Jesse Schell’s six questions for playtesting: a transformational case study

TRANSFORM deck - final product
The Transform Deck (final product)

The Transform Deck is a deck of cards: 45 in five suits of nine cards each. Each card represents a way to take learning content and make it more interactive and engaging.

For example, the ‘Apply in Stages’ card suggests that you break down your content into stages and ask learners to apply it one step at a time to a scenario. The ‘Branching Paths’ card suggests that you create a series of choices, each of which leads to more choices, for the learners to navigate.

Each card has more info about how, why and where you could do this, together with some useful extra tips including other cards it combines well with. There are also seven ‘guide’ cards that offer different techniques to use the deck to inspire your learning designs (including a game you can play with the cards).

I created the deck to distil my experience of designing interactive learning into a tool to inspire learning professionals with new ways to bring content to life. It’s not specifically about gamifying learning, just making it more engaging and effective. But you could call it a toy, or a playful learning tool, and it has many key features that mean that, when it came to transforming the Transform Deck from an initial draft to a market-ready product, I needed to prototype and playtest in much the same way I prototype and playtest learning games.

Jesse Schell is a vastly experienced game designer and author of the Art of Game Design. His six questions for playtesting—the why, who, when, where, what and how of playtesting—were invaluable to me in this process. I’d like to show you how.

Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design book cover
Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design (CRC Press)

Why are you playtesting?

This is all about the questions your playtest should answer, and the risks you are looking to investigate and mitigate. Playtests without specific questions in mind get less useful information.

In this case, I wasn’t sure if people would understand how to use the cards. I wasn’t sure if people would be able to use them with content types I’m less familiar with. I didn’t know if I’d included the best selection of activities, or organised them perfectly. I didn’t know if the ways I thought the cards should be arranged and laid out included all of the best ways to inspire.

Each of these don’t-knows can be thought of as a risk. My playtests were designed to investigate and suggest mitigation for these risks, by posing them as questions:

  • Do users understand how to use the cards?
  • Do they work with different types of content?
  • Are any activities less appropriate or useful?

Note that posing these as questions to be answered doesn’t necessarily mean asking the direct question to playtesters. Sometimes it’s better to observe what they do or how they do it. Ask yourself: who is best placed to answer this question, the person experiencing the experience, or me as observer and data gatherer?

By being clear on the questions I wanted answered, I gave myself a solid foundation to design playtests. And I got some great answers to these questions. I dropped, replaced, refocused and merged some cards. I changed the instructions multiple times. I found new ways to use the cards that worked better to inspire users.

Take the time to be clear on your aims in playtesting: the clearer you are, the clearer the useful information you’ll get.

The very first, spreadsheet-based draft of the Transform Deck
The very first, spreadsheet-based draft of the Transform Deck

Who should you playtest with?

There are pros and cons to various groups, often centred around convenient people (e.g. coworkers) versus relevant people (your likely audience) versus insightful people (experts).

In this case, in particular, the product is not very relevant to anybody not designing or running learning experiences, and I have convenient access to such people through my work. So, I was able to take advantage of this to observe the intended audience using the product, and glean some incredibly useful insight. I was also able to get insight from games-based learning experts that helped spark ideas to improve the product.

If you aren’t the beneficiary of such a happy accident, you may want to conduct multiple playtests to get different perspectives.

When should you playtest?

The key question here is really at what stage should you playtest, and the answer is often: at every stage. You can test a concept, a rough paper prototype, a ‘full’ prototype with placeholder art, and a fully working draft.

My first prototype was a spreadsheet of activities versus useful fields for each, divided into categories/suits. I discussed this with some sample users, and this helped me clarify the suit divisions, as well as weed out some less appropriate activities. Each stage after this—rough paper cards, cards with placeholder art, draft versions—helped me on the journey, including giving me insights I hadn’t expected. Earlier versions helped with card selection and which fields were more or less useful. Later versions helped with colour choices.

Most importantly, by playtesting early and ‘ugly’, I was able to change things before I became too attached to them.

Where should you playtest?

The key divisions here are effectively ‘your place or theirs’, as well as online versus offline. Again there are convenience considerations, but the more realistic you can make it to how the experience will be in practice, the better the feedback.

In practice, I developed much of this product during a pandemic, so most of my playtesting was online. But I noticed that one early playtest with a client designer team at their offices had a relaxed feel to it, and I was able to record some striking observations about how they reacted and how they used the cards. The richness of face-to-face communication means you can pick up on more subtle cues from playtesters. I probably got more useful info from that one face-to-face playtest than from twice as much time spent online testing.

What should you look for?

There is some overlap with the ‘why’ question here, but whereas that focuses on what you know you want answers for, this question in Jesse Schell’s sextet also cautions us to be on the lookout for the ‘unknowns’—things we weren’t expecting, but that help us.

By observing as keenly as possible during playtesting of my cards, I caught all kinds of unexpected reactions including a tendency to skip the instructions, misunderstandings about the card layouts and how people intuitively used the cards. In one case I saw one person lay out the cards in an interesting and innovative way, and adapted it as an ‘official’ method.

An early draft of card layout for the Transform Deck
An early draft of card layout for the Transform Deck

How should you conduct the playtest?

The answers to the other five questions set you well on the way to the sixth, but there are some further key considerations:

  • To what extent should you be present?—you want to get great data, but real players won’t always have access to you, and your presence is a source of bias
  • How should you introduce/explain things?—this can be a great proving ground for briefings and instructions, but again you want to minimise bias
  • Where should you look?—while your instinct may be to observe the game itself, people’s faces can often offer more useful feedback
  • What data should you collect?—as well as doing things qualitatively, should you count and time how long, how many, how much?
  • Should you pause mid-game to review?—this can break the flow, but if you don’t, people will be subject to recency bias, and you may lose insight on early stages

In my case, I addressed these by, among other things:

  • Being present, but hanging back and letting people play rather than getting too involved, and observing keenly as well as asking questions
  • Letting them ‘unbox’ the cards themselves and explore before any explanations
  • Looking at faces and what they did with the cards
  • Noting what cards they used first, in what ways, and what went un-done
  • Pausing after each ‘use’ to explore responses

As noted above, the results of this considered approach to prototyping and playtesting were far-reaching for the details of the Transform Deck.

Jesse Schell talks about the ‘rule of the loop’: “the more times you test and improve your design, the better your game will be”. The Transform Deck went through four main iterations with several adjustments within each. I playtested these on a huge variety of groups over a long period of time, remaining open to changes and making them frequently.

The result is further away than I could have imagined from my initial prototype—visually, in terms of content, organisation, phrasing, and most noticeably in the user guide. But it’s closer than I could have hoped to the intent of my initial vision—an intuitive, delightful deck to inspire people to transform learning experiences.


Terry Pearce is a bespoke learning designer, who focuses on game-based learning and gamification in designing learning experiences. He’s the founder of untold play, where he’s committed to putting the power of play to work in learning. In his 20-year career in L&D, his learning design has won awards from Reed Learning, the Healthcare People Management Association and The NHS London Modernisation Agency. Find out more: www.untoldplay.com

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