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?