Running the Games User Research Mentoring Scheme

Three years ago, I ran for the Games User Research Special Interest Group steering committee. There were a few things I wanted achieve during the two year tenure. One was creating the jobs board for games user research jobs. A small group of us also created the first European games user research conference during this time, which has just announced dates for it’s fourth annual event. The final thing was establishing a mentoring scheme. Games User Research was, and is, a relatively new field and so having a way of opening up the community, and giving junior researchers and students the opportunity to develop into becoming great user researchers seemed like a really valuable thing for the community to focus on.

Today we have 46 industry experts who have volunteered their time to mentor, and almost 120 mentor/mentee partnerships. Many of the mentees have gone on to join the games industry as user researchers, and the mentors have dedicated a huge amount of time and effort into developing junior members of the community.

As the mentoring programme (programme? program? scheme? I’ve never found a word I’m happy with, and flit between them all) has developed I wanted to write down some thoughts on how it’s gone – and some of the opportunities for it to develop in the future. The GUR community are incredibly supportive, and this has been no exception – the mentoring programme has been a collaborative effort with a lot of people putting time and effort into making it work – I wanted to write about that too before I forgot (and I probably have already forgotten or misattributed some work others have done – do let me know, and I’ll correct!)

What’s gone well?

The mentors

Where would a mentor scheme be without mentors? I’ve been amazed at everyone’s willingness to give up their time to make this work – as soon as the opportunity arose, David Tisserand signed up as our first mentor, followed almost immediately by many other dedicated community members. Mentoring can be a large time commitment, and the mentors have been extremely generous, giving up their time to make it work. I hear stories of mentors spending hours providing feedback on CVs, reviewing cover letters, running mock interviews, setting and evaluating games usability tasks, or just answering questions from junior members of the community, and it’s everyone’s dedication has made being mentored into a really valuable thing within the games user research community.

The reception from the community

The GUR community has been very positive about the mentoring programme, and we get a lot of positive feedback from people who have been mentored as well. I think an important part of this is the quality of mentors we have – the community’s enthusiasm means that the mentors represent top quality research talent from across the games industry, and all the major players in GUR are represented, including Microsoft, PlayStation, Ubisoft, Valve, EA, Warner Brothers, Player Research, Scopely, Blizzard and Google. The GUR community embracing this has been a huge asset to the quality of mentoring on the programme, and undoubtedly a key part of its success.

There are some individuals who have gone the extra mile to help run the scheme or inspire ways that it can improve. Harvey Owen, Seb Long, Nicolaas VanMeerten have all given up their time to develop the mentoring programme further, and have made really valuable progress on improving how the scheme is run. (I also apologise for the people who have helped who I have missed – please remind me!)

(Enabling) my laziness

As existing mentors and mentees will know, the programme introduces them to one another, sets them off with some guidelines and suggestions, but doesn’t play an active role in the mentoring that happens. This has obvious disadvantages (more on that later), but it does make running the scheme possible – at this point it’s largely an unglamorous admin tasks which only takes an hour or two a fortnight, which itself has got a lot easier after Seb optimised many of our templates.

This has some advantages – no matter how busy life is, the mentoring programme can carry on, and isn’t reliant on anything from me to continue to work. However it does also mean that a lot of the opportunities to develop the scheme further are not realised.

The challenges

It’s too popular

As is evident if you are on the mentoring site today – it’s too popular, and we have to close it from time to time to new entries. This is because we have more requests for mentoring than mentors, and a good mentor relationship can last years, making it difficult to take extra people on. I’ve made the decision to close the scheme from time to time so that people have a hope of being partnered with someone within a few months of signing up – rather than a year later.

This does create problems – when the scheme is closed, people contact the mentors directly rather than going through the programme, which is an issue that needs to be addressed. We’ve had some good ideas about how to improve this (time limited mentoring partnerships, ‘teams’ of people being batched together, requesting ‘types’ of mentors rather than individual mentors directly), but have yet to find the time to pilot and implement these ideas.

Sharing ownership

We’ve had great people come in with great ideas about how to develop the mentoring scheme. I do however get the impression that people don’t feel they are empowered to make the changes they suggest – and that I am acting as an gatekeeper preventing people from implementing their ideas for how to develop the scheme. I can understand why that’s the case (when there is an existing ‘way it works’, it’s hard to feel that it’s ok to change that), but I’d like to end up somewhere where the GUR steering committee, or just people who feel passionate about it, feel empowered to make changes to how the programme works. One thing that may make that easier, is my laziness…

My laziness (slight return)

Over the last three years, we’ve identified a lot of ways in which the mentoring programme could be improved, and it’s only been a lack of attention and effort from me that’s stopped this happening. One is improving the resources that we offer on the mentoring page. It’s really inefficient to have twenty mentors explaining what GUR methods are twenty times to their mentors, when we could have one single place that explains this, and other common areas that mentors are speaking to their mentees about.

We could also do more to improve the partnering between mentors and mentees. We currently don’t take into account the level of commitment a mentee has (‘do they have a single question, or want to start a three year journey together’), and understanding this better, and using it as part of partnering people together, would improve the programme.

We could also be doing more to actively manage the mentor relationship – checking in more than twice a year with mentors about their current mentees, and managing the backlog of potential mentees better.

The only barrier to doing the things above has been me – I haven’t had the time to think about how to implement them, or do a sensible assessment of how to measure the impact of these changes to assess whether they will work in the way we expect.

The future

We’ll shortly be getting in touch with mentors to discuss some ideas about how to develop in the future, and we have lots of great ideas from the community of how to improve, as mentioned above.

As mentioned throughout this, there’s a lot we could be doing to improve the mentoring scheme, and giving it the proper attention to explore, pilot, and develop these ideas would be a huge benefit to the community.

There’s also been what seems a potentially significant change in the community recently, and it’ll be interesting to see what impact it has on the mentoring scheme. The Games User Research SIG has broadened it’s scope to include ‘UX’ in the title. As we know, user research is an important tool for understanding a player’s experience with a game, and identifying how it differs from the intended experience, but the ‘UX’ field covers a lot more than this. This is especially the case in games where everything that impacts what is presented to players – gameplay design, visual design, QA, and more – has a direct impact on the experience that users have. Currently all of our mentors are user researchers, but if the dynamics of the community change, we may have to work out how to manage this.

So, an exciting three years – but lots of challenges ahead for the next three, and plenty of opportunities to develop the mentoring scheme…programme… thing, in the future!

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