“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game!”
 Mary Poppins


A Tale of Two Games

Gamification is expected to be a $22.9 billion dollar industry by 2022, but that doesn’t mean that incorporating the magic of game mechanics into your customer experience has to cost as much as a trip to Whole Foods.1

I’m often met with the clanging of an antique naval bell as I walk into my grocery store, followed by a round of cheering and applause from customers and staff around the checkout aisles.

The staff are playing a game designed to enhance customer service, and it’s actually pretty exciting. It’s one of two games that shapes much of the customer experience in my supermarket.

But first, what is a game?

The simplest definition is that it’s a challenge with choices and a feedback mechanism. The challenge is the objective of the game, it might be to run farther than your friends in Nike Plus or to get the most money in Monopoly. Players make choices to play the game, and feedback helps them understand whether they meet the challenge to win. While more complex expressions of games involve points, leaderboards, achievements and more, the core of how we play games is wrapped up in that little definition.

Games are fun because as we work towards a challenge and get positive feedback, our brains release dopamine, one of the chemicals that makes us feel happy.

In the case of my grocery store, the second example might feel more familiar as a game. It’s their loyalty program. The challenge is to get as many points as possible for cash rewards. The choices players have are the purchases they make. The feedback mechanism is the point and status level, which appears right on the printed receipt and inside the mobile application.

In this case, special missions exist in the form of promotions, which offer higher point payouts, and the entire experience is driven by machine learning, which uses past player behavior to push special “missions” (promotions) to the players to increase their engagement (purchase).

While the program is incredibly effective in driving loyalty, it’s also a big investment, and complex to implement and manage. This game falls into the classical definition of Gamification.

So what about the bell?

Affixed to the wall next to the checkouts, most of which are still managed by good old fashioned humans, is a large bell. When a customer has a great buying experience, they ring the bell. When the bell rings, the cashiers and nearby staff clap. We’re socially conditioned to start clapping when the people around us are, so many of the customers then start clapping as well.

We were never handed instructions when the new management of the store installed the bell. There’s just a little sign on the bell that indicates it’s to be rung when the experience was great.

Everyone is playing the game together. The challenge of the game is for staff to deliver exceptional customer service. Their choices are how they go above and beyond to make that happen. The feedback mechanism is the bell ringing. Every time the bell rings, the whole store knows that someone had an incredible experience.

It's a nice bell, and it probably cost about $100 along with the sign. That’s a far cry from the million dollar investment required for their loyalty program.

While both have high ROI, one is clearly much simpler than the other. Let’s coin the phrase “microgamification” to describe it.



Microgames can come to life in a number of ways in customer experience design, both digitally and in the real world.

One familiar example of microgamification is the progress bar in forms and ecommerce checkouts, which are designed to increase conversion and completion rates. Why do they work?

The user is presented with a challenge, to complete the form or purchase flow. Their choice is whether to continue. The feedback mechanism is the simple progress bar that shows their score in the form of a percentage complete as they move towards 100%. While simple, this experience is using game design principles to facilitate a desired behavior.

Years ago, Facebook games exploded as an industry, creating game development companies with billion dollar valuations. But the real games inside social media are microgames.

The challenge of a social post, whether its Facebook or LinkedIn, is to create content people like. The choices are made in dreaming up and creating the content. The feedback mechanism is the number of likes and shares the post receives. All social media companies rely on solid game design to give players hits of dopamine to keep them sharing. This is what makes sharing so addictive.

M&M’s took this one step further, creating a hidden object game using a simple image. They challenged people to find a hidden pretzel in a picture of M&M’s. The choice users made was in their search strategy. The feedback mechanism, simply, was “Hey I found the pretzel!” They gained 25,000 new likes, over 6,000 shares, and 10,000 comments.

The journey towards a better, transformed customer experience doesn’t have to begin as a monumental undertaking. We often encourage our clients to think big, start small, and move fast as they work to develop better buying experiences that delight their customers and outmaneuver the competition.

As you imagine new ways to improve your customer experience, consider how this simple game design framework can be used to spark ideas that create more little moments of happiness. And if you want to help play the social media game, give this blog post a like and a share.



[1] https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/08/03/1071818/0/en/Gamification-Market-to-Touch-22-9-Billion-by-2022-P-S-Market-Research.html

Tags: ecommerce, Technology, CX, loyalty, gamification