How playing board games made me a better product designer

Jenn Lu Colker
Mar 18, 2019 · 7 min read

This post is adapted from a workshop I gave at Chegg UX week 2016, a unique UX conference within Chegg to share ideas, add energy, and inspire each other.

Take a break from technology. Learn and get inspired by user experiences that are beyond the screen. Like many of you, I stare at a screen for many hours a day. That’s what you’re doing now as you’re reading this. To get eyeball breaks after work, I play board games with friends and family.

Sometimes when I’m in the weeds of a design, I remind myself to step back and remember that a “user’s experience” does not stop after they interact with the piece I design. The user experience encompasses all the touch points your user has with your company just like a board game. Whether I’m new or a veteran to a board game, the experience as a whole is pretty exciting. As a UX designer crafting products, I can’t help but see the parallels in both worlds.

UX and boardgames both:

Balance needs and enjoyment

Most board games come with an instruction manual, but I find reading them to be the most boring part of starting a new game. My goal at this point is to learn as fast as possible so I can start playing. My preferred approach to learning a new board game is to have a person explain it. That person must be able to explain it succinctly and clearly. Luckily for me, I’m married to the world’s best board-game-rule-explainer so I can ask questions as I go. At the same time as I’m learning the rules, I’m likely multitasking to be a good host by prepping snacks for the table and figuring out what music to play in the background.

I’ve played board games that take no time to learn. These tend to be casual, social games and are likely to have game dynamics that most people are already familiar with. I’ve also played games that take about an hour or more to learn all the rules. Battlestar Galactica anyone? Battlestar Galactica took me about an hour to learn with a group and about 5–6 hours to play. Of course, I knew this beforehand because it had the average game duration printed right on the box and the complexity of the game pieces during setup was clear in setting up that expectation.

UX parallels: product onboarding

Empower users to be in control of their experience

“Ok, so how do I win?” — That’s one of the first things I ask when I learn a new game. The fundamental part of playing a board game is to evaluate all the choices you have and make your move. Some of the factors I think about when deciding my next move:

UX parallels: empower users

Every point of contact a person has with a product is an opportunity for design to shape the number of choices shown and to empower the user to be in control of their experience.

Leverage existing mental models

Once I start to get the hang of a game, I immediately start recognizing familiar game mechanics from previous games played. For example, the last game I learned was Gloomhaven. In Gloomhaven, you choose a character that’s yours to customize throughout the entire game while you team up with your friends to fight monsters. To me, this game was extremely similar to a game I had played in the 90’s called Diablo. With that connection, I was able to quickly understand the rules and play the game without hesitation.

UX parallels: mental models in product design

Elevate the experience

Whether I win or lose — I come away after playing a game with an overall feeling. Even though I might have lost a game, did I still have fun? Will I play it again? What will I remember about it a week later? Will I recommend it to my friends?

One of my favorite games that I have played over a hundred times throughout the past 7 years (coincidentally) is 7 Wonders. In 7 Wonders, you are a leader of one of the ancient civilizations. You have to build and advance your city by obtaining resources on your own or by trade, and investing in military and technology. The most accomplished civilization in the end wins. Here are some of the reasons why I think this board game is an elevated user experience:

UX parallels: elevated experiences in product design

There is no magic formula to “elevate” an experience. It is about identifying opportunities where it can work without feeling forced. Some questions to keep in mind:

These questions are ones that I apply to designs I am working on. Sure, I can create designs to get the users from A to B, but that’s not enough. At Chegg, we are conscious about the whole end-to-end experience and what can we do to elevate the experience to create something memorable for the user.

The next time you play a board game, think about the UX of the game itself and see what you observe. Hopefully, there will be things you’ll notice that inspire you to be a better designer.


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