I went to Dallas this week to play a few games. Not Scrabble or Monopoly but serious games that are used as a mechanism to help customers better direct the features and futures of their software products. The setting was the annual user conference of Teres Solutions, a leading provider of credit union back office operations software suites. Facilitating the games was Luke Hohmann, the CEO of Enthiosys, who wrote a book, developed the idea and does dozens of these gaming events around the world every year.
The day of games was at times part encounter group, part revival meeting, part chaos, but totally serious work. The facilitators used a variety of public speaking, psychology, standard marketing techniques and group dynamics – along with the games – to elicit ideas and thoughts from the participants about product features and future product roadmaps and strategies for Teres.
“We tried to do other sessions at earlier conferences that involved our customers telling us what they wanted to see in our products, but they were unstructured and they turned more into bitch sessions,” said Rosa Trachta, a senior product manager at Teres. “We really didn’t end up getting the information that we wanted but saw the games at another conference and wanted to bring them here.”
The games we played involved no fancy technology – for the most part we used things found at office supply store such as index cards and flip charts rather than computer screen projectors. But more important than the materials was the processes used to get people talking to each other and collaborating on ideas.
The first game we played was called “20/20 vision,” based on when you visit your eye doctor and try to find what prescription will improve your eyesight by comparing lenses in pairs. In the game, the group expressed their preferences to a series of product enhancements that were printed on a series of index cards, and had been seeded ahead of time by Teres’ product managers. In the room were customers of Teres who managed departments at various credit unions. For each product enhancement, the customers would justify what they thought, how it could improve their jobs, or be better than what they have at present from Teres.
What impressed me is that unlike many breakout sessions in numerous conferences that I have been to, there was a constant give and take of conversation among the customers and with Hohmann leading the game. It was an honest stream of consciousness, almost too dense and thick for me to capture as a reporter – part of this was because the information was too technical for me and specific to their industry; but also because many people were speaking to each other at once. What I liked about this process was that Hohmann could get all sorts of information about the product and features without having actually touched it. He got down into the weeds about each feature and explored exactly what it meant to the daily user of the software.
I also liked that the customers started talking about their underlying business practices and how they did their jobs, such as working with credit bureaus, originating loans, and so forth. Given the current state of confusion in the financial services industry, it was fascinating to be at ground zero with the people in the room who actually have to approve consumer loans. These were people who were passionate about their application, because their daily jobs depend on it.
As more index cards are posted on the wall, the ranking changes as people argue for higher or lower placement of the specific features. It also becomes more difficult to rank them, and people would get into the finer points of the implications of each feature. We finished this game by evaluating a few of the features in more detail in terms of their financial benefits and costs.
The next game was called “Speed Boat” and involves eliminating obstacles, or anchors that will drag down a product, or slowing down a user’s productivity. A new set of index cards were distributed with a new group of participants to fill out. “We generally don’t do more than one game a day with the same people, because the process is so demanding,” says Hohmann. Then the fun began. Each person came up to the front of the room and pasted their cards on the wall, and others moved them around – the bigger the drag, the lower the card is placed on the wall. Within a few minutes, the wall was covered with items. The wall served as the basis of discussion of why these features were an issue and how they impacted a particular credit union’s business processes. As in the morning session, there was a lot of interaction with the audience, with suggestions flying fast and furious.
The third game was called “Buy a Feature” and this involved handing out Monopoly money that is used to purchase particular product features. (Some of Enthiosys’ other clients have actually minted their own currency. For example, the games at Intuit had pictures of founder Scott Cook on the bills.) Like Vegas, this game is rigged ahead of time because there isn’t enough dough to go around, and people have to pool their funds to get what they want. Again, a lot of give and take here among the participants.
How did the overall process fare? Jack Jordan, VP of product development for Teres, says, “One of the features got more value from the participants than I expected, and one feature that I thought had more priority ended up at the very bottom of the queue. This would have been a lot of development effort; we could very easily have built this feature into our product. Overall, the sessions have been very helpful.” What I saw was a very direct display of different priorities – some customers wanted X or Y features, for example, while others would find X or Y features not useful but want A or B.
I have done a few encounter sessions with computer product managers over my years as a consultant and reporter, and I have to say that the games process is a very efficient mechanism for getting very precise feedback and to help improve products. I was glad to be a witness to this process, and would urge other product teams to employ Enthiosys and its channel to help with their future product strategies. If you want more information, buy Hohmann’s book (which goes into detail on many more games that he’s designed) or attend one of his seminars.