The words “fun” and “IVR” aren’t typically used in the same sentence. But thanks to the concept of game mechanics they just might be more often.  In this interview, Eduardo Olvera, Senior UI Designer at Nuance, discusses why the concept is gaining a lot of attention from Contact Center and Customer Experience professionals and explains how it can be used to reduce caller frustration, drive engagement, improve the customer experience and dare we say make your IVR …fun.

Q: What is game mechanics?


Eduardo: In a nutshell, game mechanics are constructs of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game and game participation.  They’re all around us- in games, of course.  But also subtly integrated into sales systems, consumer websites and even in our workplace to trigger positive emotions and engaged behavior.

We’ve all experienced game mechanics outside of traditional game playing.  For example, travelers who collect frequent flyer miles to obtain first-class upgrades are playing a game.  They collect points in an effort to move up a level (higher status). Credit card holders who use their cards and collect points that can be exchanged for goods, are playing a points game with rewards. Shoppers with cards that get stamped after every purchase and get redeemed at the end for a free item are playing a game that requires players to collect things in order to win a prize. And the list goes on and on: tangible good rewards (buy one get one free), virtual currencies (ACME Store Buck), etc.

Q: So, why is it that we are so compelled to play games? 

Eduardo: My friend Sam can’t make it through a day without whipping out her Smartphone to catapult a flock of Angry Birds or to tend to her Farmville crops.  And, while she’s running her weekend errands she’s checking in at every stop in hopes of becoming “the mayor” (via Foursquare) of somewhere she visits.

One of the primary reasons that Sam and so many of us get ‘hooked’ on games is that games activate neurological and physiological systems in our bodies that trigger happiness and aspiration. In games we love most, there’s a goal, a reward for our effort, and an element of fun. Those positive emotions are reinforced as we make choices within the possibilities defined by game designers. And, those emotions often last well after the game is concluded—giving us a ‘high’ if you will.

Q: You mentioned that game mechanics are already subtlety being used “all around us” in everyday applications. Can you give us more examples? 

 Eduardo: So, just last week one of my co-workers activated a ‘game’ that integrates with his email inbox. The goal: read and file all of the messages in your inbox in an allotted time. The ‘game’ uses a visual timer and prizes for getting through the task within the specified time.  He found it both effective and fun.

Target uses game mechanics to improve productivity among checkout clerks. They employ a scoring system and personal leaderboards on the clerks’ terminals to encourage peer competition and faster personal-best checkout times. They use letters to represent the speed (green = fast, red =slow), and a string of letters represent the last 10 scores.

LinkedIn’s “Profile Completeness” serves as a progress meter that encourages people to add more details to their profile while offering suggestions for what their next steps should be. The use of “missions” make this task more like a quest rather than just filling out information, while also appealing to the desire of completion of a task.

Another example is the Obama campaign. They cleverly used game mechanics to convert fans into activists. Supporters were encouraged to participate via elements and patterns such as competition and ranking systems where people could level-up and see leaderboards showing how they compared to other supporters in their state.




Q: How can IVRs take advantage of these strategies to drive engagement and positive emotions?

Eduardo: There are several techniques that companies are using to increase engagement in other channels and even add subtle elements of challenge or fun. Those same principles could be extended to IVRs to achieve similar results. Consider these examples:

A retailer could use “limited duration and persuasion” tactics by offering special IVR-only deals in which callers need to purchase directly after their original phone transaction. (e.g. if they call back again, the offer is gone). This can be enhanced further by putting a time limit or the concept of “scarcity” on the offer and even sharing how many others have taken advantage of the special deal already (this is called “social validation”).

Or if you’re a bank or credit card company, you might create new member levels that reflect customers’ willingness to use self-service. For example, create the “Silicon Level” for customers that primarily use the phone and Web to complete their transactions. Silicon level could come with certain benefits, such as a reduced or waived annual membership, lower interest rates, etc. The savings from the reduction in live agents easily covers the cost of providing such benefit and in-person branch visits. To keep the customer engaged, communicate his ‘success’ and contribution towards the status with every interaction.  This would again be using the concept of “limited access and persuasion.”

A travel company – airline, bus or railway – might use the concept of “status and persuasion” by offering badges or other visual rewards based on certain achievements. For example, someone booking three international flights over the phone in a month might get the “jet-setter” badge, while someone using multi-slot utterances could get the “phone guru” badge. These badges could then be included in emails sent to the customer, printed statements or shown on their account via the Web.

Adding hidden rewards for select members upon completing a certain goal (think of it as “unlocking” functionality). For example, imagine only enabling a “free shipping” option once you order $100 or more, or enabling a “pick your own seat” in an airline once you book an expensive package over the phone.

And lastly, you could add something unrelated to a service transaction within the IVR. Aflac, for example, has an option to hear the duck on the phone, Travelocity has an option to hear the gnome joke of the day, and Zappos also provides the joke of the day. These unexpected and playful options drive attention while increasing caller satisfaction.

Q: How important is design to gamification of an IVR?  

Eduardo: Design is really the most important piece—it’s what makes some implementations wildly successful while others tend to crash and burn.  Design decisions about which choices to allow, how, and when, strongly shape the experience and ultimately the emotion of playing the game.

There’s a lack of consensus in what it means to ‘gamify’ an IVR system (or any other system for that matter). For some, the idea of gamification centers on the inclusion of gaming elements or patterns (such as points, levels, awards, challenges, etc.) to a system. For others, the value of game mechanics comes from the psychological principles and human behaviors that drive players (such as curiosity, loss aversion, social recognition, collection impulse, guilt, gift reciprocity, etc.)

Regardless of what it means to ‘gamify’, the reality is that how you incorporate game mechanic elements is just as important as why you do it. That’s where good design comes in. Design is the key that helps balance user’s goals with business goals to help users discover the utility in a product or stick with a service while they figure out how useful it can really be.

Good design includes knowing your target audience and their needs PLUS understanding the different gaming elements and their underlying behavioral implication. It’s then that you can properly match those elements and patterns to long-term goals to deliver a comprehensive experience across the phone and other channels.

Q: Can you get a little more specific in terms of a roadmap or strategy for gamifying an IVR?

Eduardo: Sure. First, don’t go crazy with gaming principles. Start by asking yourself “What’s the end goal?”

Identify the top five things you want your users to do: What are the ideal behavior patterns users should adopt? How much is each worth? Which are the most critical? Which are reasonable achievable? Will these new patterns cause unintended behaviors (remember, when there’s value, people will always try to find ways to game the system)?

Next, identify those gaming elements that will incentivize those behaviors while leveraging natural human behaviors.  Make all the choices meaningful, give users a glimpse of the rewards right from the start, layer the elements so users are never bored and always discover something new, adjust rewards based on how critical a behavior is or how hard is the action we’re asking them to perform and design with flexibility and growth in mind. During your decision process, keep in mind the best experiences combine various types of elements to provide feedback (points, levels, etc.), recognition (awards, collectables, etc.) and goals (missions, challenges, etc.) all within a sense of community (sharing, prestige, etc.).

And lastly, validate your design against the target audience – experiment and test often, don’t be afraid to re-rank and re-evaluate your behavior patterns and gaming elements you use.

Q:  What if I’m still skeptical about the value game mechanics will add to my IVR and the customer experience?  What makes you think it’s more than just a passing fad?

Eduardo:  Having a well-known brand or lower costs is no longer enough to guarantee customer loyalty or to differentiate you from the competition. Today’s consumers want to get their problem solved quickly when they call for service, but they’re also socially-savvy and crave great experiences. Game mechanics, if done well, can give you that edge. Really any company providing a service can use game mechanics to reduce caller frustration, drive engagement and improve the experience delivered to customers.

While you can’t increase the intrinsic value of something by just adding game mechanics, you can make the value more visible. Change the paradigm from “callers” to “engaged callers”. Encourage every caller to interact with your IVR in a new way, and provide recognition and status in return. And in the end, more rewarding experiences lead to word of mouth sharing and more loyal, happier customers.

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About Andrea Mocherman

This was a contributed post by Andrea Mocherman. To see more content like this, visit the Customer experience section of our blog.