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Using gamification design to build supporter engagement

How do you capture the energy of volunteers and supporters and turn it into action? During the Clinton campaign, one successful strategy was to design a mobile app that captured supporters’ interest and showed them how they could get involved.

Imagine this scenario: You join a team that needs to create an entire IT structure from scratch—from membership databases to innovative mobile applications—with a can’t-miss project deadline. And no matter how successful the project is, in a year and a half, the entire thing will be dismantled.

Welcome to working on the computing side of presidential campaigns. That was the role for Stephanie Cheng as a member of the 2016 Hillary for America team. “It’s a billion-dollar company born and razed to the ground in a year and a half,” Cheng explained in a conference session at the Grace Hopper Celebration in Houston.

During Cheng’s tenure on the Clinton campaign, the tech team built a political engagement tool—a mobile app—that incorporated game mechanics. Her case study demonstrates several bits of advice that can guide anyone considering gamification in ongoing efforts to attract user communities, cajole users and customers into acting, and make contributions fun.

Where gamification works

A few years ago, gamification was the darling of the tech field. It seemed as though everyone was predicting huge changes in business user experience design based on game theory. For example, America's Army was developed by the U.S. Army to serve as a recruitment tool. Retail organizations such as Starbucks extended loyalty programs by giving customers stars with every purchase, later exchanged for free drinks and food.

Gamification didn’t quite take over the way pundits predicted. (Such things rarely do.) But in some use cases, it’s the right tool for the job. By its nature, gamification encourages users to get involved, so it's gotten attention from developers in everything from healthcare to user education.

Certainly that was the case for Cheng, who previously worked at DreamWorks, where she was “into games,” and now is a product manager at Netflix. She began working on the Clinton campaign in 2015.

Cheng saw gaming as a way to transform engagement with supporters. It could expand the campaign’s reach, said Cheng, and activate its supporters.

(Spoiler: It did.)

The commitment gap

One problem faced by any political campaign (and many other endeavors that rely on volunteer activity) is that often, supporters genuinely want to help but they aren’t sure how to. Anyone who signs up for a political candidate’s email newsletter cares about that candidate (or they wouldn’t subscribe), but supporters don’t always “activate,” or do something that has a direct impact, Cheng pointed out.

One issue with email newsletters is that they have a commitment gap. “It’s quite a large step from asking someone to like a page on Facebook to 'Go knock on doors,’” Cheng said. The tech team’s goal: gradually escalate supporters’ activity.

The Obama campaign had created a digital registry app “to help supporters go talk to a bunch of strangers,” said Cheng—but that was four years earlier. Technology had moved on, and the solution needed to as well.

As Cheng and her team envisioned it, gaming could make supporters’ engagement more fun and interesting. An app that was uniquely mobile—not just a fancy website—would appeal to today’s younger audience, with push notifications and other types of reminders that could gradually increase involvement. “Game mechanics seemed like a good framework for ongoing asks and return usage,” Cheng said. “The app could solve real problems for the campaign and for the supporters.”

This was a major project, not an idle fancy. Despite the unmovable election date, the team had to ship quality products at a frenetic pace. It shipped 55 apps in 570 days, said Cheng.

Games nudge behavior

As you already know, games are popular. Cheng presented industry statistics from 2015, showing how many of the top free mobile apps are games. In fact, she cited, 32 percent of all time spent on mobile is on games (more than on social media); 51 percent of people in the United States play games.

Games are effective at the early stages of habit forming. That makes them attractive to user experience designers. “By nature, games are whimsical and playful,” said Cheng, and that makes things more fun. “Game mechanics provide clear incremental guidance and rewards for nudging behavior,” which is one reason they’ve been adopted in tools to help people master foreign languages, for example.

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Games work best when they have a strong narrative, a compelling experience, and consistent feedback, as well as help people understand how to play—all of which, obviously, Cheng built into the app created for the Clinton presidential campaign.

The Clinton app

The base premise in the Hillary for America app was that users would open their own personal "field office." Few people could visit a real political campaign field office in a major city, but the app designers were able to bring that experience to anyone with a mobile phone.

In your "field office," you could perform digital actions to support the campaign and discover how to be impactful. Those digital actions took the form of challenges such as policy-related quizes, looking up the location of your polling place, or sharing a piece of news with your friends.

Some field office activities were simply meant to be fun, such as the user decorating their office with a sign that counted down the number of days until the election. The office had a houseplant you could “water” every day, which you accomplished by tapping the plant. (Someone who watered the plant five times was far more likely to become a donor—now that’s growing engagement.)

Users who completed in-app challenges earned stars. Those stars could be traded in for rewards such as product discounts or a signed postcard from Hillary.

Did it pay off? Absolutely. “We saw a lot of increased action,” Cheng said. Among those who were previously on supporter lists (such as email newsletter subscribers), 50 percent had never donated, volunteered, or attended an event. After they used the mobile app, 11 percent went on to donate or volunteer, 25 percent completed daily challenges, and 14 percent passively used the app (for taking quizzes, for example). Ten percent of daily active users shared something campaign-related with an average of 15 friends. In mobile app tracking terms, they had a 59 percent next-day retention and a 15 percent one-month retention.

Game design works

Cheng shared several takeaways from designing the Hillary for America app that can apply to your own gamification or development efforts.

First, the development and design process:

  • Design the product from the ground up. Pre-existing tools aren’t helpful for such specific needs.
  • Don’t stay in the office. Meet your users. “We all canvased and knocked on doors,” said Cheng. That taught the dev team how to be relevant to the volunteers.
  • Organize teams by the problems to solve. In their case, it was “collaboration by proximity,” which meant literally sitting on top of one another (the office was very crowded). Cheng recommends diverse cross-functional teams with deep stakeholder involvement; her team regularly consulted with speechwriters and other teams.
  • Celebrate your wins. It’s easy to burn out.

A few design tips:

  • The app motivates action if users are doing something they already want to do. (By extension: It won’t convince someone who isn’t already motivated. Don’t expect that.)
  • In the app, clearly define your “core game-play loop” and how each piece relates to the others.
  • Put a lot of time into improving the first-time user experience. If it’s hard to learn, people won’t use it—and since they are doing it on their own time, it has to be easy. The dev team iterated regularly to improve the contextually relevant onboarding experience. “Surprise and delight” was Cheng’s goal.
  • Love your freeloader! Yes, you aim to get the casual user engaged. But you need to provide the “freeloader” who does nothing for the campaign with a good experience; if the user enjoys it, they may come back. For example, the app-based field office let you acquire an office dog. Users who came back regularly could “buy” things for the dog. And they did.
  • Look for your “Z factor.” Game users love to discover new features and get something "extra," such as an added gem for an unusual achievement. People do a lot to find hidden badges, and such things encourage them to try to get a better score on quizzes.

Clearly, the Hillary for America campaign explored new ways to reach supporters and gradually increase their level of involvement. The result was an innovative use of games to shape behavior.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.