I research and design digital products designed for millions of users.
I continue to build on my doctoral research, which explores how a digital therapeutic intervention’s aims can be embodied in the moment-to-moment user experience. For example: Can we convert teen passion for dramatic stories into real-world self-improvement outcomes? This is an example of ‘transfer’, a long-studied problem in educational games, VR therapy, and other digital entertainment based approaches to impact. In my research I argue that transfer is not easy, but it’s possible.”
My work responds to 30 years of mostly failed attempts to apply video game and digital entertainment product design to non-entertainment products. I agree with theorists who argue these points:
- Video games have great promise as tools for change
- Past approaches, such as gamification and edutainment, have failed to deliver on that promise
- Activity-goal alignment theory can address those failures
- A good method to advance this research area is to apply design theory in building innovative products
From 2012 to 2017, my colleagues and I explored how to apply activity-goal alignment theory to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based theory to prevent and treat depression and anxiety. In recognition of the many self-directed digital CBT therapy products that have failed to engage their users enough to have major impact, I argue our prioritization of engagement is appropriate, and have the potential to be more effective than top-cited work (e.g. SPARX) because the users discover, internalize, and employ strategies of CBT via playful, iterative, challenge-based practice to master systems whose rules embed CBT.
Formal (e.g. NIH-funded) research design might include
- Two studies (N=30 pilot, N=300 final)
- Five Stages (recruit, screen, pre survey, treatment, post survey)
- Justification for setting (lab vs natural), participant selection, exposure
- Analysis of methodological weaknesses (e.g. biases due to compensation) and mitigation efforts
- Quantitative data from valid, reliable published measures of knowledge and attitudinal change
- Power and bias reviews from statistics, subject matter, other research experts, prior to study
- IRB approval
My study designs begin with literature reviews, and address known weaknesses. For example, many studies of game-based interventions were unable to distinguish engagement effects attributable specifically to the novelty of a video game experience, or rely on anecdotal data to support their claims of engagement levels comparable to commercial games. To address this in a recent project, I added a second control group to create a three-group design: one control group plays a top-selling commercial game, while experimental group plays our prototype, and a third group engages in Treatment As Usual – an online elearning course with known levels of efficacy).
- Third stage (‘promising signs’ / exploratory user research) research prior to pilot, during production
As an applied researcher, I often combine modern product design approaches (iterative, user data-driven), combining and modifying methods from the following academic and commercial fields:
- psychology (behavioral, social)
- digital health
- media and communication
- commercial video game production
I often work at early stage (concept) projects, typically employing the following methods:
- Basic ethnographic (e.g. natural and laboratory behavioral observation, semi-structured interview, and/or attitudinal / knowledge surveys)
- Secondary source research (academic meta-analyses, competitive product analyses, business reports based on prior user surveys, published essays from designers and user researchers)
For example, I might evaluate a nonfunctional low-fidelity prototype using this method:
- Typical N=2-10
- Recruiting via friends & family, online services (mechanical Turk, Sermo), compensated
- Screening, survey, 60 minute videoconference, intro-play-discuss
- Often single-blinded (we show two prototypes per session)
- Data, qualitative (notes and transcripts from semistructured interviews, observation of behavioral and social interactions with prototypes (function/feature definition)
- Data, quantitative (sort, speech-based, observed actions/body language, data recorded by prototype)
As an applied researcher, my aims are often broader than traditional academic research. In addition to typical UX research aims (adoption/engagement/commercial success), my work often has an efficacy assessment aim as well. I customize methods to achieve these combinations. For example, for a nonprofit-funded socioemotional treatment experiment in 2015, my colleagues and I conducted an innovative pre-pilot study method I named “Rapid Evaluation”.
- Aim: estimate (rapidly inaccurately measure) efficacy and engagement prior to pilot
- Timeline: iteration, in 1-3 week cycles
- Product: functional prototype of proposed product
- Protocol: online recruiting via mTurk, pre-screening, pre-interview 10-item survey, 60 minute play-discuss session via videoconference
- Coding: single-rater coding of body proximity, presence/absence of emotion (frustration/confusion), conversation topic (social rejection experience),
- Data: spreadsheet of coded behaviors, brief written statements 3 topics per playtest, videos of playtests.
- Outcome: we feel the “Rapid Eval” method fills an important gap between non-behavioral methods (surveys, secondary sources) and a typical 8-month academic pilot test. Its findings are too low quality to substitute for pilot, but can be used to justify resources for one.
For preproduction or larger-scale research during production that is sufficiently resourced, I collaborate with experts in laboratory settings to design experiments suitable for the budget and specific project.
 Gamification is adding generic mechanics from video games such as point scoring and leaderboards.
 Edutainment is didactically delivered educational content interleaved with entertaining experiences.
- Twice invited presenter and design participant, “Depression Game Jam” workshop, University of Southern California (2014), Radboud University (2015)
- Presentation title: “Prototyping Methods to find High Alignment between Game Mechanics and CBT for Teen Depression.”
- Accepted panel, Foundations of Digital Games (FDG) 2015, Asilomar CA.
- “Game Design Prototyping Methods To Find High Alignment Between Game Mechanics And CBT For Teen Depression For Android Devices.”
- Invited speaker, “Youth Technology Health Live 2015”, San Francisco, April 2015. “Methods and Findings for Engagement Studies of “Surviving Independence” Game-Based Behavior Change Intervention”
- Invited participant, HealthFoo 2015
- Won $250k grant to Northwest Media Inc., titled “Online Training for Foster and Primary Parents of Neglected Children”, NIH. Co-PI. Designed, developed product, completed pilot study, 2014.
- Won $2.4M grant to Northwest Media Inc., titled “VSG”: a video game that teaches independent living skills to at-risk youth, NIH. Co-PI. Designed, developed product, completed final study, 2014
- 2011-2012 “Lead Researcher” (PI), successful $30,000 YAWCRC “Young People and Game Developers Working Together: Modelling a Process for Video Game Design Co-Creation” link