The Promosphere: A Hero’s Quest

This is the story of how I invented a board game to help people better understand a problem.

The backstory

Fellow UX designer, Jon Akland, and I were each tasked with designing a few new components that could be used to promote new features on MIT Technology Review.

These new units were part of a sprawling collection of promotional content that lacked guidelines and logic, and I realized we needed to quickly get a handle on these new elements before it spun out of control. Requests for even more promotions were starting to roll in more frequently, and the user experience was worsening with every layer of promotional content we put between the reader and the story. We risked losing readers if we didn’t rein things in.

In order to figure out how to manage and contain the reading environment, we needed to better understand it. First, I came up with a name and definition:

Promosphere (noun): The mass of digital promotions, ads, and messages that surround and dwell within the MIT Technology Review environment but are not editorial content.

Jon and I got to work auditing all of the existing and planned promotions, figuring out which department was promoting what, and assigning values for disruption to the user experience and priority within the organization.

The departments creating promotional messages were editorial, marketing, events, and ad sales. The people in those departments weren’t talking to each other about the nature and amount of promotions they were each hoping to run, or how a reader could potentially see thirteen different in-house promotions (not counting ads) in a single visit.

Rather than giving a presentation on empathy, we needed to figure out how to arrive at a shared understanding of the impact of our work. We also needed to empathize with our co-workers—they were doing their jobs to promote their products, events and initiatives, each with their own goals to meet. But in order for that effort to pay off, the messages and promotions shouldn’t be allowed to drown each other out.

I set out to come up with a collaborative design activity that would strike the right tone of light-hearted fun that might allow some empathetic reflection and understanding. My internet research didn’t yield what I was looking for, so I invented a board game instead.

Here I am about 7 hours into the board game design, wondering if I’ve made a huge mistake

The Promosphere: A Hero’s Quest

Game Overview

This game takes place in a faraway galaxy called the Internet. The creatures that live in The Internet are called Readers, and Readers thrive by consuming content. They use their jetpacks to travel from planet to planet on a never-ending quest for content to consume. There are thousands of planets to visit in The Internet that all have different flavors of content to try.

Readers

In this game, most of the players are Readers who have stumbled upon a little planet called The Promosphere, and it has a decent selection of interesting content for the Readers to consume.

The game board is shaped like an article, and the Readers consume the article by rolling the dice and advancing their game piece along the board. Their goal is to make it all the way to the end of the article before they activate their jetpack and fly off to another planet.

The Gatekeeper

One player has the role of The Gatekeeper. The Gatekeeper is the host of The Promosphere and is eager to have Readers visiting and show them all The Promosphere has to offer. The Gatekeeper’s goal is to show off all the different sights and features of The Promosphere in hopes that the Readers will decide to stay a little while. The Gatekeeper has to be careful when interacting with the Readers though, because…

Shiny Objects

The Readers each have an attention span which can hold up to twelve shiny objects. The Internet is a crowded galaxy and shiny objects are everywhere! If a Reader accumulates too many, their attention span reaches capacity, they become overwhelmed and activate their jetpacks, zooming out of the The Promosphere and back into The Internet where their attention span resets and they can try content from other planets.

Shiny Objects in a Reader’s Attention Span

Variable cards

Readers take turns rolling the dice to see how far they get in the article, and they may land on a space that asks them to draw a variable card. Variable cards are things that neither the Readers nor the Gatekeeper can control. They compete for the Readers’ attention, and can make it more difficult to get through to the end of the article, especially when they add shiny objects to the Reader’s attention span.

Here are a few variable cards

Promo cards

During each Reader’s turn, the Gatekeeper can choose to present the Reader with a promo card. Promo cards highlight various features and attractions in The Promosphere, but handing them out is risky. Promo cards interrupt Readers’ progress through an article and add shiny objects to their attention span. So although the Gatekeepers intentions are good in wanting Readers to stay in The Promosphere, they risk alienating the Readers if the promo cards fill up their attention span too quickly.

The Gatekeeper’s goal is to hand out as many promo cards as possible without forcing Readers to activate their jetpacks before they reach the end of the article. Gatekeeper Enlightenment is achieved when they realize that Readers are in the Promosphere for its content, and will want to stay if they can have a mostly uninterrupted reading experience.

Here are a few promo cards

How did it go?

My fellow product development team members play-tested it with me several times and had many wise insights and suggestions for the game mechanics, world-building, and pace.

After making a some edits to the pieces and refining the rules, I played a few different times with stakeholders from other departments, and it was a lot of fun. I’m still not totally satisfied with the end-of-game scenarios or the pace, but I have to keep reminding myself that the purpose of this adventure wasn’t to make a perfect, airtight board game, but to create an environment that allowed people to understand a problem in a new way and talk about it openly.

The Promosphere: A Hero’s Quest in action. I forgot to make Reader pieces and bring dice, so we improvised!

It’s not wrong to have things we need to communicate with readers. But we risk creating a hostile user experience if we don’t choreograph the messages intentionally and with prudence. We are really only likely to meet our business goals when they align with what the users’ are.

It’s hard to measure the success of a project like this, but since introducing the game and playing it a few times, I can confidently say there is productive and sustained dialogue on the subject, and a collaborative, cross-departmental effort to become better stewards of The Promosphere.

And, importantly, the word “Promosphere” has entered the office lexicon!

If you are interested in checking out the full set of game pieces and rules, send me an email: emilyrwaggoner at gmail dot com.

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