This summer at GLS I headed a panel of educators who do mobile game design with students. Some of these educators work on a short schedule, maybe a couple weeks during a summer camp, but many work with students over a longer time frame.
This post is about one issue that comes up in these design studios: defining and maintaining teamwork in working on a design. The aid I want to discuss today is not itself a design process, but an artifact that serves this role and can be applied to many design processes: the Design Board. I use Design Boards in my classes, game jams, and when working directly with groups to produce games.
My advice here builds on the strategy I’ve described in a couple of places (Scrum with Students, Midpoint of a Design – see them especially for the yin and yang structure of scrum (meeting) and sprint (working)), and discussed frequently with Jim Mathews, whose implementation of Design Boards is described in his dissertation. I originally learned about design boards from David Gagnon in our early ARIS game jams, and how they fit together with Scrum from a workshop at a past GLS workshop by Kevin Harris, Ben Devane, Matt Gaydos, and Nathan Patterson.
The role played by the Design Board is not only relevant to school-based teamwork, and isn’t just for AR game design. This is an active area of software development in the world at large, with many competing solutions, all trying to make something that helps teams work together better than email. Asana, Pivotal Tracker, etc.
There are some specifics to the problem space within an educational environment that deserve attention. Learning teamwork in a design studio is one of the learning goals of the instructional space, and using the Design Board can help you make progress on that goal as well as helping your students’ design work be more manageable.
Why a Design Board?
Let’s go through some of the things we might look for in the Design Board. In a design studio, students are typically working in teams. Their final goal, say an AR game, is a complex thing to try to put together—this is why it makes such an attractive goal—requiring research, design, production, and testing. Many forms of expertise are involved, and a lot of pieces need to come together. Because this is a new format for the students, they don’t even yet know how complex it all is, much less how to go about getting it done. Developing an understanding of all the pieces and how they come together is part of the learning process. As teachers, we don’t want it to just be an expectation or hope but something we actively support.
Teams need to work cross-functionally. One person will be better at getting interviews, compiling research, inventing game ideas, writing dialogue, parsing the logical structures than make up the game, etc. The usual classroom strategy for group projects could not be more antithetical to what is needed here: they divide up the work bureaucratically so that each person is responsible for so many pages, slides, minutes, or sections and/or there is a leader who really cares and a bunch of others who are given menial tasks.
A Design Board should help
Manage complexity. The huge feat of creating an AR game or other significant design should be broken down into individual tasks that can be accomplished and the flow of completed tasks should intelligibly lead to the finished product. This flow is often impossible to predict in advance, so having a structure that can help it emerge is important.
Assign work. The board should help make it easy to find something to work on, keep clear who is working on what, and provide an obvious and public means for taking and assessing responsibility for these. Division of labor in learning situations often reflects the need to assign a grade more than attention to learning and the design processes involved.
Trim loose ends. Since ambition for game designs always outweighs what is feasible within the time allotted, the Design Board should help when it comes to decisions about what to leave out, when, and why.
Keep track of progress. A Design Board should make it easier to assess (internally and externally) how far along a team is, what they are getting done, and what they are neglecting. Design is a naturally messy space. Without some structure it is easy to feel lost or aimless, especially for students used to learning environments that give them less initiative.
Feel automatic/fun. All of these tasks can be approached without a Design Board through discussion at meetings or other means. The Design Board should remove some of the overhead that would otherwise be required. It should transfer some of the responsibility for managing teamwork to the students, working as a scaffold. And it should lighten the perceived need for explicit top-down decision making within the team. If this weight is successfully transferred, it lightens everyone’s cognitive and emotional loads, freeing up resources to focus elsewhere.
What Is a Design Board?
Okay, now that we know what a Design Board is for, what is one and how do we use it? There are many possible implementations. Sometimes you can take advantage of existing software solutions like Pivotal Tracker (free for educational/open source), github (see this post recommending everyone use it, not just software developers), or asana (free for teams up to 15 people). These tools have the advantage of becoming part of the educational experience—they are all ways real teams in the world help manage their own teamwork. I’ve even see people make use of Microsoft’s Excel to serve as a Design Board.
However, if your situation can accommodate it, there’s a lot to recommend the low-tech solution we’ve used in our game jams for years involving a physical board or wall, markers and post-its.
With a physical board, everyone already knows how to use these tools; you are not piling on one more learning objective by asking people to use the software. And just as we have found that the physical act of playing an AR game is a meaningful part of the learning that happens through their play, there really is something to the physicality of a board in the room to recommend it. There is an intimacy and a real sense of accomplishment in the public performance of moving a post-it from the “current” to the “done” column upon completing a task. A physical Design Board can also always be in the room, present in a way that software you point your browser at can never be; it is a fixture of the lived space of the classroom. But this also suggests a limitation of the physical board. If your classroom is not yours alone, or you are not working with a classroom, this can make it hard to use a physical board. Likewise, the sparseness of information that can fit on a post-it and remain visible from a distance helps enforce the idea that tasks are narrow things (see the next section), but has some drawbacks in terms of linking syntactically to the work they represent or being available wherever you want to do the work.
A Board Organizes Tasks
The most important feature of the Design Board is that it is a setting for tasks. It focuses attention on small tasks as the basic unit of work by giving you a place to see and move tasks. Thinking in terms of small tasks is as a cognitive aid to contrast with the overwhelmingness of the project as a whole. The large project cannot be completed simply and so it can seem too huge. But in the course of completing the project, a bunch of little things need to get done. Focusing on them instead of always on the project as a whole (Scrum sessions are also separate from sprints for this reason) is a good way to figure out what all those little things are—here you are teaching your students to break a big thing down into smaller bits. Tasks should be
- small and easy to describe,
- completable by a single person except in specific exemptions,
- completable within a short time frame. In a class this might mean during a work period, over the course of a week, and
- be as simple as necessary but no more.
Write game dialog is a good example of a task that is too monstrous to be useful.
Write conversation with the puddle monster is more in line.
I typically borrow a schema from Scrum to organize the tasks on the board, implementing it more or less formally as time and projects demand.
- Done – Tasks that have been completed.
- Current – Tasks being worked on. No more than one per person.
- Backlog – The place you get your next current task from. Tasks in the backlog need to be well-defined and actionable. On-deck might be another good word for this place.
- Icebox – Less immediate, and less well-defined than the backlog, but a place to make ideas material, and keep them in circulation. Well-defined tasks may end up here instead of the backlog when they are optional or a stretch goal.
- Dead – Where you put tasks so you’re allowed to forget about them. Dead is an important place for the Design Board. There’s always too much to do, and more good ideas than can fit in a single design. Giving yourself permission to acknowledge this by letting an idea go (regardless of its quality) can free up energy for building what will get done.
In this way, the Design Board shows the context that surrounds individual tasks, forming a picture of the project as a whole.
Reflection is a Kind of Task
Not every task needs to be concerned with production, even though it is often easiest to think in terms of what needs to get made. Critical aspects of the design process need to be mapped out too: brainstorming, reflection, research, testing. This is especially important for learners new to designing on a team. Their starting assumption will, more often than not, be to imagine their role is to make everything all in one go, off the cuff. Drawing attention to the critical side of design may help them realize how a successful design emerges from something other than spontaneous generation. Conversely, drawing limits around things like reflection may help those students who become mired in them cut free and move on. Research in particular can never be complete, but only so much of it can inform a design.
Examples of tasks for the Design Board with a focus outside production:
- Critique Session
- Location Scouting
- Background research
What You Do With Tasks and the Design Board
Now that we have the basic idea of what a Design Board is and how it can be used, we can recall how it is supposed to help. We use it to:
Create tasks. This may seem like it doesn’t deserve much attention, but giving students the freedom and responsibility to publicly create tasks that signify progress made in the name of the overall project is a powerful thing. Your role in this process is to provide input and coercion, but to use engagement in the process of creating and selecting tasks to help students to learn how to practice an effective design process on their own.
Work on one task at a time. Another way in which tasks on the Design Board are set up to help manage complexity is the rule that a person may only work on one task at a time. This is your current task. After you have finished it, you can move it to done, dead, or reinvent it as one or more new tasks to be put in the icebox.
Make Progress and Thinking Visible. Across the various headings and among all the tasks, it is possible from a glance o assess the overall state, direction, and health of a project. This is true for you as the teacher, whose guidance they may require, and for the members of the team itself.
Distribute the load. Typically, when a team has a number of tasks in the backlog, members can individually find tasks that they can take on. Intervention is only necessary when no one is taking an important task, and it is easy enough to keep individuals on task by asking what their current one is. Although there is still need for some coordination at the top, this can help remove top-down delegation where it is not necessary or helpful.
Specify collaboration. As a default, we think about tasks on the board as doable by a single person. Sometimes this assumption becomes too ingrained in our thinking though and we need to pay special attention to making explicit work that we do together. We can include collaborative tasks as part of the workflow with a Design Board, and look for them if they might be missing.
Some tasks that are frequently done together:
- Decision making
- Events (like playtests or critiques)
Discuss the Design. This is useful for your conversations with your students or those among team members. It is also the great utility in having a physical, public board. As you discuss the design, much of it is there staring back at you. Because much of its shape is visible and apparent, making it easier to see what’s missing, off track, or coming along nicely.
In summary, Design Boards can be instrumental in teaching through design, both as a way of adding some structure and clarity to an inherently open-ended and messy process and being directly instructive of a productive way to organize and distribute work among a team. To get a better idea how this fits in the design experiences I organize, see my earlier posts about Scrum and the midpoint of a design. Thinking about the Design Board also might introduce us to some other sticky issues of students design in class such as the selection of topics and teams. But that’s a question for another day.
I’d be interested to hear what you use to organize your students’ overall design process and what you get out of it. Let me know in the comments here or your own post elsewhere.