How can you recognise where you are on your career journey as a Games User Researcher?
In the world of games ‘user experience’ (UX) there are a multitude of roles, including UX Researchers, UX Designers, UX/UI Designers, Insight Specialists, and Game Analysts… to name a few.
Their day-to-day activities overlap in some areas, and differ in others.
The ways in which one develops ‘seniority’ in a role are equally diverse. What skills make a ‘senior’ versus a ‘mid-’ versus a ‘junior’? Why do experienced staff have greater value and earn more money?
Let’s shed some light on the differences between ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ Games User Researchers by reflecting on major shifts in how they see the world, rather than defining them by years of experience. For insights about designers try this article, which also inspired the format we use here: Junior designers vs. senior designers by Tobias van Schneider.
What makes a ‘junior’ or a ‘senior’ researcher?*
One asks how much time do I have to find out?
The other suggests own timeline, taking into consideration the research rigour and the development schedule.
In most cases the game development process is peppered with milestones and deadlines. It’s important for the research team to capture and communicate insights on features before the dev team runs out of time to implement them.
Senior researchers understand deeply that the earlier insights are delivered, the more likely the game creators will be able to respond to them, and see a positive return on investment of research.
At the same time, a senior researcher knows when it’s ‘OK’ to compromise, and when it’s not, in order to keep research results reliable. Sometimes finding a common ground is not easy and requires smart compromises and diplomatic skills.
One asks for the method that is wanted.
The other asks for results that are needed.
Researchers are often asked to perform a certain method on a game (commonly: focus groups), and a list of research questions is delivered to them. However, those two are not always in line!
Senior researchers try to help stakeholders understand pros and cons of every method available and decide together on an ideal research approach.
One addresses the research questions handed to them.
The other explores beyond and in-between them, and envisions a wider research strategy for the title.
Focusing on the team’s immediate questions is what is expected from researchers and this is undeniably a crucial part of the job. But there’s more to it…
Consulting with stakeholders to break down and understand their fundamental problem space, then collaboratively identify and prioritise the questions — that’s a true challenge, which, when overcame, often results in forming a long-term research strategy for the title.
Considering how time and money consuming research projects could be, helping to find the perfect balance between time, money and scope of the project is one of senior researchers’ key superpowers.
One tries to design solutions for gameplay problems.
The other tries to define where the problems come from.
In many cases research reports include some suggestions for design fixes or UI alternatives.
The researcher’s role is not to design the whole solution, or inject themselves creatively — that’s a game designer’s or UI artist’s job.
Researcher’s expertise is useful to define a good fix, after making the causes and effects of the issue clear. The main goal is to help designers to create a solution that acknowledges cognitive limitations of people’s minds, Human-Computer Interaction principles and proven best practices.
One delivers the findings and moves on.
The other keeps track if they were well-understood and supports the team also post-research.
Research does not start on the first day of playtesting and does not end when the report is delivered.
Senior researchers maintain communication with the dev team also post-research and pre-the-next-phase-of-the-research, having in mind what is the crucial part of every conversation: making sure to be heard and understood.
The time between projects is equally important for the research team, and can be used to keep research repositories updated, to maintain a log of key product risks and simply prevent organisational chaos by keeping things up to date.
One says ‘the player isn’t taught’.
The other considers the value of learning.
Less-experienced researchers tend to see playtester’s every misunderstanding highlighted in the study as a friction that needs to be removed.
But expecting players to understand and remember everything they see right away is an unrealistic goal.
To paraphrase Raph Koster — learning is fun, and fun is learning.
Experienced researchers understand that learning happens not only through tutorials, and that learning sometimes takes time and requires multiple attempts.
It’s a senior researcher’s role to help teams set realistic learning goals, and the plan for teaching game rules.
One motivates findings with personal sentiments.
The other understands their personal opinions are irrelevant.
Sometimes junior researchers will let personal opinions and assumptions slip into their reports. For example, they might say ‘I like the art style’ or ‘I don’t think players would skip the tutorial (I wouldn’t)’. Other times teams will ask for a researcher’s preferences: ‘but what do you like?’
While researchers might be justified in providing reasoned expert analysis of game usability, the subjective feelings about the game should not be reported without solid data from the target audience. Attitudes, emotions, and opinions are inherently subjective and extremely variable, making it very difficult to accurately predict them. Attempting to do so without good data can provide the dev team with specious and misleading ‘insights’ and priorities.
Refraining from giving personal opinions and saying ‘no’ to some questions is a core skill of experienced researchers, and it is a tough one to master.
*It should be noted that terms ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ used in this article reflect a broader convention in naming roles but position names and their definitions vary between studios. Above statements should be treated as guidelines for researchers, not as an unequivocal dividing line, which, most likely, doesn’t exist.
Written by Ula Karpińska