Gotta Catch ’Em All: UX Lessons from Pokemon Go

We’re in the @hellowallet offices uncommonly early for a Monday morning (thanks, Safetrack!) and the topic of conversation is already Pokemon Go. We are a Senior UX Designer, two Software Engineers, a Visual Designer and one CMO, and not only are we talking about the adoption phenomenon and anecdotes we heard about on the news (“I heard people were walking into the Holland Tunnel!” “Did you hear about the kayakers in the UK who paddled out to a gym…”) but also our own gameplay, strategies, and interactions this past weekend.

Let’s back up just a bit. Pokemon Go is an AR or “Augmented Reality” game for iOS and Android devices. Marrying the long-standing worldwide phenomenon that is the Pokemon franchise with the powerful functionality found in today’s average pocket computer, the app set records and crashed servers in its first weekend of release. You may have heard a thing or two about it on the news, or downloaded and played yourself.

But did you know that developer Niantic has had a significantly more feature-deep release? It’s called Ingress, and it’s also available for iOS and Android…and has been for a year now. In spite of spending more time than I’d care to admit on reddit’s front page and /r/gaming…well...neither did I. (Or I did, and it felt out of the ol’ brain pan at some point.)

As user experience designers, this is a pretty fascinating case study to examine. Let’s start with the obvious: “Well, duh, it’s Pokemon! People know and love it!” So, straight off the bat, we have successful branding and brand affinity. This explains why hardcore Pokemon fans would not only download but also adopt, and why others would at least download out of curiosity — but it just isn’t enough to explain why average city folks are bumping into each other on the streets of Manhattan or why some employers got an early start on throwing down the hammer.

So, what else is going on here? What lessons can we pull from this and apply to our own products this week?

  • Learnability: Nielsen Norman defines learnability by asking the question “How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?” — and Pokemon Go shines here. I may be a case study of one, but as one gaming enthusiast who had never dipped a toe in the Pokemon waters prior to Go, just opening the app and moving around a bit was enough to show me what I could (and couldn’t) interact with — and what I might do and expect next.
  • Simplicity: Here’s where we get to why we’re all talking about Go and not Ingress. While Ingress is very popular with a small, super-dedicated (high-motivation) fan base, even gamer geeks weren’t and aren’t talking about it on Slack. Of course, Go’s success is the sum of all parts, but one might argue that a large part of that equation is the complexity of Ingress vs the simplicity of Go. Simply put, Ingress has a whole lot of rules, a lot more functionality, and a deeper story line — all of which require more time and investment. Pokemon is simple — do the same thing over and over again — but introduces novelty (“You’ve caught a new Pokemon!”) in ways that delight without building cognitive load.
  • Social Proof: Lots of us in the experience design field, including our awesome teams at Morningstar and those of us on the HelloWallet product, are discovering how much we can gain from learning more about behavioral motivators and cues. Social proof is a behavioral concept that addresses the influence of “herd” behavior. The more exposures you and I have online — or in the street, but hopefully not while driving — the more likely we are to investigate and adopt.
  • Timing (and context!): Don’t forget the simple stuff; it’s easy to do in a complex and fast-moving field! Releasing Pokemon Go in the U.S. on a summer Friday is pure albeit simple genius. We tend to be out and about more during nice weather, and we’re more likely to get outside and have free time on a Summer weekend. Pokemon Go requires that we get outside and move — what would’ve happened if it was released on a cold Tuesday in February?
  • Capitalizing on users’ natural tendencies — a quick google search of the phrase “desire to collect things” shows that collecting behaviors are commong, and something lots of us think about. The explosion of things like blind bag toys, Shopkins, and Funko Pop Vinyl figures are examples of how savvy manufacturers and marketers have monetized collecting behaviors. There’s disagreement on the root of our desire to collect and accumulate but it seems to be a pretty natural and common tendency, and Pokemon Go works with it.

I could continue and run down the Nielsen Norman’s primary list of heuristics, drawing connections to Pokemon Go without stretching or forcing the issue, but I’m sure you’ll find your own examples (which I’d love to hear in comments.) What I’d rather do though is point out what I feel makes User Experience Design truly one of the most fun, novel, and privilege fields of work: we can not only enjoy developments in technology and gaming…but also mine the same for ideas and energy to bring to our own work and products.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to run; there’s a Poliwag out there I need to catch.