Improving the customer and employee experience with gaming technology

Improving the customer and employee experience with gaming technology
The best platforms and tools are already helping companies add game mechanics to their environments.
By Dion Hinchcliffe and Steve Alter

Gamification is a set of techniques that generally revolve around engaging and motivating individuals and groups to perform specific actions, but technology is a primary enabler. And although the technologies are in a nascent state, elements and functions for adding game mechanics to non-gaming contexts—including online business environments—are available now.

Incorporating gaming techniques into business processes or any other structured activity consists of several clear steps. For those familiar with software development or IT implementation, these steps will seem relatively straightforward despite being an amalgam of new technology, careful user experience design, and business process reengineering.

As it stands today, the process of gamification tends to fork early into two main approaches. The first applies elements of gameplay to existing enterprise applications or processes. The second conceives an entirely new experience from the ground up, intertwining game mechanics with the application itself. Both solutions produce useful results, but the second tends to produce more impactful outcomes. The first is the most extensively supported by commercial gamification vendors and may be the easier starting point. Either way, the motivational aspects remain the most important element for success.

The vendor landscape

With M2 Research predicting the overall gamification market will grow from $100 million in 2011 to more than $2.8 billion by 2016, it’s not a surprise to see vendors racing to get a slice of that pie. But what can those vendors actually do for you, and how can you tell if it’s worth your investment?

Although enterprise adoption of gamification is still in its early days, the business of providing game-based design services is not; platform provider Bunchball was founded in 2005. Even more recently founded companies have garnered significant investment and, more importantly, attracted first-rate talent from game design companies such as Zynga and social platform providers such as Jive.

That talent is the primary reason to hire a vendor, whether you’re looking for an end-to-end platform or a standalone application. Effective game-based design experiences blend behavioral psychology, social networking, customer experience, game design, loyalty marketing, reputation management, business process, real-time analytics, and more—all wrapped up in technology that can integrate with multiple systems, is customizable, and can function at massive scale. This combination requires leadership that can bring together great individual talent and create a great cross-discipline and cross-functional team.

Table 1
Example gamification vendors and boutiques

Table 1: Example gamification vendors and boutiques

In the current landscape, only a few vendors provide end-to-end solutions that demand that breadth of talent. Most are specialists in a particular area, such as game design or social media marketing, while others consult to enable companies to leverage their own internal resources in building and deploying solutions. (See Table 1.)

“The problem is that a lot of businesses are not really thinking about the incentives and the motivational aspect behind why you would gamify anything,” says Ari Lightman, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s CIO Institute. “If you try to put game mechanics into a process without looking at the incentives and the motivational patterns around it, your effort is going to fail.”

Business goals first, then technology

“If you try to put game mechanics into a process without looking at the incentives and the motivational patterns around it, your effort is going to fail.”
—Ari Lightman, Carnegie Mellon University

Companies can apply gaming techniques to marketing campaigns, product development efforts, sales activities, or any other business or nonbusiness process. To provide the desired effect—and for gamification technologies to be useful and the outcomes achieved— the goals of the game elements being applied must be connected in some well-defined and meaningful way to the business activity. The key is to embed the gamification technology into the process of getting work done, and connect that to the desired business goals.

These goals generally fall into the following categories and provide the motivation for engagement:

The CMO’s role in gamification

Marketing departments have been among the earliest adopters of gamification in many major corporations, particularly for demand generation programs. These new investments are designed to deepen customer engagement and long-term customer loyalty by encouraging and rewarding more frequent interactions, the sharing of information, and brand advocacy.

Adoption is really just beginning, though. According to a recent CMO Council study, only 7 percent of brands currently offer social customer incentives and rewards, even though 46 percent of consumers expect them when connecting with brands online.* Clearly, companies are missing an opportunity to reward customers for engaging with their brands, which can create trust and loyalty while also encouraging positive sentiment and word of mouth.

Game-based design provides new methods for implementing such marketing initiatives. Game mechanics help move consumers along in the decision-making process by encouraging a specific outcome or choice, such as converting from free trials to purchase. Loyalty and customer retention efforts can also benefit from game mechanics that make the consumer feel valued.

Different incentives work best at different stages of the sales cycle. Understanding game design and mechanics is critical—CMOs can partner with the CIO or external consultants to ensure they are building in the right mechanics at the right time in the customer interaction to incent the behaviors they are trying to achieve.

Tracking behaviors and rewards also helps the marketing organization assess how individual customer relationships are progressing. Many customer relationship management (CRM) tools have incorporated consumer social activity, and game behavior can be tracked as well. When combined with traditional customer demographics and sales records, the result is a more holistic view of each customer and their relationship with the company.

* Variance in the Social Brand Experience, CMO Council, September 2011,, accessed December 3, 2012.

  • Improve engagement by customers, workers, and the marketplace
  • Enable personal development and growth
  • Encourage competition toward achieving business goals
  • Foster collaboration for shared outcomes
  • Improve productivity in core business activities

Enabling those outcomes through game-based design requires a working understanding of the palette of technologies available. Existing platforms, applications, and enterprise architecture standards of the local environment will determine the technologies suitable for most organizations. However, some organizations might blaze their own trails in determining how to incorporate gaming technology into an effective business solution.

In the various commercial offerings of technologies, game mechanics are relatively easy to separate from business context. In addition, the separation of applications and technology infrastructure in many organizations means that game-based design techniques can be readily inserted into most existing business processes and applications.

Many executives and technology professionals are familiar with defining business requirements and then applying technology to them. However, gamification technology is relatively new, and it is worth taking a closer look at the common forms it can take.

A typical example of connecting the pieces is the following: ABC Corporation has an urgent need to improve median sales of the organization. It determines that a sales leaderboard would promote healthy competition, while informing and encouraging the sales staff of the exact state of their efforts compared to others. The leaderboard technology, whether it’s virtual, a display in the sales office, or a mobile application, is connected to the customer relationship management (CRM) system via a real-time data feed. A reporting system then allows sales executives to compare the results to previous quarters, and the system issues appropriate rewards to the sales staff—rewards that are likely predefined to encourage competition.

Many executives and technology professionals are familiar with defining business requirements and then applying technology to them. However, gamification technology is relatively new, and it is worth taking a closer look at the common forms it can take.

Figure 1:
Connecting game objectives to business goals

Figure 1: Connecting game objectives to business goals

As Figure 1 illustrates, game-based design technologies can enable the following behavioral drivers, adapted to specific audiences or scenarios:

Integration point: User identity

User identity is a primary point of integration between technology and existing enterprise applications and IT infrastructure. Today’s user directories generally are not game-ready. Gamification tools and platforms typically augment user directories, so user information related to the gaming activity is tracked, stored, and made available to gamified applications.

  • Reward: Rewards are discrete benefits to a participant in the gaming environment. Rewards usually are connected to the goals of the game and can be virtual or real. Participants get to keep the rewards for achieving an objective and usually cannot lose them once attained. Rewards typically have some intrinsically useful value that participants can take advantage of after receipt.
  • Status: Status can be a way to motivate game participants who want to improve their reputations. Generally, status is most effective in social or collaborative games, where other participants can perceive mutual status. Status invests people in the process of participation and bestows benefits on them for staying involved and/or contributing value. Status can also be used as the objectives to unlock rewards or achievements. Status is typically earned through work; it can also be lost through inactivity or lack of a desired behavior.
  • Achievement: Achievements are milestones a participant accrues by meeting objectives or attaining goals. These milestones demonstrate progress, guide desired behavior, and psychologically reinforce involvement. They are often tracked in a participant’s user profile through points, levels, badges, virtual goods, and other marks of accomplishment. Achievements are usually not lost once gained. Virtual badges, for example, typically consist of a visual widget that symbolizes a particular goal has been met. A good example is the widely used Nike+ online service that tracks exercise for its users and issues “trophies” to them when they have accomplished an objective, such as running a certain distance or keeping a regular schedule.
  • Self-expression: Looking at participants as more than just cogs in a gaming environment is often required to sustain long-term involvement. It can also be essential for encouraging activity that has meaningful and useful outcomes in terms of the contributions to the gaming activity itself. Using self-expression as a reward—such as allowing participants to create their own names, badges, or titles—is a key gaming technique.
  • Competition: All humans love challenges, yet many people are often the most motivated when they compete with each other. Gaming environments that pit participants against each other using leaderboards, status, achievements, and other techniques can help increase both initial participation and sustained use longer term. The outcomes of participation can be winner-take-all or a graduated series of benefits, depending on which is most useful and effective in the game context.
  • Altruism: Some game situations benefit from having participants reward each other. In addition, gaming activity might need to have real-world effects, otherwise participants might not feel the rewards are meaningful. Game outcomes certainly can be tied to individual benefits that are tangible, instead of virtual, but sometimes a game situation benefits from a perceived contribution to something larger than itself. For example, game participants could be given the option to contribute to charities and other beneficial gifting activities. Giving virtual or real goods can also be used to draw in participants initially or re-involve participants who have become disengaged.

System integration possibilities for gamification contexts

Today’s vendors use a number of methods to add game elements to a user experience. Perhaps the most significant distinction among vendors is whether they offer a self-contained solution or add gaming technology to existing software applications.

Looking at the focus and capabilities of vendors can reveal the different ways that technologies can be applied. These possibilities fall into several categories:

  • Visual experience: Many game-based design technologies integrate primarily at the user experience level and provide a set of easily installable and configurable modules, often called widgets, which can deliver leaderboards, activity streams, and achievement showcases into existing or new user interfaces. These visual components—typically the simplest form of game-based design—require integration only with existing user identities.
  • Social environment: Some technologies work in conjunction with consumer and enterprise social networks to deliver the gaming experience. These technologies rely on the user profile to keep and display game rewards. Badgeville is an example of a gamification vendor that provides off-the-shelf integration with common enterprise social networks.
  • API-level integration: Often, the user experience already exists but game mechanics are missing to establish and track user identity, gaming rewards, notifications, and to set rules. A number of vendors, including Bunchball, provide a working gamification platform that can be integrated into enterprise applications.
  • Standalone solution: Some solutions are completely self-contained and require no integration with existing applications or the design of custom user interfaces. These solutions are typically developed for specific industries or special-purpose needs.

Vendors span the spectrum, offering one or more ways of delivering technology to those implementing game-based solutions in their business activities. The matrix in Figure 2 summarizes the main approaches and solutions.

Figure 2:
Gamification technologies and how they are delivered

Figure 2: Gamification technologies and how they are delivered

The enterprise context and game design

While gamification should align with business objectives and support a particular business process, the effort must also attempt to get inside the participants’ heads.

While gamification should align with business objectives and support a particular business process, the effort must also attempt to get inside the participants’ heads. This approach usually starts with a psychological hypothesis of user engagement. The hypothesis consists of conjectures about how best to tap into the motivations, interests, and reward centers of the users. The initial hypothesis is periodically validated and adjusted to maximize the outcomes as the game-based design solution is monitored and refined.

To enable and support this hypothesis, an organization’s digital user experiences (typically enterprise applications) can be designed with a special engagement layer, within which game-based design technologies are situated. In this approach, the technologies are incorporated into the IT systems of a company as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3:
A notional enterprise gamification stack

Figure 3: A notional enterprise gamification stack

Case study

The USA Network used Bunchball products to add game features to its website for Psych, a popular television show. From the outset, site visitors surged to 16 million, up from
9 million the season before. After the application of game mechanics and dynamics, the average visitor used the site four to five times per month, compared with twice a month before game features were added. Visitors on average remained on the site for 22 minutes per visit, compared to
14 minutes previously.

One of the more delicate aspects of game-based design is the relationship among the user experience, the gaming technology, and the business process. While some vendors provide a default user interface, such as a leaderboard or a reputation score wired into an existing social network, many leave the exercise up to the implementer, assuming that it must be situated appropriately for the local environment by those who know it best. Thus it’s often up to IT organizations to take the selected technology, redesign—or at least instrument—an existing business process, and perform the integration across the various systems involved.

From a pure IT perspective, gamification is a systems integration effort, an application development effort, and an enterprise architecture exercise. How can an enterprise realize game-based design in the full context of a typical organization’s technology landscape?

First and foremost, gamification is about situating, usually through lightweight systems integration, gaming technologies into an enterprise’s digital workflows. Specifically, these systems include primary and secondary IT systems, such as systems of record (CRM, finance, human resources, and other line of business applications) and
systems of engagement (communication and collaboration systems, including content management, workflow, and social networks).

The inclusion of game mechanics and game dynamics in business applications will vary depending on the technologies selected and the business requirements. However, the resulting gamified solution typically delivers the following capabilities in some formal or informal way:

  • Feedback: Provides visual, social, and psychological feedback mechanisms inside existing digital user experiences to encourage sought-after behavior by end users. This feedback typically manifests itself through the gaming techniques described in Figure 3, such as points, leaderboards, virtual goods, and so forth. This can be an entire self-contained business “game,” a workflow or business process with gaming feedback, or a user profile that collects rewards based on different activity across systems that the business finds valuable.
  • Analytics: Connects the gamification feedback mechanisms to the relevant big data analytics sources that measure and depict progress against desired business outcomes. Such data sources are typically the underlying databases of the enterprise applications being gamified, providing the measures of performance and other business metrics required to guide the behavior of participants.
  • Business intelligence: Supplies useful and relevant business intelligence, usually in near real time, on user behavior (via dashboards, reports, and so forth) that allows the game architects and business stakeholders to monitor the effectiveness of the game design and the progress against key performance indicators (KPIs).
  • Management and administration tools: Consists of a set of management and administration tools to adjust performance targets, gaming objectives, business rules, and other in-game parameters. End-user features are sometimes available to adjust either the run-time hypothesis or the game design, as needed, although this capability often only exists in code.
  • Ready integration: Offers a simple, easy-to-use set of lightweight technology components that allow ready integration into existing enterprise applications (via badges, widgets, web parts, and so forth). Gamification vendors often compete on how easy it is to incorporate their technologies into existing applications, and many of the leading offerings make it easy to update web applications with game-inspired features.
  • APIs: Provides a more formal and sophisticated set of structured application programming interfaces (APIs) that allows deeper integration of the gamification platform into line of business systems. While lightweight integration is useful for basic gamification, getting to higher-impact results can require deeper integration of the business process with gaming technology. Some gamification software development kits (SDKs) come with advanced APIs that allow their full feature set to be incorporated into business applications that need the detailed control over or sophisticated capabilities of a full gamification platform.
  • Underlying platform: Consists of the underlying gamification platform itself, which provides various capabilities to the enterprise applications that need it. The platform includes the user experience (both individual parts, such as badges, as well as default user interfaces), robust systems integration features, a gamification engine, a reporting system, administration tools, programming language libraries, and so on.

This list of capabilities provides a sense of the entire gamification stack—from the game experiences themselves to the underlying mechanisms that supply the game with business-relevant data and allow monitoring and control over the process.

Conclusion: Start early and iterate often

However it is applied, game-based design is a deft combination of three key elements: people, business, and the technology. Without a strong appreciation of all three, organizations can be challenged to hit the mark and may be perceived as overly cynical or naive in the way they apply gamification to their work. Technology is only one leg of this tripod.

The good news is that a growing body of evidence shows that businesses can achieve results by incorporating gaming techniques into some business processes. As with any IT effort, the end result of applying gamification technologies should be measureable achievement of business goals. A lot of trial and error is required to find the right balance between game design and features that effectively gamify aspects of work. Enterprises that can readily mix capable user experience design, psychology, social dynamics, and enterprise architecture will reap the most rewards.

As for the future of this approach, the real question is not gaming technology itself, which is here to stay, but whether enterprises can sustain gaming approaches, which tend to be highly involved and engaging, in a world where attention is increasingly fragmented. In addition, gamification is an approach that may have the most relevance and value between the time a user is getting to know a process and when that user is proficient and no longer needs to be guided.

“The simplest game mechanics work with a novice, but the same techniques wouldn’t motivate an expert user, and we have a lot of them. There’s something altogether different that we need to be doing with process. Your feedback mechanism has to change. It cannot stay the same throughout that journey, and the tactics that you take and the way that you engage must change based on their needs.”
—Dawn Wolfe, Autodesk

As Dawn Wolfe, senior digital marketing manager at Autodesk, says, “The simplest game mechanics work with a novice, but the same techniques wouldn’t motivate an expert user, and we have a lot of them. There’s something altogether different that we need to be doing with process. Your feedback mechanism has to change. It cannot stay the same throughout that journey, and the tactics that you take and the way that you engage must change based on their needs.”

In this respect, motivation-centered design is a journey more than a destination, and while the technology will become much more systematized and ambient in enterprise applications, executives must be careful not to forget the human element and how people adapt to their environment.

Businesses that are open to the possibilities of this more psychologically oriented approach to design can see the way forward to unlocking a new level of engagement and productivity.