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[There is often some confusion among developers with regard to the terminology used by user researchers. Just what is focus testing, what's user testing, and how do the goals and methods of the two differ? The IGDA Special Interest Group for Games User Research (GUR-SIG) would like to clarify the matter once and for all.]
In this day and age, it is nearly impossible to think about developing a game without some form of systematic testing being performed at different stages of production. Testing has proven itself to be instrumental in ridding the game of bugs (QA), figuring out how to best sell the game (market research), and getting the product closer to the designer's vision in terms of the player experience (user research).
The field of user research may be relatively young within both the games industry and the world of academia, but decades of multidisciplinary research in fields like ergonomics, usability, psychology, communications, and anthropology form the pillars that support researchers to answer that all-important question: Are there any unforeseen impediments to an optimal player experience, and how can the experience be improved?
While there is little doubt about the merits of testing in general, there can be some confusion about who does what kinds of testing. User research has its own lingo that can sometimes confound those who aren't familiar with it. Especially with its diverse academic baggage, user research can produce jargon that means little to outsiders, or leads to misunderstandings (even amongst insiders).
For example, some terms like "playtesting" are used both in QA and user research, but in the two contexts can refer to very different techniques. General familiarity with decades of market research jargon such as "focus groups" has created further opportunities for confusion. As such, it's no wonder that the term "focus testing" is sometimes mistaken as a synonym for "usability testing". This article seeks to clear up some of these misunderstandings so we can hopefully all understand each other a little better.
Let's start with the term "games user research": This is the name for the overall discipline that Games User Researchers occupy within the game industry. The discipline also covers job titles such as usability specialists, playtest managers and player experience researchers. "Games user research" is the umbrella term.
As such, games user research is a game industry discipline on par with other disciplines like animation, marketing, programming, QA, and other vital parts of the development and publishing process; it distinguishes itself from these other disciplines primarily via a) its function, b) its object of inquiry, and c) its method.
The primary function of games user research is, simply put, to test and evaluate the viability of the design with the ultimate goal of helping to make more enjoyable games.
However, this alone is not enough to distinguish games user research, as the testing and evaluation of design is also a function of QA and market research. The factors that do distinguish games user research are that it specializes in a specific kind of evaluation, namely "user test"-based evaluations, and that it has a different object of inquiry than QA or market research, and therefore uses different methods.
Janus Rau Sorensen, user research manager at Crystal Dynamics & IO Interactive, offers building a car as an analogy to explain this difference: "If we were making cars instead of games (in which case this site would be Carasutra), QA would be looking for blown gaskets, flat tires, loose connections in the electrical circuitry or a malfunctioning A/C. They would try to answer the question 'To what extent does the machine work?' and the main object of inquiry is 'the machine'.
"Market research would present the concept of the car to a group of potential consumers, or explore consumer habits and preferences, and try to answer the question 'To what extent can we sell this machine to these people?' the main object of inquiry being 'the relationship between the consumer and the sales pitch.'"
"A car user researcher, on the other hand, would run a 'user test' by putting a potential buyer in the same room as the car and see if this person can make it into the car, can find the A/C button, turn on the engine, drive from A to B without crashing the car, and perhaps investigate whether or not this person feels the car is fun to drive.
"The question the user researcher would be trying to answer is 'To what extent is the interaction between the car and the user usable, satisfying and enjoyable?' Therefore, the object of inquiry for user research is 'the relationship and interaction between the consumer and the product content,' and the principal activity in which data and information about this interaction is acquired is called 'user testing'. This is also the case for games user research."
In short, games user research is: