Designing a Gamification Productivity Tool

Gamification and Software Testing

I haven’t spoken about this project publicly because we never got to a public release. Software testing tools represent a tiny market, so they are incredibly difficult to fund. Some of you have asked me about gamification tools with testing, so I thought I would share this brain dump.

A few years ago, I was asked to help a development team that had significant regulatory issues, and frequently accrued testing debt. The product owner’s solution was to periodically have “testing sprints” where other team members helped the over burdened test teams catch up. There was just one problem: the developers HATED helping out with 2 weeks of testing, so I was asked to do what I could to help.

A couple of the senior architects at this company were very interested in Session Tester and asked me why I had put game mechanics in a testing tool. I didn’t really realize at the time I had put game mechanics in, I was just trying to make something useful and engaging for people. So I started talking with them more about game design, and they encouraged me to look into MMOs and co-operative games. The team played games together a great deal, so I learned about the games they enjoyed and tried to incorporate mechanics

I set up a game-influenced process to help structure testing for the developers, and taught them the basics of SBTM. They LOVED it, and started having fun little side contests to try to find bugs in each other’s code. In fact, they were enjoying testing so much, they would complain about having to go back to coding to fix bugs. They didn’t want to do it full time, but a two week testing sprint under a gamified, co-operative model with some structure (and no horrible boring test cases) really did the trick.

Eventually, I worked with some of the team members with a side-project, and the team lead proposed creating a tool to capture what I had implemented. This was actually extremely difficult.  We started with what had been done with Session Tester, and went far beyond that, looking at a full stack testing productivity tool. One of the key aspects of our approach that differed from the traditional ET and scripted testing approaches was the test quest. As I was designing this test tool, I stumbled on Jane McGonigal’s work and found it really inspiring. She was also a big proponent of the quest as a model for getting things done in the real world. Also, we were very careful in how we measured testing progress. Bug counts are easily gamed and have a lot of chance. I have worked in departments that measured on bug counts in the past, and they are depressing if you are working on a mature product while your coworkers are working on a buggy version 1.0.

One thing Cem Kaner taught me was to reward testers based on approach rather than easily counted results, because they can’t control how many bugs there may or may not be in a system. So we set up a system around test quests. Also, many people find pure exploratory testing (ET) too free form and it doesn’t provide a sense of completion the way scripted test case management tools do. And when you are in a regulatory environment, you can’t do ET all the time, and test cases are too onerous and narrow focused. We were doing something else that wasn’t pure ET and it wasn’t traditional scripted testing. It turns out test quest was a perfect repository for everything that we needed to be done. Also, you didn’t finish the quest until you cleaned up data, entered bugs and other things people might find unpleasant after a test session or two. There is more here on quests: Test Quests – Gamification Applied to Software Test Execution

As I point out in that post, Chore Wars is interesting, but it was challenging for sustained testing because of different personalities and motivations of different people. So we used some ideas from ARGs to sprinkle within our process rather than use it as a foundation. Certain gamer types are attracted to things like Chore Wars, but others are turned off by them, so you have to be careful with a productivity tool.

We set up a reward system that reminded people to do a more thorough job. Was there a risk assessment? Were there coverage outlines? Session sheets? How were they filled out? Were they complete? What about bug reports? Were they complete and clear?  I fought with the architects over having a leaderboard, but eventually I relented and we reached a compromise. Superstar testers can dominate a system like this, causing others to feel demoralized and not want to try anymore. We decided to overcome that by looking at chance events, which are a huge part of what makes games fun, so no one could stay and dominate the testing leaderboard, they would get knocked to the bottom randomly and would have to work their way back up. Unfortunately, we ran into regulatory issues with the leaderboard – while we forbade the practice of ranking employees based on the tool, this sort of thing can run afoul of labor laws in some countries, so we were working on alternatives but ran out of resources before we could get it completed.

Social aspects of gaming are a massive part of online games in particular, but board games are more fun with more people too. We set up a communication system similar to a company IRC system we had developed in the past. We also designed a way to ask for help and for senior testers to provide mentoring, and like MMOs, we rewarded people who worked together more than if they worked alone. Like developer tools, we set up flags for review to help get more eyes on a problem.

We also set up a voting system so testers could nominate each other for best bug, or best bug report, best bug video, and encouraged sharing bug stories and technical information with each other within the tool.

An important design aspect was interoperability with other tools, so we designed testing products to be easily exported so they could be incorporated with tools people already use. Rather than try to compete or replace, we wanted to complement what testers were already doing in many organizations, and have an alternative to the tired and outdated test case management systems. However, if you had one of those systems, we wanted to work with it, rather than against it.

Unfortunately, we ran out of resources and weren’t able to get the tool off the ground. It had the basics of Session Tester embedded in it, with improvements and a lot of game approaches mixed in with testing fundamentals.

We learned three lessons with all of this:

  1. Co-operative game play works well for productivity over a sustained period of time, while competitive game play can be initially productive, but over time it can be destructive. Competition is something that has to be developed within a co-operative structure with a lot of care. Many people shut down when others get competitive, and rewarding for things like bugs found, or bugs fixed causes people to game the system, rather than focus on value.
  2. Each team is different, and there are different personalities and player types. You have to design accordingly and make implementations customizable and flexible. If you design too narrowly, the software testing game will no longer be relevant. If design is more flexible and customizable from the beginning, the tool has a much better chance of sustained use, even if the early champions move on to other companies. I’ve had people ask me for simple approaches and get disappointed when I don’t have a pat answer on how to gamify their testing team approach without observing and working with them first. There is no simple approach that fits all.
  3. Designing a good productivity tool is very difficult, and game approaches are much more complex than you might anticipate. There were unintended consequences when using certain approaches, and we really had to take different personality and player styles into account. (There are also labour and other game-related laws to explore.) Thin layer gamification (points, badges, leaderboards) had limited value over time and only appealed to a narrow group of people.

 If some of you are looking at gamification and testing productivity, I hope you find some of these ideas useful. If you are interested in some of the approaches we used, these Gamification Inspiration Cards are a good place to start.

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