Re-thinking the UI Design of… Chutes & Ladders?

My kids love Chutes and Ladders. At 4 and 5 years old, they are the ideal ages to enjoy this simple board game (Hasbro lists a recommended age of 36 months to 7 years). In fact, on the Chutes & Ladders’ Amazon product page, the game sounds perfect for their age (emphasis mine):

While this sounds great in marketing copy, the actual execution is less “ideal for younger children” and more like “impossible for younger children.” Chutes & Ladders suffers from some basic usability shortcomings as well as a lack of understanding of the product’s intended audience.

I can count to six!

My son is turning 4 next week. For those who don’t have any preschoolers around for reference, as an almost 4-year-old, he is “just beginning to recognize numbers,” as Hasbro correctly identifies.

He can use the spinner successfully. Spinning the dial, he can identify the number it lands on, and count up to that number while moving his piece one space at a time. But what my son – and nearly every other 4-year-0ld – cannot yet do is count to one hundred.

Which way do I go?

Where Chutes & Ladders fails to meet the needs of its preschool audience is on the board itself. The board is laid out in a grid of 100 squares. Each square is identified with a number in the top right corner. Players start at Square One and move space by space through Square 100.

For adults who can easily count to 100, it’s fairly clear where to move a player’s game piece. If the player is on Square 37, and spins a “4,” the player would look to see where Square 38 is and move in that direction, stopping on Square 41. Notice all the logic and math involved in this process?

For preschoolers “just beginning to recognize numbers,” these mental processes are way beyond their capacity.

Provide secondary visual clues

Imagine you’re 5 years old, and you can’t read numbers larger than 10. The Chutes & Ladders board offers no additional clues as to which path you should follow through the grid. On you next turn, should you move up? Left? Down? If there were no numbers, or if you couldn’t read them, how would you know where to go? Examine the board section above, and, without the numbers, try and deduce how to move around the board. It’s impossible!

By relying exclusively on the numbers to identify the path, they have failed to create an experience that is usable by the preschoolers they’re targeting. Clearly this approach is not a “gentle introduction to the higher numbers” as claimed. It’s more like a sink-or-swim pop quiz on mental math. What this design needs is a secondary set of visual clues to reinforce the correct path.

Redesigning the board: arrows & walls

The addition of two simple design elements would greatly increase the success of the game’s preschool players: arrows and walls.

Arrows

By adding arrows between squares, children would be cued in to which direction to move their piece on each turn. Extending the left- or right-edge of each square with a point could easily provide these contextual directional clues without adding more visual clutter (to a visual game design that’s already fairly chaotic).

Walls

By adding walls between rows, children will be cued in to the path along which their piece should move. These walls create boundaries and limitations to where a piece can move – players won’t mistakenly think they can move vertically and cross walls.

Before and After designs

Before and After designs

Do your homework

This failure on the part of Hasbro to create a game that’s actually playable by the age range it’s intended for reeks of lack of research and thoughtfulness in the design execution. Five minutes of watching my children try to play this game on their own was all I needed to identify where the experience broke down for them. This is a case for doing user research during the design process if ever I’ve seen one.

The proposed design modifications would still allow for older children to use the numbers for guidance. Younger children would be able to focus their efforts on identifying the spinner numbers and moving their game piece the correct number of squares.

Testing out the new design

I took my redesign home to my kids to see how they’d do. Before we started, I showed them the arrows and the walls. I told them that they should follow the arrows, and that they couldn’t cross the walls. Then I began playing with them, and watched (without intervention or assistance) to see how successful they were at navigating the board.

They got it immediately. Both used the arrows to show them which way to go, and followed the path established by the walls. They absolutely loved it. For the first time, they felt successful while navigating the board, and felt a real sense of accomplishment when they reached the final square – all on their own.

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