Interview with Sarah Robinson
Lead UI Designer at Behaviour Interactive
Hello there! My name is Sarah Robinson and I’m the Lead UI Designer on Dead by Daylight at Behaviour Interactive in Montreal, Canada. I’ve been working in and around UI for well over a decade. Over the years I’ve worked for websites, built apps, and of course made games.
How did you start in the industry?
I sort of fell into Game UI if I’m being honest. There are plenty of stories of people who knew from their very first Genesis cartridge that they wanted to get into game dev, but not me. While I loved playing games as a hobby, I originally went to University to become an archaeologist! Unfortunately there’s a point in Indiana Jones school where you have to pony up to go to an expensive place far away to complete your training or give up on the dream. So I decided to put tomb raiding on hold and took some night courses on web and app design. I fell in love with it! User experience design is a puzzle that really engages my mind. How can we guide our users through our products? How do we draw their attention to where we need it to be? How can I design this interface to be intuitive enough that users don’t need a lengthy tutorial to use it? Endlessly fascinating questions. Working with UI also let me stretch my artistic muscles without becoming an actual starving artist. I still secretly love archeology, though.
I got my first break into the gaming industry at the Vancouver International Game summit. I didn’t know any game developers at the time and only had my web/app design work to show in my portfolio. I figured the best way to meet game devs was to go where game devs meet. I volunteered for the summit at their information booth. I had a stack of business cards printed off with my portfolio info and handed one to everyone that stopped at the booth. In hindsight this was what people call “a really bad idea.” I received a lot of unwanted attention and harassment which is a rough introduction to the industry. Ladies, do not put your personal phone number on business cards if you plan to hand them out to strangers! Thankfully, amidst all the noise, I did finally end up getting a meeting with some wonderful people at A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games who gave me a shot in their company. These days, thanks to the great and powerful demons of social media: Linkedin, Artstation, Behance, and website contact forms mean that young women trying to break into the industry don’t have to follow in my reckless footsteps.
I worked at several Vancouver studios for years before moving to Montreal and joining Behaviour Interactive. Over the past seven years at Behaviour I’ve had the chance to stretch my design muscles on everything from adorable baby zoo animals to gruesome serial murderers! The range of opportunities has been fantastic.
What makes a good UX designer versus a good UI designer?
This is an interesting one because the skillsets for the two disciplines are closely intertwined and often overlap. Historically, both roles have often been filled by the same people. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve seen a shift towards specialization in UI. On Dead by Daylight our UX and UI design teams work closely together. Many of our UI designers have a strong understanding of UX design principles and vice versa.
While there are differences in approach between UX design and UI design, they share a need for empathy. As UX/UI designers we need to put our own assumptions aside and try to see the game from our players’ perspective. That’s the only way we can understand where and how the game is holding them up and to develop solutions tailored to smooth out their play experience.
UX designers want to build a common language through interactions. This allows players to develop an understanding of how to interact with the game and UI, without having to repeatedly relearn how everything works. Essentially, we train players on how to use our games so that they can do what they want faster. UX designers also tend to have a broader perspective. We’re thinking about how all screens, widgets, and in-game UI work together.
UI design is also interested in crafting the player’s experience, but instead of focusing on game design we tap into our understanding of motion graphics, colour theory, affordances, and layout to guide players’ attention. A carefully placed intro animation or higher contrast UI element can help players understand what they should be focusing on and what they can do next.
The most important thing to understand about UI/UX is that the better we do our job, the less people will notice! If we’re doing things right, the player won’t ever need to think about the fact that somebody designed the game’s interface. The thinner and blurrier we make the line between what a player wants to do in a game and what happens in the game, the better.
How did you become a Lead in your department and what makes a good Lead?
Becoming a Lead was a long road. There’s no one single thing someone can do to be trusted with managing a team. Years of working in UI, working with game designers, struggling to be heard amidst large teams of people and in studios that weren’t always open to hearing a woman’s perspective… all of these experiences built the foundations of what I would use to distinguish myself at Behaviour. I am fortunate to be working at a studio that values my perspective and is willing to invest in its employees.
I started working on Dead by Daylight as the sole UI designer when we created the original prototype and continued in that role through its launch and the first couple years of live service. Eventually, as the team and the game grew, we added more UI and UX designers to the project. This gave me an opportunity to step up and lead.
It’s hard to transition from being a “hands on” developer to being a Lead. I wish I could say I handled the transition gracefully. When I first took on the role, it took me awhile to get used to letting go. I think this is common when game developers transition from directly creating assets to overseeing and directing others. In time I saw what this was doing to my team and I vowed to be better. If you don’t trust your team and give them space to develop their own creative ideas, it will slowly kill their motivation. They are people, not tools. A good lead delegates tasks, listens to ideas without prejudice, checks on the wellbeing of their team members, and most importantly—trusts them. If you don’t trust your team, how can you expect them to trust you?
What is the general makeup of your team and how do you organize them?
On Dead by Daylight our UX designers are heavily integrated with the game design team rather than treating them like a service used by the studio at large. We’ve found that by having our game designers and UX designers work closely together while developing features, we can solve a lot of user experience problems while we’re still in the documentation/prototype stage. There will always be design changes made during feature construction, but this has nonetheless made the construction process smoother.
Once a feature has been designed or prototyped, our dedicated UI designers step in to practice their arcane magiks. The work then becomes a constant conversation between the UI and UX. Through this dialogue, each discipline strengthens the other and the feature becomes stronger for it.
While some studios also have a third role (that of a dedicated technical artist or integration specialist), at Behaviour our UI designers perform double duty and build the UI they design. This means that they can shepherd their UI feature from the earliest mockup stages, through working with the programming teams, all the way to seeing their work fully playable in the game.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the invaluable feedback we get from our Community and QA teams as well. This is where our assumptions are tested and it gives us a fantastic opportunity to fine tune the experience.
How do you handle conflicts among the members of your team?
A certain degree of conflict is a natural part of any serious team discussion. This is particularly true when the participants are passionate about their work! But as I see it, the best way to test your own ideas and preconceptions is to have them challenged by others. Either you’ll develop a deeper understanding of what makes a good idea good, or you’ll realize your idea wasn’t as good as you thought it was and it’s time to come up with something new.
Of course, it’s hard to hear our beliefs challenged. People never like hearing they may have gotten something wrong. Part of my role as Lead is to work with everyone on the team to build consensus and decide what is the best path forward. Sometimes there are hard decisions that need to be made or limitations/constraints that need to be accounted for, but in those cases I work hard to explain my reasoning. Most importantly, it’s my job to make sure that everyone on my team understands and feels that they contributed to the final product even if their idea isn’t the one that we went with. That’s the only way to make sure everyone shows up to the next discussion with fresh ideas for the latest feature!
What is your favorite part of being a manager?
I think one of my favorite parts of leading a team is when one of the designers on my team gets to point to a specific part of the game with pride and say “I built that. This part, this piece of Dead by Daylight is mine.” I love being able to help someone learn new skills and achieve things they didn’t think they could do, then see that achievement reflected tangibly in our game.
What would you say to female students who feel intimidated by this industry which is mostly male dominated?
It can be hard for someone coming into this industry when they don’t see themselves represented by industry role models who look like them. While great strides have been made to welcome women, PoC, and LGBTQ+ folks into games in recent years, it is still an overwhelmingly white, cis-male industry.
My best piece of advice is to trust your voice. Some people will react negatively to new perspectives, but there are many, many more who can’t wait to hear what you have to say. This industry doesn’t belong to any one group of people. It can only benefit and grow from the addition of new perspectives and new ideas. Everyone deserves to see themselves represented in the games they play and by the people who make them.
And you never know, maybe you’ll be the role model that inspires someone in the next generation of game developers!
What are you looking for in a UI or UX Design candidate?
In general, I’m looking for someone who’s curious about players and wants to facilitate their interaction and understanding. How can you reduce the amount of friction a player experiences when they try to do something in game? Other game-making skills can be taught, but I want every member of my team to start from that fundamental engagement with our players.
What are you looking for in a UI or UX Design portfolio?
Different studios have different criteria that they’re looking for in candidate portfolios, so I can’t speak for everyone. However, when I’m looking at a portfolio for UI at Behaviour, I’m primarily looking for three things:
- What kind of range does this UI designer or UX designer have? What kind of interface do they prefer to work on? For UI designers I love seeing the variety of UI styles that they are comfortable working with. For UX designers, I want to hear about what kind of UX challenges they have solved in the past and how they went about doing it.
- What kind of games does this dev like to work on? Do they have a particular fondness for shooters? For grand strategy games? Hack-and-slash farming sim rhythm games? Okay—I made the last category up, but if you know anyone who wants to help me shake up the indie game scene, call me!
- I want to get a sense of who this dev is. What additional interests or skills do they have that might benefit the team? While this shouldn’t take priority over the primary elements of your portfolio, additional examples of your hobbies and interests can help me understand why you might be a good fit. Show me your illustrations of your homebrew D&D campaign. Show me your painted miniatures. Show me your fanart. Show me your models and dioramas. One of our UX designers put taxidermy down in her resume and she definitely stood out!
In the end, I’m trying to see if my team is a good fit for you as much as I’m trying to see if you are a good fit for us.
Let’s say I’m a student who wants to work in UI/UX at a games studio some day. What classes should I be taking?
At the end of the day when you’re applying for a job in the industry, your portfolio is what’s going to do most of the talking. I will always look at a portfolio well before I look at an applicant’s job experience or schooling. But there are a few software skills that grab my attention:
For UX designers, knowing how to do UI prototypes in something like Adobe XD, Figma, or Axure goes a long way. Not only is it an incredibly useful skill for game dev in general, it’ll also allow you to test out your designs without having to go through the whole process of putting it in a game.
For UI designers, Photoshop and Illustrator are industry standard, but being able to work in a motion graphics software like After Effects can go a long way to helping you understand how motion can elevate your designs. A solid understanding of user experience design is also an important tool to have in your kit, even if you have no plans to become a fulltime UX designer.
In both cases, understanding how to work with a game engine is a huge plus. Whether that’s Unity, Unreal, or GameMaker, having this experience demonstrates you understand the game dev process. You don’t need to be an expert, but by looking “under the hood” you’ve shown a willingness to get your hands dirty. Ultimately, knowing the limitations and constraints of the tools we work with is an essential skill to have when building your designs.
If you had one superpower what would it be?
Tough one! My first instinct would be to go with Nightcrawler’s teleportation, because I frankly just don’t visit Paris often enough. However, given that I am a monumental clutz with a penchant for accidental self-mutilation, I think Wolverine’s healing factor might be more useful in the long run. I could finally try glassblowing!
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