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Endgame: applying gamification principles to research

Olly Robinson
LDN - 29 Mar 2016
Olly Robinson
Endgame: applying gamification principles to research

As researchers, we all have a responsibility (whether we like it or not) for the experience of the people taking part in our research. This is partly about a basic duty of care, but there’s also a more intrinsically selfish motivation: more engaged people tend to provide better quality data.

"It’s a real focus for the work we do at Verve, a lot of which is reliant on keeping people engaged in research over time, and it’s one of the (many!) things we consider ourselves specialists in.

Gamification is one of the tools we can apply to drive engagement. Wikipedia defines it as “the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts”, which seems straightforward enough. The term has been thrown around in varying contexts for five years or so, which makes it simultaneously pretty antiquated in Gartner Hype Cycle terms but relatively nascent in the slower moving world of market research.

Done well, there is plenty of evidence to show that the right game mechanic used in the right context can have a really powerful effect on respondent engagement (some of this evidence is in the public domain, and some is the result of our own experimentation and testing).

Done badly, however, you won’t be surprised to learn that a thin veneer of points and badges thrown over the top of a research activity will have little to no impact (and in the worst cases, can make things worse).

So, the trick is not doing it badly.

At Verve, we start with first principles: what motivates people to take part in research?

The obvious (or at least, most honest and frequent) answer might be money, but it’s not always the case. In our work building and managing communities, we see a whole load of participant motivations coming to the surface:

Influence: an opportunity to help drive change

Ego: an opportunity to have your voice heard

Education: an opportunity to learn something

Experience: an opportunity to try something

This list isn’t intended to be exhaustive, and these motivations aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The point is that people take part in research for a whole host of reasons, and how we apply gamification needs to be tailored accordingly. For example, the optimal game mechanic will be different for someone only taking part in research for a financial incentive vs. someone taking part because they want to learn or try something new.

With that in mind, what are our options?

At Verve, we can apply gamification at two levels:

  1. Community membership
  2. Isolated research activities

Our relative focus depends on what we’re trying to achieve. If the objective is to maximise participation in an ongoing research programme over time, we’ll design game mechanics that can be applied to the high-level community membership experience. On the other hand, if we’re looking to maximise the data quality for a particular study or project, we’ll often design a one-off approach specifically for it.

The scope of game elements can also scale up or down. There are very simple mechanics that can be applied to a basic question that can produce significant uplift in the amount of detail provided by participants. For example, rather than asking someone what they’d like your brand to do about something, put them in the shoes of your CEO and ask them what they would do about it if they were in charge. At the other end of the spectrum are more tailored approaches that can require heavy investment in bespoke programming and interface design.

Ultimately though, we’ve learnt that the trick to doing gamification well is to avoid thinking in functional terms until quite late in the process. Instead, good gamification adopts a psychology-first approach.

Come on then, what is the secret to good gamification?

At Verve, the most effective gamification projects we’ve been involved in were when everyone involved had a clear understanding of some core questions:

  1. What are the objectives we are hoping to achieve by applying gamification?
  2. Who are our audience and what are their motivations for participating?

These need to be defined at the outset, revisited throughout the design process, and the results tested against them (and where necessary, iterated on accordingly).

The less effective projects are typically those that either don’t have a clear objective in mind (gamification for the sake of gamification) or aren’t designed with a specific audience in mind (the add-some-points-and-badges-and-see-what-happens approach).

Both the design process and our success criteria should be built around these questions. One of the great things about research communities is their facilitation of more agile research programmes. When designing from a psychology-first perspective, it’s unrealistic (and unfair!) for us to expect the first iteration to be perfect, but by ensuring we’ve built in appropriate analytics we can monitor the effectiveness of our approach against the objectives, and iterate accordingly.

Ultimately, perhaps the secret to good gamification is the same as good research. Know what you’re trying to achieve, design accordingly, test and learn, and continually evaluate.

More engaged people tend to provide better quality data