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The importance of qualitative user research for game development

Why is qualitative, ethnographic research important for game development? Because it asks new questions and gets you new kinds of data about people who play games and use tools in real, everyday contexts.

Ethnographic and qualitative-oriented research has the potential to access and contextualize user environments while also discovering new and emergent ways that people interact with technology. In this way, ethnography presents a holistic point of view that moves the primary research focus outside of the lab test space and into lived environments. This is not to say that ethnography is a better approach than lab studies, but is rather an approach that yields very different qualitative data. This kind of data is often outside of range of focus, for example, of usability testing, in which the user and the technology are typically considered as the two key components of a closed system.

Ethnography and more quantitative-oriented lab studies can reinforce one another, and potentially present more powerful and convincing cases to developers. As a qualitative research method, ethnography draws on “squishier” data that is able to provide convincing narratives and case examples of media use. Users are also able to narrate their own media experiences through methods, such as journaling. Through interviews, participant observation, and long-term communication with target communities of users, researchers are able to understand users from a bottom-up perspective, and, by keeping one foot in this arena and the other squarely in the development circle, translate user perspectives to designers.

Several examples of general research questions that I think ethnography is particularly positioned to answer include questions that are, to a degree, unanswerable in lab environments such as:

  • Does the intent of the designers match the way in which the application, game, or hardware is actually being used in an everyday, lived context? If not, how might the future design of the same game or app—or a different game or app that meets these particular user needs more effectively—be informed by this kind of unforeseen use of the application?
  • What communities of users have formed around an entertainment application or game, and how can future design and development be informed by, and nurture the growth of, these communities? 
  • How do users make a decision to use an app in the first place? What are the various media ecologies that surround any given application, and how might the use of one app encourage or be related to the use of others?
  • How can existing media practices of viewing, playing, and communicating in emerging or competitive regional, national, and ethnic markets be leveraged and incorporated within existing and future applications, games, and platforms?
  • What design measures can be taken in specific contexts to make a social app or media platform more welcoming to a wider variety of users, who might be discouraged from participating by the use of offensive language against women or other diverse groups?

I think that it is important to note that though these sets of questions are geared toward the development and improvement of entertainment applications, ethnography also presents a useful method for postmortem analysis of features and designs. Given the increasingly iterative and continuous development cycle in the interactive entertainment industry, ethnography is flexible enough to intervene and inform the application development cycle at any stage.

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