The making of Off-Limits: Gamified interviewing

How might an interview generate the community-specific language and associations around a sensitive topic?

It all started with the tricolor poorly annotated diagram on the left. You receive a card with ‘the word’ on it. You fill the first 3 words you think of. You describe ‘the word’ without using any of the words you just wrote down until the other player lands on one of the ‘acceptable answers’.

Not using the words made the players find deeper associations, shifting the effort to finding alternative vocabulary instead of articulating their thoughts for ‘correctness’.

Sensitive topics are those that have the potential to cause harm to participants, eliciting powerful emotional responses such as anger, sadness, embarrassment, fear and anxiety. (Cowles, 1988)

Some such topics include (but are not limited to):

HIV/AIDS, Mental health issues, Death and bereavement, Fertility, abortion, miscarriage, Terminal illnesses (Alty and Rodham 1998, Davis et al 2004).

So my big question was:

How might an interview generate the community-specific language and associations around a sensitive topic?

Learning through prototypes

The first version of the cards was the most directly inspired by the game of ‘Taboo’. However, it was difficult for participants to block certain words when building the narrative, without a visual distinction.

The second version was too calculated for the participants, the language was ‘too mathematical’. I had to identify suitable conjunctions that worked for each combination.

L-R: Version 1, ‘with/without’ testing

Version 3 added a temporal axis, seeking responses before, during and after, to help the participants form a sequential storyline, to inspire candid storytelling.

User feedback session and brainstorming with peers

Version 5 successfully incorporated the conjunction to make the title a lot more comprehensible. The participants found it more intuitive and even though still admitted to a learning curve, they said they wanted to play more after 3 rounds (intended for testing).

User Responses

The first 2–3 responses were often immediate reactions, expressed in emotion language. The participants often expressed candid views on uncomfortable topics without being obligated to take a stance or be politically correct.

Their immediate associations were successfully captured through the cards, with further capability to explore these ideas through the narratives they created.


This tool was developed with constant feedback and open sessions with my peers and instructor in a studio called ‘Translational Research’. Poster + prototype exhibits were conducted at 3 steps of the development process.

Poster presentations
Final Design

Visual Design

The final design of the tool had several cues for the researcher/facilitator to conduct the study seamlessly. The major additions to the previously tested template were:

  1. Distinct sections labelled A, B, C to situate the participant through verbal prompts.
  2. Follow-up cards to incorporate a follow-up interview within the game.
  3. Scoring sheet for the facilitator to give the participants a tailored package of information on the topic.
  4. Script/prompts for facilitator on the back of the cards.
L- R: Final user testing, scoring sheet for the researcher
Back of the cards with prompts for a facilitator
Front of the playing cards and follow-up cards

See complete project here:

Find my published research papers here: