All about Minimum User Competency (and Nintendo's "Secret Sauce")

Beta 10/08. Please fix the typos! Thanks. WB

MUC Defined: The highest level of skill or competence that you must have in order to experience success with a particular IM experience. It is the designer's responsibility to understand the various types of abilities/competence that a novice child brings to the experience the first time, in order to make things work and feel competent with the task. Struggling with something challenging is OK; but it shouldn't be the control mechanisms, the login screen or the main menu.

The concept of Minimum User Competency (MUC) is essential for a children's interactive media designer to understand. Whether it is intentional or not, Nintendo's current game platforms have been designed with a low MUC threshold, consistently delivering experiences where the skills needed to get to the challenge are less than the challenge itself. Nintendo's mastery of MUC has resulted in more mass appeal.

Nintendo vs. Sony. Compare the controls required to use the Nintendo DS (NDS) with the Sony PSP. The lower screen on the DS is touch sensitive, which makes it easier for a designer to create experiences with a low MUC. Even a baby can jab at an item on the DS screen. But try making an interactive experience on a Sony PSP. So the NDS could be used by a baby, or any other individual functioning at a sensori-motor level; which includes many adults after they've met the frustration stage. The NDS also has a microphone, which makes it possible to link sounds with screen events, in such games as such as in Electroplankton.

Compare all three next-gen consoles -- the Wii, the Xbox 360 and the PS3, and you again see how the system gives designers more new ways to make things easy to use. Count the first five screens in any Xbox or Sony PS3, and you'll usually find the need to read and understand a 2D grid. The experience starts with the bottleneck of requiring you to press a 1/4 inch diameter button marked with an X; which is one of 16 possible buttons. With the Wii, if you can get your controller synced, you are greeted with a digital sandbox with over-sized picture icons that move when they are rolled over. Put in a disk, and no reading is required. The Wii holds out a hand to the novice and says "you're in control" before leading you into a game where you are challenged in the right way.

At the bad end of the MUC scale are computer operating systems made by Apple (Macintosh OSX) and Microsoft (Windows Vista). Both have cognitive and motor MUCs that can requiring reading ability, a 2D spatial thinking, and abstract thought. Using a two button mouse or a keyboard where one button can have three or more functions requires a lot of learning. A typical interactive media experience can be viewed from a variety of competency perspectives. Here's an attempt to list three, along with the associated continuum.

Input Device MUCs

Changing the orientation of a toy (e.g., bumping Elmo over, and righting him after he asks to be picked up)
Touch Screen, including the iPhone or (12 months and up)
Kinesthetic controls such as the Wii (2 years)
Tilting controls
Mouse (age 2.5 years)
Arrow keys (four years)
PlayStation 2 controller
Key combinations, such as control or function keys.

Cognitive MUCs The objects on the screen are representations, and not real (age 2)

Knowing that the cursor is "you."
Roll over the object can cause them to do things
The concept of clicking, selecting or entering
Reading directions
Figuring out how to switch between Windows

Fine and Gross Motor MUCs

Tilt the toy or object, or knock it over
Touch the screen
Ability to consistently hit a large target
Able to shift click
Able to hit a smaller target
Able to hold down two keys simultaneously, e.g., Control-Z or Control-Alt-Delete