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How mobile UX design and development can learn from the game of chess

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Antoine Aymer, Strategic Portfolio Director, Sogeti

The game of chess, arguably one of the most popular games in the history of the world, has persisted over the centuries because of its elegance and deceptive simplicity. The rules and the win conditions are simple, but the strategy is endlessly complex. It's a game that stretches every mindset, encouraging the most creative players to think rationally and the most rational ones to think creatively.

As someone who is very passionate about chess—for instance, I created the first online chess tournament at HP—I can't help but think about how it relates to my life. On the professional front, I believe chess is rich with analogies to building a great digital experience for mobile users. As in chess, great UX designers and developers must experiment, plan, analyze variation, understand the opponent's position, and learn from experience.

I believe that if people working on mobile UX learned a little bit from the chess world, they could actually improve the satisfaction and engagement with their mobile apps. Here's how.

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The possibilities are endless

If people working on mobile UX learned a little bit from the chess world, they could actually improve the satisfaction and engagement with their mobile apps.

First of all, it is important to remember that the possibilities for a potential mobile user experience are endless. Similarly, the number of possible chess moves and counters within a game are staggering. According to one of the most well-respected estimates, the number of potential game scenarios is somewhere along the lines of 10120 possibilities.

When it comes to the mobile user experience, the variables involved create a complex tree of possibilities that can be difficult to account for.

The complexities start with device fragmentation, which includes all the different device characteristics, operating systems, and form factors, different memory, CPU, and configurations—all of which can make a single application behave differently for an endless number of users. Add to that the operating system variabilities, the various applications fighting to get access to the device, the status of network connectivity or geolocation, and the vast arrays of user context in which the app is being used and it becomes clear that developers are facing a nearly infinite number of computations to think about.

This level of complexity requires developers to bring to the table systematic thinking, a deep understanding of common scenarios, and a degree of creativity to win the game of user satisfaction.  

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Importance of a flexible game plan

To some degree, all chess players are artists and so, too, are developers. Developers must design both useful and elegant apps to keep users happy. Users expect mobile apps to work seamlessly, regardless of their choice of technology, location, or context. At the same time, the user experience is emotional and is driven by how individual users think, perceive, and feel. Delivering such an exceptional experience is kind of like planning a chess masterpiece. It requires both detailed planning and flexibility. Any aspect of user experience that isn't planned for, measured, tracked, and designed can lead to user frustration and app abandonment.

This level of complexity requires systematic thinking, a deep understanding of common scenarios, and a degree of creativity to win the game of user satisfaction.  

Nothing is ever static with mobile apps. They need to survive constant, ongoing changes of the runtime environment, new devices, and new operating system releases. While releasing a new version of your app, you have to constantly be on the alert for immediate dangers or opportunities that can radically change the game. Ignore one aspect of the user experience and hours of hard work can turn to dust.

As you're adjusting your game plan to the most current conditions, I recommend you think like a chess player. In chess, threats come in various forms and go well beyond being a simple matter of capture or checkmate, including:

  • Positional threats
  • Threats of an unfavorable trade in capture
  • Threats of introducing a serious weakness in your camp

Like very good chess players, developers must make their UX moves based on who their users are. 

When playing chess, you look for weak points in your opponent’s position and find a way to attack them. When you are building a quality app, you have to look for weak points in the user experience and find a way to address them.

Understanding your opponent's mindset

One of the biggest mistakes that amateur chess players make is coming up with a brilliant game plan without considering any of their opponent's tendencies. These players struggle because they dance and play in putting some chess pieces on the chessboard, but they're not thinking of a long-term plan and how to play according to the opponent, and thus benefiting from their opponent's weaknesses.

Like very good chess players, developers must make their UX moves based on who their users are and how they're likely to act. This means understanding the context they're working in:

  • Are they likely to be using the app outside where it is raining?
  • Is it going to be in a hospital room during surgery?
  • Or is it going to be used mostly by people in a garage?
  • Is accessibility an issue?
  • Are these users visually impaired?

These are all the kinds of variables that not only developers, but also testers, can forget when thinking about UX design. In order to truly understand the user, both developers and testers need to understand and measure the end user's experience and context so that they can build the right thing for their core user base.

Both developers and testers need to understand and measure the end user's experience. Of course, that's easier said than done. 

How mobile analytics can help

Of course, that's easier said than done. Many developers have a hard time truly getting into the minds of their users because they have very little data or information to inform their decisions. This is why developers need to investigate mobile analytics on every level—the application behavior level, the app store level, and the device level—to really understand how to enhance the tailoring of their work to the user base.

All too often, developers decide to deliver on a feature based on flawed assumptions of who the users are and waste a sprint when it turns out it is something users don't want. Analytics help avoid that scenario.

Making time for your endgame

Another way chess and mobile UX design are similar is the element of time. In competitive chess, nearly every match is bound by time, though the amount of time varies by match. Similarly, every development project is governed by a time variable.

Chess strategy is ultimately governed by three parts: your opening, your middle game, and your endgame. When I play a chess game, I always try to be conscious of my time and think ahead so that I have allocated time for all of the stages of play. There's a very good parallel here to UX development, because in chess many players dedicate far too much time on their opening and middle game and leave no time for their endgame. In UX development, this rushing of the endgame is also a common occurrence, namely when developers fail to leave time for UX testing and feedback.

When mobile developers plan for their allotted time, they need to allocate enough of it to get the proper feedback from end users on the design, the overall human sentiment on using the app, and also on the traditional functional testing, performance testing, and security testing. Failing to do so ultimately puts the whole game in jeopardy.

Look for small improvements

Just as in chess, there is no single right way to achieve a win in mobile UX design and development. Developers should remember that great chess players are always looking for small improvements rather than significant material advantages when playing out their games. So, too, should developers. Developers should be ready to experiment and grab tiny advantages that give them the opportunity to gradually improve the user experience, one move at a time.

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