Navigating Negative User Feedback
Have you ever participated in a user testing session? In tech, user testing is a big deal. If I can show an early build of my product to a sample target audience, I may potentially glean mistakes from my assumptions or uncover gems that can truly make my product special.
The key to correctly understanding user testing results is to identify who the target audiences are. For example, if I am building a product fulfillment software, my main target audience would be the warehouse staff and managers. Secondarily, the sales department may be interested to know who the customers are. Finally, the upper management will probably want a dashboard to see how the company is doing.
When I receive negative feedback from different users (e.g., it's unclear how to do X, or step B should be before step A, etc.), I will use their audience type(s) to determine the relevancy and pervasiveness of the issue.
In board game design, we obviously do user testing all the time. But unlike tech products, it takes a bit more to analyze negative results. After all, how do you interpret comments like, "Well, I am just not that excited about it"?
To be able to unpack this type of feedback, there needs to be a framework to evaluate what the definition of "fun" is for each player. Fortunately, there is already a well-establish guide called Bartle's taxonomy of player types in the video game industry that outlines exactly what distinct motivations drive different types of players.
Similar to personality tests, Bartle's taxonomy groups players into four different play styles: the achievers, the explorers, the socializers, and the killers. Therefore, my user feedback surveys start with 4 questions that target these groups:
On a scale of 1 to 5, how much do you enjoy collecting victory points from different objectives?
On a scale of 1 to 5, how much do you enjoy uncovering new stories/maps/content during gameplay?
On a scale of 1 to 5, how much do you enjoy having interactions (e.g., trading, negotiating, etc.) with other players at the table?
On a scale of 1 to 5, how much do you enjoy eliminating other players?
From the answers to these questions, I can tease out each user's preferred playstyle(s). When I get negative feedback from them, I compare their preferences to the experience I am designing for. If they don't match well, then the player is not in my main target audience, and I will tend to de-prioritize their feedback.
Conversely, if a player typically likes other games in the same genre I am designing for, I would pay close attention to what's not working for them. In fact, I will ask additional questions about the game mechanics (e.g., are there not enough player options, is the strategy too obvious, etc.)
It's important to note that I am not advocating that designers should always just make games for specific niches. If you are like me, board games are a conduit to bring people together - the more, the better. But without a focus, I am at risk of making a tepid and uninteresting experience for everyone. Indeed, it's this tug-of-war between the two different design philosophies where I am really forced to stretch my boundaries and innovate.