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Designer's goal is creating user-friendly tech experiences

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Infrared5 art director Aaron Artessa works at the intersection of technology and design, devising the so-called “user-interface” that controls how “friendly” a gadget or its applications are to operate. Is the screen easy to view? Do the menus make sense? Are shortcuts easy to find? Building such intuitive operations can require a creative developer who can both visualize ¬– and know how to write code. A former book and magazine illustrator, Artessa first learned to program while working on video games. “Being able sit in the middle between the graphics and the system architecture makes me more versatile when it comes to creating applications and games, whether it’s for mobile platforms or the web,” said Artessa, 32, who helped create the games Rock Band Blitz; Go Home Dinosaurs; The Game of Life, Zapped Edition, Jeopardy; and Wheel of Fortune.

Q: UI or user interface is a term that’s thrown around a lot lately. What does it mean to you?
A: User interface is something that no one cares about – unless it’s really bad, then everyone complains. Understanding interface is about entering the mindset of your computer or device user. UI designers think about form and function – how to make information accessible no matter who the user is or what their background or walk of life.

Q: Touch screen or mouse – what’s your preferred method of input?
A: If I were working on a site or application aimed at younger folks under 18, I'd make sure the interface was fully touch-enabled complete with gesture support. This generation has grown-up exposed to smart phones and now touch-enabled laptops. But older generations, like my own, grew up with a mouse and keyboard—while I am comfortable using tablets and such, I don't default to that kind of input. Honestly, I think that's part of the reason why Windows 8 hasn't been well received – but there is more to it than that of course).

Q: The Obamacare launch has been stymied by much-publicized website glitches -- offhand, what is your reaction to the troubled website?
A: My gut tells me the site is hard to navigate and could be simplified by focusing a bit. I spent 20 minutes reading about stuff only to find out in the end, "Sorry but you need to go here for Massachusetts.” Immediately I'm frustrated; nobody likes to start all over again especially when it’s you and your family's health on the line. The best tutorials casually guide you along the way, not bombard you with a bunch of steps. On average people skip that and end up getting lost, having to start all over again trying to find the help they need and again end up being frustrated.

Q: What are some of your favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
A: Rock Band Blitz was definitely my baby. I got to do all the planning as well as the menu systems for the game. I looked at all the previous Rock Band games; I didn’t want not stray too far from the originals but still make it easier and faster to access songs and other content. It was one of the rare instances where a reviewer wrote, “The interface was really good.” That little blurb in article made my day. I thought, ‘People understand what I was trying to do.’ My second favorite is The Game of Life, Zapped edition. We had a spinner that we wanted to make super-authentic, even to the point that if you spinned it really hard, it would pop off. But we had to take this feature out at the last minute because kids might get too frustrated.

Q: Is there a certain style that you’re known for?
A: I love doing neon – it’s becoming my hallmark. It’s fun to do apps with neon lights all over the place. I love old graphics and neon signage. It’s funky and ultra-Americana. I don’t want to go to Vegas, but I want the lights of Vegas.

Q: As an artist, was it hard to learn to code?
A: I learned a lot of scripting and coding while doing Jeopardy. Knowing how to do light scripting and effects is super helpful. Not every artist can work with developers but it really helps to speak the language and be able to create random generators of buttons and little animation effects.

Q: When you’re pushing pixels, what’s your choice of music?
A: When I was going to college, I’d work 14 hours at a time, and while everyone else had Spotify or Pandora on, I started putting on movies as background noise while I worked. I’ve listened to the Lord of the Rings trilogy 13 times and to the Firefly series 32 times.

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