet rewards
Tuning difficulty levels
Not everyone likes the Help Cat, mostly they can't figure it out. Anytime you create a black box that a percentage of users cannot decipher, you'll often find frustration and irritation. Users who find a problem too difficult will assume that it is broken. Users rarely blame themselves for failure.

For some, the help cat moves too quickly at first. Or perhaps people don't make the leap that they are supposed to click on it. Or they hate cats and couldn't imagine wanting to touch one. Since the help cat leverages existing cognitive tools in order to kickstart the mastery sequence, the limitations of your users can ruin even the most 'intuitive' design.

The fix is to test user response in order to establish typical responses. Tune the difficulty so that you make most people happy and able to master the sequence. Then set up boundary conditions that trigger more explicit instructions for the slower users. For example, if the Help Cat has run away multiple times but the user has not reacted, put up text that says "Click the help cat."

You need to be careful here. If you make the feedback too obvious, users won't experience the joy of mastering the blackbox.

User achievement tracking

Mastery typically occurs through practice of a gesture. Far too often, users glances through the help and then never actually performs the suggested actions. By tracking new UI gestures as goals and rewarding the user when they complete those goals, you dramatically increase the likelihood that users will experience the full range of the interface's functionality.

Each hint that the Help Cat gives represents an additional skill that for the user to master. As they meander through the rest of the UI, the existences of the goals acts as a strong reminder to try out the skills. The system can detect and record this practice. Every time you visit the help cat, he can give you additional stats on your progress and may even reward you with additional functionality.

A big benefit to this system is that it is completely non-linear. Users don't feel constrained to slog through a linear tutorial. They can cherry pick the new skills that sound interesting. They are also rewarded for personal exploration. If you happen to discovery skills on your own, the help cat will notice and reward you for the completed quests.

A secondary benefit is that once you get achievement tracking in place, you can easily hook it up to a logging system to gain a better understanding of what skills are being mastered and which ones are not. This can lead to more focused usability testing that improves your overall product.

Virtual Pet rewards
Catching the cat to get a clue is interesting at first, but users quickly burn out on this simplistic game mechanic. You can improve usability and increase player addiction by making the cat become the user's friend. You can tap into the user's deep set of existing social tools with some well chosen feedback. The result is a strongly positive user experience for very little effort.
  • With continued usage of the Help Cat, decrease the response time when the cat runs away. Eventually, make it bounce excitedly when it sees your cursor.
  • When the cursor is over the cat, have the cat purr and rub up against the cursor.
  • After more use, when the cursor is moved over the cat, trigger various petting animations.
  • Explicitly reward goal completion with avatar items that appear on the cat and new playful animations.
These are all straight forward mechanics that require little effort to implement. However, they create strong positive feelings in the user. They can tell a little story to their friends of how they tamed the Help Cat and it is now their beloved pet. I wouldn't be surprised if there sprung up Help Cat fan sites in response. Contrast the warm and loving Help Cat to Clippy, an intrusive alien character that forced information on users. If you want the user to master an action, dangling a carrot (or in this case, a cute fuzzy cat) works much better than a hitting the user with a stick.

From a game design point of view, what we've done is cap the user's advancement along the mastery curve with an 'unwinnable' social mechanism. Such evergreen rewards like a purring cat have a much lower chance of burnout than internal rewards based off points and goals. We can only afford to put a limited amount of content into a mastery sequence, but we don't want to leave the user feeling that they've expended all this effort only to reach a meaningless dead end.

The other benefit of this mechanic is that the Help Cat becomes easier to use. Instead of chasing it around the screen, you simply click on it.

Closing thoughts
The Help Cat is a simple interaction design, but it brings out a universally applicable pattern of user behavior
  • The user performs an action
  • While performing an action, they stumble upon evidence that a modification of their behavior may have better results. At this point, they experience joy.
  • The cycle repeats
We can design explicitly for this learning cycle through careful placement of feedback and tracking of user progress. Users learn the product more quickly and they are rewarded with a continuous stream of positive feedback.

take care

Mastery-based interaction design

Atomic Game Mechanics

Help Cat video
Here's the source of the delightful Help Cat video that was the source of this post.


  1. There is of course a problem with the cat model as it is: every once in a while you should really get scratched!

    A nice move by Nintendo with their innovative console. I wish them well, but the Wii's controller will be easier for the others to copy than the Wii is likely to get a good parity in titles.

  2. "Or they hate cats and couldn't imagine wanting to touch one."

    Or they love cats and know it is best to leave them alone ;)

  3. Another interesting article. Turning the Help system into a minigame, where the reward is a tip is pretty bizarre. So much, in fact, that works.

  4. The Help Cat is about the most ingenious little thing I've seen yet. I can't wait to try it out when I get my Wii.

  5. Interesting discussion. Some additional information, and some commentary:
    The cat is not a help emblem of the entire system, but only appears in the "fun" area of the Photo Channel, an area that many people never go to. Even if they do go there, without an SD card in place with at least one JPEG or compatible MOV on it they cannot enter the screen that contains the cat.

    The "fun" area, as perhaps can be ascertained from its name, is not at all essential to the use or maintenance of the console, or even basic use of the Photo Channel, and every one of the cat's tips explicate undocumented, secret features, of the type that Nintendo often puts into their software, even that made for creativity (Mario Paint was loaded with secrets). If the information passed on by the cat was basic stuff, things that people could easily find out on their own or by reading the manual, the reward for catching the cat would not be nearly as great.

    By offering the cat, what Nintendo is doing is teaching the player not to use the interface, but to become comfortable with it, and exploit it, unprompted, for their own ends. There are are huge number of computer users who live in constant dread that they will press a key or click on something on their computer that will cause it to mess up in an unexpected way. They are cowed by the complex interface, and sometimes for good reason; we still really aren't that far from the days when computers crashed as a matter of course, and there is always the chance of mistakenly answering "yes" to an accidental delete command. What the cat offers is an unexpected element of the interface that asks, no, BEGS for interaction, but is mentioned no where in the manual and is not explained in the interface. It tells the player, hey, you can play with me. And when the player succeeds in catching the cat, he isn't reprimanded with an error message, he gets a treat!

    Finally, I think it is important to note that a big part of the cat's appeal is, in fact, art direction. There are lots of things Nintendo could have used instead of a cat. What if it had been one of those obnoxious, punch/smack/spankable monkeys from those Flash banner ads? What if it had been one of those damn Zwinkies, also from Flash banners? What if it had been Clippy, a soulless cartoon character with a personality that's all corporate? What if it had been Mario, even? Those things, even a cartoon cat, would have been rejected by the user as too cloying, and way too obtrusive. The cat, on the other hand, many times won't even be noticed the first time it appears, and it is a starkly-rendered, realistically-depicted but not really cute, black cat at that. A little imposing really, but which humorously freaks out and scrambles off-screen the moment the pointer gets close to it. It's fun just to watch the cat, and because of that, it's fun to catch.

    I wish I could say that Nintendo had planned all this, but actually, I don't think they cared a whit about creating an innovative user interface other than their pointer system. I think they just employ fun-loving developers, and have not learned that creativity is something to be stomped out of existence as soon as it is recognized.

  6. Nice article. I also loved the playful approach to GUI-design the first time I stumbled upon the Help Cat. Too bad it is not a feature that is fully integrated in the Wii GUI-system. Maybe Nintendo will see your article and make and update available soon :)

    Another example of playful GUI-design is in Meteos (NDS) where you can throw around with the menu buttons. Not useful in the same way as the Help Cat, but still fun to have a GUI that is not just functional.

  7. Might I mention that in your reference footnote you neglect to mention the source of the video you have imbeded? I believe that Cabel from Panic Inc created the original video.

  8. Nobelx: Added the reference to Cabel's site. Much appreciate the link!

    Mr. Williams: Any extensions to the design would absolutely need additional user testing to figure out the exact dynamics. In the design I described, users only receives advanced rewards by using the help system and then following through on its suggestions. So it is unlikely that the core mechanic would be bypassed. You'll often see this pattern in nested game designs. The core mechanic becomes a gateway to larger scale rewards and systems.

    Johnh: Good point about the location and usage of the Help Cat.

    I'd also agree that it is doubtful that this interaction was explicitly planned out in the detail I've described. I would say that everything I've heard about the developer culture at Nintendo encourages the existence of 'delightful' feature development. It is an interesting question: should you build a culture that creates amazing things or should you study the techniques of those who make amazing things and then make use of those techniques as a part of your development process? The latter is more common and the former far more difficult. Yet, it seems that creating a creative culture has the longer term payoff.

    take care

  9. I've been impressed with the Wii system. It is almost enough to get me into playing a few games (and yes, I have bowled... ahem, as a buddy of mine has a Wii) on a console. You just get a sense from Nintendo that they enjoy every aspect of gaming and try to make everything fun. That whole feel really goes miles for the burntout, cynical, aging gamer, like me. :)