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Designing for motivation:

Play For People Skills

What's the best way to design for high schoolers' motivation to improve people skills? By making it fun! We designed a social game and guide as tools for socio-emotional learning.
Our game doubled the amount of high school students setting meaningful personal goals in field tests, and was shared at learning conferences.


Client project, Carnegie Mellon University Master's in HCI capstone


Figma, Balsamiq, Miro, Smartsheet, Adobe Creative Suite, Unity, paper


Product design, UX/UI design, game design, user research, project management


Desktop prototype, card game, design guide (mobile & desktop website)

Process overview

The problem:

People skill development is not supported enough in high schools

South Fayette School District came to us asking for a design solution to help their high schoolers improve their people skills (leadership, teamwork, critical thinking...).

We conducted ~30 interviews and classroom observations to gather information on socio-emotional learning in today's classrooms.

"Teaching people skills is still more of an afterthought compared to subject knowledge like math and science."
— teacher —
" We adults all agree teaching soft skills is important, but we're never quite sure how best to integrate it into the curriculum. "
— teacher —
A bit of context: the term “soft skills” was originally used in our project, but we switched to “people skills” after learning that soft/hard skills has some sexist undertones
After research and interviewing K-12 teachers, it’s clear they aren’t paid enough for what's on their plate :/

Project planning

As a lead project manager and product designer on a team of 5 grad students at Carnegie Mellon University, alongside taking an active role in the overall design and research direction of the project, I created (and adjusted) team roadmaps to keep everyone on track, lead design sprints & retrospectives, and facilitated client communication & visioning.

The opportunity:

We can build motivation for students to work on people skills

Through field research, we found that a key area to address is that students are not intrinsically motivated to work on their people skills.

Crucially, we found that undervaluing people skills is often a symptom of an overly grade-focused mindset.
“I’m not very focused on what I’m learning, but rather the grades I get. Anything that doesn't impact my grades doesn't matter.”
— student —
"[People skills] feel like something that teachers stick on a wall and expect you to do, not something you actually take seriously."
— student —
There are other key stakeholders, such as parents that contribute to this mindset, but I advocated for taking a grassroots approach and expanding outward.
Before conducting field research for this project, I never thought I’d set foot in a high school cafeteria again!
We conducted various field research activities such as interviews and having an anonymous box for how students felt about different aspects of school.

How might we

design for increased motivation to work on people skills?

We reviewed academic literature in social psychology for guidance.

Self Determination Theory (SDT) states there are 3 essential components for human well-being and motivation. I came up with the idea of using Self Determination Theory to guide design ideation due to the overlap it had with our initial design goals.
In the beginning days of our project, we had a "Shareout Friday" where we would each present either an analagous domain competitor analysis or key findings from an academic paper or article for areas of interest.

Initial prototype:

Create your own bucket list

For ideas to increase Autonomy and Competence, personal goal setting was a big recurring theme for us to be able to give students a sense of self-agency and pride. To give students a safe space to set goals, I came up with an idea for a Bucket List App and prototyped it.
This is one idea among many - we had 22 initial prototypes by the end of our long prototyping phase. Whew!
Bucket list app prototype that I created and tested
"I want to perform live music in a band"

What I expected:
reevaluating life priorities

By framing it as a bucket list and not a “goal setting app”, students would set goals for themselves outside of academic ones. We could then help them break down their life goals and help them realize the people skills needed for achieving those goals.
"I want to get an A on the next math test"

What actually happened:
same old schoolwork :(

Over half the students we tested with still primarily set academic goals, indicating a need to design for even further distancing from school life if we want to shift motivation to value people skills.
We found this problem wasn't limited to lack of trust in our prototype - an interview we had with the school counselor revealed similar frustrations in getting students to open up about their personal life goals.

The problem:

Our designs do not feel distanced enough from school life

Based on testing our prototypes and ideas for personal growth apps, we found the following pitfalls:


Tedious & Boring
Apps for academic & personal success feel like "homework"; would only use if required to by teachers


High Pressure
Forced activities from adults remove autonomy and generally do not create safe spaces for behavior change.


Not Taken Seriously
If given the option to be funny or subversive, many teens will opt to not take an activity seriously at all.
While it may seem discouraging that our ideas didn't work out, learning what doesn't work can be just as important (if not more important) compared to learning what does work.
My favorite anecdote to illustrate #3 is when a student jokingly wrote down "male prostitute" when we prompted him to reflect on future aspirations. Teenagers will be teenagers!

The opportunity:

We can utilize the transformative power of games.

How does pivoting to games spark motivation via Self Determination Theory?

If the game is fun, there is an incentive for students to want to play the game, rather than being forced into it.
Games are generally easy to understand. There are lack of consequences for failure, creating a safe space.
Games can be enjoyed socially, adding a feeling of community support for well-being and motivation.
I never expected that we’d pivot to games, but it seemed like all signs were pointing toward it after research and design iteration.
As the team’s resident video game nerd who has taken game design courses, I gave my team a crash course on transformational game design.

Designing a

Social card game

After settling on exploring games as a way to empower students to work on their people skills, our team brainstormed and ideated game concepts.

A social card game concept I created, titled "Terrible Workers", ended up being the game we went with.
“Educational games give the vibe of something my mom would force me to play! ”
— Student interview quote illustrating the stigma that we had to work around
We brainstormed many games and tested them. One game concept I created, a card game called Terrible Workers, performed well as it was explicitly designed to not feel like schoolwork.

To combat the stigma against educational games and avoid psychological resistance, I used the Embedded Design Model to subtly weave in the learning message rather than stating it outright.
I had initially prototyped Terrible Workers independently as a sort of “proof of concept” for my team, to show we could make a fun game for people skills without spending lots of time in Unity.
Tabletop social experience
We wanted our game to be something facilitating social interaction and get high school students to talk to each other, thus encouraging a sense of community.
Subversiveness through "sabotage"
I added a "sabotage" mechanic, which was chosen because our research strongly indicated teens find subversive and competitive elements to be fun.
By mixing "on-topic" elements (i.e. directly related to people skills) with "off-topic" elements that are purely there for fun, the game comes off as less preachy and educational.
If students are told that a game is educational, it's a turnoff. The game is designed so that players don't need to know the true purpose. If this game is integrated as part of a lesson, we recommended that teachers only reveal the "hidden message" after the game.
An earlier version of the game was about choosing school teammates, but after testing and iteration, we shifted to provide a distanced environment so that high schoolers feel that the game is a safe space to express themselves and not have to think about academic achievement.
Card visual design
We chose a bright color palette to make the game feel more vibrant and fun, thus feeling less like school work and creating more of a safe space to fail.
A basic and legible sans-serif font was chosen over a more comic-book style font after iterating on the card design, as we found that high schoolers didn't want to play games that felt too "childish".
The green/red card backs increase clarity between positive and negative cards; however. text and symbols are used on the card backs for accessibility and to account for colorblindness.

What is our game about?

An exciting social card game to facilitate discussion on people skills

Terrible Workers is a game about pitching yourself as a job candidate based on the skills and personality traits that you have been given. At the end of each round, "the boss" will pick someone to hire based on how much they fit the role they are hiring for.
Would you hire this person to be a Party Planner?

How does it draw in students to learn?

Designed for fun and social connection, rather than feeling like a chore

Being a card game, Terrible Workers draws people in through being a fun social experience, rather than being a "learning activity". High schoolers don't have to be in a lesson about improving their people skills to enjoy a game of Terrible Workers, making it more distanced from school life and allowing it to be a safer space for them to express themselves.
“This game is so fun!! I would love to play it after Thanksgiving dinner!”
— Playtest comment from high school student

Evaluating effectiveness:

Proven success for shifting motivation

Through using gameplay to demonstrate the value of people skills, Terrible Workers actually works for shifting the motivation of high schooler to work on their people skills.

Without revealing the purpose of the game, we had students write down personal goals before and after playing Terrible Workers. Those that had played the game set more meaningful and diverse goals for self-improvement, rather than simply being tunnel visioned on academic achievement.

School focused
"Get into college"
"I aspire to get into an Ivy League college."
"I want to get into a good college.
"I want to finish my college apps"
30 min game session
Life focused
"I'd like to travel the world and meet people"
"My goal is to get better at working with other people and building collaborative skills."
"i want to be a more confident speaker with less stutters and better thinking on my feet"
From the start, success metrics were something I worried about personally because long-term behavior /attitude change is harder to measure than something like usability.
I referred to Sabrina Culyba's Transformational Framework handbook for guidelines on how to collect data points for transformational games.

Vetted by subject matter experts in game design.

"It will be a memorable experience and change the way the students interact."

Heather Kelley

Women in Gaming's Innovator Award 2013,
One of Inc.'s Five Most Powerful Women in Gaming 2013

Producing a

Design guide

While Terrible Workers was successful for shifting motivation to value people skills, we wanted to create a framework for future change beyond just producing a game.

In order to inspire and advocate for more comprehensive long-term change in the system, we created a resource for educators and designers to be able to facilitate and design similar games in the future.

Transformational game design

Compiling research findings in a digestible way

Design heuristics

As part of our resource, we condensed our research and learnings over six months into 10 easily digestible design heuristics.

We connected a lot of dots between different research findings to generate our final heuristics.

"Went above and beyond to create meaningful change"

You navigated this project with such creativity, going above and beyond in adding an extra layer to create meaningful change with the design heuristics. The students were totally, authentically engaged [with the game you made].

Matthew Callison

Project Client, Director of Innovation @ South Fayette School District