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Think back to the school gym, the backyard, the rec room or the
playground—hours devoted to hide-and-seek, flashlight tag,
Lite-Brite, The Game of Life, Shrinky Dinks and Big Wheel. No
matter where childhood happened or what filled those salad days,
one thing is consistent: it probably included games—and lots of
In our youth we played games with rules made up on the spot.
Friends and enemies were made for life when teams got chosen. And
everyone participated without inhibitions. As we get older, game
playing becomes more rigid. Rules are the norm, and it's harder for
people to express what they want—especially if it's beyond their
understanding. In other words, it's hard for individuals to
For designers, predicting what customers want—not what they say
they want or what they think they want—proves to be one of the
barriers to innovation. Innovation contradicts confinement, and
comes from that ability to strategically let go and play. But what
if you could take your clients to a place where they felt
comfortable, more inclined to open up? What if you took them back
Luke Hohmann, author of Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through
Collaborative Play (Addison-Wesley Professional), talks
about how to have fun with your clients and customers, letting them
show you the way to innovation.
Danzico: Why did you turn to the intersection of games
and innovation with this book? What did you set out to
Hohmann: Innovation could be breakthrough or
could be incremental. I think it's funny when people make
distinctions over whether something was a “breakthrough innovation”
or an “incremental innovation.” What is more important is how well
we understand users so we can actually solve their problem.
What I want to accomplish is the understanding that actually
leads to solving the user's problem. That's really the heart of the
Danzico: But why games? What's wrong with traditional
market research or usability testing?
Fun with packaging at SDForum's “Foundation of Innovation II,”
Hohmann: I don't want to say those methods are
invalid—this is just another tool in the toolkit. Games are
characterized by their degree of open-ended exploration, and
usability testing by its nature isn't particularly good at
exploring an open-ended problem space.
In addition, clients do pretty expensive focus groups that take
up their research budget, so they only end up talking to customers
once a year. There could be better results if they did the research
on their own and talked to their customers more frequently.
When usability researchers and focus groups typically start
working with customers, contexts we don't really understand frame
the nature of their conversation with customers. Because
researchers don't make those contexts very clear, we can get
different or misleading information. Even though I'm a consultant,
this is the anti-consultant book because it's about giving people
the techniques they need to do the work themselves.
Danzico: Can you describe one of those games and how it
might differ from the ways we've traditionally gathered market or
Hohmann: One of my favorite games is called
“Start Your Day.” The purpose is to make that particular kind of
context explicit. And in this case, that context is time.
Here's how it works: imagine you are Intuit, and you're studying
people's reactions to TurboTax. You would get different results if
you started your study, say, at the end of March versus another
time of year. You would expect that, since tax season is the
overpowering context of use.
“Start Your Day” makes time explicit by making time visual—time
by day, by week, by month. We did a project associated with
caregivers in school systems where we make the school system
calendar big posters on the wall. Customers received different
color pens, and we asked them to write down on the posters how they
use the product. Because they're publicly writing and talking about
it, we can see how they use a product as the context of time
Danzico: We know that people aren't able to articulate
what they want. If asked, they're going to give you an answer based
on what they understand to be true of their current reality rather
than looking ahead. Are these games putting customers, wrongly, in
a position to dictate what they think they need?
More fun on display at “Foundation of Innovation II.”
Hohmann: The customer isn't making the choice
about what goes in the product; that's still the responsibility of
the product marketing and development team. But you're going to get
better results if you include the customers in the process. Users
aren't the only ones driving, though—they're the student drivers
and you're sitting right next to them with your foot on the
The basic construct of a book called Everything Bad is Good
for You [by Steven Johnson] is that because we're being
exposed to more complex media—more complex video games, more
complex television shows and films—as humans, we're able to process
more complex storylines and plotlines, and therefore becoming more
Danzico: Given this, perhaps usability testing alone
isn't participatory enough anymore. People are now used to
co-creating content through things like Wikipedia, blogs and
commenting. Is Innovation Games just the logical next step
in moving usability testing forward?
Hohmann: I agree that both media and
information and the capabilities of consumers are becoming very
rich, but when you actually play a game, you'll be stunned at how
simple they are.
Danzico: But instead of a traditional usability test,
where you might ask, “What do you think will happen if you click
that button?” games allow you to observe tacit information—people
engaged in fairly extensive relationships with one another. That's
Hohmann: I wouldn't use the term “complex”; I
would use the term “rich.” It's a very rich experience. When we
work with observers, we coach them to not only look at the person
who's speaking, but to look at the other people in the room and how
they're reacting to the person who's speaking.
On one level, you could say that those people aren't trained in
observational skills so they're going to miss stuff. But if you put
together a team of highly trained usability experts, you're going
to fall back into exceeding the budget, and they're going to talk
once a year to customers.
People who are trained in usability professionals are going to
do a better job. They should. However, we have a responsibility as
designers to balance this with the needs of the client and the
reality of the business. I would much rather have one designer work
with a client so he can have 10 conversations with customers,
rather than have 10 designers work with a client and have one
conversation with a customer.
Danzico:I've read that you have four
kids. Has their play or their influence affected the games you
Hohmann: Yes, I have four kids. [But] believe
it or not, no, partly because the context is so different. I'm
always trying to find better ways to ask the questions, “how can my
product or service evolve?” and “how can I understand what
customers are looking for?” I've been doing the games for over a
decade, so the strongest influence is my own successes and failures
in trying to understand what customers want.
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