JUST LET ME DRIVE

Taking a stab at improving the UX Design in Forza Motorsport 7

MATTI RICHOUX 28.03.2019

I like Forza Motorsport 7. It's an exciting and engaging racing game with the latest and greatest in cars, tracks, graphics - you name it. In fact, the core gameplay is great - it's a top notch car racing sim with plenty of challenges.
Shiny.
Sadly, the greatest challenge in Forza 7 presents itself before you're anywhere near the asphalt - namely, navigating its user interface without running out of patience. Forza Motorsport 7 suffers from some baffling choices in its UI.

As a UX designer, I like to find examples of good User Experience Design in products. This makes me a better designer, and gives me something to learn from. However, I also like to find examples of bad User Experience Design out there. We can learn from that too.

Forza 7 has taught me a fair bit.

In this article, I'll identify some of the bad aspects Forza Motorsport 7's User Experience Design. I'll solve its problems, and also talk a bit about the design principles behind my choices.

User research makes User Experience Design happen.
I feel it's important to point out that I make no distinction between myself as a designer and as a user in this article. In a 'real' scenario, this would naturally be problematic. Therefore, let's just pretend that the design choices in this article is backed up by both qualitative user experience research (user interviews and usability testing) and quantitative research (data from surveys and A/B testing).

Problem #1: Inconsistency in the mental model

Imagine your office gets a new toaster. You stand in front of it, holding your untoasted slice of bread, eager to try it out. Here's the funny thing. Most probably, you know how to operate this toaster despite having never touched it before. How? Because you have a mental model of how a toaster works. As long as this toaster works like any other toaster, you'll be good to go. You know how a toaster should work.

The same thing happens when a user navigates an app, webpage, game, or any digital product with an interface for the very first time. He or she will heavily rely on his or her mental model to do so. When a user interacts with an interface, he or she will have a set of preconceptions about how to navigate it, because of previous experiences with similar products. This is a psychological phenomenon that a designer should embrace and take advantage of. That way, as a designer, you can spend less time teaching the user how to navigate your product, and more time making the product itself.
A common mental model of the xbox controller: press A to choose or select something, and B to go back to a previous screen.
For years, Xbox players have become familiar with a certain way of using the buttons on the controller. When it comes to in-game setting screens, nearly all games use the A and B buttons in the way described above. Therefore, it's fair to make the argument that it's a good idea to match this mental model when you create a game with a settings screen: make sure A selects things, and B takes the user back to the previous screen.

You can imagine the problems you would experience as a player if a game were to break this basic rule, right?

Let's have a look at how Forza 7 breaks this rule.

A to Select, B to go back.
Most of Forza's menu navigation follows the mental model of the A and B button, as you can see in the image above. However, when venturing further into the game's interface, this is no longer the case. When changing certain settings in the game, Forza's designers decided to change the way these two seemingly basic buttons work.

And this, dear reader, is where the pain begins.

In the settings screen below, you can adjust things like your camera view, damage indicators and speedometer metrics when you race. You change the adjustable option by going left or right with your joystick.

However, in this screen, pressing the A button will confirm the choices you have made and take you back to the previous screen, while pressing the B button will cancel the choices you have made and take you back to the previous screen.
The driver's reaction in the background is purely coincidental.
This does not match the mental model for the Xbox controller, which we have previously explored. Here is how the two behaviors compare:

Button Mental Model Forza 7
A Select something Accept changes and go back
B Go Back Cancel changes and go back

This is bad design, with usability-breaking consequences. I can't count how many times I have gone to the settings page, made some changes, and then pressed B wanting to go back, losing all my recently made settings.

It's also unnecessary. Here, as mentioned, you cycle through the options by moving the joystick left or right. When you find what you want, you stop cycling. This is how you "confirm" your choice. "Names over cars" is set to "On". All right, that's what I want. Why do we need a second layer of confirmation on top of that with the A button? Why is it important that I am able to cancel all my recently made changes with the B button? Why do I need to have all these choices before me?

I just... want to race my car.

My solution: Remove the A button functionality altogether, and have the B button save changes and go back. Now, there is no chance of deleting all your previously selected options. As you can see, you can always restore to defaults with Y if you make too much of a mess. In addition to that, I have labeled the button properly in the bottom right corner, to remove any doubt as to what exactly happens when you press B.

A simple settings page requires no more complexity than that. Old dogs don't need to be taught any new tricks here. Stick to the mental model:
Clearly labeled buttons, now matching the mental model.

Problem #2: Clunky Information Architecture

Information architecture is all about organization of information in a clear and logical way. Such organization follows a clear purpose — helping users navigate a large amount of content. Good information architecture enables users to easily adjust to the functionality of a digital interface and find everything they need without big effort.

For example, it makes sense that the "about us" part of your company's web page has your contact information. It can also make sense that your help section has information about your shipping speeds and return policies. Users expect to find this kind of stuff grouped together.

Whether you're building a web page from scratch, or want to improve existing information architecture, a good place to start can be with a card sorting exercise. Card sorting is a well-established technique for figuring out how users understand and categorize information. It's important to know how your target audience would group and label your website information in a way that makes the most sense to them. This is why card sorting is a good exercise to do with your core users.

A simple mockup of a card sorting exercise.
Forza 7's pre-race screen is an example of bad information architecture. It's in need of a card sorting exercise.

The pre-race screen is an important screen, because it's the last thing you see before jumping into every race. Here you can do last-minute changes to your car, change opponent difficulty, check the starting grid and to other pre-race things. Unfortunately, Forza 7 has put a lot of unimportant stuff within easy reach, and put some of its more important stuff where it's less easy to find.

Let's do a card sorting exercise to solve this problem. Below, you may behold the beast, that is, Forza 7's pre race screen.
Flipping through tabs - a common pre-race ritual in Forza 7.
Here is an overview and explanation of what you can find distributed among the two tabs "Race Info" and "Setup" in the screen above:

Race Info (default tab) Setup
Start the race Pick another car I own
Buy a new car Check the starting grid
Go to the page where you activate
end-race score boosters (Mods)
Tune / test drive my car
Go to the page where you can
buy mods (Race Shop)
Change game or opponent difficulty
Change game options

There are a few issues with this design. Let's first address the two tab names "Race Info" and "Setup".

The default tab is named "Race Info". However, none of the buttons in this tab relate to any "Race Info". I figure it relates to the info panel in the bottom left corner of the tab where you can see the location, laps, track length etc. This is confusing and inconsistent with the next tab, labeled "Setup", which has options that actually "setup" your race.

Now let's scrutinize a couple of buttons they decided to place in the "Race Info" tab, which is the default tab you see every time you get ready for a race.
  1. Car Collection (Buy a new car). Are players really more likely to buy a new car rather than choose among the cars they already own right before a race? From my experience: rarely.
  2. Race Shop (Buy boosters to increase the score you get after a race). This page is actually just a sub-page of the "Mods" page, which is a page that is already accessible from this tab. That means, we essentially have two buttons to buy mods in this tab. Mods are used a lot, but you don't need two buttons to access them.

Considering all the different things a player might want to do before a race, we can improve the use of space here. Below is a quick card sorting exercise visualized:
A simple card sorting exercise helps us separate what's important from what's not.
I don't consider myself an especially atypical player, and I can imagine that the four things I marked as "important for pre-race" resonate with many other players. Here's the new design:
This will let you race more, and flip menus less.

Problem #3: It's not easy to do basic things

There are certain things you do in Forza very often. In the Single Player mode, the following scenario happens regularly:
  • Start the Race
  • Drive too fast and smash your car up real good
  • Restart the Race
Restarting your race is anything but simple in Forza 7. Here is the gist of it:
Restarting a race is a lot of work.
This loop should be drastically simplified. Here is my simple solution. Add a "Restart Race" button to the pause menu.
Restarting a race has never been easier.
Now, the near-endless cycle of:
  • Start the Race
  • Drive too fast and smash your car up real good
  • Restart the Race
- is made easy.

Problem #4: Car selection is a hot mess.

Cars are, naturally, really important to the experience of the game. Sadly, they are hard to find, purchase and collect. As a last point in this article, let's assess a few examples of this. I will not provide redesigns to these problems, they are merely identified for your reading pleasure.
More labeling problems.
Have a look at the above picture, and tell me what you think the difference is between "Car Collection", "Buy Car" and "My Garage". If you're like me, you'll probably think that "Car Collection" should be your car collection. But, no. "Car Collection" is a special overview of all cars in the game, grouped by 5 seemingly arbitrary tiers. That's about 120 cars per tier. This makes for a painfully impractical way of purchasing division-specific cars for division-specific races, which is a big thing in Forza 7.

You might also remember that the default tab in the pre-race screen has a shortcut to this area, which, considering its lack of utility, makes even less sense. Let's say I'm in the pre-race screen, and I'm about to race with American Muscle cars from the 60's. Let's say I want a new car in this division, and I press "Car Collection". You tell me how am I supposed to find anything in this screen:
Who on earth greenlighted this?
"My Garage" takes you to the cars you actually own, but, the fun isn't over yet. Here we even meet an old friend from Problem #1.
Why do you do this to me?
Fact: this game has a lot of cars. In "My Garage" (above), you are able to filter cars by manufacturer, division, year and class, to help you find your ride. Sadly, this page is troubled by a filtering system that does more to frustrate you than to help you.
  • I can never remember what the difference between "Division" and "Class" is. The names are not intuitive.
  • There is no way to favorite a car or a manufacturer.
  • The filter resets every time you exit the screen.
  • Why do I now have to press X to "Apply Filters"? Is this...yet another button for "Accept and close"?

Final Thoughts

Forza 7 is a good game, but unfortunately plagued by strange UI choices that really takes away from the experience. Too much time is spent in the game's settings, fighting your way through menus rather than racing. Forza 7 could vastly improve some of its problems with a few UX design exercises and principles that make it easier for the user to navigate, understand and use its interface.

Thank you for reading.