Small Town Murders UX Case Study

Heuristic Analysis of the Onboarding & First-Time UX


Small Town Murders is a match 3 mobile game by Rovio.

Heuristic Analysis of the Onboarding

To conduct an heuristic analysis of the game’s onboarding, I first tested the game myself as a first-time player, observing and noting down my thoughts, frustrations and feelings throughout the process. I then assessed the game’s onboarding using relevant principles from Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics.

What is Functional?

The game’s onboarding does a good job explaining how to play the game:

  • It visually and clearly shows what to do in a clear animated way (brief explanatory text + highlighted pieces + animated hand).
  • It is not too long, and is gradually introduced as players complete levels, so there’s no cognitive load.
  • It generally uses easy to understand words and language.
  • The nature of the onboarding steps and language are consistent.
  • There seem to be no error-prone conditions to be encountered.
  • Players don’t need to remember too many things because it’s all clear and simple, and there are hints on shapes/blocks that a player can merge if they get stuck.

What is Not as Functional?

  • Clarity of Game Objectives
    It is not clear to players if they’ll have to guess who the murderer is themselves, so that they know whether to pay attention to the text and clues or not, or whether the story will tell them who it is. It’s also not clear if there are any minigames like the ones in Criminal Case (ex. find missing objects, spot the difference, etc.).

    How to improve:
    Make it clear in the app store text (and maybe in the beginning of the game). Don’t mention “find out who the murderer is”, but instead maybe “help Nora find out who…” or mention something about a “story” unfolding.

  • Hand Swipe Animation
    The hand swipe animation on the first level (“Match 3 pieces to collect them”) appears as if it is on 3 blocks/pieces instead of 2.

    How to improve:
    Make the hand reach the middle of the second block/piece.

  • Action Complete Screen
    The action complete screen is confusing, specially the first one. I initially thought the reception bell was a button that I should press. Furthermore, the text under the bell (“Every time you hear…”) is vague and had me thinking; “What does that mean? Is this functional? What happens when I ring the bell?”. In addition to that, the coins’ placement on the bottom seems a bit off as well, because it distracts from the main message of the screen, and you’d think that the “Tap to continue” text is related to it.

    How to improve:
    First, let’s fix the copywriting… If we’re talking about actions, let the text show a verb, ex. “Rang Reception Bell”. Then either remove the text under te doorbell, or use a simpler one denoting the taken action (ex. “Hello? Anybody there?”). Finally, try moving the coins to the right side of the screen and center them to better make use of the space and disassociate them with the “Tap to continue” text.

  • Journal
    Journal is initially not clear as to what it is, how it works, and what it contains. I originally thought it was only for collecting evidence/clues, but the graphics/icons included items from events as well.

    How to improve:
    Add an onboarding note stating something like “This is your journal, where you note down events, clues, evidence, and progress related to the case”. Maybe add titles/captions to the collected items as
    well (ex. action, clue, evidence…).

  • Remaining Lives & Remaining Boards
    No indication of how many lives are left or how many boards are remaining when playing a level

    How to improve:
    Add a remaining lives counter in the matching screen UI, as well as as current board number if there are more than 1.

Heuristic Evaluation Checklist

(Based on Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Heuristics)

  1. Visibility of system status
    Game clearly shows what’s going on at all times, with the exception of how many lives you’ve currently got when playing a level, and how many remaining boards there are (if more than 1).
  1. Match between system and the real world
    Game follows how investigations go in the real world (crime scene, investigation, clues, questioning suspects, etc.). While playing levels, items/power-ups also follow real world expectations, since you recognize that a rocket will fly/explode in a certain direction, a paper plane will fly elsewhere, and a bomb with explode within an area.
  1. User control and freedom
    Game gives players a lot of freedom. It doesn’t give an undo option, but there’s no need for that since it’ll probably ruin the game. However, the game is missing a quick “restart level” button.
  1. Consistency and standards
    Game mechanics are consistent with other games of the genre. Game’s UI and behavior is also consistent.
  1. Error prevention
    No error prone conditions were encountered while playing the game. Upon pressing phone’s back button, game showed an exit confirmation dialogue, which is great.
  1. Recognition rather than recall
    Players recognize that a rocket will explode in a certain direction, or that a paper plane will fly elsewhere, or a bomb with explode within an area. Game also shows shape hints that help a player in case they forgot what shapes they can match.
  1. Flexibility and efficiency of use
    Game dynamics are flexible and efficient. Onboarding is quick and efficient too.
  1. Aesthetic and minimalist design
    Game’s graphics are aesthetically pleasing, and its UI is not cluttered.
  1. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
    Game shows matching hints, and when players run out of moves or lives, game tells them and offers them ways (ex. ads/purchases) to get more moves/lives.
  1. Help and documentation
    There is a support button in the settings menu that leads to an external website with help and documentation. It would have been even better to include an internal reminder of shapes that can be matched and what they create (they can be similar to the onboarding images in Angry Birds Dream Blast).

Notes & Feedback About Other UX Aspects

More Notes & Feedback About Other UX Aspects

  • Game screen orientation
    The thought that first crossed my mind was that why is the game in landscape orientation and not portrait? Each screen orientation has its advantages and disadvantages. While a portrait orientation would allow players to play with one hand (ex. convenient when commuting in a subway/train), a landscape orientation in this specific game’s case would give more room for visuals, which is important since the game is story-based.
  • First time user experience
    As a first time player playing the game, I felt entertained, intrigued to know what else I can do within this game, and intrigued on how the story will unfold. I sometimes felt bored when the story kept dragging. As previously mentioned, I was also wondering if there was going to be any other minigames similar to the ones in Criminal Case in the game. I was also wondering if i had to guess who the murderer is… as in do I have to actually pay attention to the story text or no?
  • Points of Pleasure:
    – Combining pieces to get a plane, bomb, rocket, or color bomb
    – Using the planes, bombs, rockets, or color bombs
    – Combining 2 power-ups to see how they react
    – Winning a level
    – Finding the murderer
  • Points of Pain:
    – Having to read a lot of story text
    – Having to go through more levels/actions when I thought we were almost about to find the killer
    – Losing a level
    – Running out of lives
    – Only being able to watch 1 ad in order to gain more moves in a level
  • Graphics
    The characters, visuals, and graphics look good and are of high quality. The UI is neat, simple and minimal, which is great.
  • Sound
    The soundtrack in the first couple of levels sometimes feels too silent. I would suggest using a better one in order to have a better impact on new players. It doesn’t have to be vibrant, it could still give the same mood/ambiance, just make sure it’s not too silent.

    I would also recommend having a better music jingle when a player wins a level… something that’s more upbeat to make a player feel good and give them a dopamine hit. The one used now is too subtle and not very upbeat.

    A good reference for great soundtracks and jingles would be Candy Crush. You’d notice how they have 2 different memorable soundtracks for the game menu and for the levels, as well as great jingles and sound effects for when a player wins a level.
  • Level Difficulty
    Levels were balanced, except for level 71 (if I remember correctly) and some levels after it… they were quite hard, but that’s not a problem since it adds some challenge to the game. The level difficulty labels “Hard” and “Super Hard” were not always accurate.
  • Case Length
    I sometimes felt like the case is taking too long, and was wondering what percenage of players read it.
  • Loading Time
    Sometimes new levels/story screens took too long to load. Consider preloading the next story screens or levels in the background.

Redesigning or Improving The First-Time User Experience

Since the game’s onboarding is already good, I didn’t want to re-invent the wheel or “fix something that’s not broken”, so I chose to just make a few subtle improvements that would contribute to improving the FTUE as a whole, specially when combined with the sound and animation/effects suggestions that I’ve previously mentioned.