Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 25, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 25, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

What Homeland can teach us about user research
by Natalie Golub on 12/06/12 08:48:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When performing user research, my job is to collect information on how people use a product and then to sort out the truth by deciphering trends and eliminating outliers. So naturally, I relate to Carrie Mathison, Homeland’s weirdly intense intelligence officer who is obsessed with capturing terrorists and providing security for the United States. Like Carrie, I am obsessed with understanding how children use digital products, sometimes disclosing findings that are against popular theory. And if you think kid testing is any more predictable or calm than investigating a code red security threat, then please feel free to step in and take my place next time I am interviewing a five year old having an emotional breakdown in a double mirror research lab with designers, project managers and producers observing my discipline tactics while I attempt to continue the interview.

As a user researcher, living the double life as a wannabe-spy, I have compiled a classified list of lessons that Homeland can teach us about user research. Use this information wisely, for the purpose of good vs. evil, and at your own risk.

1) Document your evidence.

As an astute user researcher/CIA intelligence officer, you must vigilantly document your subjects. Though Carrie applies extreme measures to retrieve and analyze participant information (like installing cameras in bedrooms, ahem), such effort is not socially acceptable in user research. Instead, consider documenting your research in ways more easily accessible. While research labs are often equipped with professional user research software, such as Morae, recording interviews can be done with more easily accessible devices, such as an iPhone or Flip camera.

The goal of documenting interviews is not to show off fancy equipment, but rather to create a history that you and others can browse for information during the report writing, and perhaps, during product iterations or even future product development for new projects. Record everything in your research session that you can.

2) Build a rapport.

Carrie knows better than anyone that gaining the trust of her subject in crucial to withdrawing valuable information. Through risky and morally questionable tactics, Carrie tends to retrieve important data, that others cannot. She creates a trusting environment where her target in question feels comfortable confiding in her about personal matters. Though we all might not have access to a woody lake home to conduct user research, or the opportunity to play the role of good-cop, small attempts to make the participant feel comfortable go a long way. Whether a child or an adult, the participant often brings a natural tendency to want to please the researcher or withhold personal information. Children are especially susceptible to researcher bias, and therefore have a strong urge to answer or perform in a way that they believe is satisfactory to the grown-ups in the room. Staying far away from leading questions is imperative to uncovering accurate information.

A research lab, whether a designated research room or a classroom turned makeshift research space, is an unnatural environment. We do not usually have strangers looking over our shoulder while we use a new product, and inquiring about our thought process throughout. Whether interviewing an adult or child, I like to start every session the same way. After making casual and comfortable talk (e.g. finding out the child’s favorite thing to eat for breakfast), I always use the same line: “There are no wrong or right answers. I really just want to know what you think so we can make this better.” For children, this line always precedes my signature description that they, “one of the first kids in the whole world to play with this game!” Not only does it get children excited about participating because they feel special, but it makes them feel important and motivated to contribute.

3) Collaborate with your fellow agents.

Despite her inclination to solve everything on her own, Carrie is sometimes forced to acknowledge the necessary perspective of others. In a user experience study, there is often only one researcher assigned to the project. Working amongst project managers, producers, designers and engineers, a researcher, much like Carrie, can feel alone in the fight to discover the truth and work against others’ biases and politically charged desired outcomes.

However different in experience and roles, other members of the product development team should become your allies, and tools to access valuable perspectives. Communicating with research onlookers and investors during the study itself can not only broaden your own observations, but it can help you further understand their ultimate goals for the study, which is, afterall, the ultimate reason you are conducting research in the first place. Just as Carrie communicates with her fellow intelligent officers during investigations, talk to the onlookers between sessions whenever possible.

4) Use visuals to convey information. Carrie’s wall board, covered with miscellaneous information and organized according to timelines or categories is crucial in her own discovery process. And equally important, it is imperative to her ability to communicate this information with others. Recorded research sessions are not just important to offer information to be used for current or future discovery. Including videos in reports is an excellent way to communicate hard to understand issues, or to highlight challenges that you deem particularly important. Assemble your evidence in a clear, easy to understand, and descriptive way. Saying that children tend to be unintentionally active an incorrect hotspot is even more powerful when accompanied with video and a corresponding graph.

5) Information should be actionable. Presenting evaluated and deciphered data is helpful, but your research results should be accompanied by actionable outcomes. Carrie would not be so highly respected if her discoveries were just… discoveries. She is always thinking ahead, providing the suggested next move, and considering the work that such recommendations will take. Discovering and presenting the finding that children didn’t understand the game’s instructions is great, but not enough. You’re mission is on its way to completion when you have come up with a recommendation that considers the “why” and directs the team to a fix.

Do you want to be a secret agent, disguised as a user researcher? Tweet us your super spy research techniques @noCrusts

Read more:

Related Jobs

Red 5 Studios
Red 5 Studios — Orange County, California, United States

Graphics Programmer
Red 5 Studios
Red 5 Studios — Orange County, California, United States

Gameplay Programmer
Gearbox Software
Gearbox Software — Plano, Texas, United States

Server Programmer
Giant Sparrow
Giant Sparrow — Playa Vista, California, United States

Junior 3D Artist


Alex Covic
profile image
I don't like the connotation btw describing yourself in the field of user research, "spying" on kids and comparing yourself at the same time with a fictional bipolar TV character. In the beginning it might have sounded funny, but going "through" with it, it becomes creepy & weird and devaluates whatever serious thing you have been trying to say.

"Do you want to be a secret agent, disguised as a user researcher..." - no, I really don't. And neither should you. It is of bad taste.

Ramon Carroll
profile image
While I didn't see the Homeland/Spy analogy as necessary to help communicate the art and process of user research, I think you are over-exaggerating a bit.

Aside from the pointless analogy, I felt that the article was informative for those who don't deal much in the area of user research.

David Boudreau
profile image
I agree with Alex. Titling this "What Homeland can teach us about user research" is a ridiculous premise and, besides not delivering on its promise, is just creepy Natalie. The major motion picture "Rules of Engagement" staring Samuel L. Jackson, Guy Pearce and Tommy Lee Jones makes more of a connection between the study of child psychology and Homeland security. User research of how children play games doesn't exactly have any serious consequences; Homeland security practices can pose moral dilemmas and threaten the security of the... well, of the homeland. Where, exactly, is the promised "code red crisis" in user research?? User research for games can help a lot of us stay employed but let's be honest, suggesting there's any similarity to spying for the government is just a lot of noise.

Ramon Carroll
profile image
Look, I'm not disagreeing that the analogy was pointless, distracting, and just plain silly. I'm just saying that by skimming over those aspects, there is still some helpful information to draw from it.

TC Weidner
profile image
why do researchers act as if they were never kids? These arent some alien creatures, it was all of us what seems like only a blink of eye ago. Do people really have that bad of memories?

John McMahon
profile image
kids are not alien, but not all kids are the same. Therefore, research.

Jonathan Bergeron
profile image
"Collaborate with your fellow agents"

I'm going to have to say tread VERY lightly here. Product managers, producers and designers all have different ways of interpreting data, and if you share too much they are going to try to color how you read the results. Having them witness a study is one thing, but having them weigh in on how to handle it or what the results are is different. This is a relatively new field and I have yet to encounter a manager or director that really understood what it is my research accomplishes unless they had prior experience or understanding. Many of the engineers and designers are closely invested in the project, so keep that in mind when you talk with them about your results.

And 2 things you should mention in the article; first expect a lot of push-back from people if they don't know what user research achieves. It's not focus groups, and it can be more detailed than playtests. Second- research can be done on groups and places that have nothing to do with the game. Studying how people do something in a physical space that mirrors to a digital interaction can yield as much if not more information on how to implement a feature or design than having it built and seeing if they user "gets it".