Game Changer: Human-Centered Design for Democracy

DemGames for Debates was developed in partnership with NDI’s Citizen Participation, and Latin America and Caribbean teams.

As the Technology Innovation team at NDI, we are always looking for new approaches to build intuitive platforms that make an impact for our partners in their particular context. One of our recent pilot projects – DemGames – offers partner organizations an opportunity to engage youth on civic and voter education issues through an interactive learning platform. Last April, as we began to think of the many ways a gaming platform could contribute to a youth debates program in Guatemala, we decided to run a three-day design sprint to develop a prototype we could begin to test.

After piloting a first version of the game in Guatemala last summer, we have continued to iterate in order to develop a fun and engaging learning experience. Here are some of the lessons we have learned while adapting a human-centered design approach at NDI:

BYOB: Buy-in is Your Only Bet

Design sprints are an interactive, low-cost way of rapidly identifying a challenge, generating ideas, and developing a prototype – but they are only as successful as the buy-in you have. A detailed communication and marketing strategy during the months leading up to the sprint in April was instrumental in helping us get buy-in from leadership and our participants to try this new approach. Design sprints are resource and cost-efficient – an ideal methodology for conservative budgets! Still, getting full participation during the sprint was a challenge.

When preparing for the design sprint, having the right people in the room is perhaps the most important factor for success. The right folks provide the expertise and decision-making ability that bring efficiency to the whole process. Without the relevant voices in the room, there was a sense that there may be more unknowns than knowns. (Something we were constantly reminded of when we were looking around the room searching for the expert who could validate our assumptions). Asking individuals to dedicate three full days of unencumbered attention, in the midst of program reporting and other commitments, proved to be a challenge. As a result, our design sprint team was small (a consistent group of 3) and it was difficult to keep the momentum going as individuals participated in specific activities and stepped in and out of the room.

Wanted: DemGames User

Like many other organizations working in the development space, a challenge in our software development process is access to our target user. As a team based in Washington, D.C., we lacked the ability to interact with our “politically-engaged 18 to 24-year-old Guatemalan” end user. The geographical and monetary barrier meant we had to get creative with our user research and testing, adapting the traditional iterative process. In the weeks immediately following our design sprint, we relied on staff traveling to Guatemala to conduct basic user testing with proxy users and experts for feedback. Once the game was launched, we worked with our field staff to constantly collect feedback to inform further game development.

Follow (-up) the Yellow Brick Road

Everyone’s excited about three days of post-it notes, sketching and building. Follow-up meetings and planning? Not so much.

Going into our design sprint, we were very conscious of the difficulty in sustaining our momentum and enthusiasm. While we put together an ambitious project timeline and planned for weekly check-ins and updates, progress on development certainly stalled in the weeks following the design sprint. Looking back, an aggressive communications strategy with our leadership and the broader Institute in the weeks following the sprint may have helped generate more excitement and incentivize participants to continue prioritizing the project.

Your Eyes Are Bigger than Your Stomach

Resource constraints are real. As we continue working on this project, we are learning more about the resources and time involved in developing this game and readjusting our scope accordingly. Being mindful of our small budget, our intense time frame, and the limited availability of our developers may have helped us more realistically set goals and expectations for the development of our “minimum viable product.”

Fear Not, Iterate!

The beauty of a human-centered design approach is its inherent feedback loop. By introducing the first iteration of our game (our minimum viable product) quickly after the design sprint, we have been able to gather real-time usage data that can inform product development. Of 60 participants, 55 participants interacted with the game and continue to re-engage by logging on and checking for new content. Of these recurring game users, an average of 35 game users has returned to the DemGames experience week after week – enforcing the utility of using a platform like DemGames to learn or relearn the content.

Feedback from our users on improving ease of use and design has already informed a design refresh and the development of new game types (now you can choose your own adventure) less than a year after conceptualization! While we may have started with a small appetite, iteration has allowed us to scale up and build a platform clearly responsive to our partners’ feedback.

As we look towards upcoming work, we are excited about learning from this process and implement our citizen-centered design methodology into our strategic thinking, proposal writing, and software development.