Is comparing good for you?

Comparing performance, looks, results, comments, etc. is something we have all done or experienced at some point in life. It may have been in school, where when school report or results came out, you grouped together with friends to compare notes. It may have been your family comparing you to siblings or nieces and nephews. It may have been in sports where you were compared against another competitor to make the team or not. I personally don’t think anyone is completely immune to it.

As an adult and in business, I often make comparisons some based on factual information such as social media metrics, business metrics, others much more subjective around perception, looks, feelings. But is it helpful and good for you?

Movements around mindfulness and self-esteem often ask you to stop comparing yourself to others. They claim that ultimately it isn’t helping you forward and that only focusing on yourself matters. Others and I would often see myself in this category, find benchmarking useful to become better and when it is data-driven, to have an objective or more objective view of positioning.

A research study from Oxford University found that people automatically compare themselves with others. They also found that when we are cooperating with a person you perceive better than you improve your performance and the reverse happens when you compete against them.

The researchers used games and fMRI scanners to come up with these findings. The test audience was small and the proof would also need to be verified further. But it shows us some interesting food for exploration for gamification design.

In gamification design, we often create either a competitive or collaborative type of game-play. Feedback gives ideas of skills and will feed perception. If we pair people with the best performers, they will step it up, if we make them compete they will find it harder and likely perform worse. It can go as far a skilled competitor making other people judge their performance as worse, whereas a floundering competitor will make the opposition feel better. It is definitely an interesting observation to make, and what was also interesting in the study is that the feedback didn’t have to be correct for the impact in perception and performance to play out.

It makes the case for ‘fake it until you make it’ scream out loud in a competitive setting. Whereas in the collaborative field you want to join the strongest team with the best chances to win.

In my competitive basketball days, I have to say we always raised our game playing against those above us in the league table and in the same series we could have a woeful game against the bottom ranked teams.

From a motivational design perspective, it is good to be mindful of these studies and then to watch for how they play out in your projects with clients. Knowing that you may create unintentional perceptions, is a powerful starting point. Ideally, you would want everyone to play against the best possible competitor so they can play their best game and you would want everyone to join the best team to again show their best side. In the very aim of doing that, we may just make performance questionable or create the unbeatable feedback loop.

In my mind, the question around feasibility remains. Is it possible to create the best possible outcome for everyone in your gamification design for both competition and collaboration? If it is, what would it look like?


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Deadlines and performance

Everyone can perform when a deadline in work is looming. For some reason, the time challenge of a production milestone is a major motivator for work productivity and performance. The question also is, is it our best work? It doesn’t mean other days people are outright lazy, but the same high priority motivation isn’t there. Whilst this works in the short term, it is only made possible by developing our skills and finetuning our craft in the lesser pressure days.

Think of it this way, a runner may be able to find a higher gear and perform at their best on a big competition day. But to ultimately be a champion he or she needs to still train and form a baseline condition and work on technique in order to beat the competition. In my view, the same holds true in work performance.

When we are striving to deliver outcomes, having a certain mastery of your work is required. A deadline teaches you a lot about your skills and your lack of them when you are entering an embarrassing situation of letting people down. I know when I first started my career, that some of the projects I worked on were a stretch and on a few thankfully rare occasions I had to let people down, because I simply didn’t know how to create what was needed for them. Still, to this day, those moments make me feel bad and I wish I could have had hindsight knowledge. This is also what drives me to continue learning and improving, to make sure I can handle what comes my way and we now also hire in specialists to cover these jobs.

Re-creating time constraints and milestone or challenges is often how we work in gamification design to create a similar condition to the deadline. On the non-deadline days, small nudges to keep going and to keep making progress before the big delivery day hits is what happens very often. Think of it as a feedback dashboard in a game, where you see level, time, resources etc all in an easy to follow format.

I often find the day after a super productive day or just after the deadline, the motivation to get started may be lacking a bit. In those days, I set challenges and minimum acceptable levels of productivity. I ask the question, what would I have to complete to be happy with today’s work output? Setting a long list on these days doesn’t work, hence the minimum level for me the number tends to be which three items completed off my list would give me the satisfaction of having done enough today. On great inner motivation days, this isn’t necessary, I just tackle the whole list head on and it would be rare if I just hit minimum levels.

Gamification is as much a mindset as it is a design method in my opinion. For me my brain has worked that way for years, it is what has helped me achieve academically, in sports and in work. It takes a quest based mindset to improve and a benchmark system to compare against even if it is all residing within the one person. Gamified systems help us visualise the resources, the levels, the output and can keep us going for longer, for better quality or more productivity, whichever your goal is.

Measuring performance is a mixture of the goals we set and then the environment we play in. Benchmarking or measuring against others gives relevant feedback. Entering competitions gives you an idea of your level and potentially the additional resources required for you to level up your performance. Deadlines are for work, what competitions are for sports.


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Recipes for success

In every walk of life, there are recipes for success. From a tried and tested process to a number of steps, repeated over and over to hit the target. Understanding the process is the first thing and then implementing it consistently and finetuning it until it works for you. In gamification, learning design and game design this is the same.

In our business, we started by looking at the frameworks other people created and applied it to our business. Some worked and some we had to tweak so much, that they really didn’t make sense. And some frameworks, we just simply found too hard to implement and work with, so much so that it distracted from our core work. No surprise we dropped those.

Where we found our own methods working best, we created our 3 step design framework for gamification design (Objectives, Users, Play) and the 3 level learning gamification framework (content, system, proof). I am also formalising our employee engagement methodology, which will be published in the coming weeks on the blog first. I am working on a few online programs to bring all our tools to life for people wanting to explore them.

In business consulting, where I started my career, the first thing we always had to do was map the current process or ‘as is’ process and then turn this into an improved or ‘to be’ process. In gamification design, the process mapping techniques become useful to identify meaningful touchpoints on which you can implement either a game mechanic or game dynamic.

A/B testing comes from UX design, but it is something we use frequently, just like wireframing. From the world of learning design, we use storyboards to create solutions.  From game design directly we use a high-level concept document and the game design document as well as asset registers if needed.

As our field develops, there may be more tools and frameworks that come out. To come to the success recipe, check what each of the models has in common and you will start to see common ground. The common ground is where you will find, some of the key ingredients to build a successful project.

In the projects where we have had the best results, people are the key on both our side and the client side. Where we have had management buy-in and the management teams championing gamification, the results are significantly higher than where only tools are available. Our design process includes design thinking workshops by default, which largely relies on good cross sections of people from the organisation coming together for a common goal. A switched on project team, that can drive meetings and decisions internally is also essential to keep the project on track.

Our non-negotiables for project success are dedicated people on the team, clear objectives and outcomes and then access to the intended user-base.


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Backing up your claims

At a recent event, a speaker was making claims about how what they were building was totally new to the market and nobody else had done it. They also went on to say that they had been specifically selected to build this new thing for a major software house. As a listener to the talk and with in-depth knowledge of the target market this new thing was aimed at, I knew of actual examples of companies already doing what the speaker spoke about and also of instances where it was being used in business. I didn’t address it publicly but went to speak to the person later privately and no matter how many examples I had, all my information was overruled and dismissed.

It made me wonder, how much research the speaker had done to make the claims they made. First mover advantage and those claims tend to be for first movers for real, not for followers of a trend. At least that is my opinion.

I find it hard to make big claims without evidence for everything we do, where possible I look for research to confirm our thinking or dismiss it for a different approach. It is why I advise any company we work with to do their research and test extensively what works or doesn’t.

If we can’t find any evidence from other sources, we tend to A/B test and explore options to find out what is the most effective way forward for all users and everyone involved.

I cringe when I hear we have achieved 300% improvement in an initiative. I always wonder, compared to what really? Just like I cringed, when the speaker made claims I knew were actually untrue. Maybe it’s modesty, maybe it’s being overly harsh, but I personally believe it is also what I see as wrong in business. False claims becoming make belief.

I think current technology allows us to test and build data analysis to verify our designs, hunches and substantiate our claims. Ideally, they work in our favour, but when they don’t we need to listen and analyse what would make it better, more inclusive, more engaging, more pervasive, etc.

Here is what I would suggest doing when you are making claims about your product or service, look for research that either confirms or rejects what you are aiming to do. This gives you an educated view and can handle objectives. Equally, check whether you have competition in your space or someone has created something very similar. Having competition and being aware of what they do, is a good thing, it means there tends to be a market for your service.

If you then want to go a bit further and back up your product claims, then partner with a university or independent research body to have your product tested for the claims you want to make. Their independence is important. Having your clients doing the talking about the claims you make is even better also. 3rd party endorsement has been powerful for years.


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When you don’t have data

I am currently working on a learning project and we wanted to use a data-driven design approach to come up with favourable interactions for the users. I have been hunting for data and research on learning interactions and how they impact on learners. I have to admit it is like searching for needles in a haystack.

In learning, many professionals shiver at the thought of introducing measurements and data. I came from that world so I definitely have met some of these. I am not sure whay that is, but maybe it is because it might show up inefficiencies or bad ratings for work, etc. When it comes to the business managers, they want to know how learning impacts the business results.

As an internal trainer I was privileged in one company to work with enlightened managers who would help us measure the training impact with clear targets. It is a two-way street in the end of the day, the business manager knows the goals for his or her team and they can help us define what success looks like and what training impact can be measured. I always saw it as a joint venture approach, which the business managers bought into and we could actually measure impact. It reduced the amount of training offered to the team, but it improved what they did with it. In my view win/win.

When it came to the training team however I had a different battle, because there were targets on how many days training ought to be delivered per business account. It was a classic case of the business wanting something that worked and a disconnect with training team targets on how to deliver that. True data driven design would have matched the high level targets to be both on impact measures agreed and then achieved, because part of the success had to be defining what success looked like.

In gamification, I am always on the lookout to measure which game mechanics and dynamics solve the problems we have in front of us better than others. This requires data on where people drop out and get stuck or no longer engage. Most platforms can track these today and provide great feedback on what works and what you may need to tweak to improve your impact.

In learning design, I have been asking the question in several different groups, what are the user interactions that work best for learner retention. I have stumbled on complete and utter silence.

I had one person challenging the scenario based approach, but without data. Another two challenging VR, because their learners are not tech savvy enough, which is valid I may add, even with an adequate work around of providing a room with a person teaching them how to use it. Then I also questioned passive content with a simple next button and apparently there is actual data to say that the next button as an interruption is worse for the learner than for example an autoplay video or animation for retention.

I am sure pockets of data exist somewhere and that I haven’t laid my fingers on it just yet. What we have suggested to the client is to A/B test two options, to find out in their setting what will work best. It is a more time intensive and expenive approach, but it will get us data we can work with, providing the learning system can track drop off points and completion and retains knowledge test results to prove retention straight after learning.

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