There are some words that it is not good to use in polite conversation; the F-word and the S-word for example, are generally best avoided. In Learning and Development we also have the G-word, by which I mean “gamification”. The unrestrained use of this term tends to provoke strong reactions:
“Games? My kids play games. I’m an adult and learning is a serious business.”
“What can a game teach me? Just tell me what I need to know!”
Gamification (like ‘social learning’) is a term I tend to avoid unless the other party uses it first. The reason is that it leads to the common misconception of “So you want to make a game?” Gamification is simply the application of gaming techniques to encourage people to adopt certain behaviours.
We don’t have flip-top heads. We can’t absorb large quantities or information. We commit things to memory that have great meaning for us, or that we repeat multiple times. Any approach that encourages a user to repeat and reinforce the right behaviour is a good thing and many game techniques mimic the way we as humans naturally learn – through trial and error;
- We try something – we get an outcome.
- We try again, adjusting our approach – we get a different outcome.
- We repeat and adjust until we achieve the outcome we desire.
Here are some examples of how we’ve used concepts from games in our work:
- Rewarding people for completing their profiles.
- Recognising their effort or success with a badge.
- Giving people a sense of progress towards a goal (and no, a progress indicator Page 23 of 231 doesn’t count!).
- Rewarding the right behaviours or decisions with points.
- Reducing the score for multiple attempts.
- Having users indicate their confidence in their answer and this acting as a multiplier to their score.
- Tasks that must be completed against the clock.
- Tasks that encourage repetition.
- Making assessments visual and competitive.
- Having different outcomes depending on the decisions made.
These examples come from many projects but very seldom have we explicitly discussed the idea of games. Game techniques, as with social learning functionality, should be designed in to the solution only where they help the user achieve what they, or you, want them to achieve.
On your current project consider the behaviours you would like people to adopt. How big or complicated a change is it for them to make? What might motivate the users to make that change? Are there any techniques from games that might encourage them to do so?
The black listing of the G-word may be changing. Recently we’ve been approached a number of organisations who, much to our blushes, confidently and repeatedly use the G-word. This is very refreshing and I hope a change across our industry.
by Tess Robinson, Director, LearningAge Solutions
I have to admit that if you say ‘gaming’ to me, it still immediately brings up images of spotty youths barricaded in their bedrooms, slowly developing RSI in their thumbs from their controllers. Increasingly, however, gamification is creeping into the mainstream and particularly into learning. If you look at the basic principles, it isn’t really anything particularly new. Gamification is essentially about:
- Setting goals and breaking those goals down into simple objectives and steps
- Setting rules within which those goals can be achieved.
- Giving feedback – giving learners a sense of progression and achievement and, of course, the opportunity to learn from failure.
Probably not so different to what you are already doing. However, an IBM survey for the Metro found that 71% of people use game-like processes and approaches in their everyday lives but only 23% had experienced gamification at work – why is that? Is it simply that it is so embedded that they don’t recognise they are doing it? Or is it that many organisations shy away from what they see as a frivolous way of learning, deeming it not serious enough for the weighty learning tasks in hand?
Gamifying a subject does not necessarily make it light-hearted or fun in a ‘ha-ha’ sense. It is more about playing on intrinsic human motivations such as competition, achievement, challenge and even cooperation, in that learners may be rated in group output or on their ability to inspire others. Adding an element of play to that, may make learners more willing to try out new behaviours in a ‘safe’ environment
Ben Betts in the Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual identifies 5 types of games for learning:
- Drill and Practice
These are usually fairly limited and more an ‘interaction’ than a game. Players/learners perform a basic task with repetitions with the aim of reaching rote retention. A bit like learning spellings at school. This type of game is often found as an app with a single mechanic (the actions players take in order to progress in the game) and a basic storyline.
- Serious Games
These games are played for a specific, real-world purpose. They embody multiple mechanics, a well-defined virtual environment (space) and a compelling story.
- Commercial Off-the-Shelf Games
Off-the-shelf commercial games may well contain valuable lessons for the workplace, particularly those that involve strategy and decision-making. You don’t need to have a massive budget then to use the kind of game quality that learners are used to outside work.
- Alternate Reality Games
These are based on transmedia principles. Usually rooted in the internet they create a fictional narrative that players can interact with. Often in the form of a kind-of treasure hunt with a set of clues to be followed.
Perhaps the most useful type of learning game. Simulations reproduce real-world situations, particularly in terms of rules and conditions and increasingly in terms of look-and-feel as well. Simulations allow learners to practice new behaviours and skills in a safe environment before trying them out for real. Simulations are particularly useful where the new behaviour involves a level of risk or where the repercussions of getting something wrong could be disastrous.
It is helpful to set out these five types of games in terms of clarifying the landscape, but gamification doesn’t have to be a big budget, epic virtual world or even a specific type of ‘game’ in order to be effective. The simplest gamification might include things like scaffolded learning with increasing challenges, levels to be achieved, badges, progress bars, virtual currency or points – things that you can build in to all kinds of digital learning.
The same is true of design, and for the purposes of this article I’m going to focus on the design of learning experiences, websites and apps.
The secret to great design is simplicity. The challenge is that designing a simple solution to a complex problem is usually a long journey. It is far easier to design something complicated with every bell, whistle, doodah and whatnot, than to focus in on the minimum critical functionality and doing that really well.
So firstly, why is there a tendency to over complicate designs?
The customer wants it – if a customer has a decent budget and you have a reasonable timescale, almost anything is possible. It becomes tempting to include ‘cool’ functionality just because you’re able to. This is rather like, in course development, adding far too much content – the user can’t see what is important.
Unrealistic expectations of users – when you are totally submerged in a project it’s easy to forget that what might seem ‘intuitive’ to you may not be for your users. Getting their heads around your workshop, course, app or system is something they will expect to be easy. They will have high expectations of usability from the apps they use in their personal lives. If your design falls short of this, they will quickly switch off.
Not allowing time to think it through – boiling something down and making it really simple to use takes time, thought and effort. It is far easier to design more than less. In the pressure of a project it is tempting to rush the design phase so that you can get going on the build. The trouble is that this will lead to a sub-standard, over-complicated product.
So what can you do to address these three situations?
The customer wants it – the constraints of time and budget are your allies here and even if a budget is generous, it won’t be bottomless. This helps you to focus in on the key functionality that the app / system / course / whatever must have. I often ask customers to prioritise functionality as this gives a really good steer on what it vital and what is secondary. Also focus on the behaviours, skills or outcomes that you want users to achieve. Wireframes, mockups and prototypes are great ways to help customers appreciate the level of complexity of something without having to build it.
Unrealistic expectations of users – what you need here is empathy. Empathy is the single most important ability for any designer to have. How can you develop empathy? Get to know your users. Spend time with them, talk to them, observe them, run focus groups and studies and use them as sounding boards. User testing early and often will help uncover if something is confusing or over-complicated.
Not allowing time to think it through – we typically separate out the design from the build phase of a project. The design phase is done for a small fixed cost, the output of which is the design, specification, costs and timescales for building the solution. Even before we begin the design phase, from discussions with the customer we are able to give an indication of the build cost (usually a range) which the design phase then specifies precisely. This approach mitigates the risk of the project for both parties. I like to work on a design over a period of weeks whilst working on other stuff too. If there is a particularly knotty design problem I don’t throw my self at it. I do a little work, leave it for a few days, then do a little more. I let my mind rest against the problem and wait for a solution to appear. It always does.
I challenge you to look at whatever you are designing right now – it might be a document, a presentation, a workshop, course, system or app – and ask yourself “is it simple?” If the answer is no, invest the time to make it so.
I have now officially stepped down as the Chair of the eLearning Network. My four years on the Board are up and I will be handing on the mantle to another dedicated soul.
It has been a privilege and pleasure to have worked with so many lovely, talented and committed people over my term. I can’t deny that it’s been a lot of work, but when I look back on what the Board has achieved I feel very proud. I was there for our 25th anniversary celebrations and the setting-up of our mentoring scheme, which is unique within the industry and which has helped many, be they seasoned professionals or newbies, negotiate their way in the wonderful world of elearnng. We’ve published the first ever eLN book, with contributions from the most fabulous world-renowned authors, such as Clive Shepherd, Jane Hart and Charles Jennings, revamped our online presence, run a successful guerrilla marketing campaign and seen the popularity of the eLN increase.
I am genuinely sad to go, but I know that the enthusiasm and dedication of Board members will continue and that the eLN will go from strength to strength. It’s been a blast!
We were thrilled this month to win Silver at the 2013 eLearning Awards in the ‘Best eLearning Project (Private Sector) for a project that we did with bookseller, Waterstones. It was the toughest category with over 30 submissions. This project was a lot of fun to do, as Waterstones embraced an innovative and creative approach with commitment and enthusiasm. They were brave enough to do something a bit different and it has reaped rewards. Here’s their story…
Waterstones is one of the leading booksellers on the high street and online. They first opened in London, in 1982 and currently trade from nearly 300 shops in the UK and Europe. Waterstones’ reputation is built upon the knowledge and enthusiasm of their 4,500 booksellers, who are able to offer passionate and informed recommendations and advice to customers. With the introduction of the Kindle as a product range, there was a need to train booksellers on how to operate and sell these new devices, so that they could offer the best possible service to customers.
Although Kindle training was the starting point for this project, Waterstones’ vision extended beyond that and they wanted the Kindle training to sit within a bespoke system/website which could be built upon to include induction, career progression, ongoing training, a Certificate in Bookselling Qualification, task management and a simple performance review process.
Waterstones needed to introduce their booksellers to their new Kindle product range, however, the booksellers had a range of technical abilities. Despite this, they all needed to be able to confidently and competently talk about, demonstrate and sell the full range of Kindle devices as quickly as possible.
With Christmas, traditionally the busiest time of year for Waterstones, on the way in just a few short months, the timescales for building a solution and training all their Booksellers were extremely short.
Another challenge was the availability of technology in-store. Booksellers are not desk-based, whatever solution we came up with had to fit into their working patterns and be accessible, not just on the in-store computer, but also on Kindle devices themselves.
In terms of the system itself, Waterstones wanted the site to behave differently for different people or people at different stages of their career – so varying subjects and functionality would be made available to individuals, depending on their position or area of work.
They wanted to be able to set timescales for completing goals and to have a facility for learners to allow their line managers to review what they had done. The goals needed to include text, images, videos, podcasts, quizzes and assignments and have a star rating system.
The final challenges were that Waterstones wanted to be able to create and edit the content themselves. The site needed to work cross-platform (so on computers and the Kindle devices themselves) and also the design needed to have the Wow factor.
Waterstones knew of our work with University of Cambridge and had already seen our goal-based systems. They immediately saw the potential in the approach to solve their business issue of how best to train all their Booksellers on selling the Kindle range.
The solution that we came up with was a goal-based learning system with a number of ‘shields’ (subjects) that Booksellers and other Waterstones employees could attempt. They would work towards attaining a shield by choosing goals to achieve and then completing a range of real-world activities, to be done within their work environment. We also included embedded quizzes and surveys using a third party tool, to reinforce their learning.
Many retailers wanting to provide product training would opt for face-to-face training, or elearning courseware plus an LMS. Waterstones went further and embraced a performance-focused goal-based learning approach:
- Instead of going through courses, users work towards goals that will improve their performance.
- They undertake real-world activities that build skills and rate how they are doing.
- They access knowledge-based materials in support of the activities.
- They reflect upon their learning and gather evidence of it.
Waterstones added in the ability for Shop Managers to conduct informal scheduled reviews with the booksellers. This, combined with the goal-based learning, is a truly innovative approach to people development.
They now use Waterstones Academy to deliver a nine-month bookseller qualification and have more plans for further development too.
If we had to say what the key factors were in making this project a success they would be these:
- Openness to new ideas
- Aligning the project with organisation strategy
- Engagement with key stakeholders from the start, including Booksellers, who were the target audience
- Marketing and communications that kept staff informed and involved in the project from the outset
- Support – providing great front-line support to users and managers
- Evaluation – including sales statistics, completion rates, user and manager comments which allowed us to demonstrate that the learning was meeting organisational objectives.
So what did they think?
‘The Waterstones Academy site has provided us with a fantastic new tool to develop and train our bookshop teams. We wanted something both simple and sophisticated in both functionality and look and feel and LearningAge really grasped this. We are so pleased with the site and have received glowing positive feedback from the users, and seen a great take up from booksellers signing up and completing content. We are keen to continuously improve and evolve the site and every time we approach LearningAge with suggestions, however seemingly impossible, they give us practical, non-techy advice and make it happen within equally impossibly tight timescales. ‘ Emma Brown, Head of Learning and Development