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Enterprise gamification: Anything but child's play

Carsten Schlipf Software Architect, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise

Enterprise gamification is an engagement solution that you've probably heard of but never considered before. You've launched a great service, put a lot of effort into optimizing the user experience, and conducted extensive usability testing to validate your design. You have a good number of users, but the service isn't quite taking off like you'd hoped.

  • Users aren't active enough.

  • Questions don't get answered in the relevant forums.

  • There aren't enough positive reviews.

  • The abandon rate is too high.

  • Your greatest advanced features are barely used.

With all your useful features, great design, and proven usability, these things shouldn't be happening. "So what's wrong with my application?" you ask yourself. The answer: it's just not taking human nature into account. To change how your users behave and interact with your application, you should consider "gamification."

How do you pitch gamification?

You may have read articles and books about gamification. Perhaps you've studied gamified systems and even use some of them. You see how they work and understand how the elements of gamification influence your behavior. Once you're convinced that it needs to become part of your own service's user experience, it's time to pitch it to your managers and stakeholders.

But before you make that pitch, be sure you know how to explain yourself. A quick search online reveals that there are quite a few misgivings about gamification, including use of the word itself. In a recent survey I conducted, respondents were asked if they were familiar with gamification. A staggering 80 percent responded, "I know what it is and I am familiar with its concepts." But the answers to subsequent questions made it clear that most of the respondents saw gamification as enriching user experience with games—that's a misconception. It's about applying game mechanics to a serious context.

So, when you make your elevator pitch to those stakeholders, avoid the "G" word, especially in a conservative business environment where games are generally associated with child's play. Instead, talk about engagement and motivation to increase usage. Explain your concept, and show that you have clear goals and a concrete path to achieve them. Once you do pop the "G" word, make it clear that you're not going to turn your enterprise service into a game; rather, you're going to add tested and proven game mechanics to accomplish work and meet business goals.

D comes before G

The drivers of gamification are data that measure user behavior. Before you establish your strategy, you need to understand and collect data, then establish a reporting solution that helps you understand what your users are doing. This is a critical prerequisite because in the enterprise world, you constantly have to defend the costs and efforts that you want your company to invest in. Start with the metrics that are important to your business, and define the high level KPIs, in terms of specific user actions, that will signify success of your gamification initiative, such as:

  • The number of questions a user asks or answers.

  • The number of reviews a user writes.

  • The number of likes a user receives in response to actions.

Gamification is complex and fragile. You need to keep app users engaged, to carefully tune parameters to find the delicate balance between boredom and excitement. Beware of improving one metric only to negatively influence another. For example, giving a rich reward to users for writing a review may trigger many low quality reviews. Other users will just stop reading reviews altogether. Conversely, if the reward you give for writing a review is too low, your users may not see it as worthwhile to bother writing them at all.

Having a reporting system that can clearly show the effects of changes you make improves your chances for management backing. A report that shows the ROI based on metrics before and after you introduce gamification, as well as metrics to continuously show the effects of tuning different parameters, is critical.

OK, I have data...what now?

Once you've started collecting user metrics and have a reporting solution in place, you can start thinking about choosing the right game mechanics for your application. The essence of gamification is about presenting user data to the user. In its simplest form, you could present something like this: "Five of your answers have been marked as useful."

Not very exciting, right? However, the user takes this very simple presentation personally and starts to think. "Hmm, just five answers? Let's write another one."

Now let's up the ante with a little more information for the user.

"So far, five of your answers have been marked as useful this month. On average, 7.8 answers are marked as useful."

By comparing the user to others, you're adding a social component that may appeal to your user's competitive nature. You can be less obvious about this so your users see your implementation as an integral part of your application and don't feel like you're trying to influence their behavior. Two great examples of this kind of unobtrusive gamification are LinkedIn and Amazon. These simple numbers can have a big effect, but of course, you can also get creative as with the Ford Focus Electric, which rates how environmentally friendly your driving is by displaying butterflies on the dashboard.

Know your player

The game mechanics you choose and how you visualize them very much depend on the personas of your typical users. Richard Bartle categorized game players into Killers, Achievers, Socializers, and Explorers. In tests that he ran, he found that most people are attracted to the Socializers, and since we're talking about enterprise gamification and corporate environments that encourage teamwork, there's a good chance many of your users are Socializers. But that doesn't mean you should ignore other personas. You need to find a good mix of game mechanics that will attract most of your users without completely isolating individuals.

Andrzej Marczewski went a step further than Bartle's model and developed the RAMP framework (Relatedness, Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose) for intrinsic motivation that helps you categorize users and select the right dynamics to give them a long-term, engaging experience. Yu-kai Chou took it even further with his powerful Octalysis framework, which helps you select the right game mechanics for your application. Both frameworks are powerful tools that allow you to design your gamification experience systematically—which framework you choose is up to you.

Points, badges, and leaderboards aren't enough

Points, badges, and leaderboards (PBLs) are so popular that they have become synonymous with the term gamification for many people, but their success has also become their downfall. People have begun to see through PBLs and view them as cheap tricks used to manipulate their behavior. Points and badges are extrinsic motivators. You do something and you're rewarded with points or by unlocking a level. However, extrinsic motivators have been proved to only work in the short term. If executed poorly, incentives can even decrease user motivation, as described by Dan Pink in his 2009 TED Talk. Leaderboards are even worse. Only one person wins; all the rest are losers. People who are new to your service are immediately discouraged by the leader who already has millions of points, while they're still struggling to get their first hundred. That said, PBLs are still valid mechanics and can be effective for limited, short-term campaigns to boost usage. But be wary of resting your whole strategy on them.

Selective privacy

Surveys have shown that most people don't really care how much public services like Facebook or Google know about them. However, they're very concerned about what their managers at work know. Gamified systems track personal data and, in many cases, correlate to an employee's performance.

One of the intrinsic motivators of Bartle's model is autonomy. Your users want to feel free to make their own decisions and control their data. Let them opt out of the game mechanics features and delete their metrics at any time. This gives them the confidence that their yearly bonus doesn't depend on the number of badges they have achieved and encourages them to get engaged with your app's gamification.

Dig in to human nature

Gamification isn't just about having fun. It's about driving your business by digging into your users' deepest human characteristics and motivating them to keep coming back for more. Points and badges don't quite cut it anymore, but there are plenty of gamification models out there to choose from. The art is in examining the different options and selecting the one that's right for your app. As concepts from the gaming industry reach us—bottoms-up—through our children, we need to bear in mind that a simple "Please write a review..." request won't cut it.

Gamification is what can make a good but failing application start shooting usage through the roof to drive those business dollars that your enterprise wants.

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