Case ETK game

Gaining customer insight through a design game

A design game is an efficient method for deepening our understanding of customers and collecting information about a product’s desired users.

Customer insight at the root of design

In order for people to use a digital product, it must answer to their needs and solve problems for them. So, when designing a product, it’s essential to grasp what is meaningful to users.

We call this customer insight and use a variety of methods to gain it: we study user behavior through analytics, we interview customers and the people working closely with them, we create questionnaires or hold co-design workshops with both our client organizations and the end users they want to reach.

Recently we’ve also used design games. We created our first game to gather customer insight to function as a basis for designing the Finnish Centre for Pensions (ETK) Työelä service.

What are design games?

Design games are a co-design method that loan the familiar playful structure and tools from regular games, meaning boards, playing cards and other game pieces, to help with facilitating co-design. The physical tools create a foundation for conversation and make the subject matter more tangible. Shared rules and the light-hearted tension of the game dissolve potential power structures and encourage each participant to voice their opinion equally.

Playing a game is experiential, thus it’s an excellent way to uncover silent and hidden information about the end user’s experiences. The candid atmosphere created by the game set-up makes it possible for the users to forget the test-like situation and any performance pressure. It’s also easy for the designer to step into the user’s shoes and build design empathy. This helps the designer to focus in customer’s needs, and not to make critical design decisions based on her own or the client’s presumptions.

The goals of our first design game

A game can be a useful method for designing and examining concepts, engaging stakeholders as well as developing one´s own design competency. We created our first design game to gather customer insight for the ETK Työelä service renewal. We wanted to learn about students’ needs for information about pensions, and their current behavior related to dealing with pension issues.

We particularly wanted to find answers to questions, such as: in which contexts do pension issues arise in young people’s daily lives, what questions or concerns do they have about pensions, and where – if anywhere – do they seek information about pensions. The gathered insight became a driver for the design process and a basis for creating concepts, and it was further utilized in workshops held with ETK’s experts. At the end of the project, all the gathered customer insight, wishes and ideas were also shared with a wider network of employee pension experts, to serve as inspiration for the general development of their services.

The game structure

We designed a board game which we then brought into the world of students for a day – the lobby of a university of applied sciences. Students could join the game at any point, for as long or short a time as they wished.

Our board game consisted of three types of squares. Each square corresponded to a card containing a question or task:

  • In Situation squares students were presented with everyday, pension-related situations and asked to describe how they would react,
  • In Question squares we asked students different questions about their needs for information about pensions, and
  • In Explain squares we had students explain pension-related terminology in their own words.

For each answer or completed task participants were rewarded with a chocolate coin. It was important to emphasize that there would be no wrong answers – we wanted to learn from the students and their thoughts, feelings and opinions, not to quiz them.

Over the course of one morning at the university, we reached a total of 28 participants and went through 20 rounds of questions and discussions. With each question round we gained new information about the students’ knowledge of and attitudes towards pensions, insight for the site´s design, as well as wishes and ideas directed at organizations operating in the pensions field.

An inspiring way to engage and participate

Our design game for the ETK project also created an effective method for facilitating co-design. The spontaneity, yet controllability, delightfulness and most of all experientiality rewarded us with rich information and understanding of our product’s desired users and their experiences.

Instead of wasting their energy on handling research equipment, shuffling sticky notes or trying to activate quieter participants, the designers were able to fully focus on listening to the users and deepening their understanding. The spontaneity, yet controllability, delightfulness and most of all experientiality rewarded us with rich information and understanding of our product’s desired users and their experiences. We also had a few participants from our client ETK to gain first-hand knowledge from the users, and thanks to the game set-up they, too, were easily able to blend into the group.

After getting such encouraging results we decided to expand our use of design games to other client projects as well, and now we have seen, that by modifying the situations and questions used in the game, the game structure applies to gaining customer insight for any digital service.  

The ETK project also taught us that the phase when the game questions are prepared is a great way to kick off a design project. When designing the questions, the team must actively consider the product’s end users and what we need to know about them. When involving the client to think of the questions for the game, it helps also the organization to kindle user-centered thinking and create a feeling of ownership towards the upcoming product. This aspect of the games is also so interesting, that we hope to be able to use them also in our future projects.