Planning Ahead

Know your data.

I have an XM Satellite Radio that displays the first sixteen characters of an artist’s name or a song title. Most often, I have to guess at what the name of the song is from listening to lyrics that match the first sixteen characters. It’s quite annoying. Why do they do this? I don’t know. Perhaps earlier screen models could only fit sixteen characters. That’s fine. Why didn’t they broadcast the full length of the name and then scroll it? Future-proof your tagging for displays like mine that can clearly display more than sixteen characters.

We do this all the time in designing interfaces for games. We make decisions based on ease of implementation over more customer-facing metrics. We design screens where your character can only have a name five letters long. Or we let it be as long as you want it to be and then we truncate it into some abomination of the name you entered when we decide it doesn’t fit. Or we don’t let you enter special characters or numbers when they really wouldn’t hurt.

Etrian Odyssey 2 only lets character names be eight characters long. This is mildly annoying when you want to name a character Aristotle and he can only be Aristotl. Character naming is important in Etrian because you can have dozens of characters that you need to tell apart by name. A smartly designed UI could have allowed for longer character names when there was room (menus) and truncated names when there wasn’t (battle screens). All this would take from the user’s POV is showing the user what the name will look like when fully displayed and abbreviated before they confirm, thus avoiding truncation surprises like in the shot above. But doing this takes time.

Or they could assume that it isn’t important and take the easy way out. With so much involved in making a game, we usually take the easy way out whenever it is presented. But if you don’t know your data, how can you weigh the importance of losing flexibility?

The point is: If you think you will only need five characters, think again, you’ll probably need ten. If you think you will only need sixteen characters, think again, you’ll probably need thirty-two. If you can’t fit more than sixteen, then figure out how you will handle situations with more than sixteen characters. Will it happen? Does it matter? Do you have a plan?

In XM’s case:

  • Will it happen? Yes, many bands and songs have names longer than sixteen characters. Get an engineer to do a quick study of all the songs in your database and see how many are longer than sixteen characters.
  • Does it matter? The purpose of displaying tags is to let the user know exactly what he or she is listening to. The farther away you get from showing the full title, the farther we get away from that goal. Yes, it matters.
  • Do you have a plan? Truncation is a plan, but if XM knew their data, they would have easily understood that it is insufficient. Truncating leads to frustrated users who don’t know what song they are listening to (and isn’t that the fundamental reason for the display? Can you imagine someone looking for a band called “The White Stripe” after listening to this song?) and gaffes like “The Hardest Butt*”.

*I wonder what kind of Google keyword hits I’ll get in the next month with that phrase.

One thought on “Planning Ahead”

  1. Your screen has plenty of space there too, so that’s not an issue. What we tend to do in space-limited situations is provide enough space for what the “normal” use case, and then squish it horizontally if someone decides to put in a name of “WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWMW” or something stupid like that. It can become somewhat unreadable in extreme cases on standard-def displays, but if you can’t read your own player’s name because the characters are too wide, then it’s your own fault.

    But because the band and the song title are both 16 characters then I’m guessing they simply limit it to 32 bytes of PAD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Program-associated_data) per song. The only thing I can think of to make this sort of acceptable is that they have to broadcast enough information for all of the channels and songs playing all of the time, so that a receiver turned on at any point can get it. But I, for one, wouldn’t mind waiting a few more seconds in order to see the entirety of a song’s name.

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