UX Research Plan Cheat Sheet to Understanding Games User Research

The Acagamic Tip Tuesday #56

Young games user researcher struggling to figure it all out. Young games user researcher.

In today’s newsletter, you’re going to learn how to navigate the basics of games user experience.

Understanding how to bridge the gap between design intent and user needs for the created artifact can immensely benefit your game design process and you stakeholders. This knowledge empowers designers to make informed decisions and evaluate the intended effect of their decisions. It ultimately enhances the gaming experience for users and can significantly boost the overall success of a game.

Unfortunately, many people underestimate the importance of user research in games or struggle to make actionable progress due to several barriers.

Lack of Domain Knowledge

Often, people don’t fully comprehend the unique nuances and requirements of the gaming industry and its stakeholders. Here are 4 primary reasons development teams tend to falter in game UX design and user experience research:

  • Lack of familiarity with gaming: Understanding the language and mechanics of games is vital. You can’t effectively research without engaging in the medium you’re studying. UX practitioners, expert user researchers, UX researchers, and UX teams focused on research and design of games, all ask research questions focused on this relevant product or service. Your background may be in user interfaces, user behaviours, or human-computer interaction (HCI), maybe even gamification, but it’s essential to understand experience design in games.
  • Neglecting the emotional aspect of gaming: Unlike usability research for applications where efficiency is key, games require a balance of challenge and enjoyment. Overlooking this can lead to ineffective research.
  • Underestimating the importance of designer’s intent: Successful user research in games requires a deep understanding of the designer’s vision and goals. Analytics (or even if you organize content in heat maps) don’t provide insights on game mechanics without this.
  • Challenges of the secretive nature of the gaming industry: The highly confidential nature of game development can hinder the application of conventional user research methods.

Worry not, my friend. You can overcome these hurdles in every project and become proficient in user-centered UX practices. Here’s how UX research helps, step by step:

1. Immerse yourself in the world of gaming with user research methods

Understanding the language and mechanics of games is crucial to conducting effective user research. By immersing yourself in the gaming world, you get a firsthand experience of what gamers go through.

For instance, if you’re studying an adventure game, play it. Understand the challenges players face (maybe even collect user feedback, a researcher might use surveymonkey for popular forms, do some qualitative research project or playtests), the rewards they seek, and the journey they undertake. If working with other groups of people playing, ask them questions. This first-hand experience will provide invaluable insights that can be a way to learn and guide your research. Keep in mind that every project is different.

2. User research helps understand the emotional UX aspects of gaming

A common mistake researchers make is treating game UX research like usability testing for web applications. The objective of a game isn’t necessarily efficiency—it’s enjoyment. Wireframes (or even information architecture and card sorting) can help make better game UIs, but interaction design to test assumptions for actual users with different goals is more important to build the right thing.

To help you understand, consider a scenario where a player is battling a dragon in a game. The player might not want to slay the dragon quickly because the process—casting spells, using weapons—is enjoyable (for a range of people). As a researcher, understanding this emotional aspect of gaming is critical to capturing the user’s experience accurately.

3. Develop a UX research plan of the designer’s intent

The key to successful player experience research is understanding the designer’s intent. This understanding is the bridge between design intent (the problem space of design decisions) and the created product or feature.

Let’s take an example: a designer may intentionally create a difficult to find passage in a game to challenge the player. As a user researcher, you may flag this as a problem, thinking players are unable to find it. However, if this difficulty aligns with the designer’s intent, it’s not a problem. Understanding the designer’s intent can help you better identify actual issues that hinder the gaming experience.

By following these steps, you’ll be well on your way to conducting effective games user research, improving the gaming experience, and ultimately contributing to the success of the game.

Lennart Nacke, PhD
Lennart Nacke, PhD

Hey there, I am a Professor and the Research Director of the HCI Games Group at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I am a world-leading expert on what makes games engaging and how we can use them to improve products, systems, and services. My research is widely discussed and recognized by the New Yorker, Forbes, MIT Technology Review, CTV News, New Scientist, The Daily Mail, PC Gamer Magazine, and elsewhere. I have edited a textbook on Games User Research and authored hundreds of academic articles in gamification, user experience research, human-computer interaction, and game design.