Industry Research – Alex Bellingham

For a recent essay, I was required to interview industry professionals to get some insights into the gaming industry. After exploring the responses, I wanted to review Alex Bellingham’s answers in a little more depth. 

Alex currently works as a freelance UX/UI designer. He worked for Sony Playstation defining UI practices for VR that have now been adopted by most VR studios. Since leaving there he has ventured into designing UI for VR, web and mobile for companies such as Red Bull, IBM, CT, Cisco and Burberry.

1. Please can you give a brief introduction about yourself? (years in industry, companies, roles, and responsibilities)

I’m Alex Bellingham and I’m a Senior UX / UI Designer working across web, mobile, experiential & AR/VR. I worked for 5 years at Sony PlayStation defining best practices for VR UI on PlayStation VR; these would then be adopted by many of the VR development studios to use in their own experiences.

Since I left around 4 years ago I transitioned into designing UX & UI for web / mobile / experiential – as well as VR / AR – experiences working with clients such as Red Bull, IBM, BT, Cisco & Burberry.

2. Do you think that the games industry could be more inclusive when it comes to players with disabilities?

It’s hard to say for the games industry specifically as I haven’t worked in the industry for a number of years, however, I can speak as a gamer myself & most importantly as a designer for other experiences such as VR & Web / Mobile.

For me, there’s always room for inclusivity and in the current climate I’m finding more experiences are attempting to accommodate many types of disabled users. That said, it applies to a very broad spectrum which should probably be better defined because the severity of their disability can require much more work i.e visual impairment vs more physical disabilities.

I agree with Alex here that inclusivity as a whole is improving across the world. While I know that the gaming industry is becoming better at bridging the gap to disabled players, I feel that these allowances are more often made on the gameplay side rather than in interfaces and it makes me wonder how, as UI designers, we can do our part in helping disabled players.

3. Do you or your company currently do anything toward improving accessibility in games?

Again, I can’t answer for games, but many of the experiences I’ve worked on have been back and forth on the levels of accessibility that are able to be attained. There are two standards – at least in web design – AA and AAA. AA is relatively easy to achieve and as a best practice is what every designer should be aiming for regardless of platform. AAA however is very VERY difficult because it has an impact on the UX, Visual Design & implementation, so I’ve found many clients propose the AAA experience, then back out of it when they realise how much is involved and how limiting it is creatively. Without a doubt the experience can still be achieved, but there’s a lot more overhead involved & can drastically alter the initial concept, timeline and overall scope of work.

It is interesting to hear that there are levels to accessibility implementation, this is an entirely new concept to me as someone who has not yet progressed into the industry at a professional level. This is a very important point to consider in that intention and budget can cause huge clashes and that, even with the best will in the world, money will always be a limiting factor.

4. Do you personally think that player-based customisation through UI would be a valuable and achievable step in improving accessibility? (Y/N, please explain why)

100% Yes and I wish all games had the option to customise all aspects of UI. I also don’t think this is just a case of improving accessibility, but the overall experience too. There are so many things game devs can do to allow players to augment the player’s own individual experience and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t allow that to happen. For me, the biggest issue I’ve found is text size and it baffles me because it’s one of the simplest things to A. test for and B. implement a slider to change it.

One example that always springs to mind is Final Fantasy XIV and their level of UI customisation in being able to change not just the scale of UI elements, but their location too. This means that you not only accommodate the intended mental model that the dev wants you to experience, but it can also accommodate the mental model of the individual which is great for all users, especially those with disabilities.

I am so glad that Alex brought this up. It is comforting to know that someone in his position and with his experience not only agrees with my rationale but has seen functioning uses of elements of my concept. It is reassuring to know that companies are already making those steps where possible and that this area is one of such massive potential.

Whether it’s achievable or not is another question entirely. The thing with accessibility in gaming is that games are largely intended to be experienced for longer periods of time, whereas in a mobile app (non-game) or website users have a more specific goal. It relies heavily on other factors such as the capability of the team & the severity of their disability that you’re catering for i.e poor sight vs colour blindness vs single hand use. Depending on the size of the team, they may not have the capacity to implement and account for every use-case, then pair that with milestones, tight deadlines, budget restrictions & the most important part: user testing. User testing in itself is arguably the most important because you need to make sure the solutions you’re implementing are actually doing the job of being inclusive & accessible.

Alex is absolutely correct in this argument. While, in an ideal world, all games would cater to all disabilities, in reality this may be much harder to achieve. Studio size and budget will always work against accessibility as it is unfortunately still an afterthought rather than a priority. When designing a game there are so many steps that come before accessibility which means that it is often neglected by smaller studios who lack the resources to develop this aspect.

5. Do you have any ideas or suggestions on how we as an industry could be more inclusive to our disabled players?

I would suggest by doing as much research and planning as possible up front before development even begins. Figure out what users you’re designing for, which accessible features are achievable, how long it will take to implement, and how long it will take to test. The internet is full of disabled users of varying degrees and a quick YouTube search can find people to give you a lot of perspective on how they go about their daily lives with their disability. This can also provide resources to sites, apps etc that those people rely on which can be a great opportunity to take that success and apply it to your own project.

If this idea were to go into development, I would be doing as much research on these points as humanly possible. Unfortunately at the moment, it is just me working on this concept for my MA. I am limited by deadlines and numbers of people. With a huge team behind me, a longer timescale and the right funding, maybe this idea would become a reality. Unfortunately this is not possible at the moment and there are limits to my abilities and experience.

“Secondly, when it comes to the visual design, ensure that you have the bare bones of accessibility covered, i.e text size, scaling, colour contrast so that at the very least the key information is legible. In my experience, though, accessibility has been the fat that has often had to be shaved off the project in order to meet tight deadlines.”

So far I have already catered to the bare bones that Alex has listed above, this is reassuring to know that I am on the right track through my own research and design process. But, as I said above, budgets, staff and resources will always be an issue when it comes to this area, this is something I definitely need to consider before my final proposal.

Lastly – and maybe this is a bit controversial – but I think this is largely dependent on the context, project, and specific disability; sometimes you simply can’t make it inclusive. I think sometimes you have to consider that making something fully accessible can actually be detrimental to an experience. If you have a game that requires fast reaction times, do you make everything slower for that user? A game that requires you to frequently hold down multiple buttons at once, how do you then accommodate single handed users? What effect does that have on the creative, implementation & development side? I believe in some cases the question has to be asked; is it better to have a bad experience or no experience at all?

While this point is extremely controversial it is a very realistic consideration that must be made during the design process. With the best will in the world, sometimes you cannot please everyone and, while it is uncomfortable to think about, sacrifices are part of the job. I believe that, as long as every effort is being made and we, as designers, are striving to improve our games for all, we will be making steps in the right direction. And who knows, maybe one day our technology will improve to the point where these sacrifices no longer need to be made?

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