The game-based redesign of mainstream business

The game-based redesign of mainstream business
Gaming companies have plumbed the depths of motivation for decades. How can what they’ve learned be applied to business?
By Alan Morrison, Bo Parker, and Christopher Carfi

Millions of potential customers have visited the Autodesk website each year, and many of them have downloaded trial versions of its professional design software. But until recently, most haven’t been motivated to work with the complex tools long enough to see their value. Autodesk needed to more directly encourage visitors to train themselves in enough basic functions to experience the usefulness of the software. In 2012, the company tried a new approach.

Autodesk took a fresh look from the customer’s point of view at its eStore and the demos it made available on YouTube for one of its products, Autodesk 3ds Max—a creative suite used by game developers, media design professionals, architects, and others. “There were all kinds of tutorials on our learning channel for 3ds Max, but nothing that said, ‘OK, you have a blank workspace. Here is how you sketch out the skeleton of a person so you can get started doing some cool animation,’” notes Andy Mott, whose role at Autodesk focuses on moving qualified traffic from software trials to the company’s eStore.

Autodesk made some major upgrades to its customer experience design for its learning channel and its 3ds Max sites with the help of gamification technology from Badgeville. One of Autodesk’s key decisions was to cater specifically to developers and design professionals who were intimately familiar with games. The trial experience they created mimicked a game with a highly directed experience and tiered set of missions. Users start at the beginner’s level and learn the software’s basics; as they “level up”—acquire skills—the missions become more sophisticated. Much of the value is in helping users learn gradually without boring them in the process.

“We did a full-blown game that was right for the 3ds Max market, but in most cases, we’ll use some fundamentals from game mechanics and psychology in less flashy ways.”
—Dawn Wolfe, Autodesk

A three-month pilot test in 2012 confirmed something Autodesk knew: the more that people are engaged with trial software, the more likely they are to buy. During the pilot period, Autodesk saw a 15 percent increase in the buy click rate for this product. Autodesk is now preparing to use game mechanics for other sites, but the company doesn’t plan to design a full game for every product. “We did a full-blown game that was right for the 3ds Max market, but in most cases, we’ll use some fundamentals from game mechanics and psychology in less flashy ways,” says Dawn Wolfe, senior digital marketing manager at the company. She thinks this humbler form of motivation-oriented design will eventually “just become part of the marketer’s tool chest.”

As the example illustrates, game design concepts can be applied to online business environments and can achieve concrete results. Game mechanics work in the business environment for one of the same reasons they work in games: when designed into the environment appropriately and thoughtfully, they play on intrinsic motivation, which is more reliable and sustainable than external rewards or punishments. Intrinsic motivation produces higher engagement, and with surveys showing that employee and customer engagement is low, enterprises should be looking for ways to give it a boost.

This issue of the Technology Forecast examines the use of game design concepts in the online business environment. Using Autodesk and other examples from different business contexts, this first article describes the importance of intrinsic motivation to engagement, and how some forms of gamification are more effective than others at creating and sustaining passion for work, products, and services. The examples point to the emergence of a more studied approach to online spaces to create more engaging work and buying environments.

This kind of redesign is challenging, because it requires that enterprises really try to get into the minds of their customers and employees in a way most haven’t been able to before. But a more thoughtful approach to designing online environments can result in many business benefits, whether the goal is innovation, customer support, marketing and sales, training and development, or strategy. The second article, “Improving the customer and employee experience with gaming technology,” examines some of the technologies and vendors of game mechanics, and the third article, “Getting past the hype of gamification,” looks at how CIOs can adopt game design concepts to the IT organization.

Disengaged workers and disaffected customers

The application of game-based design to human factors is an extension of business process improvement efforts. During the last 20 years, enterprises have focused on improving most business processes by establishing consistent ways of performing and consistent data descriptions for those processes. How employees think and feel about the work—what’s called engagement—has not been part of this process improvement. The more the human part of work moves online, the easier it is to capture and study how it is performed and how to improve it. PwC calls this activity active engagement modeling and explores it in depth in the article, “Getting past the hype of gamification.” Game design concepts are central to this process, for reasons examined in the sections that follow.

Motivating Magnum Photos’ Twitter followers Click here

Motivating Magnum Photos’ Twitter followers

When prominent photojournalists, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, founded the Magnum Photos cooperative in 1947, it is doubtful they envisioned the volume of images that would exist in the digital era. The six people who manage the repository at the agency today certainly do.

With more than a half million digital images in the archives needing descriptive tagging, and 200,000 of them containing only basic metadata and no tags at all, the staff was simply overwhelmed.

Working with Tagasauris, a metadata tagging service, Magnum experimented with crowdsourcing to solve the problem. The breakthrough came when they blended elements of a gaming environment with socialmedia- oriented crowdsourcing and a semantically linked tagging system. (See Figure A.)

Figure A
Summary of a game-based approach to image tagging

Seven steps to a scalable image tagging effort

According to Tagasauris CEO Todd Carter, the process hinges on two elements: making users visible to one another, so they can interact, compete, and build relationships; and a careful design that guides users to better choices and checks their work. The process includes seven steps:

  1. Start small: “We started with small groups of users, testing, getting feedback, and then opening up to a larger group, just so we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” Carter notes.
  2. Set up a process that helps select and segment the user base: Tagasauris found influencers who were following Magnum on Twitter and sent each an invitation to compete with others in a game-based tagging environment. Magnum and Tagasauris assessed the quantity and quality of the image tags the users provided.
  3. Segment the workflow by specialization and the tasks into microtasks: “The more you can break it into parts, the more specialized the work becomes,” Carter advises. “Use specialists where you need specialists, and generalists where you need generalists.”
  4. Crowdsource task and task review, and check after both: “More than one person enters a number of tags, and then those tags are fed to more workers who adjudicate the work of the workers who put those tags in the first place. Then we measure the effectiveness of the adjudicators.”
  5. Use human judgment to retrain the machines: “Machines are often competent in determining if people are smiling or not, for example. We feed that output to humans who then adjudicate the task and use the output of that human adjudication to retrain the machine.”
  6. Provide real-time game-style feedback to users: “We added scores to the dashboard so people can see in real time whether their performance is getting better or worse.”
  7. Recognize user contributions: “Users wanted us to take the dashboard out of the application and embed it on the home page,” Carter concludes.

In this way, Tagasauris helped retool a portion of Magnum’s work environment based on an analysis of the thinking processes surrounding photos, how they’re used, and who’s able to describe them. The solution tapped Magnum’s most influential Twitter followers—about 120,000—and placed them together in an environment where they could interact, share knowledge, and gain recognition for their efforts.

Among the tangible results were the following, Carter says:

  • Reduced costs: Magnum cut the cost of annotating a single image from $3 to 25 cents, amounting to a total savings of more than $250,000 per year.
  • Increased revenue: Magnum doesn’t cite specifics but experienced a double-digit increase in revenue.
  • Supply chain optimization: Images without metadata are undiscoverable and cannot be monetized. Magnum added descriptive metadata to more than 300,000 assets that were previously undiscoverable.
  • Knowledge organization: Magnum added more than 20,000 concept terms to its thesaurus.
  • More visitors due to search: Since 2010, visitors to the website from search increased by 4,131 percent.
  • More website visits: Visits increased 5,481 percent from 2010 to November 2012.
 

It is imperative to note at the start that gamification does not mean turning everything into a game—although it can mean that, as the Autodesk example illustrates. It means more broadly using what the gaming industry knows about intrinsic motivation and how it, in turn, stimulates engagement. Gamification in a business context could be as simple as a bar that shows percentage of completion, such as the one LinkedIn uses for profiles, or something as complex as the World of Warcraft game with multiple levels of mastery. Even online activities not typically associated with gaming can use game mechanics—crowdsourcing, for example. (See the sidebar “Motivating Magnum Photos’ Twitter followers.”)

The very term gamification might be off-putting to some, but dismissing opportunities to use it in online business environments ignores the tangible benefits and a creative way to approach engagement. Beneath the hype of gamification are fundamental principles that can increase the passion workers and customers bring to your business. Passion is not just a feel-good emotion; it has tangible business results. A disengaged workforce is a less productive workforce.

“Businesses are in a rush to create gamification because they know there is disengagement within work,” says Ari Lightman, director of the CIO Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

For years, Gallup surveys have indicated that the number of disengaged workers worldwide is surprisingly high. In the latest 2012 results, for example, Gallup’s survey of Japanese managers indicated that “only 9 percent of respondents strongly agreed with the statement ‘I recommend my company’s products and services to friends and family members.’” Moreover, 67 percent of Japanese employees are “not engaged”—they pick up a paycheck but aren’t really enthusiastic about their work or their companies. The remaining 24 percent are “actively disengaged.”1

When interpreting similar results from an October 2011 Gallup survey taken in the United States, Lightman notes: “If you look at mainstream companies, something like two-thirds of the workforce is disengaged, which is really shocking. There’s no ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to rush into work because it’s so much fun.’ Gallup actually calculated the efficiency or the productivity loss. It’s some staggering number, like $300 billion lost in the US annually because people are disengaged with work.”2

“Workers are more disengaged than ever. It’s causing productivity loss—workers are doing other things that are work related because they’re bored out of their minds.”
—Ari Lightman, Carnegie Mellon University

One can agree or disagree with these studies, but Lightman argues that “workers are more disengaged than ever. It’s causing productivity loss—workers are doing other things that are work related because they’re bored out of their minds.”

Another important set of business health metrics has to do with customer indifference for many major brands. (See Figure 1.) Using its Brand Passion Index, NetBase analyzes customer sentiment expressed in social media to gauge customer passion for brands. Among package shipping companies, for example, there is a like–dislike continuum from high to low, but brand passion isn’t particularly high for any of the major carriers.

Figure 1
Brand passion index

Enterprises are aware of their engagement problem. Motivating others to participate and contribute in productive ways has become a primary objective in some enterprises, whether engagement involves employees, buyers, suppliers, partners, or other stakeholders.

Because engagement is mental, not behavioral, enterprises should focus on understanding and targeting individual thought processes—from dispassionate logic to heated emotions. Companies don’t always know intuitively how to engage employees or customers. The place to start is to understand the role of intrinsic motivators.

Boosting business engagement: The underappreciated role of emotion

Enterprises don’t tap customer or workplace emotion enough, says Bill Fulton, a psychologist, game designer, and founder of Ronin User Experience. Referring to the ABCs of psychology—affect (feeling or emotion), behavior (doing), and cognition (thinking)—Fulton argues that business managers focus too much on thinking and acting to the exclusion of feeling.

“Enterprises need to focus more on engaging people emotionally,” Fulton says. “Most businesses want people to see the value or benefit of their product, and not consider price. They never come to the conclusion that it would be better if people loved their products. It’s much harder to pull away customers who love your stuff.”

Car designers, for example, are acutely attuned to emotion, he says. “If every car came in matte black, there would be a lot fewer people who love cars. The designers know that color and shape, things completely separate from a car’s usefulness as transportation, play a large role in whether one loves a car,” Fulton says. “To get a healthy chunk of sales and a lot of customer loyalty, car designers know they need to inspire love.”

Intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation

Motivation does differ among individuals. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and similar categorizations of personality types could lead to a conclusion that a predominantly judging person might find plans and schedules more inherently motivating than an easy-going perceiving person would. But many motivators are effective across the general population regardless of personality type.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci of the University of Rochester are the progenitors of an established approach to motivation called self-determination theory that contrasts intrinsic with extrinsic motivators. Ryan and Deci highlight autonomy, competence, and relatedness as three core intrinsic motivators. These are comparable to the 21st-century motivators of autonomy, mastery, and purpose that Dan Pink spells out in his book Drive. Pink’s book takes its cue from self-determination theory.

In Ryan’s mind, purpose is closely tied to autonomy. “For instance, in fostering autonomy, it is helpful when people have a rationale that contributes to a sense of purpose,” Ryan says. “If the boss says,‘Here’s what needs to happen this week,’ it’s a lot easier for me to have autonomy in doing it if I understand why and the boss gives me the rationale.”

“The field of motivation today is much more about what supports or sustains people in the choices they make, rather than how you make people do things with rewards and punishments.”
—Richard Ryan, University of Rochester

Ryan stresses the importance of intrinsic motivators rather than the extrinsic reward and punishment of classic behaviorism pioneered by B. F. Skinner. In fact, Ryan thinks the field of psychology has done a “Copernican turn over the last 20 years,” essentially reversing its position from behaviorism to favoring self-determination and other consistent theories. “The field of motivation today,” he says, “is much more about what supports or sustains people in the choices they make, rather than how you make people do things with rewards and punishments.”

If a person is indifferent, she’s not engaged. She could be externally motivated, as in Skinnerian behaviorism—some kind of payment or reward causes her, at least initially, to be motivated to complete a task, or threatened with a consequence or punishment if she doesn’t.

“Rather than being the source of motivation, the manager must help employees to find their own intrinsic motivation.”
—Alexander Kjerulf, author and consultant

There’s widespread agreement that tapping intrinsic, positive motivators is an effective and sustainable approach.“Rather than being the source of motivation, the manager must help employees to find their own intrinsic motivation,” says Alexander Kjerulf, a business author and consultant who divides motivation into four quadrants. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2
Four kinds of motivation

If a person loves what she’s doing, then at some deep level a blend of autonomy, competence (mastery), or relatedness may be active, and effectiveness and productivity will follow. She’ll be in Kjerulf’s upper right quadrant. Perhaps it is a project that challenges her or one she’s been given freedom to plan and execute as she sees fit. Or perhaps it’s the benefits of interacting with co-workers, partners, or customers and the connections she’s making. Most likely it is a blend of factors. A combination of intrinsic motivators can be powerful in encouraging the feelings that lead to positive customer or employee behavior. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3
The continuum of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

Figure 3: The continuum of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

Personality types and motivation

Motivation varies by personality type. Richard Bartle in 1996 identified four key player types in multiplayer gaming environments. Each of these four key player types can respond differently to the same situations and incentives. Understanding these player types provides insight that can improve the effectiveness of gamification in the business context. In particular, these player types provide a framework that can be used when developing initiatives such as customer advocacy programs.

Bartle created a matrix that explored two dimensions: a dimension of “does the player think more about her environment or about other players?” and a dimension of “does the player act on, or does the player interact with?”

The answers to these questions result in a 2x2 matrix (see Figure 4) with four player types:

  • Achievers (“Diamonds”): Achievers are motivated by worth or self-worth.
  • Explorers (“Spades”): Explorers are motivated by knowing everything they can about a subject or area of interest, and they are driven by that quest for knowledge.
  • Socializers (“Hearts”): Socializers are motivated by their engagement with others.
  • Killers (“Clubs”): Killers are motivated by their dominance of other players in a game.

Figure 4
Interest graph of four different player types

Motivation is not a one-size-fits-all concept. In fact, each of the four player types has different types of motivations.

These four types are the cornerstone of Bartle’s model. In a subsequent revision of the model, Bartle added a third dimension that captures the fact that motivations can be implicit or explicit, consistent with the self-determination model of motivation described in this issue of the Technology Forecast.

Motivation is not a one-size-fits-all concept. In fact, each of the four player types has different types of motivations:

  • Achievers: In a traditional gaming environment, maximizing her points in a game drives the Achiever. Feedback mechanisms that show how an Achiever is doing in the game (via mechanisms such as leaderboards that show high scores) are especially important. In the application of game mechanics to business, Achievers are motivated by competition with others (“Will the San Jose office beat the New York office on its health and fitness scores?”) or competition with themselves (“I bet I can be in the top 5 percent of sales reps and go to President’s Club this year.”)
  • Explorers: In games, the Explorer is the one who goes to every corner of a map to see what is there; in the business setting, the Explorer is the one who invests the time to understand every setting on her new smartphone. Since Explorers are motivated by knowledge, giving them access to exclusive information or behind-the-scenes glimpses into a process can result in higher engagement.
  • Socializers: The Socializer draws motivation not from the environment in which she is interacting, but instead is driven by the interactions with the people in that environment. In an online setting, ensure that Socializers have a way to interact with other individuals who have similar passions or goals. For this group in particular, integrating both online and real-world networking opportunities is an important design goal.
  • Killers: The Killer gets motivation from being the “alpha dog” in any given situation. (Contrast this motivation to the Achiever player type, where motivation is driven by acting on her environment, rather than by acting on others in the environment.) Having a few Killers in a given situation is not necessarily a bad thing, as they do add a dynamic aspect to social interactions. However, too many Killers in a group may have a tendency to drive others out of it.

Additionally, one cannot assume that all players, employees, or customers fall into a single player type in a particular situation. There will always be a mix of player types in any given population.

Understanding these player types has particular significance when developing customer advocacy programs. Envisioning a menu of identity, privileges, and benefits that will motivate customer advocates ties directly into understanding the motivation of the various subgroups in a particular customer advocate community. The Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program, for example, tapped strongly into aspects of the Achiever, Explorer, and Socializer archetypes. By giving these MVPs public recognition, specialized information, and the ability to connect with others in the community, the program created a feedback loop that resulted in significant, measurable business benefits.

How success in motivating gamers translates to business scenarios

The body of scientific research around human motivation is substantial, but some of the most relevant research for online environments is informed by gaming. In contrast to other business verticals, the gaming industry has been fully attuned for decades to the challenge of motivating users. The industry is now starting to directly share its knowledge with other businesses.

Ryan, the self-determination theorist, confesses, “I got into this field, in part, because I was impressed by the motivational power that games had. Most people in psychology were looking at the negative effects of video games because of overuse and other side effects. I thought, if people are overusing video games, we need to know what’s motivating them.”

Through trial and error, the best game designers managed to crack the motivation code needed for successful gaming environments. One central element of their success is their focus on intrinsic motivators and the associated mechanics used to deepen engagement. Within the past several years, vendors such as Bunchball have taken the simpler mechanics of games into online business environments and mapped those to the potential motivators they could tap.

Figure 5 illustrates the interaction of basic human desires and gameplay. The red dots signify the primary desire a particular game mechanic fulfills, and the gray dots show the other areas that it affects. Each human desire listed is tied to deeper intrinsic motivators, including the autonomy, competence, and relatedness of self-determination theory. Rewards that come when underpinned by intrinsic motivators gain more effectiveness.

Figure 5
Common game mechanics and how they can affect motivation

These game mechanics and design strategies provide ways to motivate the disengaged. As long as they’re well thought through, the use of game mechanics can be helpful in a range of applications. Online business environments, like gaming environments before them, are now becoming laboratories for experimentation.

Mario Herger, technology strategist and community manager at SAP Labs, points to four traditional and emerging business concerns that are seeing the most adoption: marketing and branding, training, community management, and human resources. Here are some examples.

Marketing: Boosting the use of trial software at the Autodesk eStore

According to Senior Digital Marketing Manager Dawn Wolfe, Autodesk faced a common online marketing problem: the undirected experience that site visitors often have when trying to find out what’s important about a new product. The Autodesk website offers various online demos, training videos, and noninteractive training manuals to help visitors learn more, but even if they use them—and many don’t—they often do not become well enough versed to understand the value of these complex design tools.

Game mechanics give site visitors a more directed, interactive experience. Autodesk is creating accessible feedback-response loops and on-ramps for different kinds of visitors who are interested in various products. Autodesk works with Badgeville, which provides leaderboards, badges, and other basics for gamifying trial software through an application programming interface (API). (See Figure 6 for an example badge set.) At low levels of difficulty, badges and leaderboards are more important than they are at higher levels. In its recent pilot test and expanded use of game mechanics in its eStore, Autodesk set definite goals for the customer segments it targeted.

Figure 6
Example badge set

Figure 6: Example badge set

Design appropriate experience levels with the right kinds of rewards. When it comes to multi-level user experiences, Wolfe thinks World of Warcraft provides a model. “If you’re a brand new user, your experience is simplistic. It’s all about just understanding—understanding how the game works and how to get around in it. But if you’re a Guild Leader, the experience almost looks like you’re flying an aircraft. It’s outrageously complex. If you were to show that to your beginning user, they would run away.”

“What are the key things we want customers to experience that we think will get them to that aha moment and to understand how this is going to improve their workflow and save time?”
—Dawn Wolfe, Autodesk

Get customers to the aha moment. One of the main goals with trial software is to encourage visitors to spend enough time getting familiar with the software to see how it could be valuable. “What are the key things we want customers to experience that we think will get them to that aha moment and to understand how this is going to improve their workflow and save time?” Wolfe asks.

Move customers out of their comfort zone into evaluating new products and features. Current AutoCAD customers, for example, might benefit from a suite, but they need to know more about the tools in the suite. AutoCAD Raster Design, a tool available in the AutoCAD Design Suite, creates editable digital files from drawings on paper. Raster Design is not as complicated as some other products, but users need to experience it to see the value.

Autodesk 3ds Max
 
The pilot test with Autodesk 3ds Max was a success. Trial downloads increased 10 percent and usage of trial software increased 40 percent during the pilot period.

The pilot test with 3ds Max was a success. Trial downloads increased 10 percent and usage of trial software increased 40 percent during the pilot period, Wolfe says. Besides the increase in 3ds Max buying activity on the eStore, Autodesk saw a 59 percent increase in 3ds Max channel revenue during the pilot compared to the period a year earlier. This increase is harder to tie directly to the online experience, but was likely impacted by it, she says.

Autodesk also uses site and other customer analytics extensively and has pondered the preferences of targeted user groups. Accordingly, Autodesk has tailored the game elements in the trial software to specific groups:

  • By interest and background: A high percentage of users of 3ds Max are themselves game or special effects developers, already attuned to games. So Autodesk developed a story line for the trial and created different entry points for each level. In contrast to a standard online tutorial, the World of Warcraft–style story lines and mission levels make the trial package more familiar to those who are gamers.
  • By type of marketplace: Autodesk recognizes that some core markets wouldn’t benefit from a full-blown game. In general, Wolfe believes, companies would benefit more from building simple real-time metrics into web pages to encourage customers to complete a learning task, for example. Visible rewards and feedback such as percentage of completion is often enough.
  • By context: Adding game elements to an online system can be simpler than some might believe. Wolfe points to YouTube or LinkedIn as examples. The LinkedIn site user profile includes a completion metric, which is based on whether your current position, past two positions, education, and other parts of the profile are filled out. The bar chart showing percentage of completion “is very compelling when you see that you’re only 65 percent along that progress bar and if you just do this one next thing, it’ll get you another 10 percent. There are some innate elements in human nature that respond to that,” Wolfe says.

Training: User engagement in corporate training efforts at Electronic Arts

“The creatives really have a lot more control over the variables of making a game than they realize. This exercise was to increase their awareness of budget and resources, and how they can influence the [profit and loss] outcomes.”
—Bryan Neider, Electronic Arts

Game developer and publisher Electronic Arts (EA) has applied what it has learned about gaming to its internal training. Its training platform, called EA University, uses game mechanics “to educate our creative and development talent about financial constraints and how to manage profit and loss,” says Bryan Neider, EA Labels chief operating officer.

Training of this sort is one of the least engaging activities, going step by dry step through explanations of income statements, balance sheets, budgets, and the like. Recognizing this barrier, EA University approached budget and talent constraints as challenges in a game. “The creatives really have a lot more control over the variables of making a game than they realize. This exercise was to increase their awareness of budget and resources, and how they can influence the [profit and loss] outcomes,” Neider says.

Framed as a puzzle to solve rather than a set of learning goals to achieve, participants competed with each other while trying various strategies to “win the game” (make the most profit). The strategy that ultimately won has been broadly adopted throughout EA, an incentive that further boosted EA University’s success. It didn’t hurt that EA employees all love games and competing.

The good news is that there are numerous proven techniques from the gaming industry that everyone else can build on.
 

EA continues to refine EA University and use it to raise awareness within the creative and development teams about “everything from game pricing to retail distribution to digital distribution,” Neider says. “The variables of how you make a game vary widely, depending on if it’s a Madden football game or a Battlefield first-person shooter game. So the application of the knowledge varies, and teams have different motivations and personalities.”

The real breakthrough at EA is the recognition that learning comes after engagement is established. Solving puzzles, competing with colleagues, and other game dynamics encouraged staff to think about the profitability of a development project in new ways.

Community management: Game mechanics in Microsoft’s MVP program

Like most software vendors, Microsoft relies on its online user communities to educate customers and help them use its myriad products. Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professional (MVP) program has made inroads by engaging and harnessing the talents of some customers in these volunteer support communities.

Before he co-founded the social business consultancy Ant’s Eye View in 2008 (acquired by PwC in 2012), Sean O’Driscoll spent 16 years at Microsoft, most recently as the head of strategy and operations for these online communities. O’Driscoll’s work focused on moving communities beyond the noninteractive experiences of Web 1.0.

Specifically, he looked at more dynamic communities for best practices. For example, he studied the autonomy and purpose implicit in open source communities. “We looked at the Linux communities,” O’Driscoll says, “and we found these open source communities with a vibrant user base who weren’t just fans, but rabid fans. They gave birth to this code, and so they would defend it to the death.”

Once they saw how dynamic online user communities could be, O’Driscoll and Microsoft instituted the MVP program to energize the communities by rewarding the most active in ways that tapped intrinsic motivators—giving them public recognition and acknowledging their positive roles. That program provided a means of “systematically finding, thanking, and engaging nonemployee participants in brand conversations,” O’Driscoll says. One of the largest communities under that program was a support forum for Microsoft Office products, where the most active participants did a great job of answering others’ how-to questions. That forum provided an example of how Microsoft’s communities could become more dynamic.

In most online communities, O’Driscoll observes, “only about 1 percent of unique participants” will proactively engage with your brand and products in “extreme” ways. However, this 1 percent is highly valuable in helping to identify motivators that could boost the engagement level in other parts of the user base. “It’s not a matter of raising all boats to the same norm,” he says. “It’s a matter of raising all boats proportionately.”

O’Driscoll emphasizes that social strategies such as game-based design are not a solution to creating non-existing behaviors, but a way to expand and capitalize on normative behavior that already exists. “Our job was to essentially create the structure and incentives necessary to facilitate the exhibition of these behaviors in the marketplace,” he notes.

O’Driscoll and his team identified five user community motivators that boosted participation the most:

  • Specialized knowledge: “Give your audience specialized or privileged access to information” not available to the general public, O’Driscoll says. Users want to be “treated like insiders.” This approach connects to the intrinsic motivator of mastery.
  • Identity: Give the target audience a way to “publicly highlight their expertise and credibility in a particular discipline,” O’Driscoll says. Badges can be used here. Microsoft also gave the Office community MVPs the opportunity to present at Microsoft conferences.
  • Involvement: Interact with the most active users and create a relationship that is bidirectional. This approach connects to the intrinsic motivator of purpose.
  • Belonging: Make the users feel connected to each other and the community.
  • Trust: Before all else, build a trust in the quality of the product you are putting out in the market. Purpose is an intrinsic motivator here.

In one research study, Microsoft compared the quality and quantity of responses from MVPs in the online forums before and after it thanked them for their efforts. “We saw a 30 percent uplift in contributions to our forums by those individuals in the 30 days following our acknowledgment of their contribution, compared to the previous 30 days,” O’Driscoll says.

A key insight that O’Driscoll’s team developed is to attract users who relate to your brand and products, as opposed to “point collectors”—users who are interested only in the game. Someone will eventually “develop a better point collection system than you,” which forces you back to competing on price. “You don’t want to compete on price. You want to compete on relationships,” O’Driscoll says.

Conclusion: Gaming techniques address the disengagement challenge

Game environments provide insights into how to tap sustainable intrinsic motivators that lead to high engagement levels. World of Warcraft and similar games create challenges for users and an incremental path to mastery; in the process, they tap into autonomy, mastery, purpose, and relatedness. These multiplayer role-playing games make users visible to one another, so they can interact, compete, and build relationships.

The same techniques are being used in business to engage the workforce and inspire customers. It’s not that businesses need to build games to elicit this responsiveness; rather, they should modify their online environments to enrich interaction, give and get feedback, and generally warm up these places with the right kind of gaming techniques, because so many of them seem a bit cold and uninviting at this point.

A focus on intrinsic motivators can be powerful in encouraging positive customer or employee interaction in various business activity areas that Mario Herger identified earlier:

  • Marketing: “Marketing and branding groups in enterprises have been driving this topic for the past two or three years because they have to be very innovative in the attention economy.”
  • Training: “Major developments such as Khan Academy are turning around the world of education. People are not willing anymore to sit a week in the classroom.”
  • Human resources: “HR can use game mechanics when training and onboarding employees, but also when giving employees a career path.” Crowdsourcing is a related HR example.
  • Community management: “Social media is very tightly integrated with gamification, including game mechanics such as ratings, clicks, and different kinds of feedback. By being responsive and recognizing people for doing certain activities or being helpful inside the community, you make the community stronger.
Gallup survey results show consistently high levels of workforce or customer disengagement. These results don’t necessarily indicate that enterprises aren’t interacting with user constituencies. But they do indicate that the nature of the interaction is shallow and uninspiring.

Gallup survey results show consistently high levels of workforce or customer disengagement. These results don’t necessarily indicate that enterprises aren’t interacting with user constituencies. But they do indicate that the nature of the interaction is shallow and uninspiring. As Fulton points out, more interactions should include more feeling as well as thinking and learning components.

Online environments offer unprecedented opportunities to stimulate user engagement, but adoption of the mechanics to encourage greater engagement has been slow. Emotion and overall responsiveness are lacking from many online business environments. So it’s no wonder that users have been disengaged. The good news is that there are numerous proven techniques from the gaming industry that everyone else can build on.


1 “Grim News for Japan’s Managers,” Gallup Business Journal, 2012, http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/17242/Grim-News-Japans-Managers.aspx, accessed October 17, 2012.

2 Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer, “What Your Boss Needs to Know About Engagement,” HBR Blog Network, November 16, 2011, accessed October 17, 2012.