Learning to get comfortable working blind, formulating unverified hypotheses & taking chances on leap-like end user assumptions is an important part of a designer’s work. This project tells the story of such a design developed truly lean & agile for PokerStars’ first Facebook game.

PokerStars is  the largest online poker cardrooms in the world, with over 60 million registered members.



Working Blind

This project was the first Facebook game for the organisation & a special team was put together to develop a rapid proof of concept MVP to test the reception of the PokerStars brand as a Facebook game. Because it was a first project of this type, there was a steep learning curve for all.

First & foremost, the product was to be targeted at more casual users who would have less experience than the regular PokerStars player. This raised a challenge of presenting an existing brand which had a USP of poker “authenticity” & balancing that against the needs of new “casual” player cohort who may be intimidated by some of the strong existing branding. There was a danger of diluting the brand to a degree where we disappointed & our existing high revenue, fanatical brand supporters – something we were keenly aware of throughout.

There was a requirement for this new social touchpoint to blend authentically with existing brand experiences including complex flows involving TV advertising, print advertising, live events, and TV advertising.

The Facebook game would not be operating in isolation, with its own player traffic to be merged across PC & mobile platforms, this raised the challenge of mixing a variety of knowledge of the poker game & skills experience for all pools. There was the risk of high churn, where we needed to walk new users though a relatively complex card game & rules whilst negotiating the potential for frustration & confusion, ultimately churning the cohort.

Social games were a new domain to all on the team, so we had to learn quickly about metrics & heuristics. I really love a challenge & push the boundaries of my own knowledge, so this was a fantastic project to be a part of.

My Role

Agile Team Member – UX & Graphics

I joined a new small agile team, working closely with developers in design sprints turning around functionality & features quickly, using agile design & development methodology.  I worked alongside another UX designer & product manager. As UX designers, we created the end to end UX & graphical assets necessary for development of the stories, & after development, QA-ed & iterated the build where necessary.

The product was to be a rapid proof of concept & no previous UCD had been completed. The UX was driven around typical social gaming conventions & game mechanics, which meant that we needed to design blind initially, output the offering to the early adopter audience, & watch the reception via user analytics only.

We found that over time, as we worked in isolation on individual elements of the design, we needed to complete usability & consistency reviews periodically. We needed to build in extra time to establish design conventions & consciously share standardised elements such as button interaction styles & continually changing table designs.


Truly Lean & Agile

I joined a new small agile team, working closely with developers in design sprints turning around functionality & features quickly, using agile design & development methodology.  I worked alongside another UX designer & product manager. As UX designers, we created the end to end UX & graphical assets necessary for development of the stories, & after development, QA-ed & iterated the build where necessary.

We used JIRA for sprint & development tracking, taking user story tasks from epics & producing designs, as well as bug reporting using JIRA.


Strategy By Analytics

The team shared a strategy beyond development delivery, with the strategy based on social analytics targets such as DAU/MAU, ARPPU & CPM. At first this type of strategy was a challenge to assimilate across the team, as it changed team members’ expectations of responsibility & perceptions of role. However as we could receive feedback on user behaviour so quickly via Facebook insights analytics, the shared responsibility became more real &worked very well, as it meant all team members were focused on the same goal, driven by customer behaviour.


User Flow definition

Generally the UX process started with definition of the user flow for the particular to analysis how it fit into the existing UX, technical architecture & to begin to develop the concept itself.


Quick & Dirty Wireframes

“Quick & dirty” wireframe designs were created, whereby designs could be meshed with actual graphics from the game. Within the rapid turnaround, the focus was not on producing beautiful wireframe documentation, but on communicating as quickly & effectively with team members with a shared understanding of the communication method.


Graphic Design

Feedback from others is extremely important before committing any design to be build by developers, so generally designs would go through a process of collaborative review between both UX designers. After this, a polished mock-up of the design would then be created, with components for development spliced from the psd.


Interaction design

Alongside this, interaction behaviour would be analysed & designed & spec-ed. The image below shows interactions & communicates states for seats at a poker table.



Below is an example of the development of the design for new leaderboards. The first shot shows the wireframe to mockup comparison. The wireframe uses graphical elements which were important to communicate real world metaphors of competition, celebration & urgency. The 2nd shot shows a comparison of the old leaderboards to the new design. And the others show close-ups of the designs.


Style Guides

Where graphics were not required, other graphical specifications would be communicated by quick & dirty style guides.


Rapid & agile specifications

As an overall specification, because the team was small & cohesive on vision, we did not waste time on laborious documentation, using quicker methods such as annotated mockups where necessary.


Social Game Mechanics

The game made use of typical social game mechanics, which was fed-back upon via daily analytics. In order to do this, we needed to first design & build the concept, release to the audience & then refine to optimise. This meant that there was a significant delay between the design & the feedback. This was a new approach for me & I learned a lot from the experience. The process was a balance between speed to market & “throwing the dart to see how near it gets” to user wants & needs.

Most social games run from the same explicit or implicit gamification mechanics which play into innate human psychological needs. Motivations such as loss prevention, exclusivity, scarcity, reward & punishment drive users to take quick, simple actions. Because of the context of social games, the level of abstraction cannot be removed too far from the concepts, so creatively all mechanics must remain identifiable by the end user.

The list below outlines the design & mechanics we used to deliver the MVP.



Game Mechanics


The narrative leveraged the PokerStars brand as a “pro” & authentic poker experience. The pro celebrity Liv Boree was used on the MVP in a narrative in which she walked users, step by step, through basic poker & game concepts.

Leveraging the glamour of poker celebrities as game guides, was used to appeal to more casual user whilst teaching basic poker concepts.

The user was required to set up an Avatar to create a sense of ownership & persona in the virtual world.



Game Mechanics


During onboarding, it was important for the user to not get discouraged by the complexity of the game. Progressive disclosure of poker game concepts was presented as tutorials, whereby on completion users could earn virtual “experience points”.



Game Mechanics

Scratch Card

To encourage habitual behaviour, time-based sticky elements such as daily “spins” & virtual scratch cards for virtual items as prizes, were used to build habitual behaviour. The time-based element was used to create a sense of urgency & potential loss if the user did not redeem the opportunity.



Game Mechanics

Dedication Rewards

Simple dedication rewards in the form of virtual items (virtual decoration for avatars) was used to immediately spark an innate sense of reward & excitement each time a player logged in.



Game Mechanics


The game experience targeting casual poker players was optimised for learning new poker concepts based on tutorials with game “Challenges” & practice based “Achievements” earning “Experience points” to spend on virtual medals and virtual items.

A simplified poker experience was provided for this cohort, reducing poker options to Hold’em & Omaha games only.



Game Mechanics

Social Sharing – Virality & K-Factor

Players were prompted to “share” events at every turn to increase the viral aspect of the game. Social elements were used at every opportunity, such as explicit sharing as friend invitations, & implicit such as “bragging” features (for example posting a brag to the player or a friend’s wall about performance in a game).



Game Mechanics

Psychology of Ego

Explicit display of status was used to play into the psychology of ego. Progression thorough game (level attainment), game “achievements” & explicit comparisons were used leverage this concept.



Game Mechanics

Infliction of (Low) Status

This psychology was set early in the game with the proclamation of “Level 1”  status on the users avatar.



Game Mechanics


Again, in order to prevent burn & churn out of players, progressive disclosure was used to walk users through game concepts step by step to ensure the player could engage with the game with less frustration where it may occur.

This also enabled the concept of privilege, whereby certain aspects of the game were available only to playerswho had attained a certain amount of experience. This created a sense of curiosity & challenge to players.



Game Mechanics

Virtual Rewards

Virtual rewards were used throughout the game as an extrinsic reward system for habitual play behaviour. Rewards included virtual currency, experience (XP) points, medals, badges & virtual items.



Game Mechanics

Virtual Currency

Virtual currency was used in the game, not only for table play, but also as an extrinsic reward system. It also gave the opportunity to experiment with a virtual currency monetization strategy.


A Proof of Concept

In a small agile team, we produced the first MVP Facebook app for PokerStars – the largest online poker cardroom in the world, with over 60 million registered members.

The game utilised typical social gaming concepts; challenges/achievements, virtual currency, experience points system, levels, medals, leaderboards & viral elements. I worked on the creative concept, UX & graphic design, in a truly agile environment.

Phase 1 was delivered with Hold’em and Omaha games only, but with player pool merged across desktop & mobile platforms. By merging player account details across platforms, conversion was streamlined to reducing friction on moving platforms & enabled cross-promotion of platforms to encourage migration to “real money” platforms.

The goal of the game was to release the MVP for customer feedback. This was a high risk experimental project & the organisation’s first experience with social. It provided the opportunity to experiment with a monitization strategy based around virtual currency.


A Rich Learning Ground for Evolution

Ultimately the game evolved to become the JackPot poker app – with over 1 million downloads – which centred more around a narrative of round the world poker experience, with epic & mini challenges.

See below for shots of the MVP iteration.