Motivating through games

The building that I work in at the Microsoft Campus in Reading was remodelled at the end of last year. It’s very high tech and futuristic, with LED displays all over the place and a showcase of our consumer products in the reception area...


The building that I work in at the Microsoft Campus in Reading was remodelled at the end of last year. It’s very high tech and futuristic, with LED displays all over the place and a showcase of our consumer products in the reception area (including a mock living room with Xbox Kinect to boot).

However the thing that I’ve recently noticed that is remarkable is a perspex box, about three feet in height, which has a slot in the top. Inside there are three white plastic sheets, each set at roughly a 45 degree angle. The box is where visitors to the building are asked to deposit their guest passes and lanyards, and as they drop them in through the slot at the top (if you get it right) they snake down the box into the void at the bottom. I’ve watched groups of visitors queuing eagerly to return their passes. Guest passes are usually something that you find in your pocket a day or so after visiting somewhere - the perspex box is a moment of genius.

It’s not a particularly original idea in of itself - charity collection boxes have used this principal for years, and I can think of a number of examples; be it the old RNLI boxes where a lifeboat would shoot down the runway of on the deposit of a coin, through to the more avant garde collection boxes in the entrance to the Tate Modern. But solving a problem by giving a small reward (in this case, Powered by Physics„¢) is a great example of Gamification.

The only trouble I have, though, is that I find the term "Gamification" horribly naff. A recent conversation with @eekygeeky on Twitter, though, threw up the alternative suggestion: Skinnerfication.

BF Skinner was an academic with an unhealthy interest in pigeons. By studying them, and other rat-like creatures (like rats), he was able to make a fairly significant observation: it seems that it is better to change behaviour by rewarding when subjects do the things you want them to, rather than punishing them when they do the things you don’t.

One of my biggest challenges as a parent is that I know this, and yet I hear myself far too often beginning sentences to my two-year-old with the word don’t. "Don’t repeatedly smash your brother’s face into the cooker door" - that kind of thing.

What I should be doing is saying is "Can you come over here to do some drawing" - telling someone what you want them to do (and rewarding them when they do it) is far more impactful than the opposite.

It strikes me that this positive reinforcement makes the biggest difference between consumer-focused, motivational software applications, and non-motivational, process or organisation-focused, more traditional software applications. Does the software you use tell you what it is that it wants you to do, and reward you accordingly, or just bark insults when you have failed; think "Unexpected item in the bagging area"?

So how might positive reinforcement be used with more impact in business systems scenarios? Well, first off I guess you need to assume that business systems don’t do much of this at the moment - my view is that business systems have generally been built on a "Theory X" view of management, believing that people are predisposed to do the wrong thing, and so focus has been on trying to stop then doing the wrong thing rather than encouraging then to do the right. This, combined with a highly deterministic view born of taking production line approaches to the automation of white collar work, has led to often terribly demoralising user experiences.

So, if you are ready to make the mental leap to redesign a system on positive reinforcement principals, let’s take that bête noire of anyone who works in a professional services company - the timesheet system.

I’ve never met anyone who likes doing them, but timesheets are vital for any company that bills out its staff by the hour or day. Why they seem so disliked is unclear, but one of my hunches is that they tend to be done retrospectively and also tends to be done by people who are already working long hours, are having their time recorded at a level of detail that is quite intrusive, and that don’t get any extra reward for working the extra hours (I’ve had far fewer issue with contractors who are paid by the hour submitting their agency timesheets).

With all that taken into account, asking someone to effectively take time of their own to fill in data that shows back to their employer how hard they’ve been working at the end of a long week is not exactly empathetic. That they will be bombarded with email hate (usually of the automated variety) if they don’t do it only makes matters worse.

So what would a better system look like? Well, first of all, maybe it could acknowledge that people often will know what they will be doing at the beginning of a week, and that therefore tracking variances to the plan, rather than the actuals as you go along, might be a better approach. A tool that helps people to plan their time ahead rather than report on the time they’ve spent might be of more benefit to the end user, and so therefore more likely to be used.

If you then can imagine a service that allows the user to confirm that they’ve done what they thought they were going to do, or easily change when plans change, then it has the potential to be motivating in the same way that ticking things off a to-do list is.

Finally, adding a bit of "game" into the system, tracking progress towards the goal of a completed week of work over the course of the week, could add that bit more motivation. This last part I suggest with a bit of caution; I know that gamification runs the risk of gimmickry… but heck, let’s roll with it.

So, potentially, from a drudge task that people put off, timesheeting could be turned into a proactive planning tool and aide to getting people to track their own progress during the week.

I’m not pretending that this is some sort of silver bullet - more just a way of illustrating how thinking about benefit to the user and positive reinforcement could allow something that is a drudge to become something less painful for all.

by Matt Ballantine, evangelist lead, Microsoft