Poster announcing Course 27 at CHI2010

Poster announcing Course 27 at CHI2010

What can you do in 90 minutes to introduce a professional audience to the set of practices which are Innovation Games®? Quite a bit!  But not all of what we had planned.

The course announcement

Here’s what people saw on the web when they considered whether to enroll in this course “Innovation Games® for User Research in an Agile Environment”, which competed against about 10 other sessions in the same time slot.

This course describes a set of qualitative research methods that will be attractive to user researchers, customer satisfaction specialists, Chief Happiness Officers, marketing professionals, among others. People who participate on Agile teams and those who are considering making a change to Agile practices will enjoy learning new techniques that fit into an Agile framework. Designers, engineers, and others with limited research background are welcome to join in the fun.

Courses are the update for tutorials at CHI. For the past 4 years or more, the conference has made a change from half day or full day training courses (offered at a significant increment to the already pricey conference) to modestly priced, smaller modules of 90 minutes each. This course was scheduled for the last session before the closing plenary session, which I used to our advantage.

On site on Thursday afternoon, April 15

Thirty-four (34) people enrolled in the 90-minute course about “Innovation Games®” at CHI2010. Twenty-three (23) people arrived in the hard-to-find room. Indeed, the printed program showed 2 courses simultaneously in the same room.  Luckily we caught the room conflict the day before, and coordinated with the conference management to handle.


We waited a bit longer than we might have for people to find this room.  I’m aware that several of those who enrolled were dealing with airplane issues:  It was Thursday afternoon, April 15, the day after the Icelandic volcano started erupting, the day air traffic in Northern Europe started being disrupted.

While I have done an introductory demonstration version of the Games in 60-90 minutes, most frequently it’s been with groups for whom responses to the question we posed (e.g., “Finding your next or ideal job”) were more prominent than the techniques we used (e.g., “Product Box”).  User experience people attending CHI are probably more interested in scrutinizing the techniques, than they are in the answer to the prompt.

I believe we met our goal of having fun, at the expense of a clean closure to the course. That’s what a follow-up blog post is about.

Big Picture Comments

My general attitude is that experiencing one or two games tells more than I can possibly describe in the same amount of time. I actively prefer spending our time together playing a game or two instead of me lecturing, as the key discussion points come out in the experience, and in the players’ reflections on their experience.

Let me repeat here what I said onsite:  you can learn much of what you need to know about using Innovation Games from the book Luke Hohmann wrote. I invite you to buy the book. Luke wrote it for an audience of Product Managers or marketing folks. If you’re in a different job category, you may have to do some translating to your setting and skill set. He wrote it for corporate clients, but the techniques work just as well for non-profits, government entities and community groups. He wrote it thinking about software or hardware as the product category, but it works well for services and non-digital stuff, in short all manner of things that you might consider “products.”

The book doesn’t make a strong distinction among “market research,” “customer research,” and “user research.” If you have a good handle on those differences and how people customarily conduct and analyze research from those 3 perspectives, you’re ready to go. If you feel uncertain, let me help you and your team to get clear about interacting with audience segments. I’ll coach your team for the first few engagements with customers until you’re smarter than me about how to make it work in your organization and with your customers (and users and markets).

Lessons Learned

In a typical Innovation Games event, the time is divided into at least 3 not-necessarily-equal parts:  (i) an ice-breaker, where players and observers meet each other; (ii) the game with its creation and discussion phases; and (iii) any further debriefing discussion with the players.  As long as you’ve gone to the trouble of recruiting players, it’s often worth spending a bit more time with them and playing a second game (giving you 5 parts).

The actual time for preparation is of course greater, stretching over the recruiting days, collaboration with the team about what questions to focus on and which activities to use. After the session, the team may have an additional debrief to capture what they heard and noted while the ideas are still “hot.”  Then the organizers spend a day or several days (depending on how many players were present, how many games were played and how much data was collected) analyzing the results and putting recommendations together for the team.

Lesson 1: Why an ice-breaker?

The goal of an opening (ice-breaker) exercise is to get acquainted. In user or customer research sessions where we are physically together, another goal often is to build a collaborative spirit. In this case I gave the same prompt for both games, but the players were segmented by their prior CHI experience. An additional goal in the post-lunch spot is to get everyone moving about to prevent dozing.

At CHI2010 our ice-breaker exercise asked people to sort themselves by moving around the room, to labeled stations, and when arriving to introduce themselves. We repeated this task 4 times with different identifying categories. There are probably several other relevant dimensions, but these were enough to get us started.





Lesson 2:  Consider the timeslot when choosing the prompt

Just as important as recruiting the right participants and segmenting them appropriately in game play is choosing the right question for the context. For the event, I asked people to respond to this prompt:

Now that you’re here on the final day of CHI2010, in the last session before the closing plenary, what can you tell the committee for CHI2011 about how it can make an even more awesome conference next year?

I’ve played this game at other conferences with a similar prompt, but being assigned this particular timeslot (last before the closing session) made the prompt ideal:  everyone had been through nearly all the conference. If a course or tutorial is scheduled early in a conference, using a prompt like this one falls flat among newcomers. They’ll talk about pricing and heat in the room, but you won’t get the detailed ideas you can get from people who may have already sat through 3 days of 4 or more sessions per day, been frustrated by the signage, enjoyed the entertainment, and packed to go home.

Lesson 3: Two Games at once, a stretch goal

Rather than have everyone respond in the same way, we divided the group into i) more experienced CHI folks playing Prune the Product Tree, and ii) new conference participants playing Product Box. (People with 2, 3, or 4 years of conference experience at CHI could self-select into either game.)

My goal was to give everyone a sense of what kinds of interactions and results you can get with different games. The two games we chose contrast on several dimensions.

Prune the Product Tree is a group game:  you want at least 4 and as many as 8 people contributing to each Tree.  The players’ conversations are as important as their individual contributions. You can seed the Tree with the organizers’ product attributes or just let the assembled group create attributes on site. (We chose the latter option.)

People who had more than 5 years experience at CHI conferences were assigned to the Prune the Product Tree exercise. We briefly talked about representing parts of the conference as leaves or fruit and then placing them in 4 places on the large tree schematic:  the trunk, representing primary, central features or functions; the outer branches, as secondary features and functions; “spoiled fruit” lying on the ground surface (showing undesirable aspects or no longer relevant activities), plus the roots, showing those all important items below the ground, representing infrastructure or basic values.

In keeping with best practices, we divided them into two groups. One group had 4 players, the other 7 or 8.

People who were newer to the CHI conference were invited to create a Product Box about next year’s conference.  The verbal instructions invited them to the pre-conference experience, what happened during the conference, and their expectations post-conference or all of it.

A key part of Product Box is telling the story (“selling the box”). One participant understood immediately that this exercise is all about metaphor. A symbol on the box or inside it stands for an idea in the world. A conference is about physical space (too hot, too cold) and amenities (WiFi), as well as content – new as well as familiar ideas – and the people you meet.  It’s about the artifacts of the conference (the program on paper, the iPhone app for schedule, the slides in the room) and the schedule, the costs and benefits.

You can encourage players in Product Box to work on individual or team efforts.  On this occasion we had one team and a lot of individuals.

And, we did have some quite distinct, segmented responses.  Check out the set from this course to see some of those amazing responses.  And remember:  we shortened the recommended time from 1 hour to less than 20 minutes.  Amazing.

Lesson 4:  Take all your photos and notes before cleaning up.

While I’ve argued above that this was the ideal timeslot for this prompt, it’s also a tight spot for doing all the documentation we might have wanted. We all wanted to attend the closing plenary. The student volunteers quickly helped me pack up.  Thanks to them, for sure! We transported some of those fragile boxes, but several didn’t remain intact while sitting waiting for my return. I’ve invited the participants to help annotate the flickr set, so stay tuned to track any further insights!

Next steps

Lesson 5:  Capture Expectations and Respond

All who attended the course in person wrote their key questions and expectations. While they worked on creating artifacts in response to the prompt, I read and categorized those questions and expectations. Our time together was brief, and didn’t allow me to respond to the questions on site. A few expectations go beyond ones I’m able to address.

So here’s my plan:  I’m taking the 40 questions/8 categories posed by participants and I’ll continue to respond to those over the next few weeks. Folks who are available to attend my next session, a full-day at Usability Professionals in Munich at the end of May, will have a head start on understanding what’s going on. And they can ask new, great questions! Plus in a full-day session, expect fuller answers and an even better overall picture of what’s you can do with Innovation Games in a user research setting.