Game Thinking + Lean/Agile = Accelerated Results 🚀

Do you want to innovate smarter — not just faster? Extend your agile/learn practices with tools for creating high-retention products.

Amy Jo Kim


Here’s something I hear a lot:

“What’s the difference between game thinking & lean/agile methods?“

Lean /Agile methods are great, and most of my clients use them to ship products. But those methods don’t give you a complete solution for creating products that your customers want and need.

Let’s dive in…

The Lean/Agile approach is founded on two key ideas that work together.

And in Game Thinking we embrace — and extend — these ideas.

Idea #1: Rapid Iteration

In a Lean/Agile environment, you move through a build-measure-learn cycle many times during development, typically working in 2 weeks sprints.

The ideas is to run many small experiments as you’re building your product, getting frequent feedback from customers along the way.

This approach lets you adjust and tune your product as you build it — a key strategy when building something innovative and risky, under conditions of extreme uncertainty. That’s the essence of a “lean approach” to product development.

Idea #2: Small cross-functional teams

As we know, innovation is a team sport — and creating great products is tremendously challenging. In that environment, a good way to make smart design tradeoffs quickly is to work in cross-functional teams that might include product managers, engineers, designers, UX experts, researchers, and sales people.

When I worked with Netflix to solve a tricky retention issue, we pulled together a cross-functional team and did a string of connected design sprints — and by sharing our different perspectives, we managed to solve a problem that’d stymied the team for months (watch this video for details

By the way — this dynamic is why siloed companies are notoriously bad at innovation. When decisions filter thru a long chain of communication, iteration slows to a crawl & miscommunication runs rampant.

So Lean/Agile methods help you iterate faster and rapidly adjust your product design based on customer feedback.

But if you use these methods alone, without a clear vision of what product you need to build… it’s like adding a motor to a rowboat without a rudder.

You’ll move faster, but you won’t have a clear idea of where you’re headed

Game Thinking solves this problem — and extends your Lean/Agile practices — by adding 3 powerful tools to your product design toolkit focused on Discovery, Design and Validation.

Discovery Tool: The Superfan Funnel

To apply Lean/Agile effectively, you need to understand who you’re building for. And the best way to do that is to interview the right Superfans. You may think you understand your market & what they need, but until you talk with specific customers in “problem space” — you’re just guessing.

Game Thinking gives you the tools to find and interview your highest-need customers — people already trying to solve the problem you’re tackling.

Getting insights from the right people can make or break your product. That’s why we created the Superfan Funnel — to help you get actionable data from hot-core, high-need early customers. These Superfans give you critical insights into what to build — insights you simply can’t get with broad surveys and focus groups.

For instance, we helped two entrepreneurs from the games industry create an app based on the science of happiness. At first, we thought we’d target hard-driving startup executives, just like the founders. But when we interviewed execs, we discovered they didn’t have time for our app, even though they wished they did.

Instead, we focused on women who’d recently left the workforce to become full-time parents — because they had both the need, and the available time, for the kind of happiness app we were developing.

There was one issue, though: our interviews revealed that they didn’t want to play a game — or even something that looked like a game. After dropping the kids off, they’d browse through Pinterest, looking at beautiful scenes and indulging in some escapism before tackling the mountain of dishes.

So we listened to our Superfans, and built an app that felt less like a game, and more like browsing Pinterest. Now Happify is a market leading wellness app, prescribed by doctors and covered by insurance.

Design Tool: The Learning Loop

The second Game Thinking tool that extends Lean Agile is our Customer Journey framework for building high-retention products — all built around a Learning Loop.

At the core of every high-retention product is some kind of re-engagement loop that helps customers become more skilled and invested over time.

For instance, services like Amazon and Netflix get to know your preferences and shopping patterns, and are able to give you better recommendations over time… which makes you want to keep using the service.

Every time you go around the learning loop, you become a better shopper, and the system gets to know you better. These features are not add-ons — they were built into the product design from the very start.

Validation Tool: Concept Storyboards

Lean/Agile methods come out of the engineering world, & engineers are naturally inclined to go out and build something. But if your goal is to validate your product idea quick and cheap, there are much better ways to do that.

We recommend that you prototype your customer experience with concept storyboards that walk your customers through the end-to-end experience of using your product, from first discovery through daily use.

This is roughly similar to how a team at PIxar uses storyboards to test story flow long before committing to animation.

Concept storyboards let you test how well your product concept & flow matches what customers need — long before you’ve built a thing.

Summary: 3 Tools to Supplement Lean/Agile

As you now know, Game Thinking embraces the lean/agile approach of rapid iteration with a small cross functional team, & takes it further in three areas:

  • Understand customer needs by interviewing the right Superfans
  • Build long-term retention with a learning loop and mastery path.
  • Test your end-to-end product experience with concept storyboards

Wanna innovate smarter? Get videos, cheatsheets & challenges to super-charge your design skills in our free learning community, the Game Thinking Hub.