The UI is a Tool
Aug 17, 2009
~3 minute read

I witnessed an interesting conversation tonight in the regional chat of one of the MMORPGs I currently play. Most of the conversation was centered around one particular individual and those responding to him, regarding the matter of unit frames. (For those of you not familiar with the term, “unit frames” are the portions of an MMORPG interface that display status info for players - a.k.a. “health/mana bars,” et cetera.)

This particular gentleman was arguing that unit frames (in particular, a certain grid-layout unit frame addon) are bad for healers because they distract them from the battlefield, thus reducing their awareness of the happenings around them. Thus, the player argued, healers “playing whack-a-mole on unit frames” would wind up being sub-par healers because they’d spend more time trying to figure out who was within line of sight and range than they would healing, not to mention having no preemptive knowledge of who might soon be needing heals. While it is true that battlefield awareness is a key trait in a good healer, and while it is also true that the best way to gain battlefield awareness is to look around and see what’s actually going on, I feel that the player arguing that unit frames are bad may have missed a crucial point:

The UI is a tool.

Tools by themselves have very little significance. A tool only has an effect if it is used, and the effect itself is entirely dependent upon how the tool is used. A tool can be put to terrible use, but the same tool in different hands can also be put to incredible use. Unit frames are a tool for information and interaction. They provide the status of one’s group in a concise and organized format, something that the battlefield does not. Furthermore, they provide a static location from which group members can be selected - far easier to click than a moving avatar in the game world.

The key here is to realize that unit frames (and the UI in general) are only as distracting as you let them be. If you choose to only look at unit frames, or similarly to only look at the game world, you are knowingly crippling your own sources of information. If, on the other hand, you can find a workable balance between time spent checking unit frames and time spent watching the flow of battle around yourself, then the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts - not only can you recognize things like who’s about to be hurt (from watching the movements on the battlefield) but you can also recognize things like when it’s time to pull back (because your unit frames show you that half of the group that was behind you just got hit hard by the flanking force you hadn’t seen coming).

If anything, it’s for this reason that some of the most popular unit frames are those which are concise: they’re easy to read at a glance, and thus give the best information gain from short glances, allowing more time spent watching the battle. Good unit frames are the ones you look at the least - not because they’re unhelpful, but because it’s so fast to comprehend them that you’re finished before you know it. Good tools are efficient, and when it comes to informational tools, efficiency is all in how quickly you can comprehend the most data.

When it comes down to it, results are what matters, not what UI you use. Some people will find one style or another most comfortable. That said, don’t be too quick to dismiss UI features as “bad” (or unilaterally herald them as “good”) without considering how they’re used.

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