A user interface (UI) can help or hurt gameplay, and so we should do what we can to make sure it is helping. In this guide I will discuss some principles and practices for good UI design.
The picture above was posted at Elitist Jerks (click it for the link), and as such I figured it was open for public consideration. I offer it as a reason why simply writing (or reading) a post about good addons is not enough. You can include useful addons in your UI as this hunter did, but you have to pay attention to how the various UI elements fit together or you will get what this UI’s creator calls clutter. I think clutter is one reason (a good one) why it can be helpful to read a guide for UI design in addition to reading one about addon selection.
I’ll discuss resources and sources for addons later on. If you don’t know what addons are, you should scroll down to “resources” now, though. For those of you that are still here, lets begin by looking at some basic principles.
Virtues of a Good UI Design
These virtues, I believe, show why UI design can be important for endgame huntering. Just as good dashboard is essential for informed driving and a well-devised and configured browser can really streamline surfing the internet, a good UI can do wonders for your gameplay. Its doing wonders will likely depend upon these things:
- You should be able to easily see all information that you need to play the game well.
- Your UI elements should work to not merely complement but actually improve each other.
- All else held constant, the less time you have to take or the less work you have to do to perform a task, the better. Also, the fewer UI elements you can use to do the same work with the same quality of work, the better.
- Your UI should consistently display the same information in the same ways so that your sources of information are reliable .
- Given that the other virtues are met, seeing more of the game environment is better than seeing more interface text or textures.
- A beautiful UI will likely improve your enjoyment of the game and so may indirectly aid your in-game performance.
Virtues of a Good UI Design Process
- Try out different addons that do the same thing while using different configurations of them. Do this in your desired environment (raids, arenas). Only by trial and error and exploring unknowns will you figure out what really works for you.
- Constant Fine Tuning
- Great UIs are not just made from choosing the best addons. They are also made from long periods of thinking about and fine tuning settings, from configuring your UI for all the situations you plan to be in (not just the one you’re in while configuring), and from fully exploring your addons’ capabilities.
- Learning from Others
- You won’t be able to discover all the best addons and configurations yourself, so take advantage of the wealth of resources out there. I’ll link to some later on in the post.
- Creative Spirit
- It helps if you can make the design process a fun and challenging one.
Since we are human, our pursuit of these sets of virtues will always be constrained by other things, such as . . .
- Your Resources
- Do you have the time, knowledge, motivation, computing power, etc., to potentially make a UI that is better than the one you have?
- The Default UI
- This is where all UIs start from and so it is our baseline. Any changes we make should strive to be an improvement upon the default UI. Since the default is good in many ways, in some cases it may not be worth the extensive change given the other practical concerns listed here.
- Your Goals
- When designing a UI, have personal goals and not just the general virtues I’ve mentioned in mind. Do you want a UI that is better for raiding? PVP?
- Your Gameplay and Tastes
- We’re eccentric, fun-loving human beings. Because our UIs should fit us, its okay to have a UI that sometimes deviates from the virtues above, especially if going after the virtues stops the game from being enjoyable.
- Your Hardware Setup
- Your mouse, keyboard, screen size, computing power and other out-of-game factors will influence the UI you make.
- In-Game Conditions
- Does your guild require certain addons? Does your server type (RP, PVE, PVP) require or preclude some UI elements? What else in-game should be considered when redesigning your UI?
- Opportunity Costs
- Every expenditure we make, every addon we install, should be weighed against its viable alternatives. Given finite resources and choices, which option is the best?
- There will ultimately be things that matter for you that I did not think of or don’t fit into a broad list.
Having gone over what factors should or do shape a UI design process, lets move on to more practical things, like ways of actuallying setting stuff up on the screen.
Principles for UI Design
These principles are not comprehensive, but they should serve as a good springboards.
Centralization: This strategy entails moving the most important UI elements (health bars, cooldowns, threat indicators, etc.) to the center of the screen around the character. It has the corollary of moving less important UI elements away from the center or out of visibility/usage entirely.
This technique has several advantages. It reduces the work that your eyes have to do. Not only do you eyes have to travel less between the elements that you look at most, but you can also watch things together. For instance, you can watch your castbar and your cooldowns at the same time, as opposed to having to glance back and forth between them. However, it also has important disadvantages. If not controlled, it can add a whole bunch of things into a small space, making for confusion. As such, it may help to think of centralization instead as radiation: UI elements should radiate away from the center by decreasing degrees of importance.
A common approach to centralization is to move the player and pet health bars to the left side of your character, target health and target cast bars to the right, and cooldown and debuff trackers to the character’s feet. The areas of the screen that you most want to be showing the game environment (your character and the area above your character) are left clear, save perhaps for raiding warnings. A threat indicator and the player cast bar are also located centrally.
Juxtaposition: While centralization considers frame placement relative to the edges and middle of the screen, juxtaposition considers frame placement relative to other frames. That is, it looks at which frames should be kept together, and which frames can remain separate or even far apart.
Consider juxtaposing those things that you look at together. Your castbar and your cooldowns are usefully juxtaposed. However, also consider the things that you or Blizzard put together that do not have to be. Such things can make room for better juxtaposition and/or centralization. For instance, just because Blizzard places your buffs with your minimap in the upper righthand corner, it does not mean that those things have to be together. Some buffs, especially buffs like trinket procs, heroism, etc., can justifiably be placed in more readily seen places.
Multitasking: Screen space is finite, and so the more work you can have one UI element do while preserving the virtues of UI design, the better. Multitasking can include having the something provide multiple measures of the same quantity; for instance, a frame tracking target health could have total health, percentage health, and a quick-glance health via a shrinking bar. However, multitasking can also include showing two different things in the same space. Having your pets health bar change color with happiness or showing your latency on your cast bar are examples of this. Do your best to keep your multitasking intuitive and sensible, though. Just because you can have your health bar change color when you take agro, it does not mean that that is the best way of tracking threat.
Emphasis and Deemphasis: Emphasis is the idea that you want to make something visible or otherwise salient proportional to its importance. You can emphasize something in obvious ways, such as by making it big or a bright color. However, also consider that you can emphasize via contrast. Having your empty mana volume be a contrastive color from your remaining mana may go in the face of “beauty,” but you’ll know from merely seeing a huge chunk of orange in your peripheral vision that you’ll soon have to go into Viper.
Emphasis can also be achieved through redundancies. Consider having information about the most important things come from more than one source. Having a sound and a visual warning for taking ago (or, better yet, the condition of being about to take agro) can be useful enough to justify the extra UI element.
Emphasis is a natural partner to deemphasis. Many things that you still want to see can be shrunk, grayed, made click-through, made transparent, have their custom tooltip removed, be disabled in combat, etc. Long-duration buffs, for example, are very important but do not need to be front and center during fights because they are effectively constants. It is the variable measures that you have control over or need to respond to during a fight that should be emphasized in your UI; the constants merely need to be understood and min-maxed before each fight.
Reshaping: Making the same stuff look different is perhaps the most obvious function that UI mods perform. Nevertheless, we should still consider reshaping. The visual appearance of your UI elements can have a huge impact on all of the UI virtues mentioned above and the principles mentioned already. Reshaping can make the finite possibilities of UI design much more infinite: the possibilities for juxtaposition, contrast and centralization increase, as does the potential for many of the virtues of a good UI. Did you know that you can get verticle health bars via a heads up display (HUD)? Did you know you can configure Omen to show only your threat bar and percentage? Did you know your actionbars can be resized and columned?
I have tried to describe good UI design as well as I can with words, but sometimes words benefit from the addition of pictures. Below I will discuss example UIs from several hunters. I stress that they are illustrative examples, and I will not say whether they are on the whole good or bad. They were posted on the EJ forums, and so I take it that they are free for public scrutiny. Clicking on the pictures should transfer you to their respective EJ posts (where you’ll also find lists of the addons they used); if you want just the pictures, follow their caption URLs.
This UI was made with minimal modifications. That is not in itself a bad thing. After all, this UI apparently works for its hunter as she is doing 7.6k on Northrend Beasts. It preserves the default buff, minimap, player, target, focus, tooltip and chat frames. The hunter appears to have largely changed the UI when she felt it needed more information. When it comes to buff and cooldown tracking this looks to have been a reasonably good thing. However, what I find odd more than anything else is the huge scrolling text area showing healing and mana gain spam. This information has little utility in my opinion; even if it is desired, it could be presented in a more useful way, such as in a linear scrolling area or by making incoming heals register on a modified player health bar.
This UI exemplifies how far you can go away from the default UI while still providing yourself with the information you need. Instead of making a colored periphery of UI elements as the default UI does, this design places everything into two largely monochromatic and asymmetrically situated columns. This UI also illustrates how the principles and recommendations I’ve suggested do not lead to a single UI; good, useful UIs come in all shapes and sizes.
Here is centalization and reshaping working together. This hunter uses a heads up display (HUD) to arc his or her (I’ll just say her) player and target bars around the character on the screen. She also uses Power Auras to indicate particular occurrences instead of buff or debuff bars. This makes for a radically different display of the area around the character and allows the player to keep their eyes right on their character much more than if they were always glancing to the edges of the screen for health and debuffs.
This post is a good example of parsimony; its author has put a lot of work into displaying as much of the game environment as possible while still including important information. Also notice how some elements are grayed out or made semi-transparent, while more essential sources of information, like the health bars, really stand out. At the same time, I think more work on emphasis could be done; it is hard to tell the player’s threat at a glance because the player’s threat bar in Omen is the same look and color as everyone else’s.
So you can see that I practice what I preach, here is my UI as a final example. It is still a work in progress (and will continue to be). As such, I welcome your comments.
It is shown in full unlocked/configuration mode so that you can see as much as possible where I have everything. Because of that, it looks a bit ugly, so I’d like to say that when I actually play with it, it is useful and fairly elegant. I use Shadowed Unit Frames for all my health bars and target, player, pet and focus frames. I use NeedToKnow for my debuff and mend pet trackers (it’s a shame that it’s no longer updated because it is so slick and is the embodiment of consistency). NeedToKnow does not track internal cooldowns, though, and so I use Sexycooldown for that. Recount displays the damage done and a heavily modified Omen displays my threat. I have two areas of Mik Scrolling Battle Text for notifications and warnings. I used Bartender to move and reshape my action bars. In the open space in the bottom right I have Blizzard’s default quest pane. I have also left the minimap and the chat window largely intact.
For all the basics, see wow.com’s guide. It talks about what addons are, where to find them and how to install them. There is also this guide to finding and installing addons and this one for sources of addons.
Most of your learning, though, should come from experimentation. Reading about UIs and their design is one thing, but actually making one is entirely different (and a lot more fun I think). If you have any comments or questions, please do add them below.