Video games have some of the best user interfaces and user experiences among all digital products. And that’s why some tech companies are taking inspiration from the people who design video games when it comes to designing non-game technology interfaces.
Harlan Elam is a good example of someone who made the leap from games into cybersecurity, where his skills have been very useful in visualizing complicated dashboards.
Elam worked for 4.5 years at Blizzard Entertainment as a user interface and user experience designer, but he recently redesigned the product interface for Jask, a cybersecurity company. This is exactly the kind of leap that McAfee predicted in a report last year, where the security firm said that gamers have the skills to be good cybersecurity professionals.
Elam pulled ideas from a variety of disciplines — games, virtual reality game Lone Echo, and even science fiction shows like Westworld — to build a heads-up display (HUD) for Jask. I talked to Elam about this crossover, and it reminded me of a talk that John Underkoffler, CEO of Oblong Industries, gave at our GamesBeat Summit event in 2018. Underkoffler, the science adviser for the landmark sci-fi film Minority Report, begged game designers to lend their expertise to designing technology interfaces of the future.
And while Elam wasn’t aware of Underkoffler’s talk, he answered the call. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You have some background at Blizzard, right?
Harlan Elam: Oh, yeah. I had four and a half years there. At five years you get a sword, which is really cool, but the opportunity at Jask was too enticing. I passed on my sword, but we’re doing fun work here.
GamesBeat: Where are you based now?
Elam: Our HQ is in Austin. There’s a Blizzard office in Austin, which is mostly customer support, but they also run the World of Warcraft website and the Diablo III website. That’s where I worked.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if you can talk about everything you did, but what were the tasks you worked on at Blizzard?
Elam: I was hired to redesign the World of Warcraft website and the Armory app, where players could view their character profiles. Those were two of the bigger projects I worked on, as well as supporting design work on Diablo III. Diablo III, while I was there, released the Rise of the Necromancer DLC. I designed the mini-site for that, and the mobile site as well. I did some support on their esports apps. When I had some downtime I would jump over to that team and help out with their Android and iOS apps. So I was doing UI and UX work.
GamesBeat: Do you miss anything about the Blizzard life?
Elam: There’s definitely a geekiness there that isn’t here at Jask. Everyone here dresses really nicely. There’s no statues on their desks or anything. [laughs] It’s just different.
GamesBeat: Are you doing similar work at Jask or something different?
Elam: The tasks and the processes are essentially the same. The product is very different. It’s not consumer-based, I guess is the right way to call it. It’s more for businesses. But it’s product design. It’s more strictly interface and less about going to buy something or check out a news article around the game.
GamesBeat: Is it more geared toward professional people, then, as opposed to a consumer website? Is that a big difference?
Elam: Yeah, it’s more B-to-B. This is a tool that security analysts will log into to monitor their network and make sure their network is safe. They can see incoming threats and deal with them appropriately.
GamesBeat: We do the GamesBeat conference, and we had an interesting speaker a couple of times, a guy named John Underkoffler. He was the science advisor on Minority Report, where Tom Cruise used those data gloves and the gesture-based controls. He made it his startup’s work to take that technology and put it into office products. You can use big monitors in a control room, or just a big meeting room, and use gesture controls to throw images on the walls. He came to our conference and said that game developers are the best at creative user interfaces and controls for complex software. His theory was that these people would be the best to design other products — that people should take lessons from game design and apply them across other software, which seems kind of like what you’re doing.
Elam: We’re trying to. We have a ways to go. But that’s definitely avenue we want to take. I will say that I haven’t developed games per se. I worked closely with some game teams, and I’ve been a gamer my entire life. We’re taking a lot of those UX philosophies from games to what could potentially be a very sterile and boring tool to use. That’s the opportunity I saw and was excited to join.
GamesBeat: What sort of lessons do you think you’ve drawn from games?
Elam: In terms of app design, especially in cybersecurity, a lot of the products are difficult to use. There’s a steep learning curve. I kind of equate it to tutorials for games. The more difficult games have more intense tutorials. At Jask we want to make it really easy to jump in. I know that myself, and most gamers, would prefer to not read a manual. We want to just jump in and start playing. Most people we talk to agree with that. When they get a game they want to just put it in and not worry about the instructions.
In terms of how we implement that in the product, we want to simplify. Some of that has to do with the layout of the app, adding labels to icons that didn’t have them. Some of the terms we use are proprietary, so the more we can do to make things obvious, the easier it will be for analysts to pick up on the nuances of the app. For the HUD in particular, we introduced this radar graphic in the middle with these red triangles that are the things you need to focus on. We use simple shapes and colors that are traditionally used to communicate, “Hey, this is a thing you need to look at.” We use red to identify something you need to take care of before something even worse can happen.
I was inspired in my initial thinking by things like Missile Command, Space Invaders, Battlezone for the Atari. Just very simple point and shoot games. While we’re not quite there yet, we’re getting there. That’s the inspiration for the radar. Show you there’s something you need to go attack. The idea, eventually, is that we’d like those triangles to move. As the risk factor goes up, the more probable it is that an attack is going to be damaging to your network. The structure is going to get closer to that bullseye in the middle, showing exactly where you need to go click to take care of these things right away.
GamesBeat: I see the image on your website. Is that radar on the very first screen someone would look at on the dashboard?
Elam: Yeah, yeah. When you log in to the HUD, that’s the first thing that pops up. It’s kind of prioritizing your day. When you go click on those insights, the triangles, they’re prioritized alerts filtered from all these records and signals. The selling point for Jask is that companies can have all this raw data they have to filter through to find stories and connect the dots, so to speak, to figure out what’s actually a threat and what’s a false positive. Jask takes care a lot of that for you and presents you with an insight, so you can make a determination on whether something is really bad and how you need to take care of it. I’m still learning about this. I’m new to the industry, so I think I’ve brought some new perspective.
GamesBeat: How have you seen the cybersecurity industry collectively deal with the user interface challenge? It seems like the challenge is that there’s a lot of information that you have to throw at somebody and help them sort through it.
Elam: In terms of the dashboard, I see a lot of other companies using just numbers. Here’s the amount of raw data you’re getting. At the end of the day it’s a lot of numbers. In our interviews, our customers didn’t find a lot of use in those numbers.
We’re figuring out ways to turn those numbers into something actionable. We’re creating baseline changes, percentage changes in the last seven days or 24 hours. The short version is that I think a lot of companies aren’t necessarily visualizing data in ways that are useful. The traditional dashboard just has numbers, and maybe a graph over time. That may be useful when you’re logging into Call of Duty and you just want to see your kill/death ratio over time, but it’s not necessarily that valuable for an analyst.
GamesBeat: The problems seem like they’re real time problems. Does it seem almost like a strategy game, like StarCraft? Not as intense, but is there an analogy there?
Elam: It’s funny. When we were interviewing our customers and internal users, just to validate the direction we should go–because this was a big change from what we had previously. But some of them actually said, “You guys really nailed the StarCraft vibe.” [laughs] After we launched one of our customers sent a screenshot from The Last Starfighter, with the UI from the ship they were flying. Which is a huge compliment to me. I love that movie.
It is kind of a real time strategy game. It’s not one for one by any means, but there’s a strategy involved in how you go about investigating an attack, putting a thesis together and knowing from experience what could happen and learning how to deal with what happens. If you played Fallout 4, I kind of liken it to the mini-game within Fallout where you’re hacking the terminals and finding patterns to unlock them.
GamesBeat: Do you call some of this gamification? That has its own sort of history.
Elam: I hesitate to use that word, honestly, because it has its own connotations. But there are some things that we’d love to introduce. Mainly what we want analysts to feel is a sense of accomplishment when they’re using the app, and to show progression over time through the UI.
For individual and continued progression, I think there’s a lot of personalization missing from our competitors. Games do this by using experience, leveling up, perhaps achievements to show progression compared to other analysts. You could create a friendly competition with peers, maybe by adding leaderboards. These are all things we’ve considered, although we haven’t validated them with users or put any of them on the road map. These are the things we’re thinking about in terms of adding that gaming element over time.
GamesBeat: What was your most recent release? When did you do the radar, for example?
Elam: That was in early May, when we released the brand-new UI. Previously it looked very much just like the Google material design in a dark theme. We spiced it up quite a bit.
GamesBeat: What’s on your road map for what’s to come?
Elam: We do have a road map. I’m not sure I can share it right now. But we’re continually evolving. There’s some operational health things we’re working on, based on feature requests from customers. Everything right now is driven by customers and what they need, what they are looking to simplify in their working life. That’s what’s on our road map currently. Mainly just improving the utility and user experience. The gaming stuff will come eventually.
GamesBeat: Are a lot of these people already gamers, your customers?
Elam: We did some interviews while we were doing research at the end of last year. I have some numbers based on that. We interviewed five current customers from among tier one analysts and managers, as well as two potential customers at the time, plus two internal customers, employees who are analysts themselves. 100 percent of them are gamers, either currently previously, ranging from FPS games to RPGs. One of them played World of Warcraft and StarCraft. It just validated the direction we wanted to go.
The assumption, the hypothesis we had, was that a lot of these men and women are gamers, and that turned out to be true. That mirrors the article you released, which is pretty cool. I’ve been on a few new business meetings. I’m always sure to ask, regardless of how the meeting goes, “Who in here games? What games do you play?” Their eyes light up and they just want to talk about games. It’s really fun to see. One of them was huge into Hearthstone. [laughs]
GamesBeat: Is there any area where you get pushback? “It’s a professional application. It’s not really a game, so we can’t go as far down this road as a gamer would want us to?”
Elam: There’s definitely some hesitation internally, which is why we went to these lengths as far as interviewing and validating the direction we wanted to go. We have to be careful about how we display data, to make sure it’s 100 percent accurate. There are some considerations there. But I think the only other pushback — I’ve mentioned leaderboards in the past — has been around not incentivizing analysts to just close alerts and get higher numbers to rise in the ranks. Not incentivizing bad behavior is definitely a consideration.
Overall, because we’ve been talking to customers and making sure the data comes from them, our decisions are solid. As long as we can show that this is a good idea based on their feedback, then it’s slowly eroded any hesitation. Obviously this can’t be 100 percent a game. But as easy as we can make it and as fun as we can make it, the better off our customers will be.
GamesBeat: Where does Jask fit in alongside all the other cybersecurity firms? What’s your specialty? Are there things that you don’t do?
Elam: It’s built in the cloud. That’s what differentiates us from everyone else right now, other than Microsoft. They just announced their Azure product. They’re the only other cloud-native app that’s built for security. That gives us a leg up on everyone else. I think last I heard we’re a year and a half ahead of everyone else. That’s a big differentiator, that move to the cloud.
GamesBeat: If you’ve learned any other lessons that game designers could pick up from the likes of security people, what would that be?
Elam: Analysts are gamers. We’ve already established that. They have a serious job to do. It’s a fine line, because I’m a proponent of user-centric design. The most fun games don’t always have the best user experience. I was just talking to some old Blizzard buddies today who have their own UI/UX company, and they were telling me that sometimes you have to sacrifice good UX to make a game more immersive and fun.
I’ve seen that myself in some games, particularly in Batman: Arkham Knight. I don’t know if you played that, but the inventory UI, when you’re cycling through your different skills and skills trees, it’s not that easy to use with a joystick, but it sure is what you’d imagine that Batman would use. That’s the closest example as I can give. We’re always going to try to make things as easy as possible for analysts, because their job is already hard enough. That’s something that game designers need to keep in mind. That’s not always applicable, depending on the game.
GamesBeat: I downloaded two World War II real time strategy games recently. One of them didn’t have any tutorial. I said, “Guys, where’s the tutorial?” They said, “Well, we have a manual, and here’s some YouTube videos. You can get the idea from that.” It’s funny, because I haven’t read a manual in a long time.
Elam: Yeah, it’s been a while. In my opinion — some games integrate the tutorial into the first couple of levels, so you’re playing and learning at the same time. That’s what we’d love to have happen here at Jask as well. We’re not there yet, but we will be.
GamesBeat: Did you measure this in some way? Did you get any particular result from the redesign?
Elam: We do have numbers from before and after, in terms of usage. We definitely saw a spike. Any redesign gets a big spike, but the numbers are bigger than what we’ve seen before.
GamesBeat: By the way, what are you playing now?
Elam: Right now I’m replaying Breath of the Wild with my oldest son. I play Minecraft with my kids pretty frequently, too. That’s my life stage right now.