Gamification Mindset: It’s a Lot More Than Just Playing Games

By Susan Fader, President, FaderFocus, Teaneck, New Jersey, susanfader@faderfocus.com

Who doesn’t love to play a game? So it is not surprising that market researchers, especially over the last couple of years, have embraced gamification to encourage increased participant engagement during research studies.

Jon Puleston and Betty Adamou are two pioneers in gamifying market research, but they differ on how they define and use gamification. Jon Puleston, an innovator in gamifying quantitative research questionnaires, focuses on injecting fun into questionnaire design. He explains how fun can transform an experience, “If I asked you to carry a ten-pound bag for five miles, you would probably expect payment. However, if I give you a stick and a challenge to hit a ball with it along the route in the minimum number of touches, it has been transformed into a game called golf, which people pay to do.”

Betty Adamou, the founder of Research Through Gaming, has been an innovator and the world leader in creating and integrating actual games into research’s virtual environment. She says, “Surveys worded to sound like more fun is not gamification.” In her book, Games and Gamification in Market Research, she provides detailed case examples of actual games she has created for market research studies for a range of clients and demographics, including a multitude of Fortune 500 companies.

I propose a third take on gamification, one that is less about traditional games and more about an approach to how we conduct many aspects of our work. I call it a “gamification mindset.” While Puleston focuses on injecting fun and Adamou, a literalist, says that an actual game must be played, gamification mindset is about identifying the elements that make game playing engaging and fun and then integrating those elements into the overall research design. Gamification mindset recognizes that the fun or reward elements of game playing can impact how we make choices in our everyday lives. For example, are frequent fliers lured more by the promise of points and awarded travel or the chance to “win” elite recognition and status?

While both Puleston and Adamou focus on primarily gamifying just the actual research session, I think it is important to expand gamification into all aspects of the research design, from recruiting to pre-work assignments to sign-ins and the sessions themselves. By analyzing what makes game playing engaging, I have identified nine elements for imparting a gamification mindset into your work.

I originally developed the gamification mindset playbook for in-person qualitative research, primarily focus groups, but have successfully used elements of it for online research studies in multiple formats—groups, interviews, and bulletin boards. Gamification mindset is not an all-or-nothing proposition. So, depending on the research project, pick and choose the gamification mindset elements that are a fit for your project.

  1. Rules

Ensure players know the rules. The most enjoyable games have easy-to-understand instructions and a clear ultimate goal. Research should be no different. Think about how many studies withhold the topic from participants until right as the group or interview starts. Worse yet, discussions can sometimes veer from topic to topic, which makes perfect sense for the research team and its discussion guide, but without a clear focus can be very confusing to participants.

If you are asking people to share opinions and perspectives without giving them a context to understand why, you can end up with less feedback and insights. Without “rules,” people can become frustrated, which leads to hesitation and terse responses. They will be less likely to volunteer information that is outside of what they may see as the narrow questioning structure.

At the beginning of the recruiting screener/process and before the beginning of the research session, I share a few sentences that give participants a “roadmap.” I summarize the topic areas and goals of the discussion so that people can spend less time guessing where I am going and more time thinking about the key issues. (See element 5, Control/Asking Permission, for an example.)


  1. Fair Starting Point

It is important for the participant and the researcher to make sure baseline thinking/assumptions align before the research session begins. Two examples of how this can impact research outcomes are:

  • Make sure people really understand what is being assumed. It is important to clarify the terms that you will be using, so everybody is using the same context and assumptions about what a term means. Through experience, I have learned that I need to have people define certain terms prior to my sharing what the definition is. (See element 8 to learn how I use “cheat sheets” for this.) For example, when people are asked to define financial services, nine out of ten people will leave out insurance. Financial services includes all types of insurance, with the exception of medical/health insurance. If they left insurance off of their list of products and services and then I shared a definition that included it, they are more likely to remember insurance is included in financial services when the term is used in the research discussion. In contrast, when I provide the information that financial services includes insurance, without having them previously define the term, nearly all respond, “Yeah, I knew that,” but then they tend to forget to include insurance later on in a discussion. A conversation where people know the term includes insurance and one where they don’t can have very different outcomes.
  • Clarify associations. For a logo redesign study we did with long-term, loyal customers of a financial services company, we had them quickly draw a pencil sketch of the brand’s logo, as well as the logos for four competitors before we showed them any of the designs we were exploring. It didn’t matter what the drawing looked like; the purpose was to see what elements they remembered. (For online studies, just ask people to have blank sheets of paper and a pencil with an eraser ready, and they can hold up their drawings to the camera and describe.)

o  On one extreme of good recall was the Wells Fargo logo, where it was not surprising that many people drew a stagecoach, even if they couldn’t remember what it looked like, whether there were horses, etc.

o  On the other extreme was my client’s logo, which generated a wide range of different images. Many people drew the United States flag or a bunch of stars. A few drew an eagle (which the logo used). Why the confusion? Well, it turns out they associated the company as being patriotic, so when asked to draw the logo, they came up with a range of patriotic symbols and not necessarily the eagle that the client’s logo featured.

  1. Game of Chance

A chance to win something always adds excitement, whether it’s the lottery, a door prize at an office party, or even an in-person focus group. For in-person groups, facilities constantly struggle with getting people to show up early so that sessions can begin on time. Over a decade ago, we instituted an early-bird drawing for each of our in-person groups. If people showed up at least fifteen minutes before the start of the session, they had a chance to win some additional money—usually no more than $25—in addition to the incentive. With the addition of the drawing, nearly all the participants began showing up at least fifteen minutes early, and it was not unusual to have some show up thirty or forty-five minutes early. They came in excited, and while signing in, often asked, “Am I early enough for the drawing?” To keep that positive energy, do the drawing at the end of the group, not the beginning, so as not to disappoint people who do not win.

  1. Integrate Competition in a Positive Way

Games are about competing and trying to win. Knowing that the odds are in your favor is a big draw. For the early-bird drawings, if seven people are invited to the session, tell them upfront they have a one-in-seven chance of winning. (We do a separate early-bird drawing for each focus group.) You can also create in-session breakout groups where “teams” compete to come up with creative ways to use a product. Positive competition creates excitement and gets creative juices flowing.

  1. Control/Asking Permission

Although rules can set context and give guidance, generally, people do not like being told what to do. They want to make their own decisions, so be careful to avoid blindsiding them during the recruiting process with necessary, but seemingly very personal and intrusive, questions. It may turn them off from wanting to participate. For a study on sexual behavior that required us to screen for delicate information such as the number of unprotected sexual encounters and frequency and status of HIV testing, we were very upfront about asking permission before we even started asking the first question.

Utilizing the prior four gamification mindset elements and the idea of making people feel they were in control, we created a recruiting screener opening that addressed key concerns:

  • How do we get people comfortable answering explicit questions (and giving truthful answers) about their sexual behavior, history, and orientation to a stranger if you are doing a phone recruit?
  • How do we structure the screener to minimize the number of refusals and dropouts during screening?
  • How do we make the recruiter (who is asking the questions) not only comfortable with asking the questions, but also make this a study they want to work on?
  • How do we ensure that the people who are being recruited will be comfortable during a group discussion versus the more distant environment of a phone call or online questioning?

In the screener opening, we laid out the ground rules, and as one might with a game, we got buy-in by inviting them to participate along with others, asking permission, and explaining what they would “win” if they qualified.

Hello, I’m ___________ from FaderFocus, a marketing research firm. We’re conducting a study among the general public. If you qualify for this study, you along with seven other people, will be invited to participate in a two-hour focus group, where you will be paid $150 to participate. You will also have a one-in-seven chance of winning an additional $25.

Our questions may be personal in nature, touching upon your sexual behaviors and attitudes. We will be talking to people with a range of views on sex. Please be assured that your answers will be kept entirely confidential.

May I ask you some additional questions to see if you qualify for this group?

Control/asking permission is also about showing respect. Someone’s name is very personal. The name provided on the recruiting grid may be misspelled or may be their legal name they never use or the name that self-populated but, in reality, not the one they use. Show respect by double-checking the name they want to be addressed by before the session begins.

  1. Make Them Feel Welcome

If you are conducting focus groups, either in person or online, help people get comfortable and share what they have in common with others in the session before starting the session, especially if you have asked possibly embarrassing questions during the recruiting process. Don’t leave them wondering if they are the only one in the group who may have done something embarrassing. Before you start the session, share:

“We asked you a lot of different questions during the recruiting process, and you didn’t answer them all the same way, but what you all have in common is that you all…

  • …have at least $30,000 in credit card debt
  • …have been divorced at least three times
  • …have been homeless”
  1. Bring Strategizing to the Conscious Level

You need a strategy to play a game, so help the research participants understand theirs. For example, to help understand how general surgeons (who generally do a range of surgeries on a regular basis) thought about hernia surgery, we asked them to list the three types of surgeries they liked best and the three they liked least and then share what the likes had in common and what the dislikes had in common. Amazingly, this exercise created a eureka moment for a number of surgeons, with comments such as “OMG, now I get why I don’t like hernia surgery.” We uncovered two segments representing what surgeries they gravitated toward—those who had a mechanical/engineering approach (liked hernia surgery) versus those who saw themselves as artists/creative types (didn’t like hernia surgery).

  1. Use Timers

Many games have timed exercises. Racing against the clock makes it exciting and challenges people in a good way. Incorporating timed exercises helps prevent people from overthinking and also creates energetic pacing.

  1. Encourage “Cheating”

Video gamers are renowned for using cheat sheets. They make playing games more fun and more fast-paced. Using cheat sheets in market research can help make the participants more comfortable and better prepared to participate. Having a personalized cheat sheet to gather and organize one’s thoughts before a discussion can help provide for a deeper and richer discussion, because they can refer to their notes. The more you can visualize and “fun-up” the cheat sheet, the better. An example of research study cheat sheets is waiting-room exercises. Whether it is the in-person focus group waiting room or the waiting room of a video streaming service, having people complete their personal cheat sheets can allow them to do some thinking about a topic and write down their thoughts and perspectives before the group. For example, “List all the financial products and services that you can think of” or “List the three things you like best/like least about [an activity],” or “List all the products and services of [a company].”

So, inject at least some elements of gamification mindset throughout the research process, and don’t forget to integrate fun! Remember, this is not an all-or-nothing game. Not every gamification element needs to be incorporated into every study. Select the ones that are a match to your study. Game on!

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