Microsoft uses productivity games to improve software worldwide

Posted: 11/11/2013
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Gamification has been one the biggest buzz words in the learning and training industry in the last few years. The idea has become so ubiquitous that even slow adopters are starting to add badges and leader boards into learning and training environments. Ross Smith, director of test in the Skype division of Microsoft, has used game principles in the workplace for the past decade. He refers to these as productivity games, which includes a slight differentiation with the overarching term gamificaition. "You can't just put a badge on something and assume everyone is going to earn it," Smith said. "There’s more here than just using game mechanics. When we think of productivity games, we come in with a very specific objective."

One of the shining examples of productivity games at Microsoft was the Windows Language Quality Game, which tested dialog boxes in the more than 100 languages in which Windows 7 is available. In the course of a month, 4,000 employees reviewed more than 500,000 screens and helped ensure Windows 7 dialog boxes included correct translation and geopolitical sensitivity. The beauty of games is that they transcend cultures. "The idea of game play is universal," Smith said. "I can sit down with someone whose language I don't speak and play a game of chess, and we know what we're doing and we can have fun together, even though we can't speak with one another."

Check out the video interview with Ross Smith above or check out the text version of the Q&A below. Smith will be speaking about gaming at two of our upcoming events: Corporate Learning Week this week in Orlando and Corporate Learning Week Europe in Barcelona in February. To find out more information about Ross, click here.

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Can you start by giving our viewers what's involved with your position of director of test at Microsoft?

Sure. I'm director of test in the Skype division at Microsoft, and we have a team of a few hundred people who are really focused on the quality of our communications product, both our enterprise and our consumer. So hopefully you'll see a high quality video here today, and if not, then that's job security for those of us here.

At Corporate Learning Week in Orlando and Corporate Learning Week Europe, you'll be speaking about gaming. You use the term productivity games. You're kind of careful to distinguish between productivity games and then gamification, which has been this big buzz word in learning and development. Can you explain to us what are the major differences between those two?

Well, there's an interesting history, and in fairness, if I want to use a working definition of gamification of using game mechanics in non-game situations, the two are identical really. There's a bit of a challenge in the broader use of the term gamification. We know games can motivate and to sustain and engage people over a long period of time, but that requires some good game design. You can't just put a badge on something and assume everyone is going to earn it. I use the example of the ‘Clean Ross's House’ badge. I haven't had anyone sign up to earn that badge yet. Or, in our space, the ‘Do More Work’ badge. You can use the mechanics in ways that do not work. That's why I'm trying to draw a difference with the idea that there's more here than just using game mechanics. You really have to do some good game design to keep people engaged. So when we think of productivity games, we come in with a very specific objective.

One of the things that makes games fun is that they’re voluntarily. If your job was to play Monopoly, by the end of your first week, you'd be completely burnt out. But, if it's voluntarily, you can come and go and it's sort of your own free will, then it's a lot more fun. There's a Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, who talks about this magic circle of play, where you enter outside of the real world and there's these artificial rules. If you think about soccer: what makes soccer fun for people is these artificial rules in this square piece of grass with goals at each side, and so that idea of entering into this magical circle of play, but also being able to leave is what makes things fun.

Can you give us a specific example of a productivity game that you've used in your position at Microsoft?

One of most successful was what we called the Windows Language Quality Game—creatively named. Its goal was to get input from native language speakers around the company about the quality of the linguistic efforts for Windows 7. So we built a very simple browser-based game, you would come and choose the language—Windows ships in about 100 languages. You would have a fly in of a Windows dialogue and then as a native language speaker, you would earn point for reviewing the screen. So you would either drag it to a 'looks good' or you would circle the error and drag it to 'needs review.' We played it for about a month, all over the company, all over the world, and we had over 4000 players review 500,000 screens. So what we could do: We looked for 10 to 20 or even 30 reviews of each screen and then we had an overlay with transparency and we could start to see hot spots and then we would give those to our localization experts to review and quantify and fix if necessary. It’s very whimsical and not tremendously deep game design. This was not Halo. And yet it was something that people could contribute to in a citizenship sort of way and say, ‘Hey, I want to make Windows better. I speak French and I know the French version is going to be installed by all my friends and family back home, so sure, I'll take a few minutes at lunch time and instead of playing solitaire, I'll play this.’ So we really try to capture that discretionary time from people.

It's sounds like the incentive from that is not monetary. It sounds like it's this pride and loyalty to their homeland and to the company as well.

There's a concept called organizational citizenship behaviors, which are things that I can do to make the organization a better place that are not necessarily part of my job. And when you take a combination of core skills—skills that a lot of people have—and put them in this citizenship area, it's works really well for game play. People don't get confused about, the example of 'Do Ross's Job Game.' If I come in 10th on that, I'm feeling a little awkward. If I come in first, does that mean I get promoted or does that mean I get to keep my job? I'm not sure because I've got rewards. But if you put them in these citizenship areas, then people can come in voluntarily, play for a little while and then leave and it can be more fun and engaging enough that people will participate.

Aside from citizenship, another thing I know you've mentioned in previous talks is these productivity games have the capacity to build what you call 'organizational trust.' Can you talk about how games can do that in the workplace, and what the power is of increasing organizational trust?

If you think about the workplace dynamic these days, you have far more diversity—we see it in the tech industry, but you really see it everywhere. You've got cultural diversity, gender diversity, generational diversity. You've got a lot of different perspectives, and, then, when you think about knowledge work and the idea of creativity and innovation, there's really a set of behaviors you want to encourage—things like risk taking and collaboration and experimentation. A lot of these things, if you have a sort of command-and-control top-down environment, people are not going to take risks. I'm not going to say, ‘Oh, I have this crazy wacky idea that I saw on Facebook yesterday and we should do that here.’ If you don't have a climate of high trust, people will not bring those things into the workplace.

So we set off on a journey really focused first on what can we do to build trust, but if you think about the idea of collaborative play, you and I as co-workers can play a game together, we can be on a team together and we learn a lot about what each other's values are, how we work together, how competitive and collaborative we are. I can learn that in a game that's far less risky that the workplace. As we spend time playing together, I learn more about you, I can take risks in the context of the game that I might not normally take in my job because the consequence of failure is, well, I lost the game. It really does a lot to bring people together and make values and behaviors more transparent and more predictable, which lead to a higher trust organization.

Microsoft has employees in dozens of countries across the globe. For these types of productivity games, how do they translate in workplaces outside of the U.S. Are things like level of adoption different? Are there different preference for employees in different countries?

Early on, we noticed games transcend culture. I can sit down with someone whose language I don't speak and play a game of chess, and we know what we're doing and we can have fun together, even though we can't speak with one another. The idea of game play is universal. It is worldwide. There are cultural differences. Once particular example comes up when the boss is ahead or behind the team on a leader board. For me, if I'm playing with people on our team and they're all ahead of me, I'm motivated because there's a hierarchy that people follow and they assume the boss is going to be on the top. In the U.S. we find this is particularly motivating for bosses because the team will play, and naturally the boss will fall behind and then will rally because they want to be ahead of the team. Whereas in other cultures, it's so pronounced that the team won't play until the boss does.

In a lot of our designs, we've really focused on just wanting lots of players. The glory and shame of the leader board is one mechanic in a player-versus-player or team-versus-team environment. There are other environments, however, like player versus self or player versus environment that keep users engaged and don't rely on competition. We've also tied a lot of our work to social causes, so there's an underlying theme that's bigger than specific game mechanics and that's been very successful in keeping people engaged and keeping them coming back to coming back to participate.

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