Man has been play­ing games for a very long time. Arche­ol­o­gists have found Egypt­ian board games dat­ing back to 3500 BCE. Today, we still play. We invite cus­tomers, both estab­lished and poten­tial, to watch a game with us, or even play one, like a round of golf or a cou­ple of sets of ten­nis, to get to know them bet­ter and build a rela­tion­ship. Noth­ing wrong with hav­ing fun while we’re doing a lit­tle work, right? Luke Hohmann couldn’t agree more.

We recently engaged Mr. Hohmann here at Adobe to coach my team and me to find out what cus­tomers need and what they are think­ing. Focus groups just didn’t do it for us. Stale, bor­ing, and often mis­lead­ing, we wanted a new best-in-class approach that would give us a more accu­rate assess­ment of our inter­ac­tion with cus­tomers as they con­sider, buy, and use our products.

In his book Inno­va­tion Games, Hohmann lays out the guide­lines for a series of games designed to change the way we learn about our cus­tomers. We spent two days at our Adobe Lehi site play­ing fun and fas­ci­nat­ing games that resulted in some very open-ended, diver­gent think­ing, lead­ing to price­less “Aha!” moments. After the coach­ing ses­sions with Hohmann, we brought in poten­tial cus­tomers for our own set of games and were thrilled with the results.

We invited local mar­ket­ing agen­cies, heads of mar­ket­ing, and prac­ti­tion­ers from local busi­nesses to lunch at Lehi. We then pro­ceeded to engage in a series of dis­cov­ery, shap­ing, and pri­or­i­tiz­ing ques­tions cen­tered on our cus­tomers’ pain points: when you’re using our prod­ucts, where does it hurt, how much does it hurt, and how can we elim­i­nate the pain?

In a 45-minute game called Speed Boat, imagery, objec­tives, and sticky notes inter­acted with anchors and pro­pellers to tell the sto­ries of what was help­ing and hin­der­ing our cus­tomers as they nav­i­gated their busi­ness boat to a goal. In a game called 20/20 Vision, cus­tomers looked care­fully at the results from Speed Boat, pri­or­i­tiz­ing each item. We had lad­dered their results with what we thought they would say prior to the start of the game. The out­come was jaw-dropping.

We then spent an hour on the Buy a Fea­ture game, sup­ply­ing each player with game cash to use to pur­chase the things they had noted and designed as pain reliev­ers. Again, the results of this game were aston­ish­ing, as noted by our silent observers record­ing the dia­logue for review. Cus­tomers did not always buy their dreams, espe­cially when bud­gets are tight, even if some­thing totally elim­i­nates their pain.

Gam­i­fy­ing our focus group proved a highly suc­cess­ful means for us at Adobe to under­stand many qual­i­ta­tive aspects of prod­uct use by our cus­tomers. The games work, they aren’t bor­ing, and they engage cus­tomers in a way that uncov­ers cre­ative solu­tions and strate­gies that will undoubt­edly improve our prod­ucts and services.

We have fol­lowed up with qual­i­ta­tive research sur­veys to com­pare and con­trast the find­ings, nuances, and out­comes, which we’ll address in fol­low­ing posts. We learned much from play­ing these Inno­va­tion Games and had fun doing it. If you’re involved in any type of inno­v­a­tive approach, whether for process, mar­ket­ing, prod­ucts, or ser­vices, and whether you’re work­ing with orga­ni­za­tions, indi­vid­u­als, busi­nesses, or stu­dents, these games can lead you to dis­cov­ery and inno­va­tion you’d never achieve via tra­di­tional meth­ods. Plus, it’s fun. Now, when was the last time you came out of a focus group say­ing “that was fun” … and meant it?