What Is Formative Research?
During the game development process, certain design questions have no clear answers. Current psychological theories could support a number of options, and thus without further research these theories have limited predictive power with regard to whether specific design choices will be effective. Formative research is a way to resolve these issues by using appropriate stimuli to probe how children make sense of specific tasks or media (Fisch & Bernstein, 2000).
This type of work is not meant to expand what is known about how students in general understand a given topic or about assessing the knowledge of any specific child. Instead, research participants are viewed as members of a particular subgroup, and psychological theory provides theoretical models against which student responses can be checked. For this reason, research participants must be from the same age group as the one for whom the game is designed. Methodologically similar to clinical interviewing as practiced by Piaget (1929) and more recently by Ginsburg (1997) and others, formative research is fruitful when interviewees feel comfortable speaking honestly without concern for the accuracy of their answers. This situation, however, may generate imprecise comments that the researcher then must clarify without judgment, while listening for issues that warrant further exploration. I have found this process to be very similar to that of interviewing sources for newspaper articles, and my background as a journalist has served me well here. Overall, when practiced well, formative research can be a reliable way of ensuring that the artifact being designed has the best chance to accomplish its purpose.