Steps to Research Goal Alignment

What is Research Goal Alignment?

Research goal alignment is defining the true goals and outcomes of research. A great research project requires defining awesome, meaty, and clear research questions. Without clear business goals or user goals, it can be hard to guide your methodological approach. This blog post walks through when and how to get alignment on your research goal definitions so that you can form the best possible questions with your stakeholders. Furthermore, we provide examples of how to get alignment at three different levels:

  • The organizational level
  • The research roadmap level
  • The project level

Never Skip the Alignment Step

Ask any user researcher if the following has happened to them, and they will tell you that yes, it has:

A product team asks for a very specific research project such as a quick survey or another round of playtests to validate a minor change. The product team lets the researcher know that timing is critical, since a decision must be made in the next few weeks, or if possible, even faster. At the moment of the ask, the task seems straightforward, and the researcher agrees to the project terms. The researcher then sits down at their desk and starts to sketch out a plan, only to realize that they have no idea how to design the study.

The researcher wonders:

  • Why are they making this request?
  • What do they actually want to learn?
  • This has happened to me before, is there a better way?!

I have been in the pickle described above too many times, and so have my counterparts. The reason this happens is that I made too many assumptions, and did not have the required conversations to pinpoint what would be truly impactful. The research we as game user researchers do will only be as good as the questions we ask. That is why taking the time to align on research goals before you dive into strategy is so important.

Knowing When to Start the Alignment Process

How do you know when to start the process of alignment? Here are some signals to listen for so you can gauge whether you need to kick off your alignment process:

  • Are you building a relationship with a new product or game team that you haven’t worked with before?
  • Are you starting a new project that feels unplanned?
  • Are you starting a new project that was planned but are unsure of what research questions to use?
  • Are you in the middle of a project and the data collected so far feels useless?
  • Are you creating a research plan, and you can’t quite put your finger on what the correct approach would be?

If you are looking at the circumstances above and think that alignment can happen at any stage of the research process, then congratulations! Research goal alignment is critical. It needs to happen early, often, and throughout the research process.

Reasons that Alignment Remains Difficult

Alignment can be difficult due to the nature of the practice, and the way research tends to sit inside organizations. User researchers have a supportive mindset and are typically placed in a service-oriented branch of a company. Because research tends to happen at a cost, research teams are therefore constantly having to show their value and ROI.

With this in mind, researchers are often keen to help the teams they support, and to show their positive impact as quickly as possible. This pressure does however put researchers in a tricky position, often related to time, whereby user researchers become reluctant to dig into the deeper “why” behind their research findings. More often than not...

  • We think that we don’t have time to dig deeper
  • We worry that asking WHY makes us sound uninformed, as if we should be reading between the lines
  • We think that someone with different or more experience than us may know better

The three challenges listed above are fallacies. In fact, research should be doing the opposite:

  1. We owe our team our time and they owe it back
  2. Asking why is essential to the design of a great research plan
  3. Gathering research questions with those who have different experiences in the gaming industry provides a needed interdisciplinary lens per the formation of great research questions

Alignment at the Cross-functional Team Level

Prevent Alignment Pitfalls, and Align on Expectations with your Development Team

How might researchers prevent the pitfalls we discussed in the previous section? One solution is to have a conversation about ownership and expectations with your game development team. Writing down what aspects of the alignment process each discipline will own will then hold resultant research and products to a higher standard easily maintained across all future projects. Additionally, agreements on how researchers will collaborate with product teams per project alignment goals will make sure that neither group is blindsided by unclear terms or user results.

Example Set of Mutual Expectations:

The game development team intends to:

  • Be visionary and consider possibilities beyond our wildest imagination
  • Give our research team the time to explain their vision
  • Communicate to research our curiosities
  • Communicate to research when we are not sure about what we should be learning
  • Get involved in research observation
  • Get involved in insight capture such as affinity mapping
  • etc...

The games user research team intends to:

  • Always be curious about the game development team’s vision
  • Bring insights and evidence that push the vision further
  • Make recommendations that narrow down to the best opportunities
  • Always be available to listen to the vision, and help systematically define the vision so that business leaders can understand how to best support the product life cycle
  • Help probe on the deeper “why”, and prioritize the questions that truly need to be answered
  • Always be curious to hear what is on the game development team’s mind
  • Offer themselves as a sounding board
  • etc...

Alignment at the Product Research Roadmap Level

Looking out into the future is my favorite step of project alignment. I love this step because I get to ask product leaders deep questions and tap into what they are excited about. Alignment at the research roadmap level is about listening to your product leaders as they consider what might be most important to them, and what they would like to learn over the next one, three, six, nine, or 12 months. Then, leaders and team members can come back with what they think are the key themes.

To get the most out of your research roadmap alignment, consider doing a very simple activity with your team. Ask your product leaders three simple questions:

  • What information do you need to make decisions one month out, three months out, six months out, nine months out, 12 months out, and beyond?
  • What are you most excited about?
  • What are you most fearful about?

For each of these questions, listen to their answers and probe further on each. So for example, if your product leader says they need to know “what features to add to the game this quarter?” ask them why. Consider asking why up to five times until you can capture a deeper reason for why the product manager or game design lead is asking you to explore a certain topic.

Here is an example of what might be learned through this method to get down to the needs your future research should support:

  • I need to know what features to add this quarter. Can we do a survey? <<Why?
  • We are seeing players lapse after 160 days in the game. We need to prevent that. <<Why?
  • We are thinking the offering of a particular feature is not strategic enough. <<Why?
  • We aren’t sure, but our assumption is that players are leaving our game and spending time somewhere else. <<Why?
  • The competitor title we are thinking of has a ton of strategic innovations we haven’t considered but I don’t know what to prioritize. <<Why?
  • They may be thinking about players differently or know something about our players that we don’t. How can we inform strategy feature innovations beyond our competitors and keep players in our game? << Jackpot!

Walking through these questions with your product leader helps to uncover so many areas of focus that your research could support. Imagine the opportunities missed if the only thing research did was to run a survey on new features. Considering that the root need is a comprehensive understanding of how to innovate on strategy - beyond what competitor games are offering - a survey will only shed a small bit of light on the possibilities for new features and innovations.

Alignment at the Project Level

User research, in many ways, helps teams figure out the right thing to build, or, it helps them figure out how to build something right. Talking with your development team will help you find out whether you need to discover something to inform a direction, or to find out whether the research needed would assist in evaluating a future direction.

If you don’t know where your team is at, just ask! Getting a deeper understanding of where your stakeholders are, even if you think you are surely at the evaluative stage of the process, will absolutely uncover the additional insights they want to learn about your players. You can include these types of discovery questions in your post-play survey or design concept tests to help you improve your research, team, and player testing experiences overall.

In order to get alignment at the project level, start with the following questions:

Questions that help you understand why a development team asked for the research Why are you thinking about this approach?
What are you curious about?
What are you hoping to learn?
What are you excited about?
What are you fearful about?
What do you think we might learn if we do that?
What do you hope to do with the information?
How do you hope everyone will use the information from the research?
Questions to understand when the research project needs to happen

When do you need to make a decision?

Is there certain information that will help you make those decisions sooner, or other information that will help you make future decisions?

Questions to ask that will inform what output or artifacts are expected from the research What kinds of inspiration are you looking for to improve your ability to make those decisions?
  • Visual?
  • Diagrams?
  • Written?
  • Behavioral?
  • Something else?
Questions that help you understand who your stakeholders want to learn about, and whether it is important to observe them as separate groups

Are you thinking there may be different groups of people we need to learn from?

Does it matter if there are differences across the groups?

If there are differences, what will you do with that information?

Questions to help you understand how the research needs to be conducted

In consideration of the above, how will you be using the research information to make decisions?

How confident do you need to be in knowing whether certain themes or patterns scale?

Who might you need to share the insights with at a later date, and what kinds of data do they prefer?

The style used to run through these questions is up to you. A simple interview is one way to tackle it, where you simply ask the team member you are interviewing if you can record the session for future reference. Another way to tackle these questions would be to make a canvas in a digital whiteboard tool, and have stakeholders add post-its for each question’s section during a remote or in-person workshop. If you have multiple stakeholders, that could be a great way to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

The Final Step: Checking that You Have Alignment

Once you have listened to your game development team stakeholders, it is time to make sure you have heard them correctly. Knowing that you have alignment involves one key step: show your team that you listened to them, and ask for their feedback. You can do this in a number of ways.

  • Send an email to summarize what you heard during interviews or alignment workshops
  • In meetings, use words or phrases that the game development team used to describe their curiosities
  • Paraphrase what you heard from your team when you are presenting project proposals
  • Show that the priorities and key research questions are derivative of the alignment work you completed together
  • Add new projects or initiatives to your research backlog, and tie them back to the key themes you heard in the alignment interviews or workshops
  • Adjust the research questions and lenses for analysis in a project that might already be underway
  • Tie the methodology you have chosen to the answers your stakeholders provided, and show them you want to be sure that the types of data you collect meet their needs

Doing any or all of the steps above will allow you to refer back to the original discussions, and will help you keep the team involved as the research plan is designed and eventually progresses. Additionally, this ongoing process will continue to open up the conversation to give your team a chance to share anything further that may crop up as priorities and curiosities evolve and change.

In closing, we hope this article has provided you with some ways to think about alignment at the broader organizational level, as well as at the level of individual projects.

Listening to and discussing goals with your game development teams will always be an ongoing process. The questions here are ones you can keep close to you at all times, which will keep you innovating new ways to get the information you need to complete amazing and impactful games user research.