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The truth about gamification

Jeanette Hodgson
Former Partner
Hall & Partners

Since 2010, when ‘gamification’ started to gain traction, the ‘buzz’ surrounding it has grown even louder. It represented a shift that was waiting to happen; from a research perspective, for too long we have bemoaned the fact that our quantitative survey response rates were in decline and dropout rates were on the rise. Surveys had become something to be shunned, perceived as tedious, riddled with repetitive questioning and heavy-duty rating scales, mostly based on rational choices and often very long.

Qualitative researchers have long been familiar with the need to engage respondents creatively

‘Deborification’ was required, and so the quest began! The goal was emphatically to achieve higher levels of respondent engagement. Ask anyone designing a ‘gamified survey’ what the key purpose of it is, and instantly ‘engagement’ will feature in their response; the implicit benefits of improved engagement being increased participation, as indicated by higher response rates, longer time given to the tasks, and higher volume outputs.



Just for fun?

But the approach and the stated purpose raise an interesting question; is the focus so much on creating an entertaining survey that we lose sight of our key research goal, that of providing better insights into customer behaviors?

Qualitative researchers have long been familiar with the need to engage respondents creatively, and have historically drawn upon the principles of cognitive psychology, anthropology and social sciences, and more recently from neuroscience, linguistics and semiotics. Many types of lateral or immersive questioning approaches involve a ‘gamified’ approach and have long been familiar in this context — examples range from simple challenges to guided fantasy! Especially in extended interviews or discussions, there has always been a need for variation in energy levels, pace, mood and interactivity to maintain interest and stimulate engagement.

Formerly, the end goal of implementing such approaches to understand motivators and attitudes; more recently, social and behavioral sciences have revealed fresh perspectives based on our evolved understanding of the collective consciousness and the instinctive ways in which we make decisions. This places the spotlight more firmly on behaviors and the triggers stimulating us to do what we do. These are the mysteries that qualitative research seeks to unravel by attempting to generate insights and identify customer ‘truths’.

The difference between the two scenarios is that from a qualitative perspective, respondent engagement is usually viewed as the means to the end; it is rarely seen as the end in itself. If we were to reframe our goals of quantitative ‘gamified’ survey design and see engagement as the vehicle rather than the destination, what impact might this have on the questions we ask and the answers they generate?


Playing with time

The instinctive, spontaneous, right brain response (which drives subconscious, automatic decision making) elicited via quick-fire, top-of-mind reaction often challenged against the clock, is already well utilized in ‘gamified’ survey design. There are numerous variations on this theme; one thing you’d like to improve, select one, list top three benefits, word associations attributed to brands, etc., and are valid attempts at eliciting right brain, instinctive responses as well as providing a means to engage respondents.

However, caution still needs to be exercised in designing this type of question; if we make them too complex, for example by including long rankings, the left brain will kick in to search for a logical, reasoned response, thereby undermining the premise of the approach.


Playing with emotions

We now have a better understanding of the importance of emotion in decision making. This is one area which is quantitatively, relatively under-explored, where our focus in this context remains obstinately on ‘thinking’. A ‘gamified’ survey approach is well-placed to develop our skill of accessing fast, instinctive, ‘feel’ response by widening the sensory net to capture a broader, emotional response range. Questions which elicit associations related to brands, diseases or — more — broadly to decision making based on sensations and emotions generate insights around proximity and relationships and can be accessed by a variety of kinesthetic, auditory and visual stimuli.


Is it time to reframe gamification?

Could it now be time for ‘gamification’ itself to undergo a reframe in order to steer us away from the mental positioning of it as ‘entertainment’ and thereby deflect us from our real objective of pursuing customer truths? With greater clarity around our ‘end game’ and a conscious objective of accessing spontaneous and emotional response, we’d perhaps think more cleverly about how our questions are constructed and the true purpose of each one. Maybe then we’d be less tempted to insert a pretty picture at the end of a scale, resulting in the questionnaire equivalent of what Edward Tufte termed ‘chartjunk’, and instead our focus would be on creating clever questions with a purpose; that of identifying customer insights. While we might be attracted by the idea of entertainment, let us keep our true objective firmly in sight: that of understanding customer behavior.