Workshop Inspiration: The Product Game

For my job, I get to go to a lot of conferences and see some pretty smart folks present. Presentations are fun and all, but I also really like interactive games. I love interactive games so much, I once hid a 100 disposable cameras around Chicago, and made my friends re-enact The Amazing Race: The Cambridge Edition.

Every year, the VIP team puts on an invitation-only client event at The Carneros Inn, in Napa, California (it is easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever stayed). I absolutely love small, boutique conferences. It gives you the opportunity to meet everyone attending, and conversations develop over the few days. One of the highlights for me was attending Austin Smith and Dan Maccarone‘s workshop, “The Product Game.”

The premise was simple: your team is building a new website for millennials. You’re given a stack of feature cards, a budget, and the number of hours your team can work. With those limitations, you have to make decisions on what features to spend money on, what research/information to buy, and whether or not to skip critical parts of the process (like QA). You’ll also need to make decisions between usability and revenue: auto-playing videos, yay or nay? (The answer is nay: you’ll get a chunk of revenue points, but a huge deduction in usability)

Sifting through 160 cards looking for the dozen MVP cards.
Sifting through 160 cards looking for the dozen MVP cards.

Before I continue, just wanted to note that if you plan on playing this game, reading ahead will ruin it for you, so please stop here and come back when you’re done :)

I was randomly assigned to a team of three, and we immediately got to work on sorting cards, finding the “MVP” items and pulling them out. There are 10 “sprints” in the game, and most cards take 4-5 sprints to complete. We decided to get all the MVP cards assigned and underway. Starting a card meant entering its code into a program that Austin built… this program would help us tabulate our progress, money/hours spent, and give us our final scoring.

Entering codes in to "start developing" a feature.
Entering codes in to “start developing” a feature.

The other cards we started looking for were dependencies. You couldn’t start building homepages without your WordPress installation complete! And all of us knew that content migrations needed to be underway asap. But we also had to make decisions – are homepages even that important anymore? Should we spend more resources on article pages?

We didn’t know the answer, but we could “buy” research to see what Those Millennial Kids wanted from our product. We decided to spend the money ($30k!) so we could make better decisions for our product. Turns out, homepages are meh, article pages and personalization (social logins, recommended articles) are where it’s at.

My Product Team :)

My team was well underway when twists and turns began to foil our perfectly laid-out plans. Our media company had layoffs and our budget was slashed (never saw that one coming)! A new CTO was appointed and boy, he loves All Things Video, so we got a new stack of video-related MVP cards. And the worst one… one of our teammates was poached by another team, and he took our expensive user research with him.

While almost all the cards were pretty realistic, a few made me crack up.
While almost all the cards were pretty realistic, a few made me crack up because they were so painfully true.

As we got closer to the end of of the sprints, we were allowed to do certain things, like go over budget to expedite certain features, or click a big red button called “SKIP QA.” (I immediately thought, “That’s A Trap!”) We also had a bit of left over budget and were thinking about adding Google AMP or Facebook Instant Articles, but decided to hold onto the cash. It’s a good thing we did, because the final round introduced a slew of bugs that we had to spend our remaining budget and hours on.

This was one of the "bugs" that needed to be fixed in the final sprint... the VIP team (and Stéphane) got a huge kick out of this.
This was one of the “bugs” that needed to be fixed in the final sprint… the VIP team (and Stéphane) got a huge kick out of this.

So… after it was all said and done… not to brag or anything, but my team won! We had a good balance of usability and revenue, and did not go egregiously over budget. :D

But, even if we had lost (and it was really close), I had a terrific time playing the game. Product launches usually take months and months, and I often get swept up into the details. Since we played an entire product cycle in 90 minutes, it forced me to step back and look at the big picture, which I appreciated. It was also a terrific way to get to know my fellow conference attendees, and I appreciated the attention to detail Austin and Dan put into the cards and gameplay. This stuff takes a really long time to create, design, and build.

Participating in the workshop reminded me that presentations don’t need to be keynote slides and QAs. I love interactive games and hands-on learning, so why not build more of that into the workshops we lead? True, it takes significantly more time, but I think the engagement is far more rewarding. I’m leading a workshop on at SRCCON in a few months, and I’m already starting to brainstorm ways I can include gameplay into my session.

More reading: I facilitated a session at SRCCON last year, here’s my post on testing and iterating a workshop.