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Make a games user research portfolio

Many disciplines in games development demand portfolios. For artists, or UX Designers, they are almost essential. But how does that translate for games user researchers?

Making a portfolio can take a huge amount of time – and it’s difficult to know whether it’s going to have an impact on impressing employers, or getting your first games user research role.

In this issue we explore whether it’s worth making a games user research portfolio, and what a portfolio should include.

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Create a games user research portfolio

Build a games research portfolio

Do I need a games user research portfolio?

Need? No. Only once in my career have I been asked for a portfolio, and it was for a role where none of the people hiring me were researchers. When hiring researchers, I don’t ask for a portfolio.

I asked other hiring managers whether a portfolio was expected on Twitter, and the answer was broadly similar to my experience. Only 31% of hiring managers said they expected a portfolio.

Making a portfolio for games user research can be difficult for many experienced researchers – due to the secrecy around what we work on, and because our work can be less visual than other games disciplines where portfolios are more common.

However this doesn’t mean that it’s always a bad idea to make one. 

Should I make a portfolio anyway?

If you are already an established researcher, I wouldn’t recommend making a portfolio as a good use of your time. However for people looking to get their first games user research job, it can be very beneficial – even if it’s not required for applying for roles.

When advertising roles, hundreds of irrelevant applications get sent in (as they are for any ‘games’ job). Having a portfolio quickly establishes you as a sensible, realistic candidate who is someone genuinely applying to be a games user researcher, rather than just someone applying to every job in the games industry.

A challenge for hiring managers is differentiating between candidates when a lot of people apply with the same general experience and background. That’s even harder hiring for a junior role where there’s limited evidence available for them to assess your previous work. 

A portfolio is evidence that you care, and can help you stand out from the crowd.

Seb Long, from Player Research, described the benefit here:

What should my games user research portfolio include?

An ideal games user research candidate would show the following skills, so try and touch on all of them at some point in your portfolio:

  • Qualitative Research: Any experience designing and moderating qualitative research methods, such as interviews, usability testing, observation
  • Quantitative Research: Any experience with lighter quantitative research methods, such as survey design
  • Analysis: Note taking + data analysis experience
  • Presenting: Any experience presenting results to people
  • Collaboration: An ability to work with non-researchers + other disciplines
  • Understanding Games: An understanding of how games are made and what other game roles are
  • Defining participants: Any work on participant recruitment, screening and making sure you are testing with the right people
  • Community: Any involvement in the research community.

Obviously not all of this is possible without pre-existing experience, but a lot of it can be demonstrated through academia or personal projects (I covered a bit on this in my talk ‘how to get games user research experience without a job’)

How to make a games user research portfolio?

When deciding how to create a portfolio, prioritise making it low maintenance. Anything that takes a lot of time or effort to maintain will just not get done. A games user research portfolio could be as simple as some google slides or a powerpoint exported as a PDF. A wordpress blog can also be a suitable base for a portfolio (and has a lot of pre-existing themes that can be used)

There seems to be no consensus on what a research portfolio should look like.  My ideal format would include:

  • A paragraph on the situation
  • Details on the approach you took, and crucially why you took that approach
  • Evidence of impact – did anyone listen or do anything with what you learned? 

Here’s what one page from mine looked like many years back (with the text obscured, unfortunately). It picks one big example, and goes through the situation, approach and impact. Then it adds two smaller examples to show variety. I had similar pages for each of the bullet points listed above (qualitative research, quantitative research, presenting, etc…). 

An example portfolio. The header says 'qualitative research', and then a section for 'the problem', 'my approach', 'the big insights', and 'the outcome'. The text is obscured.

This approach was very text-heavy, and I would consider something more visual these days! 

Remember, a key skill for researchers is communication (because otherwise everyone ignores our findings). Make sure whichever format you chose is doing a good job of clearly communicating your experience. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does have to be clear. It will be an advert for you, and should build confidence that you are able to present information in a compelling way.

Keep in mind that you will be judged by the worse thing in your portfolio. A poor method choice, an unreliable conclusion or a research faux pas will be considered a warning sign. Some red flags could include choosing focus groups as a method (which might be appropriate for the right research objective, but would require some explaining) or too much emphasis on the design + development part of a project, rather than explaining the research.

To reduce the risk of including things in a portfolio that reflect poorly on you :

  • Find a peer to review it, don’t be defensive about negative feedback, and take time to understand why people got that impression from your portfolio.
  • Include less things in your portfolio. Your goal from the portfolio is to show ‘I am a UX researcher’, and that can be achieved with only two or three projects.
  • Make sure you explain your decisions. It’s ok to make ‘pragmatic’ rather than ‘perfect’ choices, but show that you did that consciously for good reasons.

Blogging is an alternative approach to a portfolio

Many established researchers don’t have portfolios, and never have. Instead, they used blog posts to demonstrate their interest and involvement in games user research. I believe this is just as effective as creating a portfolio for demonstrating user research experience. 

Some researchers kindly shared the blogs they worked on before they were in industry. Like my own blog, many of these posts no longer represent their opinions or ability – but are still helpful to show what evidence is appropriate for getting a first game in jobs. Many had stories that their blog posts were what got them the job. So consider blogging! 

Example games user research portfolios & blogs

Thanks to everyone who shared their current, or old portfolios + blogs. 

Whether it’s a formal portfolio, or a blog showing your thoughts on games usability, publicly sharing your work in games will help stand out from other applicants for games UX + user research roles.

Do you have a games user research blog, or have you made a portfolio? Send a link to me on twitter and I’ll include it in a future newsletter! 

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Networking in games user research

I once read that 70% of all jobs are not published on jobs sites. And 80% of jobs are filled through personal or professional connections. Although those stats are not specific to games, it’s likely that if you are only looking on job sites, you are missing out on the vast majority of games user research roles.

Even when jobs do make it to job sites, having a personal connection to the hiring manager must make a difference. There are usually a huge number of applications for every games job. This means that hiring managers have to find ways of identifying good candidates, and eliminating unsuitable people at pace. If the hiring manager recognises your name, it’s more likely that you will  make it through that first initial pass, and progress through to the interview and task stages where you can demonstrate your excellence. 

So, how do we make sure that the hiring manager recognises your name? This is our focus for today’s issue on networking.

Networking doesn’t have to be corny handshakes, business cards and scary approaches across busy conference floors. This is helpful, because I’m no good at any of those. Instead, I wanted to share some of my own tips of what I have seen work well, and ask others in the industry their networking advice, to help you start a career in games user research. 

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Networking Tips for new games user researchers

Be useful

That first approach to talk to a stranger can be very difficult. If you are doing something useful, or involved in an activity together that approach becomes much easier. It gives you a reason to be talking and something to talk about.

People new to the Games Research and UX community assume you have to be on the steering committee to start a new initiative or to help out. This is not the case – the conferences need volunteers, and the community welcomes new initiatives being led by anyone, regardless of experience. I started the mentoring scheme and jobs board, and both of these can always do with more support. As can the other initiatives that people have started, such as the excellent reading club.

Join the discord, see what is going on, and then volunteer to help out. It will give you something to talk about. As an added benefit people will start to come to you and open conversations, avoiding the need for intimidating approaches! 

Ask genuine questions

I have found the games research community to be very friendly, and willing to give up their time to people interested in understanding the discipline better. This has been evident through events like the office-hours initiative in the GRUX community. If you are not already part of the mentoring scheme, sign up for the opportunity to meet someone in the industry and learn about it.

Meet existing researchers, ask them about their role, how they got into the industry and show a genuine interest. It’s often very obvious if you’re just interested in a job, rather than treating every conversation as a learning opportunity (particularly if you keep scanning the room in a conversation at a conference rather than giving them your full attention). Leave everyone you speak to with a positive impression about you and your enthusiasm for games user research – It’s a very small industry, and so you will bump into the same people again and again.

This will start to make connections with people outside of the job application process, and can inspire some great ideas about what you can do to get into the industry. We have an interview with Tyler Sterle coming up later in the newsletter where I did exactly that, and he gave some great ideas about his own journey.

Some of our experienced researchers had more advice about talking to people – more follows later in this newsletter! 

You don’t have to travel

The last year has highlighted how events can work remotely. The games user research community have done a great job of combining their conferences with socialising opportunities that work remotely. 

I have found this a great asset, and have appreciated being able to take part in conferences and events that would otherwise take too much time or money to attend, and join the social activities after.

I hope that events like the GRUX Online conference continue this tradition as the world re-opens. Keeping an eye on the GRUX discord is a good way to become aware of remote social opportunities.

Join the conversation

As well as the GRUX discord, games user research conversations are happening everywhere – the GamesUR twitter account does a great job at collating some of them. Find people talking about games user research by searching on the hashtags #gamesUR or #GRUX, and join in the conversations. Reply to other people’s threads and ask questions. Eventually you will start to build up a network of people in the industry, and start to be recognised as someone serious about games user research.

I believe that questions reflect well on the person asking them (it’s better to ask what might be a silly question than to remain ignorant). Here’s me on twitter, if you want a friendly face to talk too.

Networking advice from the experts

I also asked the industry for advice about networking. Here’s some of the excellent points they raised.

//1

Donat's Twitter Header

Most of the people I know will kindly answer to someone who gets in touch in private messages on social media, or by email. Be polite, introduce yourself and briefly explain why you’re sending a message. No need to try to impress, you’re learning, it’s cool.

Be patient, maybe the person won’t have time now, but will answer later. Do not insist, look for someone else. And don’t be angry if the person doesn’t answer.

Finally, people are not your direct contact with HR. Do not ask for a job or training position, at least not right now.

(Donat’s tweet)

//2

Alistair's Twitter Header

Try and find a buddy who can offer support and encouragement. It can be someone else trying to engage also, or someone already in the community (who can hopefully do a few introductions for you).

Also, remember they’re just people 🙂

(Alistair’s Tweet)

//3

John's Twitter Header

Most people are in the games industry because they love games, and most people who love games love talking about games. That’s maybe half the barrier to networking gone – you’re joining a community who share the same passion and interests as you do! You don’t get that everywhere.

(John’s tweet)

More career advice for getting started in games user research

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Plus receive a monthly email with free games user research lessons and curated early-career Games UX and UR jobs.

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Moving from academia into the games industry

Games user research and academia

Moving into the games industry from academia

It’s common that user researchers have academic experience. In this years games user research salary survey, 70% of people who took part had a postgraduate degree. 

Planning reliable playtest studies requires the application of scientific methods. A masters degree or PhD is one way of demonstrating that you are qualified to apply research methods. It is not the only way – plenty of great researchers don’t have academic experience. However postgraduate experience is an indication that you know how to pick an appropriate method, reduce bias and draw reliable conclusions.

I wanted to explore how to transition from academia to industry in this issue. My own experience was very fortunate. My postgraduate course gave me the opportunity to work on projects with real game studios which, supplemented by personal projects, helped me get my first job in games. 

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From my own personal experience, using academic study to get some experience in running in-person research is one of the biggest potential benefits of postgraduate study. We covered this in more depth in the HTBAGUR book. Jessica Tompkins, PhD and UX researcher at EA, help on this chapter was invaluable.

I also asked this question on twitter and LinkedIn, and Jessica gave some additional great points on LinkedIn:

Jess's comment about games user research. Linked above

Irena Pavlovic also raised the importance of pragmatism when performing research in industry.

Irena's comment about games user research. Linked above

On twitter, Natali, working as a user researcher at Ubisoft, raised the difference in pace between academia and industry, and that one of the challenges is adapting research methods, analysis and debriefing so that it finds answers when it’s still relevant. 

Natali's tweet about games user research - linked below

Link to Natali’s original tweet

Blake is a UX Researcher at XBox. He also highlighted how the change of environment impacts the goal of quantitative studies, and what we would consider an appropriate conclusion.

Blakes Tweet about Games User Research - linked below

Link to Blake’s original tweet  

Lots of great tips there from the community, and the need for speed comes up multiple times. In industry a study that provides findings too late is pointless, as the decision will have been made. The development team have already moved on to the next topic.

One way of speeding up analysis is through preparing templates for note-taking and analysis, and using mindmaps as a way to speed up analysis, as I covered in the Games User Research Summer Camp event last year.  We also explore this, and other aspects of moving from academia to industry in the book – but it’s a popular topic, so I know we’ll cover different aspects of the transition in more depth in the future.

See also my introduction to games user research for academics for more on this topic.

Get my free ebook of career tips from researchers at top game studios such as EA, Blizzard, PlayStation, Ubisoft, Activision and more. Based on exclusive interviews, they reveal ten essential tips to kick-start your GUR career today.

Plus receive a monthly email with free games user research lessons and curated early-career Games UX and UR jobs.

Sign up now to get the free e-book (no spam, just a nice email from me each month!)

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How to convert user research experience into a games user research job

Transitioning into games from other user research sectors

This month, I wanted to go a bit deeper into how to take user research experience gained in other industries, and translate it into a games user research job. 

This is a reasonably common route that people use to join the industry, and one of the pieces of advice I give to people who are having difficulty joining the industry at a junior level is to look for a broader user research role. This helps develop very relevant experience you can bring into a games job application. 

This month’s interview is with Surabhi Mathur, a user researcher at EA who made the jump into games last year, who has some great advice based on her own experience. Before that though, let’s consider some of the differences between games user research and other sectors.

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Expect friction

In most other types of software, ‘difficulty’ is to be avoided. No-one wants it to be hard to order a book from an online shop. However for games, a game without difficulty isn’t (usually) fun. Work like Raph Koster’s A Theory Of Fun For Game Design and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow both put ‘overcoming challenges that were previously unachievable’ as a key part of creating compelling experiences. Games need friction.

Games user researchers need to be nuanced and put in more upfront work to understand the thing being tested. They need to understand the game well enough to know what difficulty the designer intended. This usually involves a lot of time working with designers to identify what the difficulty is meant to be and what players are meant to understand or be able to do before they should be allowed to progress. They need to moderate the session and capture notes in a way that recognises ‘intended’ challenge (that has been designed) and separates this from ‘unintended’ challenge (that is accidental). 

This also means that some of the typical things a user research team working outside of games (like ‘time to complete’), are not appropriate for games. These measures are not able to separate intended and unintended challenges.

Methodological constraints

Many games have big marketing budgets, and excited fans who care deeply about the games being made. This puts them at high risk of leaks, and the consequences of leaks can be very expensive for the studio. So, secrecy is extremely important.

This includes asking participants to sign non-disclosure agreements and finding ways of actively preventing recording, such as removing their phones.

This need for secrecy has a big impact on the methods available to us. For extremely secretive games, all research has to be lab-based. This is particularly difficult for quant research.  Other types of software can be distributed to users to use at their home, with unmoderated tools, surveys and analytics to capture their behaviour. With games, the huge risk of leaks means we can’t allow players to participate at home, and we need to bring them into a research lab. This leads to the need to build labs which can hold 10-40 players playing simultaneously

For a researcher coming from other industries, this requires them to adapt their study designs so that it works as a mass playtest and adapt their moderation so that they can control a room of many players simultaneously.

Research Objectives

Games are entertainment. Often your game team want to know some variation of ‘is this fun?’.

For clear usability issues, this is fine – we can frame usability problems as ‘barriers to fun’. But it also means working out a reliable method of measuring enjoyment or fun. One approach is using a combination of quant measures, benchmarking and qualitative data to explain any quant scores. Think about the challenges of measuring fun, and how to explain the limitations of measuring fun to a game team who will want to equate it with a review score. This will be excellent preparation for a researcher joining the games industry.

Converting your experience

If you are applying from another user research role, your experience of planning and running studies is extremely valuable. Strongly emphasise this in your application. Supplementing your experience with an understanding of how games are different to other software design projects, will make you a very strong candidate. 

Tom Lorusso is a Research Manager at Xbox, and also had some advice:

(Tom’s original tweet)

I think Tom’s point, about the implications of games being art, is interesting. There is not only the impact on ‘how much people care’ about what they are making. It also affects how user researchers describe their work. 

In other fields, it’s common to talk about how user research uncovers and fulfills the needs of it’s users. In games, we often describe that our role is to ensure the game design vision is being experienced correctly. We frame this around the vision of the designer, not the needs of the user. (At least, that’s what one of the posters says!).

I personally believe that this framing will change over time, as the maturity of research in the game design process grows. That’s a subject for another time. 

As Tom says, it’s definitely a high passion environment, which creates different dynamics to working in many corporate environments. 

How I got started in Games User Research

Surabhi Mathur is an Associate UX Researcher with EA Sports, working on FIFA. In this exclusive interview, I asked about her experience moving from user research at Uber, and the challenges of transitioning into the games industry

What was your journey into games user research?

As a UXR I look for opportunities that will help me grow, expand my skills and pose exciting challenges. A job posting by EA was one such opportunity that I took up. 

When I switched from tech to games user research, I didn’t expect GUR to be so different and distinct. Tech UXR has a big, cohesive community which allows a general understanding of how UXR functions in different businesses. Since GUR is largely absent from mainstream UXR conversations, I was oblivious to its uniqueness. 

Even though my journey began subconsciously, I quickly realised that GUR has its own tightnit network of highly qualified and passionate individuals. As soon as I joined( and even before), I started leveraging the information shared by this community and it helped rapidly ramp up. 

What did you find the most challenging step of getting a role working in games? 

I faced two key challenges when trying to enter games industry:

  1. Since games/GUR is unique in the way it functions, the industry prefers people with prior experience in the field. Experience in playing/interacting with games is the next best thing one can bank upon. Since I had neither, I started interacting with different games to get familiar with game design. I also read as much literature as possible on GUR, Game Design etc which helped me understand how I could use my previous experience to draw parallels with the GUR process. 
  2. GUR is more inclined towards quantitative research than tech UXR (subjective experience) and basic quant skills are tested during the interview process. To prepare for this, refreshed all my quant skills before the interview and took a few classes to learn basic statistical languages (R, Python).

Did your experience working in UX elsewhere help with getting a job in the games industry? 

Definitely! Working in Tech made me a versatile UXR with the ability to conduct research in any given circumstances, methods, timelines, stakeholders etc. These skills helped me during my interviews because I was able to think on my feet and be creative with my approach.

What would your top tip be for someone looking to become a games user researcher?

  1. Get in touch with the GUR community and leverage its resources to get started.
  2. Play the games you want to work on or of similar genre: you don’t have to play the whole thing but do experience it’s gameplay. 
  3. Focus on your quant skills. 

Fantastic advice from Surabhi. I personally found the book ‘Quantifying the User Experience’ a really helpful introduction into learning enough stats to get by in most user research roles, if this is a topic you don’t feel comfortable with.


If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, there are two very helpful things you could do for me:

  1. Share it with people you think would find it helpful
  2. Leave a review for the book How To Be A Games User Researcher on Amazon.

I’d be extremely grateful if you decide to do either of these, as both are very helpful!

Steve (@steve_bromley)

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