28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XII

Don’t limit options when any key will do.

Another example of meaningless button-pushing is something I call Start Button Syndrome. As a child in the ’80s, I played a lot of Nintendo games, and after the opening credits, I’d see an intro graphic and two simple words, usually white on black, urging me to “Press Start!” Sometimes with two exclamation points. Such enthusiasm right off the bat.

Many titles screens offer several options: start a new game, load a previously saved game or enter a password, modify settings and gameplay options, and maybe view the game’s credits. But those games that only had one available option–to continue to the next screen–still primarily called for the user to press only the Start button.

The Nintendo controller is generally held with two hands, one on each side, while the Start button sits in the middle of the controller, a thumb’s stretch from the comfort of the A button.

The Start button is aptly named for its intended purpose of getting things going. Other purposes, such as pausing and unpausing the game, are less commonly used and should require more effort than the more common game buttons. But when a player’s thumb typically rests on the A button, why force the stretch to the Start button and ignore everything else on the controller?

Personal computing largely worked around Start Button Syndrome early on, asking users to “Press any key” when ready. With the multitude of keys on a keyboard, asking a user to locate and press a certain button would only slow down the process and cause unnecessary frustration. Still, there are times when it makes sense to require a specific key to continue: with so many available on a keyboard, and at least one hand normally resting on a row of keys at any given time, it’s easy to accidentally bump a key and agree to something before the implications have sunk in. Certain actions–those which can’t be undone, agree to legal terms or trigger hardware such as a printer or other equipment–should require a bit more thought to activate.

Many Flash games these days suffer from their own version of Start Button Syndrome. Instead of allowing a user to click anywhere on the page to skip an intro animation or bypass the start screen, a tiny button is used when no other functional elements are on the screen. Using a button labeled “Start” clearly tells the user what will happen once the button is clicked, which may take away from the desire to allow a user to click just anywhere–but a full-screen button should enable the hand cursor, which will tell the user the entire area is clickable, and many intro screens include the text “Click anywhere to start,” which makes it much easier to begin the game, and clears up any confusion that might arise from displaying the hand cursor throughout the entire page.

The DS, Nintendo’s most recent portable game platform, has several games which still stumble into the pitfalls of Start Button Syndrome, although I’m pleased to say the problem is getting better. Many games still begin by prompting the player to push start–an action which can be even more difficult than on the original NES controller if the player is holding the stylus at the time. To rectify this, games can allow a tap anywhere on the touchscreen to substitute for the Start button.

Another problem, however, is when a game requires a tap on the touchscreen–or a specific button somewhere on the screen–and won’t accept any other button in its place. This assumes the player is holding the stylus, and can serve a purpose if it means to prepare the player for a stylus-heavy gaming experience. But since the inclusion of a stylus essentially allows for two types of hand positioning (much the same way the N64’s three-armed monstrosity led to the forced triage of at least a few of the controller’s available buttons at any given time), both positions should be accounted for when trying to get past the introduction.

Limitations serve many important purposes, but can get in the way when a user is forced to take a specific action for no apparent reason. Showing an interest in the user’s available options and taking care not to unnecessarily limit those options is another step toward strengthening the developer-user relationship.


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