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Exploring new ideas by playing games

Lucy Blackwell, our Creative Director, describes how creating and playing a Snakes and Ladders style board game has helped us to consider new ideas for the FutureLearn product.

FutureLearn recently moved into a new phase of growth offering the opportunity to expand the areas we focus on in the Product Team. Me in my role as Creative Director, Matt Walton our Head of Product, and Joel Chippindale our CTO have been working together closely to help set the direction for the product, and we’ve been thinking a lot about how to effectively engage our teams in this process.

In this post, we will share an experiment we recently conducted, in which we explored some new ideas by having small teams play around with the ideas in a game invented solely for this purpose. We’ve gone into a fair amount of detail, so you could take these techniques and apply them to another situation if appropriate.

Diverging and converging

Matt, Joel and I had all been thinking individually about things we should do next and what the future of the product may look like, so we began the process by coming together for a brainstorm session to see where our thoughts overlapped and connected.

In the brainstorm session, we started with a process called “diverging”. If you’re not familiar with this, we posed a big question and then allowed ourselves to expand out from this point.  In this case we asked: “What are the big questions we have about the way the digital world and the education field will develop in the future?” As you might imagine, we found more new questions emerged than answers, here’s a few of them…

What is the value of a university education? How might people become invested in a digital service? What’s the balance between digital experiences and physical experiences? When and how do people really learn? How do people learn by doing? How mainstream are we and how pioneering? How can we use new technologies and tools to enhance the learning experience? What will the internet of things mean to FutureLearn? What is the true value of your friends’ recommendations and social commerce? 

After the initial session we some took some time to digest everything that had been shared individually and then met again to follow up the “diverging” process by “converging” on the main themes that we all agreed were important.

Turning themes into dials of engagement

We took the themes that had emerged and began to discuss these in more detail, thinking about if they were unique enough, or too similar to one another, and what type of language or wording best described what we were trying to express. We quickly discovered that many of the themes were things we already did a bit of, but we wanted to do more of.

We started thinking about the themes like dials. What if we could turn up the intensity of a theme? What if the theme was like a dial that could be cranked up or down? The idea of a set of “dials of engagement” emerged – a tool that would help us think about how to solve the tasks ahead. In its first iteration, we agreed on the following six dials:

Dials of engagement

1. It’s all about me!

With the learner at the heart of everything, it’s all about you the learner! It’s your learning journey, your goals, your achievements, your identity, your connections, your community. Learn whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. It’s all about you!

2. Habit-forming

Using FutureLearn should become a habit – something a learner just can’t help doing. Triggers along the way will continually engage you in your new learning habit.  

3. Loveable

The best learning experiences are highly loveable – full of delight and surprise, and adding value to your life. It’s a quality, Virgin Atlantic experience not a budget RyanAir.

4. Social

Social interactions should be central to the learning experience. Encouraging sharing and support from one’s peers is the foundation upon which we build everything.

5. Connected

FutureLearn is a learning platform for a growing network of learners, educators and organisations interested in learning. It is the connections between all the different parts of this network that adds unique value to the experience for all those involved.

6. Accessible

We want everyone, anywhere to enjoy FutureLearn. It should be accessible to those with a variety of different learning abilities, as well as to people in any country, on any device.

Presenting these dials through a game

In the past we’ve shared new product ideas with the Product Team in the form of a presentation, which the team listens to while one of us explains the slides. Then we ask for feedback. But often it seems that people are not ready to respond right away, perhaps needing a little more time to mull over an idea first, or perhaps not knowing exactly what it means in practice.

So we started to wonder if playing a game with these new concepts might enable people to engage with the information in a more active way. In my experience, play can often be a better tool for gaining a deeper level of understanding than observation.

We also wanted to see if the dials actually worked as a tool for understanding a problem more deeply. What if we’d come up with a set of ideas that were far too abstract or didn’t make sense to other people?

In order for the team to adopt these ideas in their daily work we thought they were going to need to feel that they really understood them and that they were useful to them as a tool.  So we decided to try designing a game to play (instead of making another presentation).

The game mechanics

FutureLearn Snakes and Ladders

The board

After looking at all sorts of different types of board games, we resolved to keep the board pretty simple, modelling it on a Snakes and Ladders style board game, and adding in some FutureLearn-y type game mechanics for how you moved along the board.

There were special landing spots labeled “step up”, where the player could climb a set of steps (like those in our brand) and skip forward on the board. And there were other spots labeled “roll back”, which sent a player backwards (like the way we occasionally roll back a release in our website’s code if something isn’t working as expected).

Goal cards

There was also a set of goal cards, which I asked the product managers in each team to fill in before each game session. There was one goal per card, and they described things coming up on the product team roadmap in the near future that hadn’t been started yet.


Every player (or team) was also given a dial of engagement at the start of the game. We explained what we meant by these words and introduced the idea of dialing up how we think about certain themes when we design and build things.

Your turn

When it was your turn, you took a goal card from the stack, and had to try and come up with an idea that demonstrated a way to crank up your dial for that particular goal.

For example, if the goal was “Tailor emails to the learner who receives them” and the dial you had was “Habit forming”, then you might suggest something like “Send motivational emails to learners to encourage them to finish their course, like: ‘We see you’ve nearly finished Week 2 of your course, it will only take about 10 minutes to finish this week. Click here to finish this week now.’’

Ideas board

All of the ideas were scribed by the game facilitator on a master ideas sheet, or in our case a whiteboard. We listed the different words of the dial in the vertical column, and the goals as they surfaced in the horizontal column.  The answers were then added to the appropriate square as the game progressed.


In order to move your player forward on the board, the rest of the players would vote on how good they thought your idea was. The game facilitator would count to three and each player would show a certain number of fingers on their hand.

The average number received between 1 and 5 would be the number of places you could move forward on the board. We use a similar technique when estimating how large a piece of work is, so had thought applying this approach to the game would be familiar to those involved.

Swapping dials

To make sure people had a chance to explore ideas for different dials of engagement, there was also a spot on the board you could land on where you could swap dials with someone else at the table.

Playing and evolving the game

FutureLearn team members playing the game.

We played the game a total of three times with each workstream within the product team. Each time we played it, we got feedback from the group on how effective it was, and how we might improve it, and adjusted the game a little bit in between each session.

The first session

The first time we played the game it was felt that the goals were too narrow – for example, “Create different account types for partners” – and that it maybe easier to generate ideas if the goals were broader – for example, “Consider how different partners use the platform.”

As these goals had been taken from the product roadmap we wondered if the roadmap was too specific, and if the product teams might be more effective in achieving the goals if they had more room to play and solve the problem themselves at the beginning. We are feeding this thinking into how we evolve the product roadmap process in the future.

We also had so many goals that it was felt we would never reach the end of the game, which de-motivated people. So in the next session we limited the goal cards to four, and made each goal much broader.

Finally, we found that people really didn’t know how to vote on other people’s ideas. One player simply voted five every time, because he didn’t know how to gauge the success of an idea without any criteria for doing this. Someone else pointed out that voting on other people’s ideas felt very critical and wasn’t a very healthy process for brainstorming.

It was suggested that instead, a player could ask everyone else playing the game to help them come up with ideas. So in the next session we decided to focus on making the game a tool for encouraging more collaboration and idea generation.

We got rid of the voting process altogether and gave players a dice to roll to determine how many steps they moved forward each go. We also explicitly encouraged the players to collaborate on every turn and to generate as many ideas together based upon that goal as suggested.  

The second session

In the second session we spent some time discussing what the different dials really meant. For example, the dial titled “Accessible” had originally been intended to mean “accessible to everyone, anywhere”, which we hoped would help people think about how to dial up our engagement internationally and on different devices.

However, when people just saw the word “Accessible” on the dial they immediately thought about people with disabilities and didn’t naturally think about the other things we had thought it would imply.  We wondered if we should change this dial to “Everyone, anywhere”, however decided to hold off on this change for the third session to gauge if this was something the majority felt.

Interestingly, by removing the element of competition to the game, people were spending a long time thinking about the different ideas together, but they seemed less motivated and excited by the whole activity. The board was still far too long and it felt unachievable to ever get to the end, so the game had become secondary to the conversation. We were curious to see if there was a way to balance the sense of motivation you can get from playing a game with the conversations and ideas that had become the output of the game.

The third session

So, in the last session, we cut off a third of the board, so the game was shorter, and added a timer, so you had exactly two minutes to come up with an idea before a buzzer went off. As a result, the team generated far more ideas than any of the two previous sessions. The clock tended to wrap the conversations up more quickly and encourage people to think on their toes.

But different people are motivated by different things, some work well with a deadline, while others find a deadline makes them freeze. So speculating, I expect for some this change was good, while others may have come up with ideas more easily without the pressure of the buzzer.

The group from the third session weren’t clear immediately what the difference was between the dials labeled “Connected” and “Social”.  They seemed to overlap, after all they said: “Aren’t they both networks?” We realised that adding in a few words, or a sub-line below each word on the dials was really essential to make sure what we were trying to communicate was clear. Words can be interpreted in so many different ways based on their context and your frame of reference.

Another newer member to the team mentioned that they were really surprised that there wasn’t a dial titled “Learning”. We discussed the fact that some of us saw this as overarching to all the dials and everything we do, but wondered if we were assuming we do this more than we do, if a newer member of the team hadn’t seen clear evidence of this in their working practice within the product team.

What we’ve learnt so far

Playing a game with our dials of engagement allowed us to apply the themes we’d generated to real projects immediately. It allowed us to test if they actually worked, were useful, and see which themes resonated with the team and which caused confusion. We decided some of the dials needed to be tweaked to reflect the feedback, and have now arrived at these six themes:

  1. It’s all about me! – Putting learners at the heart of everything we do.
  2. Habit-forming – Turning learning into a habit.
  3. Loveable – Bringing delight to the experience.
  4. Connected – Connecting learners, educators and learning organisations.
  5. For everyone Making learning accessible to everyone, on any device.
  6. Learning Always providing the opportunity to learn more.

There was a variety of different feedback to the game from the team, from “I’d prefer to just have a brainstorm session – I found the game distracting” to “It was really good fun and a really good prompt for thinking about our goals through different lenses.”

Since we did the game sessions, our user researcher has used the dials as a tool in a brainstorm sessions and others have sometimes mentioned the topics on the dials in relation to things they’re working on. The dials appear to be the most useful tools in the kit, as they can easily be used in a variety of different ways, so we’re making these in a more robust form for the teams to use if they choose to.

We’re curious to see if these get adopted, how people evolve the idea, and if playing a game ends up being a useful tool for helping us think about how and what we focus our energy on, or not.  Watch this space…

Want to know more about the way we do things? Reading more of our Making FutureLearn posts.

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