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Gamification in the Friendly Skies

  |  June 22, 2012   |  Comments   |  

I'd like to offer an example of a recent experience with US Airways I wish had been gamified.

Gamification is the use of game elements like points and rewards to increase engagement, acknowledge loyalty or competence and make life easier and more fun. Critics often regard it in isolation, forgetting the dull and even adversarial reality it is meant to enliven. But the opposite of engagement is not lack of engagement. The opposite of engagement is repulsion. With that in mind, I'd like to offer an example of a recent experience I wish had been gamified.

I know most of you fly frequently and, amid all your war stories, at some point you must have encountered an extremely helpful gate agent. I wonder how many of you contacted the company to let them know about this valuable employee?

Last week, my U.S. Airways flight home from Costa Rica was canceled due to an engine that wouldn't start. Hours had been lost on the tarmac and it was late afternoon. The gate agents patiently rebooked us. It took them over thirty minutes to secure some passenger seats on another airline flying out that night. The rest of us were put up at a luxury hotel and rebooked on the next day's flight.

I noted the nametag of the agent who had helped me: Caroline M. She even upgraded me so that I could keep my aisle seat. I decided when I got home I would let the airline know how wonderful she was.

Of course this wasn't my top priority upon returning from vacation. How many of us end up forgetting the agent's name, or where we wrote it down, if we even bothered to write it down? How many of us plan to go to the airline's web site to get their address or email, but never get around to doing it?

I pulled up the site several days later. I found a link: Compliments/Complaints. So U.S. Airways does want our feedback. But then this:

We need some information from you

  • Ticket number/confirmation code
  • Full mailing address
  • Flight numbers, city pairs and dates of travel
  • Traveler names

A lot of people would give up at this point. I almost did. I should have given up when I encountered their page-long form. But I pressed on to the very end, almost as a matter of principle.

This was a repulsive experience. U.S. Airways' Compliment/Complaint process wasn't simply failing to engage me; it was shouting at me to go away. A lot of organizations persuade us to stop doing something we want to do because it's just too much work, or because we can't do it; we can't find the flight number, for example.

Of course I'm not the one who suffers. I'm just frustrated. It's the wonderful gate agent who suffers, because all the people she helps, who would love to give her a reference if it's no bother, will not bother.

One critique of gamification is that it tries to manipulate people to do things they don't want to do. But there are also many situations such as these, where we fail to act on our own wishes because the process is made needlessly difficult. These cases should be the easiest, most logical application of gamification.

So imagine if I could simply scan a QR code on my boarding pass that would take me to a site with photos of all the agents (with no last names). Selecting my agent would bring up a point scale or series of badges, which I could choose to award her. I could do all this before I even got home, in three minutes while waiting for my luggage to arrive at the carrousel. The agent would receive a monthly performance report that might contribute to benefits or even a promotion. To prevent malicious feedback from angry travelers the platform could be designed to be reward-only. As for U.S. Airways, not only would they finally truly know what their passengers thought of their agents, but they wouldn't have to manually sort through and forward random compliments. Everything would be automated.

And when I got home I could throw away my boarding pass.

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Mark  Schreiber

Mark Schreiber is active in the Singapore startup community and is on the team at Gamemaki, one of the leading gamification companies in Asia, where he writes a blog on gamification. He is also an American writer and entrepreneur.

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