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Customer Discovery with Game Design Smarts

Designing static, linked Web pages is a dying profession; the future is in designing systems. — Paul Adams

Many innovative new products and services launch every year — yet only a handful will survive. What sets them apart? Why do some innovations fail — while others go on to mainstream success? What do teams that create successful innovative products have in common? How can we follow in their footsteps and learn to innovate better, faster, & smarter?

Systems, Not Features

I’ve been exploring these questions for years, searching for the underlying patterns, behaviors and systems that lead to success or failure. I started my career in science and engineering — then transitioned to UX and product design — which led me to designing the UI for Cyberpark, the first (of many) ambitious, large-scale social gameworlds that captivated my attention. Working together with top-notch game designers, I created an elegant interface for a complex, innovative, & highly social gaming world.

BOOM! I was hooked. I went on to design social gaming systems for Ultima Online, eBay, Rock Band, Simcity, The Sims, Lumosity, Covet Fashion, Happify, and others. Along the way , I learned that every complex system starts out as a simple system that works.

All the hyper-successful teams I’ve worked with brought their ideas to life by testing and tuning their core systems with early adopters. They focused on delighting a small group of forward-thinking enthusiasts FIRST — and then later scaled to reach early majority and mainstream customers.

Game Design IS Lean Design

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It’s impossible to predict hits — but as innovators and entrepreneurs, we CAN increase our chances of success by identifying successful patterns of innovation. The Lean Startup gave us a shared language for creating experiences that people actually want — and mirrors how I learned to do game design working on massive, genre-defining hits.

Like all complex systems, games aren’t fully designed up-front — they’re prototyped into existence, brought to life through interaction, iteration, and tuning.Game design IS lean design; both start with discovering what works by relentlessly testing and tuning your ideas with real users. Whether you call this “finding the fun” or “customer development” or “validating your assumptions,” it’s all the same activity — running experiments to refine your product ideas and value prop with data from real customers.

MVP Design Hacks Creation Story

I love hands-on design — and the creative rush of working with high-functioning teams. This past year, the CEO of a hot startup challenged me to help craft their MVP faster — and cheaper — than I’d ever done before.

I initially turned down the gig — but my persuasive client — and his high-functioning team — won me over. I realized that if I could templatize my design process, I’d be able to meet their needs — AND help more startups worldwide save time and money, and set themselves up for success.

So I decided to run an experiment. I crafted a series of goal-based Sprints for the team, and turned my most effective, road-tested, time-saving shortcuts into design templates.

Much to my delight, we completed the project quickly, with great results. It was highly valuable for my client in the short-term — they created a focused MVP that they KNEW their customers wanted. In the longer-term, they’re continuing to use the early product design techniques to refine, test and validate new ideas internally with greater speed and confidence.

Design Sprints = Focus + Productivity

Sprints are a powerful and flexibly productivity-enhancing technique. Sprints come in many flavors; they can shape-shift into whatever form and timeframe works for a particular company or team. Google, for example, evolved an intensive one-week Design Sprint — based on a process from the Stanford — that meshes well with their development culture.

For my innovation-centric clients, the one-week Design Sprint doesn’t cut it. Even with a dedicated SWAT team , validating your product concept with the right early adopters doesn’t fit neatly into a single week — especially for games, marketplaces, and other complex systems.

Sprints for Early Product Development

To better address the specific challenges of early product development, we developed a series of connected Sprints to help teams quickly and effectively validate their product ideas with the RIGHT early adopters — and generate useful insights each step of the way.

  1. Clarify your product strategy & key assumptions
  2. Draft your product brief
  3. Filter customers to find early adopters
  4. Interview early adopters to surface patterns & select testers
  5. Distill customer insights into Habit Stories
  6. Sketch a compelling customer narrative
  7. Design an engaging Core Loop
  8. Build a low-fidelity prototype
  9. Test your prototype with the right early adopters
  10. Validate your product strategy & key assumptions
  11. Iterate your Narrative & Core Loop
  12. Update your Product Brief

Want to learn more? Checkout our Game Thinking programs here

Written by

Game designer, startup coach, author, entrepreneur

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