Since its release on July 6th, Pokémon Go has steadily risen to the top of the App Store charts in almost every conceivable metric. Just four weeks since its release, some 20 million Pokémon Trainers log into the app daily to catch new Pokémon and grow their collection. But what is the root of this explosive growth? Certainly, a large part of it is due to the wave of Pokémon nostalgia that the game has generated. However, Pokémon Go’s ability to pull in more and more users each week, even a month after its release, is due to more than just its branding. Throughout this post I’ll highlight some of the ingenious usability and design choices made by Niantic that elevate this game from a novelty gimmick to the cultural phenomenon it has become.
You teach me, and I’ll teach you.
One of the most important high-level design choices for any product or service is how much complexity to present the user with. Many of the modern industry leaders such as Google and Apple gained their popularity by simplifying their competitors’ more complicated designs, making them much more accessible and intuitive. This simplification, however, can come at a cost; the less there is to learn, the less there is to actually do. That translates to less ability to hold people’s attention, which for a free-to-play game like Pokémon Go that makes most of its money from microtransactions rather than a one-time cost, is a very dangerous prospect.
So how did Niantic solve this dilemma? It certainly seems to have the best of both worlds, having managed to build a huge user base despite some incredibly complicated and unintuitive systems. The answer is that they understand how to design the same app for wildly different users.
To begin with, they only present players with the most basic level of gameplay when they start – the simple act of catching Pokémon. This is a fairly intuitive process which is supported by a brief tutorial. As soon as the users catch their first Pokémon they’re presented with a page full of grey silhouettes, only one of which is filled out. The message is clear: there are hundreds more Pokémon out there to catch. And for a large portion of Pokémon Go’s user base, that’s all the game they’ll ever need. The simple act of building your collection is a satisfying one, and Niantic understands that some of its users won’t care about the systems they layer on top of it.
They also understand, however, that some users will want a bit more to dig into than just catching Pokémon. So how do they present the users who want to go beyond that basic gameplay with more complicated systems, without alienating the players who simply want to build out their collection? Simply put, they don’t. The tutorial only covers the basics of catching Pokémon, and everything else is left up to the players to discover on their own.
This may seem counterintuitive, as leaving something unexplained typically only makes it more confusing. By leaving additional systems out of the basic tutorial, Niantic allows players to organically discover the parts of the game that will appeal to them. Players will only ever need to engage in as much complexity as they want. For example, if you never select a gym on the world map, you will never be presented with an explanation of gym battling. This layering of complexity ensures that the game is enjoyable no matter how many of its systems you care to learn about.
Arm in arm, we’ll win the fight.
By this point it should be apparent that Pokémon Go’s tendency to get people talking about it, both on social media and in person, is no accident. Seemingly small design choices, like Pokémon not disappearing for everyone when caught by one person, transform what could have easily been a very isolating and even competitive game into one that encourages you to seek out fellow Pokémon Trainers.
Interestingly, the obvious features Niantic chose to leave out of Pokémon Go highlight their design philosophy just as readily as the ones which they chose to implement. Namely, there is no ability to directly communicate, trade, or otherwise interact with other players within the app itself. Any social interaction is done either face to face or through third party communities which means that, despite the game’s social focus, any direct social interactions are purely optional. Those who would prefer to avoid interacting with others, or even just take them at their own pace, will never feel as if they’re missing out on important features or worse, being forced into social interaction they didn’t seek out.
I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was.
So far I’ve highlighted several design choices that worked out well for Niantic, but that does not mean that the game is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Like any application, Pokémon Go launched with aspects of the design that didn’t quite meet the intended standards. However, Niantic has been quick to fix these issues as they become apparent.
For example, one of the most popular complaints was that the button for transferring Pokémon (a task at the heart of evolving Pokémon and thus one most users will do many times) was hidden away at the bottom of a long page, making it awkward to transfer multiple Pokémon at a time. This has been rectified, as the transfer button is now in the bottom right corner and scrolls with the user. Similarly, Niantic was quick to realize that they hadn’t taken rural users into account in their designs given that the vast majority of Pokéstops were in urban areas. Since this left rural users starving for Pokéballs and in some cases unable to play the game for long stretches of time, Niantic began a long process of adding more Pokéstops to areas outside of cities.
More than anything this shows that Niantic understands one of the most important realities of design in our current day: It’s not a step, it’s a constant process. User experience isn’t something that will ever be ‘complete’. There will constantly be unforeseen use cases, shifts in user goals, and areas where you can improve your designs. No matter what your product or service is, it won’t launch perfectly. Constant iteration, both before and after launch, is how to hone your design into a satisfying and intuitive experience that will keep users coming back for more.
Ultimately, no single factor is solely responsible for the success of Pokémon Go. Without the Pokémon name, it’s unlikely that this game would have reached the level of mass recognition that it currently has. But Pokémon Go’s success lies in the fact that it was ready to meet that surge of popularity with intelligently targeted and constantly iterated design. After all, there’s no debating that the game has more than met its goals of promoting outdoor activity and building community. From people setting up real life Pokéstops to animal shelters creating special ‘Pokémon Go’ walking programs, it’s clear that Pokémon Go’s elegant design not only shaped the game itself for the better, but is affecting the real world in a powerful, positive way.