Pokémon Go: Designing digital and physical boundaries

Written by: Lisa Fu

As Pokémon Go’s initial splash subsides, we analyse the implications the game has had on the importance of iterations, as well as how the digital interfaces with the physical world.

It’s different from your regular joe smart phone game

Let’s start off with an important but obvious distinction. Pokémon Go’s purpose is to encourage the player to interact with the physical world around them through a digital interface. This is different from applications in the traditional mobile medium, where the interaction is generally with a digitally created world through a digital interface. This active connection and interaction with the physical world highlights an evolving problem in the world of design: how the digital interface affects the user beyond the screen. 

Placing blame on game repercussions

Interaction with the physical world through the digital interface of our smartphone impacts our visual and hearing capacity. By now we’ve all heard of most of the positive and conversely, unfortunate repercussions from Pokémon Go’s gameplay. While people may be blaming themselves for succumbing to injury while skateboarding and playing, many designers would disagree with placing blame on human error:

Human error usually is a result of poor design: it should be called system error. Humans err continually; it is an intrinsic part of our nature. System design should take this into account. Pinning the blame on the person may be a comfortable way to proceed, but why was the system ever designed so that a single act by a single person could cause calamity?” – Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things.

The app’s iterative updates have certainly been both pre-emptive and reactionary to some of the human errors that have unfolded from players. They serve as an implication that there is still a way to go in terms of fine-tuning this physical and digital symbiosis. There are a few features and recent updates to the game that provide examples of this.

1.The best there ever was
The Augmented Reality feature makes it captivating for players to see the Pokémon they hope to catch in context. But for practicality’s sake, it is usually more efficient to catch Pokémon with ‘AR’ turned off. That way the Pokémon isn’t moving around at every angle and is easier to catch.

So on the one hand we have this realistic experience being enhanced by own organic human movements. But on the other hand, we might want to be a bit more precise and mechanical in our technique so that we can catch ‘em all.


Read some other tips and tricks here.

Image source here.

2. Boundaries of human error
The app’s 0.33.0 update saw various cautionary messages pop up, encouraging safety while playing. But what are the limits to designing for safety? We can do our best to caution players. However, they are ultimately their own decision makers. Even if we were to make decisions for the player as a safety measure, this might go against their intentions. So there is the issue of what is an ethical decision to make on behalf of the user.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t still be influential as designers though. We do have the power to make taking the safer choice an easy one, or letting the user know they have options available so that they can take them if they need to. As much as bad design can prevent users from taking options they want, good design can enable.


3. Eyes free
If your visual capacity is being taken up by peering at your phone instead of ensuring you move through your surroundings safely, there was an eyes free option of the Pokémon Go smart watch. While it is sold out, the fact that it is an option, coupled with the unfortunate accidents players have been encountering in the physical world, indicates that there is a need to free up our attention when interacting with this digital medium. There is a balance to be struck with dividing our attention between moving through the real world, and this digital alternate reality map that doesn’t show us where obstacles may be. Much like being hands free when driving, is there an equivalent standard when it comes to our sight?

Importance of iteration

Pokémon Go intertwines the digital and physical, and allows technologies like augmented and alternative reality to become more of an everyday experience. We understand that continuous iterative testing and user validation remains essential to mitigating poor user experience, especially in designing within an unfamiliar space.

Leonardo da Vinci said: “Art is never finished, only abandoned”.

We share this sentiment through our UX methodology at Bourne Digital, where we strive for continuous improvement, which reaches beyond implementation and delivery of the product. 

For deeper insight into our design ethos at Bourne Digital, you can check out our methodology in our UX playbook. Email us info@bournedigital.com.au if you would like a copy.