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Gamification, Wearables and Wellbeing: The Learning Pool (formerly HT2 Labs) Steps Challenge

I first got into this whole L&D/training/people development as a result of becoming a Physical Training Instructor in the British Army at the age of 19. Unsurprisingly, ‘running’ became a staple element of my life – an element which still remains some 21 years later.

I still run now (albeit it a little slower) and coupled with an interest in how tech is becoming increasingly woven into our everyday lives and the recently covered topic of Wearables in our free course on Elearning Beyond the Next Button, this has led to me take a keen interest in health and fitness trackers and the inevitable fixation on steps.

No, not these ones:

These ones:

– Nike Fuel Band [Image source:]

It’s interesting to see how the various fitness tracker companies use a range of techniques to nudge their users towards modifying their behaviour towards exercise, sleep, water intake, diet etc. However it’s always seemed a little ‘distal’ to me as these companies have an amazing infrastructure and marketing machine behind them – something that most L&D teams are lacking.

This led me to wonder how I might be able to adopt a simpler (cheaper) approach so I sounded out the general interest in a ‘Steps’ challenge with my HT2 colleagues and was pleasantly surprised that the majority were up for the challenge…

The Learning Pool (formerly HT2 Labs) Steps Challenge

I put together a shared Google Spreadsheet which allowed all staff to be able to edit it. This became our ‘Leaderboard’, and was launched on March 1, 2016.

Learning Pool (formerly HT2 Labs) Steps Challenge Leaderboard

I then set up and invited everyone to a ‘Health and Fitness’ channel on Slack (our internal communications tool), which served several purposes:

  • It allowed me to send nudge messages to the participants to remind them to input their steps
  • It allowed me to drip feed related articles and videos of interest to them – it became our comms channel
  • It provided people with a shared space to discuss the challenge, associated topics, exchange their own links engage in banter etc – it became our social space

So from my perspective it worked: People were interested, they participated and recorded their steps, they engaged in friendly banter and even uploaded screenshots of their latest achievements. They engaged!

Slack became our social space for sharing and discussing progress

For me, this was a Big Deal! But I also thought it important to get feedback from the participants themselves, so I posed some follow-up questions at the end of March to see how they felt about the experience and whether it really had improved their wellbeing…

What was your initial response when you found out this challenge was relating to Health & Fitness?

Project Manager Katharina (PMK): It’s great. I was always a sports lover so to have something you can do with your colleagues is great.

Project Manager Emma (PME): Fear. But then the challenge element made it exciting and pushed me to try. I’m keen on trying to improve fitness generally, even though I struggle with motivation sometimes, this was a good motivator.

Data Scientist Janet (DSJ): I was quite happy as I knew I needed to build better habits around exercise after too many years of not making time for it.

Software Engineer (SEP): It sounded like a fun challenge that didn’t require anything complicated as my phone already tracked my steps.

Did the requirement for you to share your ‘daily steps’ with colleagues worry you at all?

PMK: Only in so far that I didn’t have a step counter and I kept forgetting to pick up my phone with the counter so had to spend £9 to get one.

PME: Only in that I didn’t want to be last!!

DSJ: I really was just worried about how poorly I might do compared to others.   But I also felt like that concern was a motivator to do more than I would in isolation.

SEP: No, I’m not very competitive so my position didn’t bother me at all.

Did you see it primarily as a competition between each other or as a personal challenge?

PMK: I had an objective to be able to run a certain distance before this challenge and pursued this so it wasn’t so much about competition for me but encouragement. I mean who wants to be last?!

PME: I primarily tried to focus on it as a personal challenge, especially when it became clear I wasn’t going to make it to the top half mainly due to not having enough time! Competition element definitely made me try harder though.

DSJ: It was mainly a personal challenge, but it was good to have the benchmark of how others were doing.  Both as a motivator to do more, and as an encouragement – knowing I wasn’t the only one who had some days where the step count was low.

SEP: I just saw it as a good opportunity to get out and explore the countryside near where we work. So more a personal challenge to stop watching YouTube at lunchtimes!

Has the ‘challenge’ been enough to change your behaviour permanently or do you think that you’ll need other ‘nudges’?

PMK: I think I’ll need other ‘nudges’; 1 month is not enough to change behaviour in my opinion. It has shown me how little I did and how much was required to get to 10,000 steps a day.

PME: I’ve definitely seen a more permanent change, choosing to walk instead of drive for example, and trying to do something active everyday, even if it is just a walk. It made me realise how little I did before and so I hope I will be able to keep up daily activity now, rather than the gym twice a week.

DSJ: Two changes: One – I’m now in the habit taking the dog for a long walk even if it’s bad weather or I’m tired, or busy – definitely better commitment and self-discipline for that. Two – I want to do more, so I’ve started Couch-to-5k and am finding (in my 50s) that I might actually like running. That said, more nudges, and continued camaraderie will be important for ongoing motivation.

SEP: It’s hard to say; I am naturally happier to get out and about in the dry summer months but maybe this has pushed me to venture out earlier than I would normally.  The challenge of getting running again is more likely to take hold if others are also doing it and providing inspiration.

For those of you who’d like to take a look at some research around habit forming, this article from the Telegraph may be a useful starting point for you and if you’re interested in where ‘habits and behaviour’ sit in the spectrum of things that L&D are/could be involved in, this short post from Nick Shackleton-Jones, might start you thinking…

If the challenge has changed your behaviour, please share in what way it has.

PMK: Mostly awareness. What I do to change my behaviours is yet to be seen.

PME: It made me more conscious of my (lack of) movement and activity on a daily basis. Encouraged me to actively decide to partake in some form of exercise on a daily basis, rather than just focusing on a bi-weekly gym/exercise class trip.

DSJ: It made me aware of how small the changes and time commitment were to make a difference.

SEP: I’ve made an effort to walk places where I would normally drive. It’s helped me to discover that I can get to town where I live in just over 30mins, which isn’t too bad.

If you weren’t taking as many steps before this challenge, why do you think a simple spreadsheet / sharing activity / leaderboard  has been able to positively influence that?

PMK: This was a subtle positive encouragement, doing things together with  colleagues, banter about how well/ bad one is doing, realising that I can outperform others, or come close to it.

PME: Just being able to track what steps you’ve been doing, compare against others, and taking into account what meant you took more steps. Meant I could more actively decide what stuff to do to be a bit more active every day.

DSJ: It was both awareness and a sense of accountability.  On different days one aspect might motivate more than the other.   But either way, if it was 9:00 at night and I’d see my step count was lower than my goal, I’d put the dog on the leash and go walk another mile or so.

SEP: It’s not purely the spreadsheet and competition elements. It’s also that there are more people to go walking with now.  But seeing other people’s steps has been an eye opener, I never claim to be sporty but I have seen just how little I do compared to others!

Long-Term Behaviour Change?

The bigger question, of course, is “Has it/will it lead to a permanent change in people’s behaviours around increasing their step count/physical activity”?

It seems that ‘awareness raising’ was key to the success of this challenge, but whether this awareness leads to a change in behaviour, only time will tell – but the fact that a number of my Head Office-based colleagues have since signed up to run the Reading 10K in a few weeks’ time certainly shows ‘willing’.

Admittedly this was not a scientific study, but it does go to show how effective simple gamification and learning campaign approaches can make a real difference to people’s willingness and enthusiasm for a task (in this case, getting active).

So, having heard about how we’ve encouraged positive behaviour change and wellbeing through the use of wearables and gamification, where could you introduce some simple competition / peer comparison activities in your work to help adapt a behaviour?

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