Where Pokemon Goes Wrong

Posted on Jul 25, 2016 in Design Thinking
Where Pokemon Goes Wrong

I’ve been thinking a lot about stress cases since I began reading Design for Real Life, by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher. In a nutshell (that certainly won’t do the book justice – read it!), stress cases are the considerations we make for users under duress; they are the result of the worst-case scenarios that push a user’s cognitive and emotional load to the max, the cases designers typically overlook as we present cheerful, best-case personas. Real life isn’t all smiles, though.

And it was while I was thinking about stress cases and browsing the internet that I saw an article about a Pokemon appearing in the Holocaust Museum

The wildly popular new game, Pokemon Go, by Niantic, has taken the world by storm. It’s all over Facebook, Twitter, and the local news. You can see roving bands of “trainers” on the hunt to catch rare Pokemon in parks, stores, and yes, even in places typically reserved for solemn reverence.

Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game, so it creates an experience for bystanders who never opted-in as they observe the actual users. Their collateral experience varies, of course. Some are amused, some merely inconvenienced, and others are annoyed. This kind of tangential user is not the target market, but they need to be considered during the design process. These are the stress cases for Pokemon Go.

Pokemon are appearing everywhere. The White House, the Holocaust Museum, graveyards, hospitals, minefields, and cliff sides. All of these appearances have a significant impact on the players and any bystanders. No one visiting a somber location wants to be interrupted, especially for something so insignificant. No one wants their loved one to die because they lost track of where they were while chasing a figment of a game. And yet all of this and more has happened.

Pokemon Go has an average of 3.5 stars from nearly 110,000 reviews on the App Store after just a few short weeks (at the time of writing). Niantic’s previous augmented reality game, Ingress, has an all time 3.5 star rating from just 2,335 reviews and has been out for over two years now.


Getting that huge install base is great, and something Niantic should be proud of, but it requires thinking through several new considerations. With Ingress, the chances that a swarm of players would descend on an area in a frenzy was pretty low, but put a rare Pokemon in a sensitive location and that’s exactly what happens.

How do you plan for an install base nearly 50 times larger than your previous app? You have to start with the assumption that not everyone who will be touched by your application is the smiling, cheerful stock-photos you put in your personas and then ask yourself who else it could affect and how. 

UX strategists often say that if you think everyone is your user, you’re wrong, but when you are creating an augmented reality that invites people to go out and go everywhere, then suddenly everyone is your user, whether they intend to be or not. When a significant number of people impacted by your work are passive bystanders who have had the experience foisted upon them, it is your responsibility as a designer to minimize as much of the potential damage as possible and to react quickly to fix those offending scenarios you overlooked.