Playing for a Living: An Interview with Luke Hohmann

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 them. 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 innovate.

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 to games?

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 accomplish?

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 matter: understanding.

Danzico: But why games? What’s wrong with traditional market research or usability testing?

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 user research?

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 changes.

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?

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 brake.

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 intelligent.

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 more complex.

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 design?

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.

Originally published in Voice: AIGA Journal of Design | View original