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Listening Time: 5 Tips for Super-Charging User Interivews

Let’s say you’ve developed a Microvertical hypothesis, and you’re starting to recruit people who fit that description.  Now your job is to write and conduct Screening Interviews, and learn more about who these people are, and  how they react to your core value prop.

At this stage, the questions you ask – and how you react to and followup their answers – will determine the quality of insight you gather. Here are 5 tips to help super-change your interviews with actionable insights.

Do a pre-interview Screening Survey to collect basic data 
Don’t waste precious interview time collecting simple-to-answer basic info. Instead, create a pre-interview Screening Survey to learn basic data upfront about your potential subjects. For best results, embed this survey into your recruiting efforts. Include questions about their age, occupation, tech habits, favorite media sources, etc in this survey – along with any qualifying questions that will help you filter their need and readiness for your product. For specific tips and tools for conducting screening surveys, check out this excellent Kissmetrics blog post.

Ask  questions that illuminate habits, needs, pain points, and triggers
A good interview script asks question that illuminate the habits, emotions and triggers embedded in people’s daly lives. What is their day like? What activities do they do regularly – and at what time?  Who do they interact with and care about? What do they long for – what’s missing in their lives? What’s causing them friction and frustration? What are they tired of and eager to change? What elicits a strong emotional reaction? For example, during Screening Interviews for the driving app, our questions centered around understanding people’s daily commute, including their pre-commute rituals, their actions and tech use  while driving, and post-commute activities like clocking mileage or texting on arrival. We also asked about related apps and services they were currently using, and uncovered a wealth of frustration and confusion ripe for disruption.

Tweak your interview script to focus on useful and revealing questions
This is guerrilla-style customer development, not a controlled scientific experiment. If you do 15 screening interviews, after the first few you’ll likely  notice patterns, and start learning which questions are working and which are not. Go ahead and edit your script between interviews to remove questions that aren’t yielding good info, expand on ones that are, and add new questions to drill down on emerging themes. Don’t be afraid to iterate; these interviews can be as agile as the rest of your practices. Identify emerging patterns early and formulate as mini-hypotheses. For example, in the driving app we  tweaked our questions to drill down on the frustrations and hidden desires around existing driving apps, which led to some key feature ideas and a mini-pivot.

Keep an eye out for existing habits to piggyback on
Creating brand new habits is tough. Really tough. It’s so much easier to piggyback on an existing habit – which is a core premise of B.J. Foggs  Tiny Habits program. For that reason, as you’re conducting your interviews, listen closely for existing habits that might serve as “hooks” for your offering. For example, during interviews for the driving app, we found that commuters generally check traffic and weather shortly before heading out, which gave us a clear existing habit to hook into. We also discovered that drivers often text the person they’re meeting with an ETA  – especially when they’ll be late – another common habit we could hook into and improve.

Keep calm, unbiased and dispassionate during the interviews
One of the hardest things for a passionate product creator to do is watch people react to their product and challenge their core beliefs. That’s why you need someone who’s not emotionally invested in the product to conduct the interviews – ideally a trained researcher, but in practice anyone who listens well and can record what they see and hear without influencing the results.   The interviewer’s demeanor needs be calm, unbiased and dispassionate – and sometimes that means handing over the reins.  During a recent redesign project, I was dying to get our Microvertical in front of a prototype and watch them use it – but because I was emotionally invested in the design, I stepped back and let the in-house staff conduct the interviews and do the user-testing without me in the room. It was hard. Really hard.  But getting unbiased results was worth it.

How to Mobilize your Microvertical

tempRecently I wrote about the connection between successful innovation and a strong MicroVertical. Today I’ll outline a 5-step plan for finding articulate, qualified early adopters who can help you bring your project to life. I  affectionately call this  Operation Find & Delight.

Step 1: clarify your product/business goals and constraints

Take a look at your product vision, business focus, revenue model and team skillset. What audience or demographic are you best setup to serve? What are the technical and/or access requirements for using your product – especially early on?  Who do you NOT want to serve for regulation, liability or revenue reasons?

As you answer these questions, potential Microverticals that fit your product, business, and team strengths will start to emerge. You’ll also gain focus by ruling out  people that you DO NOT want to target. For example, I have a client who’s building a digital service around the science of happiness. The techniques embedded in this service are proven, powerful and potentially life-changing, so of course we wanted EVERYONE to have access. When we sat down to identify our intial Microvertical, we decided to focus our early research and play-testing on tech-savvy parents (mostly women, some men) who were mentally healthy, accustomed to spending money on self-help programs, and eager for a happiness boost.  For liability and outcome reasons, we decided NOT to target clinically depressed people at this stage – even though we felt our service could be very helpful for them,

Focus is a beautiful thing – especially for startups doing innovative work.

Step 2: Create a testable Microvertical Hypothesis

Once you’ve clarified your goals, ruled out certain audiences and broadly focused on who you’re serving, it’s time get specific. Given the market space, tech platform and audience you’re targeting, ask yourself: who NEEDS your product the most and is likely and able to use it?  Who’s already doing something similar – or using similar products? Who would find it life-changing in a meaningful way?

Remember, you don’t have to KNOW the answers at this stage – you’re creating a hypothesis that’s specific enough to test and learn from. Your job is to create a description of a PERSON OR GROUP OF PEOPLE who you think are likely to be valuable early  enthusiasts.  In this description, include details that are relevant to when and how they’ll use your product, such as technology platform, behavior patterns, use of existing services,, etc.

A great way to frame your Hypothesis – and cut to the chase – is to write a recruiting ad for people that fit those characteristics. For example, here’s an early recruiting ad for the happiness service mentioned above.

We’re looking for tech-savvy parents 25-55 who own a smartphone, have purchased self-help books or programs in the past, and are eager to learn and practice daily habits that are proven to boost your happiness . 

Based on early interviews, we decided to target people who’d already invested time and money on self-help programs, because we wanted to set the expectation of a paid service right from the start. We also recruited a broader age range than we’d initially planned, because we wanted to understand how our core value prop reasonated with different age groups.

Here’s a different ad – this one recruiting for an app that turns your iPhone into a smart driving assistant.

We’re looking for drivers 25-45  who own a iPhone, commute  to work on weekdays, live in the SF Bay Area, and have used Google Maps, Waze, or other driving apps to get traffic info while on the road.

For this app, we recruited in a particular location  because in-person meetings were necessary. For technical reasons having to do with building a quick MVP, we also targeted regular commuters rather than freelancers with flexible schedules. 

 Step 3:  Test and refine your Hypothesis with customer research 

Now that you’ve generated your Microvertical Hypothesis, it’s time to recruit people who fit that profile and test your value prop with subjective research methods like surveys, interviews, and field studies.

If you’re short on time (and who isn’t?), you can kickstart this process by doing Screening Interviews, a guerilla-style research technique that can quickly and iteratively help you identify  your Microvertical. Heres how it works in a nutshell:

  • Use your MicroVertical Hypothesis to recruit 15-20 subjects for paid research (which come at a later stage)
  • Conduct 15-minute screening interviews to learn about their lifestyle, habits and attitudes relating to your product (I’ll write a separate post about how to construct effective screening interview questions)
  • Summarize the patterns you’re seeing, and how those patterns support or challenge your hypothesis
  • After you’ve completed the screening interviews, select a subset for paid research, based on feedback quality and  “fit” with your value prop, business model, and schedule.

Step 4:  Update and circulate your validated Hypothesis within the team

The purpose of Customer Development is to focus the entire team on building things that people actually want. It’s important to keep your  team in the loop as you’re doing  early research – but people are busy, and realistically only a subset of your team will be doing hands-on research. 

This is where you get a big payoff from having a concrete Microvertical Hypothesis. You can inform the team about your intial Hypothesis, collect their input, do  Customer Development research, and then cycle back with the team and communicate the research results as a set of changes and/or confirmations to your Hypothesis.

Doing this will generate powerful customer insights – but beware, it’s not always easy to digest the results. For example, my driving app client wanted to target daily commuters – but our initial research strongly showed that freelancers have a  more acute need for the core value prop than commuters do. That left the team in a tough place, because for technical reasons we couldn’t  build out the feature set  to address freelancer needs in a reasonable time frame. (We ended up looking at the problem from a totally different angle, but I’ll leave that story for another post)

Step 5: Build an ongoing Microvertical feedback loop and private community

As a product creator, one of the most powerful resources you can develop is a network of pre-qualified players who can give you early feedback on new features & systems. Recruiting and vetting people takes time and effort upfront – so once you’ve identified them, it’s smart to  keep that relationship alive and reap the benefits of play-testing with known players throughout your MVP process and beyond.

There are many ways to create a Microvertical communit (AKA Player Advisory Group): you can setup a private mailing list, forum, FB group, G+ Community, or whatever communication platform works for you. The key is to have a space where you can communicate with your early adopters, and they can  communicate with EACH OTHER too. The connections built within your Microvertical will help those people stick around and stay interested in your project.

You can kickstart this community with the paid-research subset you identified from the screening interviews. Do some user-testing: walk them through a prototype, first playable, or even concept mockups, and get their feedback. Make sure you reward them for their time – it doesn’t have to be a lot, but it counts for building credibility. Then invite them into a private community  where they can connect with other early adopters,  stay in touch with the product creators, and continue to contribute to the project via user-testing and ongoing discussions.

A connected community of early adopters can dramatically increase your chance of successfully launching innovation.

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Jargon Smackdown: Prosumer vs Microvertical

Yesterday I wrote about the connection between successful innovation and a strong MicroVertical. I got some great feedback – including @dantobias complaining about the word MicroVertical itself 🙂

He has a good point. Why introduce new jargon? Simple: Useful Shorthand for framing a problem. Microvertical is shorthand for  “enthusiastic early adopters who WANT and NEED your product or service,  and have the means, access and available time to get involved and give you feedback and early sales.” This is a meaningful description; it invites you to think about your early adopters as the people you co-create your project with – the people who help you bring it to life.

In some circles Prosumer means generally the same thing. I tried using that word – but in practice, I’ve found that MicroVertical leads to better discussions because it frames the early adopters as a discrete Vertical (or set of Verticals) that we could target and seek to understand.

What do you think? Do  you prefer Prosumer or MicroVertical? Or something else entirely? Got a better idea?  Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Find and Delight Your Microvertical

Many innovative products and services will be launched this year – yet only a handful will survive and thrive. Why is that? Why do most  fail, while others go on to mainstream success? What do teams who manage to create successful innovative products and services have in common?

It’s a complex equation, of course – but one key variable is the ability to attract, maintain and leverage a strong MircroVertical – AKA early-adopter enthusiasts who LOVE and NEED your product or service and help you shape it.  Without that early, energetic kickstart and feedback loop,  it’s almost impossible to cross the chasm into mainstream use. When you get it right, your chances of success go WAY up.

I first learned this lesson in the trenches of game development, where successful games have long been prototyped into existence. I’ve worked on a variety of  multiplayer games and gaming platforms that had  varying degrees of success. I noticed that the successful ones attracted and embraced an early following of enthusiasts – avid gamers, curious students, wanna-be devs, military wives, SAHMs, IT guys on the midnight shift – people who wanted to “lean in” and feel like part of the development team.

I noticed the same pattern when I worked at eBay during their growth from 30 to 300 employees. Right from the start, Pierre Omidyar setup a feedback loop with avid early customers – and that customer-listening habit permeated eBay’s early product development culture. We  had an ongoing conversation with avid early adopters – and their input had a major impact on eBay’s core social features and systems. 

Around that same time, another client of mine developed and launched an innovative, high-profile Alternate Reality Game targeted at mainstream consumers. One small problem: the avid early adopters got in first (as they always do), chewed through the content quicker than expected, gleefully shared “secrets” about the game on their favorite geeky forums, and generally ruined the party for everyone. That ambitious game never reached its intended audience – in part because the team decided to skip over the early adopters in their development process.

It takes smarts, focus and humility to proactively find and connect with your MicroVertical – and the payoff is huge. These people will be happy to playtest your early versions and populate your Beta program. They’ll give you exhaustive, opinionated feedback about features, system balance, and UX. As long as you’re setup to filter and contextualize their feedback (KEY issue – I’ll write more about that soon), these early enthusiasts are invaluable in getting an innovative game, product or service off the ground.

So if your product is mainstream-friendly and easy to understand, go ahead and target the masses. But if you’re building something innovative, the mainstream consumer won’t be able understand or value your creation – or give you the feedback you need to evolve. We re-learned this lesson painfully with a recent client who built a fantastic, innovative educational gaming system and healthy, agile product development culture – but didn’t find that early enthusiast market, went broad to lackluster sales, and ultimately failed.

Curious? Want more details about HOW to make this work for your project? In my next post,  I’ll share my 5 Step Plan for Mobilizing Your Microvertical.

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Less is More: the social power of a Lean UX

treehouseRecently, a local Mom emailed me to ask if her son Bobby could come over and get a Minecraft tutorial from my daugter Lila (age 7). Apparently a bunch of kids had been bragging about building Minecraft treehouses and chicken farms at recess, and Bobby wanted in on  the action.

When he came over,  Bobby plopped down next to Lila and watched her play Minecraft. For hours.  Then they had lunch, and watched Youtube videos of other people building treehouses and chicken farms. Eventually Bobby  built a little house to show his Mom – but mostly he was happy being an avid spectator: watching, learning, and absorbing the rules of play.

Minecraft doesn’t have onboarding, missions or built-in help – so kids learn from each other and from the exploding online universe of Minecraft videos, wikis, fan pages, and forums. Would Bobby have requested an instructional playdate if Minecraft had spoon-fed missions and a slick built-in tutorial? Probably not – he’s a shy kid, and  likely would have stayed home and learned by himself. 

When it comes to social engagement and UX, sometimes less is more. 

Lila has a social introduction to Minecraft too – she watched her brother play for hours, watched lots of Youtube videos, then one day sat down and confidently built her first house. She made lots of mistakes — but in Minecraft,  mistakes are visible and easily corrected, so players feel comfortable learning by doing.   

Part of what games so compelling is this learning –> practicing –> mastering experience arc that stimulates social play. Lila started as a student — then transformed into a teacher once she’d learned the ropes from her brother. It’s fun and rewarding to go through this transformation – and learning something together is a socially bonding and satisfying experience. 

If you’re trying to drive social engagement in your game, app or service, ask yourself: What are your customers learning over time? How can they share that info with others – both inside and outside your product? What actions transform a customer from student to teacher?  And to bring it back to minimalism: what can you LEAVE OUT of your UX or product that would stimulate this social learning process? 

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The 7 Habits of Highly Successful MVP Teams

IMG_51201photo credits: “The Joys of Showing Rough Work” at USC Game Lab

Happy New Year! 2014 is off to a great start. Our design studio Shufflebrain develops smart games and services that make the world a better place – and we’re  blessed to live in a time when opportunities to fulfill that mission abound. We’re kicking off the year with some exciting new projects in education and health-tech, and also developing some original IP  (details coming soon – stay tuned)

As you know, my design practice is focused on building  systems that drive sustained engagement and leverage community. Over the past few years,  I’ve had the pleasure of working with dozens of startups designing coop games, social apps, lifestyle services,and digital marketplaces –  in diverse industries including healthcare, education, fashion, e-Sports and crowd-funding.  Much of this work involved hunkering down and crafting an MVP (minimum viable product)

After going through a number of MVP launches,  I’m starting to see  patterns about what works – and what doesn’t – when your goal is get a strong MVP out the door. In the spirit of lessons learned, here are 7 Habits of Highly Successful MVP teams.

Habit #1: They collect validated knowledge about players’ unmet needs, pain points and secret desires

This is  customer development through a game design lens: you need to build something people want and need – AND create a compelling, useable experience that keeps people playing.  You’re not designing for everyone – you’re designing for specific people and use cases. Successful MVP teams IDENTIFY their target players, LISTEN and LEARN proactively, CREATE sketches/prototypes that capture the essence of the product idea, and TEST their ideas on target players so they can continue iterating.

Finding the right target players is crucial – and it’s an iterative process. One startup client with a big, disruptive idea did some excellent, in-depth customer development research and prototyping early-on — and got results that supported the basic value prop and use case (yay!) but  also refuted  core assumptions about target audience (challenging).  We used those results to tweak the product idea,  then stripped the app down to a simple MVP which could launch quickly and generate real data about who wants and needs the product. Although this was hard and sometimes painful work, it dramatically increased their chances of building something people want and need.

Habit #2: They identify and leverage a  Microvertical of early enthusiasts

Every successful innovative product has an early group of enthusiasts who discover it and make it their own. Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Minecraft, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, and most successful online games all found an early, enthusiastic group of participants who helped to kickstart the system towards growth.

Think of this group as your Microvertical – the first wave of people who LOVE and NEED your product, and will evangelize it out of sheer enthusiasm. Who are these people? What do they have in common? How can you product delight them? How does it improve their lives? The sooner you find and start connecting with your Microvertical,  the sooner you’ll be on your path towards building something people really want and need.

Teams that stumble often go broad FIRST, and skip over delighting their Microvertical. We worked on an innovative, high-profile ARG  for EA that was designed for a casual, mass-market audience — and guess what? The enthusiastic (and technically adept) early adopters got in there first, chewed through the content ahead of schedule, revealed secrets inappropriately, posted scathing reviews, and sunk the game. We re-learned this lesson painfully with a recent client who built a fantastic, innovative educational gaming system – but couldn’t find that crucial early enthusiast market, went broad to lackluster sales, and subsequently folded.

Successful MVP teams search for these people and OWN their Microvertical as a stepping stone towards mass market growth. Pinterest, for example, found their Microvertical when they reached out to design bloggers and held meetups at local boutiques where people avidly discussed their creative projects. This early community of design bloggers and their fans gave Pinterest enough content and traffic to kickstart their growth.

If you don’t capture and delight your Microvertical, you may not get the chance to HAVE a mass market to worry about.

Habit #3: They understand and piggyback on people’s existing daily habits

If you’re a fan of B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits or Nir Eyal’s Hooked, you know that it’s MUCH easier to piggyback on an existing habit than create a new one. If you understand the  daily habits of your target players, you can increase your chances of success by designing your experience to extend and enhance those habits.  Existing habits are something you can look for and learn about during  Customer Development interviews and early user testing.

For example, one startup with a “daily commuter” Microvertical designed their stripped-down MVP around a habit they uncovered during user interviews: checking weather and traffic before heading to work. Another startup with a  “digital Mom” demographic designed their mobile app around their players’ habit of checking for messages and calendar reminders while out running errands and shuttling kids.

Habit #4: They playtest their experience with real customers early and often

Play-testing your idea in sketch/prototype form is how you validate assumptions and  test your product hypothesis. The Lean Startup movement popularized the idea of iterative playtesting, and has spawned great ideas for getting “Lean Feedback” like fake landing pages and adwords campaigns.  In game development, iterative playtesting with real players is business-as-usual – it’s how great games get built. I first experienced this hands-on doing early product development with the original Rock Band and Sims teams – right from the start, we were showing early prototypes to potential customers who were eager to test the game, and that playtesting continued throoughout the product through MVP, Beta and Launch.

The business value of playtesting with real customers goes beyond innovative new products – it’s just good design practice. One client  spent 4 months designing and developing a new international shipping UX – only to find that customers found the UX confusing because thought about the process in an entirely different way. Showing early sketches and mockups to real customers would have saved that company weeks of UX and engineering work.

Habit #5: They create and maintain a Player Advisory Group for ongoing feedback

As a product creator, one of the most powerful resources you can develop is a network of pre-qualified players who can give you early feedback on new features & systems – like this one. Recruiting and vetting players takes time and effort upfront – so once you’ve identified people who can give you good feedback, it’s smart to  keep that relationship alive and reap the benefits of play-testing throughout your product lifecycle.

There’s no one right way to build and manage this group – I’ve seen it done as a loose coalition across fan sites, a collection of mailing lists, a private FB group, and a professionally-managed User Testing Panel.  What’s important is that you populate the group with players who represent the people you’re targeting, and create a structure that makes it easy for you to get quick feedback on features, systems & UX designs. This is a great way to make sure “the voice of the player” is represented during major design decisions.

Habit #6: They bring their core systems to life before polishing visuals

The best product teams I’ve worked with understand how to bring systems to life with minimal production values.  When I see an entrepreneur focus on polishing visuals before working out and tuning their basic activities and systems, my confidence in their success plummets. Smart MVP teams know how to create “just enough” visuals to test and tune their experience. They do this by finding and leveraging early enthusiasts who can see beyond the visuals and engage with the basic experience over time. For example, when we were bringing Rock Band to life, we brought in real-life musicians to play with early prototypes in a dorm-room-like setting — and even though the visuals were raw, the experience over time started to take shape in those sessions.Keeping the visuals simple and raw helped us focus on the underlying play experience and iterate quickly. The more polished the visuals, the harder they are to change – both eomotionally and technically.

You don’t want to ship with an UGLY product – but don’t let polished visuals seduce you into thinking you’re further along than you are.

Habit #7: Enable enthusiasts to go deep, develop expertise, and build status

Most successful games develop a following of hardcore players who want to feel like they’re part of the development cycle. These players don’t represent the mass audience for that game – they’re the enthusiasts,  experts,  university students, miltary wives, wanna-be devs. The gaming Microvertical.

Among YOUR Microvertical, there will likely be some enthusiastic players who want to go deep – to master your systems, offer their product ideas,  test out new features, peek behind the scenes, earn status and become know in the community. Smart MVP Teams find a way to say YES to these people and co-opt their energy and enthusiasm.  You can start simple by providing feedback forums and engaging with people right from the start. As you product evolves past the MVP stage, you can add expert-specific features and systems (when appropriate) to cater to your enthusiasts, leverage their knowledge, and keep them engaged in your product.

What do you think? Does this reasonate with your experience? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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The Developer’s Journey: LeanUX meets the Customer Lifecycle

Community Building On The WebI love frameworks. I love discovering, developing, and sharing frameworks. As a designer, they help me do my job and improve my craft.

In the late 1990s, I designed Web communities for eBay, Mplayer, Rock Band,  The Sims, and Ultimate Online. Out of that experience, I developed a design framework to help teams understand the dynamics of community-building, leverage best practices, and avoid common mistakes. Although the examples are outdated, the design framework is timeless – and still in use.

Since then I’ve been digging deep into social gaming, health & wellness apps,  coop systems, and mobile-centric design – and refining my techniques along the way. I’ve now got a  concise, 5-step Player’s Journey Framework (PJF) for creating lasting  engagement (embedded below). I’ve had great success using this framework to solve tough design problems and help teams focus on delivering deep value to their customers.  It’s been particularly fruitful in the startup community, where I’ve worked with companies like Happify, Lumosity, Crowdstar,  Indiegogo and Zendrive to  amplify their  design efforts and create scaleable  social systems.

Today’s smartest startups test their ideas, UX & technology early and often with real users. To mesh smoothly with  Lean Startup practices, I’ve added another dimension to the PJF called  “The Developer’s Journey” – AKA how you refine and grow your MVP over time. This tells you WHERE to focus your efforts early-on, WHICH elements to flesh out and test first (and delay for later) and HOW to scale and expand on your initial success. Take a look at this matrix:


Along the top (X axis) are the key stages of the Player’s Journey:  Onboarding, Habit-Building, Mastery

Down the side  (Y axis) are the key stages of the Developer’s Journey:  MVP, Beta, Launch, Expansion.

As you’re bringing your product to life via Lean Startup practices, where do you put your focus?

1. Start by developing  your Habit Loop.

The purpose of your MVP is to test  your core assumptions and better understand  the needs, habits and desires of your core audience AKA micro-vertical.  Early-on, , focus on testing and tweaking your Habit Loop –  AKA  game loop, engagement loop, compulsion loop, core loop. Look for the “hook” that gets people coming back regularly – ideally, coming back daily.   For testing, find some early-adopter-types in your target demo who are comfortable using your product without smooth onboarding.

2. When you’re ready to scale into Beta, refine your Onboarding

Once you’ve identified a core Habit Loop, you’re in a good position to design an effective onboarding system – which will allow you to scale to a larger, less “insider” audience. As you build  and run your Beta (closed and/or open) you’ll want to develop, test and tweak your Onboarding mechanics as you continue to develop and refine your Habit Loop.

3. Plant the seeds for Mastery – then co-develop your systems with passionate players.

The role of Mastery is an oft-misunderstood piece of this puzzle. Mastery is tied up with learning, competence, and skill. What makes your system engaging to master? What skill is the player learning?  How is mastery communicated and celebrated? How does your system shape, constrain and enable social interaction?  Does the system encourage people to compare themselves to others? Does it enable battles and contests? Does it setup people to join forces in service of a greater cause?

If you’re building a game, skill and mastery are woven into  your development process. If  you aspire to build a game-like system, think early about what skill your players will be developing and mastering. Then ask yourself:  how can our most skilled and passionate players  contribute to the system – and the community? What enhanced role and powers could they earn?  earn?  It’s fine to put basic tracking systems likes Points, Likes, Faves or Votes in place to see what people do.  But when it comes to creating earned roles and powers for expert players, you’ll be most successful if you take your cues from the needs, habits and desires of your core enthusiasts – the people who take the time to master your system and long to go deeper. If you co-develop your Leadership systems with your early Enthusiasts, you’ll stand a much better chance of creating systems and powers that tap into the deeper needs and intrinsic motivations of your most passionate players.

Lean UX and System Design


Designing static, linked web pages is a dying profession – the future is about designing systems 


When I was transitioning from UX to game design, I designed  the interface for Cyberpark/Sierra Online – my first large-scale social gaming platform. Working alongside game designers taught me how to design a social interface with complex interacting systems. Working as a designer on innovative, genre-defining games & products  like The Sims, Ultima Online, Rockband, and eBay taught me to think of digital services as systems first. Working alongside talented designers like Will Wright, Chris Trottier, Richard Garriott, Raph Koster, and Dan Teasdale taught me how to model, develop and bring complex systems to life.

Part of why I “fit in” as a gamedev was my background in science – which taught me how to form a hypothesis, collect data to confirm or disprove it, draw conclusions from the data, and make revisions to the hypothesis. The thrill of discovering TRUTH made me fall in love with science – then in graduate school, I had a front-row seat to the spectacle of scientists fudging their data to keep their funders happy. I decided to look elsewhere in my search for TRUTH – and discovered  computer science and software architecture. 

For a science geek and truth-seeker, building software is a revelation – because it makes transparent that there is no ultimate TRUTH – only the contextual Truth determined by what your players finds engaging, useful, delightful, and accessible.  “Truth” is all about what works in your particular context, for your particular audience.

Lean/Agile UX is about discovering this Contextual Truth via prototyping, user-testing, iteration, and a relentless focus on testing your assumptions with real users. That process also describes how every successful game I’ve ever worked on was created.  Systems and games aren’t fully designed up-front – they’re prototyped into existence, brought to life through interaction, iteration, and tuning.

If your environment discourages UX testing, iteration and tuning, you’re gonna a hard time innovating. I ran into this recently with a client – a mid-sized startup with the appetite and ambition to innovate, but repeated failed attempts.  After some digging, I discovered that the development environment itself is not setup to do UX experiments – it’s setup to integrate and push code that’s been specified. Creating a UX sandbox to test and iterate new features and systems is non-existent – and when I pushed forward and actually set one up, the process was expensive, painful and ultimately rejected.

When I explained why we need to do agile user-testing and iteration to create great UX and bring new systems and features to life, the Head of Product Development told me “We shouldn’t be doing user-testing – my engineers don’t want to build wireframes. We need finished Photoshop specs for pages they can just build once.”  This sentiment was echoed by the branding agency that took over the project – who assured the team that any user-testing involving less than 2000 users should be ignored. 

Change is hard. If you want to stay ahead of the curve, and  practice Lean UX throughout your lifecycle, make it a priority to create a sandbox where your design team can test and iterate new systems and features with real data and real users.  It takes work in the short-term – but the longterm payoff for integrating this into your development practices is worth it. 

Coop Gaming on the rise

Happy New Year! I hope that 2013 is off to a good start for you. I’ve been heads-down busy with great projects — completed a tablet coop game design,  started working on a crowdfunding project, and giving an Coop game design workshop internally to a large, international AAA games company  In my world, coop is on fire – so I wanted to take a moment and reflect on this rising trend.

2012 was an watershed year in coop gaming. Minecraft – a sandbox game with no tutorial, hints, badges, levelups, or assigned missions – became a massive worldwide hit, raking in $80M amd evolving into a platform used by middle-school educators to teach collaboration in the classroom.  Foldit – a science game that enlists players to solve real-world protein-folding puzzles – announced that a self-organized team of expert players had solved an HIV structural puzzle that had stumped scientists for 10 years. And Kickstarter – a crowdfunding website that combines the power of peer networks with coop game mechanics – raised more arts funding $$ than the National Endowment for the Arts.

What’s going on here? These innovative, genre-busting games and services are early signs of the coming wave of NonZero Gaming – games and services where people SUCCEED by banding together in service of a larger goal or cause. Rather than relying  on battles, leaderboards, and winner-take-all mechanics, NonZero games like Minecraft, Foldit and Kickstarter are built to enable cooperative partnerships, emergent teams, and collective action.

Why is this happening now?  The gaming industry is undergoing seismic shifts and major disruption – it’s rumbling with turmoil and instability. I see three key developments contributing to these shifts:

1) ubiquitious connected devices (platform shift)

The games industry was built on dedicated gaming devices AKA consoles, targeted largely at a young male audience.  Now we’re surrounded by smart, connected devices like PCs, mobile phones and tablets that ALL can play games. This shift has expanded – and dramatically impacted –  the overall gaming market. Take a look at these revenue projections:  console gaming (the dark blue area at the bottom) is flat; all the growth is happening in PC, social, and mobile.

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2)  all-ages, cross-gender playerbase (audience shift)

This platform shift is opening up new gaming markets & audiences. Health games like Brain Age and Lumosity are bringing in older, more mainsteam players. Seniors are one of the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook. And increasingly,  kids are online and playing games from a young age, often starting off with their parent’s mobile devices. Gaming is now an all-ages, cross-gender, multi-platform market – the nature of online entertainment is shifting to accomodate that.

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3) mutual entertainment – social networks & UGC (content shift)

Today’s digital gamers aren’t playing games in isolation; they’re immersed in a larger ecosystem where they’re entertaining each other via blogs, fansites, forums, social networks,and  photo-sharing. Take a look at these Neilsen stats; online gaming is one of the most popular activities – but it’s DWARFED by the time people spend social networking, which is all about mutual entertainment and UGC (user generated content). 

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These platform, audience and content  shifts are opening up new opportunities to create games that are universally appealing AND especially attractive to females – and that doesn’t mean MAKE IT PINK. That means connected, non-zero-sum experiences where you WIN by building relationships and partnerships, and SUCCEED working together a larger goal or cause. It’s what the world is ready for – and there’s a wide-open opportunity to create new types of coop games that blur traditional boundaries, and deliver experiences we haven’t seen yet. 

What about you? What coop experiences have you seen – or better yet, created – that are new and exciting? What’s on your radar?

Coop First: non-zero-sum games are reshaping our digital world

When you think of a game, what springs to mind?

Do you imagine winners and losers? Levels and leaderboards? Vast landscapes to explore? Friends gathered around a table? People working together achieve something bigger?

In game theory, there are two basic types of games: zero-sum games where players are opponents, with clear winners and losers – and non-zero-sum games where players are partners who win and lose together. You can see these game types in action  on playgrounds (and boardrooms)  around the world — boys love to play zero-sum games that involve rank-ordering within a pack, while girls gravitate towards non-zero-sum games that involve building and maintaining relationships. For more background on this, check out Deborah Tannen’s brilliant, insightful book You Just Don’t Understand – it documents how boys and girl use language to negotiate these different types of play.

The world of gaming  – both online and offline – is filled with zero-sum games that involve battles, prizes, rank-ordering, and clear winners and losers.  Score-keeping is a deep and interesting part of these games – and is at the heart of what makes team sports so engaging and fun to watch and discuss, as well as to play.

If you look at the world through a non-zero-sum lens, you see that building partnerships and relationships is a fundamentally different kind of game to play – one that has the potential to GROW THE PIE for everyone, rather than dividing up a finite pie amongst the winners. Think about a barn-raising, a quilting bee, a charity walkathon, a bunch of kids playing hopscotch — group activities with rules and goals and a quantifiable outcome that everyone enjoys together.  These games have scoring systems – but the score isn’t the main point; it’s more about the group effort, and the relationships built by playing together.

So what happens if you put head-to-head battles and rank-ordering on the back burner, and think Coop First? What gaming systems and features actually get people working together to achieve something greater than themselves? What playful activities can you imagine where people are partners, rather than opponents? That’s the vein I’m mining, and in the next few blog posts I’ll share my current answers  to those questions.

But first – what do YOU think? What collaborative and collective action systems have you seen lately that impressed you? Are you working on anything along these lines? I’d love to hear your thoughts.