An Honest UX Critique of Pokémon Go

Posted by Akhil Dakinedi on Jul 12, 2016 11:42:09 AM

from a longtime fan and mobile designer

Midnight Battles

I was sitting in bed at midnight on a rainy Saturday night admiring my catch of the day -- a high-CP Vaporeon caught at Harvard Yard earlier that morning. Outside my house, I saw that a friendly gym was being attacked by an enemy team.

My Vaporeon, defending the Sav-Mor gym.
 My Vaporeon defending the Sav-Mor gym.

Two friendly team members were trying to defend it, but I knew their Pokémon wouldn’t last. And then it happened. The moment I’d been training for my whole life had arrived. Like any Pokémon trainer, I knew exactly what to do.

I powered up my Vaporeon as high as I could, dashed outside my house in the rain, and challenged the rivals. Soon, my gym’s rank was high enough that I could place my Vaporeon there to defend it. The enemy team was no match. They gave up, and went home. (They were a nice couple and had a good attitude about it, though.) Victory was mine, Team Mystic ruled the day.

How We Got Here

For some background about me, to really fully understand what qualifies me to write an impassioned piece about Pokémon Go, and offer some critiques: I have watched every single episode of the anime, can identify and name all 700+ Pokémon, have put thousands of hours into all the Gameboy and DS Pokémon games, and have competitively battled in Pokémon tournaments (get on my level, world). As someone for whom Pokémon has basically been a lifestyle for the past twenty years, I cannot express how cool taking over that gym at night made me feel. The walk back home made me feel like an actual Pokémon master, something that every single Pokémon game has been trying to make players feel like for a very long time but never quite achieving it, until now.

I’m also a mobile designer by trade. When I’m not studying for my life as a Pokémon master, I’m designing awesome mobile UX and UI at Intrepid, a company based in Cambridge, MA. Yes, we have a Poké Stop. Yes, it’s lured pretty much 24/7.

One of our Apprentices, Alex, with a Drowzee on the field outside of Intrepid.
 Alex, a summer Apprentice at Intrepid, poses on the field outside our office with a Drowzee I'm catching.

The Promise

Pokémon Go, the live-action pseudo-MMO Augmented Reality (AR) game that has taken the world by storm upon its launch late last week, has one core goal -- to make players feel like they’re Pokémon trainers. And it absolutely nails it. The premise of having to actually go outside and hunt for Pokémon makes it challenging, fun, exciting, (potentially) dangerous, and sometimes completely surprising.

However, after grinding for many hours the past week, I’ve got some critiques about the game. As a mobile designer by profession, it’s become second nature for me to pick apart apps for their user experience problems. As you might expect, I have shaken my fist a few times at the way the app handles certain gameplay features and really makes me wish that they were implemented better. Anyone who’s played can tell you there are some serious problems with the way the user experience is handled, but they can’t always tell you exactly what they don’t like about it.

There are a vast number of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) improvements I could suggest, but I want to focus on the ones I think would be the most powerful to implement, as a means of introducing more design-focused thinking when it comes to mobile experiences.

Gestural Oversimplification

 You can't click on that Drowzee without activting the Poké Stop!

Picture this: you’re whizzing by a Poké Stop on your bike, and you see a Drowzee by a Poké Stop. You tap  to catch it as you continue biking. But alas, your tap only activates the Poké Stop. You try again, same result, and this happens over and over again. You’re unable to tap the Pokémon on the Poké Stop because every tap on the Pokémon registers as a tap on the Poké Stop. You crash your bike, faceplant onto the sidewalk and question whether it was worth it.

I picked out that example because I’ve encountered that exact situation plenty of times (save for the faceplanting). For an app that crams a ton of features into it, you have to wonder why it insists on using a single tap to perform nearly every action. While it’s still a good UX practice to limit the amount of gestures in your app, there are way too many situations in the world map where objects overlap and collide into each other, often making it infuriating to select what you actually want.

A solution to this problem would be to simply use better gestural design. Isolate different world objects into different taps. For example: one tap to open up the Poké Stop, two taps on a Pokémon to trigger the capture scene, and a long press to activate a gym. This way, no matter how close a gym is to a Pokémon on your map, you can never accidentally trigger a Pokémon fight when you intended to tap on a gym that’s being attacked. Everything within a 100 pixel radius of your thumb will perform that gesture’s response. This is one of those quality of life improvements that seems trivial but goes a long way to ease frustrations over the long run.

Battle Mechanics, or “DODGE, you idiot!”

When I started my first gym battle, I was extremely hyped to take down that filthy Team Valor Raticate with my Team Mystic Hypno. After realizing that I had to be tapping and swiping really fast in battles, my Hypno attacked when I told it to dodge, he stayed put in place and used his special attack when I told him to do the fast attack, and he almost gave up the fight once due to a poorly placed forfeit button. Never did I think my own Hypno could betray me like this.

 Pokémon battling at a gym.

For a game that limits gestures to mostly taps on the world view, I was quite stunned by how many different gestures there are in the actual Pokémon battles. You’ve got your simple tap to attack, tap-and-hold to perform special attack, and swipe left or right to dodge. But you’d never know it without reading an online guide! There’s no tutorial, no hints or tips; really, no guidance at all!

It seems fine on paper, but once you see the extremely fast pace at which these battles take place, you start to notice the problems. The app, in its launch state, isn’t very responsive or fluid. It’s being plagued by constant server issues and unstable location tracking. Even gesture recognition feels broken. Forcing a system like this to respond to three different unique gestures per second is like forcing a propeller plane to go faster by gluing jet thrusters on to its tailfin.

To me, it feels like the design goal was to reward skilled players with the best reaction times in the battles. The problem, though, is that the game physically can’t keep up with how fast people are dodging and attacking. My swipes and taps were apparently too fast for the game. (Or else that’s how I have justified it to make myself feel better about being beaten by a twelve year-old.) I was forced to adjust my timing to match the game was capable of supporting.

Instead of forcing users to adapt to the game, the battle system could simply be less reliant on twitch gestures and more reliant on strategic play. All battles in the Pokémon video games are turn-based, kind of like chess. The opponent makes a move, then you make a move. It may feel less intense and frantic as the Pokémon Go battles currently do, but this way, at least the game does exactly what you want it to do. In the interest of time, maybe put a ten-second limit on your turn, or else your battling Pokémon will just fall back on their primary attack. Niantic Labs could definitely find a way to make turn-based battling work if they really wanted to. Countless other mobile games have done this to great effect, and I do think it is worthwhile to try.

Understanding the intention of a mobile product is critical to creating a good user experience. If you don’t know what the product is trying to achieve, you’re doomed to fail at execution. Sadly, the battling system in Pokémon Go leaves a lot to be desired because of what feels like a basic misunderstanding of the goal of Pokémon battling as a core concept. Being a Pokémon master is about knowing all the types, their resistances and weaknesses, the power of moves, when to hit hard and fast or when to take it slow and easy. Quick swiping and tapping has never been a part of the Pokémon ethos, and it doesn’t make sense for it to start being that way now. (And I’m not just saying that to give myself a huge advantage, either.)

Affordances in the App UI

In spite of my issues with the game’s UX, the UI is actually pretty good. It’s got a very pleasant color palette, there’s some nice entry/exit animations, and good use of mobile design patterns.

Pokémon list menu shown on the left and the "Nearby" tab shown on the right.

      The list of Pokémon, in particular, is really well done. You get to see all the vital information about each Pokémon you have at a glance. You can also sort by various stats. The “Nearby” tab on the world map is excellent as well, incentivizing players to roam around their general area hunting for that elusive Gengar or Dragonite.

 The current menu screen.

There’s still a bit of room for improvement, though. When you tap the Pokéball from the world map, a menu flies out, taking over the entire screen. Since there are only four options there, this is entirely unnecessary. Covering the map with a takeover experience for a simple menu is not the best UX here; partially hidden drawer that you can pull up from the bottom of the screen would work much better in this instance.

Furthermore, players most frequently jump right to the “Pokémon” tab when they open up the menu. An even better reason to simply have “Pokémon” as the default first tab when the nav drawer opens up from the bottom. Allowing quick, one-tap access to the most frequently used menu item is the goal. Shown below is one potential implementation of this, where we have a partially visible navigation drawer peeking out from the bottom of the screen. When you want to see your list of Pokémon, you simply swipe it up (or, alternatively, just tap it) and it brings up all your Pokémon. The benefit here is that you now have quick access to your items, the shop, as well as the pokédex. Dismissing this is as easy as swiping it back down, a gesture that’s a lot simpler and quicker than targeting an oddly placed close button at the bottom middle of the screen.

 My mockups of what a navigation drawer and redesigned menu might look like. 


 Detail view of a Hypno.

The detail view of each Pokémon is also a really beautiful screen. Every Pokémon type has its own effect in the background. Fire types get flame embers on a red/orange background, water types get bubbles on an underwater seascape, and psychic types get a dazzling hypnotic purple starburst.

It looks great and adds a level of immersion not present in the video games, where all we have to represent Pokémon types is a small unassuming rounded rectangle colored with the type and labeled with its name. This screen could still, though, use some improvements.

For instance, did you know that you can simply swipe left and right to see the detailed view of the previous or next Pokémon? If you did, you likely discovered it accidentally (or you use Tinder way too much). Not too many players know about this because it’s not visually obvious here that they can do this. These players will hit the close button and tap on the next Pokémon instead.

 When you swipe left or right you move to the next Pokémon in your inventory, but it's difficult to tell this without any indicator. 

A common practice here to let the user know that there are cards to the left and right of the card currently in view is to partially reveal a tiny glimpse of the previous and next cards to the left and right edges of the screen. Even a tiny ten pixels peeking out helps reinforce the notion that the user is currently viewing one of many cards in a swipeable list. By the way, you can do this in the detailed views of gyms as well.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

I could go on and on about the other areas of the app that could benefit from better button placement or quicker access to inventory items. The system of holding gyms and receiving daily rewards deserves a blog post entirely to itself. But I can’t stay here writing while there’s a Golduck just around the block, so I’ll wrap up.

All critiques aside, I actually love the app. For all its UX problems, unresponsive gestures, and odd UI choices, I still think that it works well and feels good. The end goal was to recreate the original magic of capturing Pokémon that we all felt twenty years ago when Red and Blue came out, but this time in the real world. People have been asking for a game like this for literally decades now, and it’s finally a reality. No game is without its flaws, and this one certainly has its problems, but the core experience of exploring, capturing, leveling, and battling is as strong as ever.

I also believe that Niantic made some clever choices by not revealing all of the game’s features and mechanics at launch. Some of it feels like it was simply poor design choices, but other aspects feel very intentional in order to encourage people to discover secrets and share it by word-of-mouth; such as getting Pikachu as your starter by rejecting the three options, or using Lucky Eggs while evolving  all your Pidgeys for double the experience points before transferring them. The game’s launch itself was kind of a surprise, as it simply appeared on the app store without much of an announcement. Even then, it’s already the #1 top downloaded and top grossing app on the App Store.

This just goes to show the power of Pokémon. There’s not enough room here to write down every encounter I’ve had with random strangers on the street walking around trying to catch that Rhydon. There’s not enough time to sit back and wonder about how far the franchise has come since its early days. There’s not enough of my mind to be blown by what an epic transmedia experience Pokémon has been throughout my entire life. There’s not enough Zubats in my Pokémon storage. I’m gonna go catch ‘em all!

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Topics: Mobile, Design, Pokémon