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When Learning Games Go Small: The Four Principles of Design

 

The education game market continues to grow rapidly, and mobile games are the dominant force within this market. Newzoo provides the insights for the generic games market; the Serious Play Conference released its annual report showcasing the huge growth specific to the education and corporate training sector. The compound annual growth rate in the U.S for corporate learning games will be over 20% between 2017 – 2022 and about 35% globally with the U.S. and India being the top two markets for serious game play. Newzoo predicts the overall mobile game market across all game types will grow 40% between now and 2020, a significant growth increase.


Want to learn more about mobile learning games? Join us for our upcoming webinar When Games Go Small: Mobile Learning Game Design Do’s & Don’ts on Tuesday, October 10th at 1:00 PM ET.


So… it makes sense for L&D personnel to consider what space mobile games (aka ones intended for play on a smartphone) might occupy in their company’s learning and development portfolio. A smartphone game is not just a shrunken version of a PC game –  just as a limo is not just a bigger mode of transport than a unicycle.

The user experience and design aspects one expects from a limo, and the intended use of the limo, differs widely from that of the unicycle – even though both are modes of transportation. So it is with learning games. The use case for a smartphone game differs from that of a PC game, and the user experience should be different, too. L&D people need to think about this. When learning games go small there are four quadrants of design skills involved.

It’s highly unlikely that a single individual will possess skills in all four quadrants. It’s also very likely that if you opt to go the route of mobile games within your organization, you will need to pull together a team to create your game. Understanding each quadrant helps you assemble the right team and do a good job evaluating the game design the team evolves.

Here’s a quick definition of each quadrant followed by a checklist of factors to consider within each quadrant:

  • User Experience (UX) Design – the framework and navigation design of your game; this framework makes it easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to add/build onto it if you need to roll out future enhancements.
  • User Interface (UI) Design – the graphical “look and feel” of the game; it provides the aesthetics and helps create a mood or “feel” to your game (light-hearted, scary, humorous, intense, etc.). Lots of people think UX and UI mean the same thing. They don’t.
  • Instructional design – the design and structure of the experience to meet specific learning needs for a specific audience or audiences.
  • Game design – the design of the play experience; it includes the core dynamics of your game, rules, and game elements that all work together to enable players to achieve a game goal and have fun doing it.

Instructional Design Checklist

Does your game:

  • Have a clear learning goal and measurable learning objectives focused on a specific learner?
  • Tap into learner motivation?
  • Manage cognitive load by eliminating irrelevant or extraneous content?
  • Provide relevant practice?
  • Give specific, timely feedback?
  • Trigger emotion that can help with long-term retention of learning content?
  • Provide spaced repetition to help with long-term retention of learning content?
  • Use story(ies) (again, for help with long-term retention of learning content as well as involvement during learning experience)?

Game Design Checklist

Does your game:

  • Provide players with an intriguing goal or challenge?
  • Match the interests or player types of your target players?
  • Stick with one or two core dynamics?
  • Provide clear rules?
  • Use appropriate game elements from ones such as chance, strategy, cooperation, competition, aesthetics, theme, story, resources, rewards, levels?
  • Make the scoring relevant, motivating, and understandable?
  • Balance game complexity and difficulty for your player and the time you anticipate them playing it; not too easy or too little complexity, but not too hard or too much complexity either.

UX Design Checklist

UX best practice is that you design to the smallest screen. This means that your design supports these attributes on the smallest phone size players are likely to use. We draw the line at the iPhone 5, which is 1136 x 640 pixels or 4-inches diagonally. Good UX means you:

  • Have legible text.
  • Have touchable targets that a typical adult finger can easily succeed at using.
  • Cut the clutter.
  • Focus on one key action or use per screen.
  • Make the navigation intuitive.
  • Make the experience seamless if intended for multiple devices.
  • Cater to contrast.
  • Design for how people hold/use their phone.
  • Minimize the need to type.

Attend to the small things to make a big difference.

UI Design Checklist

This checklist is the smallest, yet the aesthetics or “look/feel” of your game has a major impact on uptake and continued game play (which translates into best learning assuming you executed well on the instructional design checklist items). When creating your UI design, make sure your UI is:

  • Consistent. Treat every button of the same type in the exact same fashion. Treat all screens of a single “type” the same way, etc. Use fonts and text labels for things consistently.
  • Designed to your user – and not to your personal preferences. Example: While you may love anime art, your corporate user may find it insulting or trivial.
  • Not reinventing standards; use what’s common and comfortable. There is a thing called “heuristics” for a reason. (Note: UX/UI heuristics are often bundled into a single list.)
  • An enhancement of the focus and not the focus of your game experience.
  • Forgiving of user mistakes with lots of prompts and helpful guides.
  • Clear on giving users feedback about what to do and where to go.

Want More Information?

If you want to know more, here are some great resources:

  • Sign up for a companion webinar to this post that will occur on October 10th – When Games Go Small: Mobile Learning Game Design Do’s & Don’ts.
  • Download a handy checklist for each quadrant of design.
  • Check out my book, coauthored with Dr. Karl Kapp – Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games, published by ATD Press 2017.
  • And/or join Karl and me in Chicago on September 20-21 for a 1.5-day workshop on learning game design or join me at DevLearn for a 1-day workshop on October 24th.

You Built a Great Learning Game… Why Aren’t You Getting Results?

You built a wonderful learning game. So why aren’t you reaping results from it? Before we dive in and diagnose why your learners didn’t learn, grab a piece of real or digital paper. I’m going to ask you to write down things and answer some questions.

Before I do, take 30 seconds and write down everything you need to get done today. Then write down everything you need to do this week. Did you have “complete an eLearning course,” or “play (insert name) learning game that my boss recommended to me” on your list? Perhaps you do – and perhaps you fully intend to do that course or play that game.

But….

  • What barriers hinder your ability to spend time in a formal learning activity? The activity could be an online course, a learning game, or even reading blog posts on a particular topic. How many unplanned things are likely to creep in today or tomorrow that will turn good intentions into fantasy?
  • If you do complete the learning activity, how much “think time” will be available to you today or next week to reflect on what you learn?

I assume you are reading this post because you are a training manager, a sales manager, or some type of learning and development professional who produces learning games or learning solutions for others.

So the really important question is: How do you think your target learners would answer all these questions?

Everyone of us in the work world has the tsunami that we call the “work day” and our “personal life.” Most of us have days that start between 5:30 and 7 a.m. and often don’t end until 11 p.m. We spin lots of plates and our learners are no different.

However, unlike us, they may not be super excited by all things connected to learning new things. They may actually be resistant to learning new things. Resentful of learning new things. Stressed out or fearful of learning new things. Simply not interested in learning new things because their heads are so full of what needs their attention right now.

What are you going to do about it?

Creating a relevant, well-designed learning solution, unfortunately, is not even close to enough. You have to tear a page from a marketer’s book and develop a full-blown implementation plan. These are the three ingredients you need to produce broad-spectrum results from your learning game:

Most of you will create the first item (a great game), but fail to fully map out logistics or think about having to market the game. There is a fallacy that a great game sells itself, and the game itself will intrigue learners enough to motivate game play.

Think back to the start of this blog and that to-do list you wrote down as well as the “unplanned things” that derail the to-do list. Playing a learning game is not going to be high on most learners’ list without some planning on your part.

If you do things right and include all three elements of a good implementation strategy, you greatly increase the odds of people playing. Being able to put together those three elements requires you to do a bit of legwork and info gathering.

Getting Started

So before you start creating your game or crafting any strategies, make sure you ask – and get answers – to questions like these:

  1. How does the game help achieve business and learning goals?
  2. What are the learner/manager/stakeholder anticipated reactions (positive and negative)? How do these reactions influence messages you need to deliver as part of implementation?
  3. What realities exist in learner population that affect implementation? How do these influence game elements that you emphasize/leverage? How do they affect logistics/deployment?
  4. What effort, skill, time, and planning is required to design, produce? How does this impact your timeline and what you can produce?
  5. What ongoing effort and creativity are required to maintain long-term interest in ongoing game play or to keep things “fresh” over long-term?
  6. Are there constraints that limit or direct decisions on frequency?
  7. What analytics and data can the game solution provide to showcase benefits and cost-effectiveness? What metrics do we want to see? How should data be filtered for analysis? (If you can’t answer #1 in this list, you won’t be able to answer these questions.)
  8. Who needs to see this data and how will data be used?

How to create a learning game experience that gets performance results

1. Create a well-designed game. This means the game:

  • Is relevant to learners’ needs and actually has value for them. The game goal and the play experience clearly link to the skill or knowledge the player will find helpful to acquire. (Note that I said player will find it helpful. It’s not enough for someone else, such as you or a stakeholder, to believe it will be helpful. The player has to find value in it.) The design choices you’ve made have a learning purpose to them. (Example: Using chance in the game to mirror something in the real-world that learners cannot control.)
  • Has a complexity level that matches learners’ use case. (Example: Don’t create a multi-hour play experience with tons of rules for a learner who needs a game they can quickly get into/out of. Make game play extend over periods of time rather than all at once).
  • Uses game elements that appeal to the the player types you have playing your game. (Consider Amy Kim’s social action matrix to figure out your player types and what game elements might appeal to those types.)
2. Plan out the logistics required to deploy the game effectively.

This means you’ve thought about what it will take to get your game into learners’ hands – and mapped the process out step-by-step. You have a rollout schedule that includes:

  • Timeline and key activities for pre-launch, launch, and post-launch of your game.
  • Specifics of distribution/delivery. (How will they locate/download your game? On what device? With what possible browsers? Is download required or can they stream the content?)
  • Tactics for mitigating risks/barriers to play (Yes, you have to think about the fact that they have many, many distractors in their lives. You also have to decide how you intend to grab their attention despite those distractions.)
3. Develop and implement a marketing/communication plan.

Those tactics you ID’d for mitigating risks in Item #2 help shape the marketing tactics you design and deploy. You need to think and act like a marketer:

  • Brand your learning experience; use imagery and a logo to burn your game’s promotion into the minds of your learners. When I say “Coke” I suspect you all either think of the logo itself or a bottle/can of coke. You can literally see it in your minds. How do you do that for your game?
  • Consider incentives. Who pays full price for a Coke? How many of you love a coupon or a “free prize.” An incentive adds some spice and some fun. If the initiative you are working on really matters, then incent it. It doesn’t have to be a huge incentive, it just needs to grab attention.
  • Map out a communication plan for each of your targets – including the stakeholders as well as the learners. Figure out what the message(s) need to be for each target, the timing of those messages, and the distribution channel.

ExactTarget and Johnson and Johnson both had highly successful game implementations because they created strategies that used all three components outlined above. Here are a few images that represent some of what they presented to their learners. Don’t waste all the time, energy, and $$ you spent creating your amazing learning game by failing to plan out implementation. Make sure you get the return on investment your company deserves and should expect.

Exact Target embedded a game within a larger experience and promoted it on its Intranet. It regularly updated messages, brought attention to those on the leaderboards, and eventually awarded someone the title of “MobileConnect Guru.”

 

J&J had a focused, weekly campaign. They gave accolades to weekly winners, shining a spotlight on them. Like ExactTarget, they integrated the game within a larger curriculum.