Human Centered Design, Gen-Y and Gamification

(Atari: hitting targets and giving people what they want)


+++I had a great training session recently on Human Centered Design, it was great for many reasons, but among the top was that the audience was filled with Gen-Yers who thought it was all bloody obvious. The general Y-consensus seemed to be: of course you should design with the end-user in mind and arguments from the audience members burst out on why companies bothered employing people who didn’t already “get it”. The arguments seemed to centre on one idea: if people needed to have this drilled into them then they were lazy fools and shouldn’t have a job.

+++This wholehearted embracing of Human Centered Design (HCD) was as abrupt and brutal as it was refreshing. Yes, HCD is a great framework. And the concepts that sit behind it are so simple and straight forward that people should surely be already doing this. But it also isn’t. The majority of people I’ve worked with in behemoth-sized companies are certainly not fools. They might lose sight of the big picture, or be forced into strange KPIs; but generally they are all keen on being decent human beings and look to be part of positive, productive projects. So, why do we so often lose sight of the fundamentals? Even the good basic principals of HCD ?

+++The further I get into my Social Psychology course the more I wonder if it is simply that the way we’ve set up our large companies is not ‘human’ enough? That is, our enterprises themselves are often not based on HCD, so often they don’t take employees’ natural behaviour as a way of building out strengths in the business. And to the Gen Y argument, what is it about extra-large companies that seems to bring out more of the social loafer1 in people? Could it be that the way we organise large workplaces and collaboration is simply failing?

+++Groups can often create situations where people feel that their individual actions are unrecognised or unaccounted for. This ‘de-individualisation’ can encourage people act in ways that are less socially responsible, and in extreme circumstances can cause them to commit abhorrent acts2. And at a basic level, it has also been proven that humans generate more solutions to problems when we problem solve alone, rather than in a ‘groupthink’ situation. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, notes that “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”3

+++There is a lot to be said for the power of the individual, but forcing people to consistently work individually is not the solution. We also need to rely on a wide range of skill sets and many hands to help scale and implement any great idea. The group certainly has this power, perhaps we just need add a little more HCD to how we set them up.

What in the psychology of groups can we leverage? Research has shown that:

  • When people are not accountable and cannot evaluate their own efforts, responsibility is diffused across all group members.4


  • However, being observed or recognised for individual performance in a group does encourage people to participate more actively.


  • Groups are more likely to be productive when the task is challenging, appealing or involving.5


  • In fact, when engaged in a challenging task, people often perceive their individual efforts as indispensable.6


  • And while groups may present opportunities for ‘social loafers’ to blend in and eschew responsibility, engaged crew members can dramatically change this dynamic. When people see others in their group as unreliable or as unable to contribute much, they work harder. 7


  • Interestingly, this often has a knock-on effect on under-performers. Weber & Hertel found that in this situation less capable individuals also pick up their game as they strive to keep up with others’ greater productivity.


  • Groups also loaf less when their members are part of a community they identify with, such as friends and family; or when they feel indispensable to their group.9


  • The simple act of expecting to interact with someone again serves to increase effort on team projects

+++I can’t help but think so much of this comes back to creating gamified experiences. Great games make tasks challenging, have strong feedback loops that reward participation and motivate us to work as individuals or as teams. They make sure the challenges we face are ‘levelling up’ to meet and push our own demonstrated capabilities. Great games adapt and use their own internal logics to challenge us as we grow better at the game. I wonder if setting up our workspaces and, in particular our collaboration spaces, to be more game-like would make groups within large companies work better? Would we see more engaged employees, more people who “get it”?



1. Social loafing refers to the tendency of humans to participate less in a group situation than what they would do in an individual situation. For example, Alan Ingham (1974) lead an experiment where blindfolded participants were assigned the first position on a tug-of-war-team and told “Pull as hard as you can.” They pulled 18 percent harder when they knew they were pulling alone than when they believed that behind them two to five people were also pulling. This became coined as ‘social loafing’ by subsequent researchers who found similar behaviours. See Bibb Latané, Kipling Williams, and Stephen Harkins 1979; Harkins & others, 1980

2. Meyers (2012) notes that:

“Social facilitation experiments show that groups can arouse people, and social loafing experiments show that groups can diffuse responsibility. When arousal and diffused responsibility combine and normal inhibitions diminish, the results may be startling. People may commit acts that range from a mild lessening of restraint (throwing food in the dining hall, snarling at a referee, screaming during a rock concert) to impulsive self-gratification (group vandalism, orgies, thefts) to destructive social explosions (police brutality, riots, lynchings).”

The most dramatic study of groups behaving badly would be the Stanford Prison Experiment,


4. Harkins & Jackson, 1985; Kerr & Bruun, 1981

5. Karau and Williams 1993

6. Karau & Williams, 1997; Worchel & others, 1998

7. Pairing high performers with under performers has been identified as a way of optimising both participant’s output (Plaks & Higgins, 2000).  Interestingly, William & Karau (1991) found that  participants would not socially compensate for a poorly performing co-worker when working on a task that was low in meaningfulness.

8. Individuals can exert higher motivation when working in a group compared to working individually. This is particularly true for less capable, inferior group members… (however) Moderator analyses revealed substantial influences of task structure, performance information, physical presence, gender, and task type.” Weber & Hertel, 2007

9. Karau & Williams, 1997; Worchel & others, 1998



Harkins, S. and Jackson, J. 1985, ‘The Role of Evaluation in Eliminating Social Loafing.’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 11, 457-465.

Harkins, S., Latane, B., and Williams, K. 1980, ‘Social loafing: Allocating effort or taking it easy?’ Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 457-465.

KARAU, S. and WILLIAMS, K. 1993, ‘Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706.

Karau, S. and Williams, K. 1997, ‘The effects of group cohesiveness on social loafing and social compensation.’ Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, Vol 1(2), Jun, 156-168.

Karau, S. and Williams, K. 1991 ‘Social loafing and social compensation: The effects of expectations of co-worker performance.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 61(4), Oct, 570-581.

Kerr, N. and Bruun, S. 1981, ‘Ringelmann revisited: Alternative explanations for the social loafing effect.’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7, 224-231.

Latané, B.; Williams, K.; Harkins, S. 1979 ‘Many hands make light the work: The causes and consequences of social loafing.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 37(6), Jun, 822-832.

Myers, D. 2012 Exploring social psychology, 6th ed., McGraw-Hill, New York.

Plaks, J. and Higgins, E. 2000 ‘Pragmatic use of stereotyping in teamwork: Social loafing and compensation as a function of inferred partner–situation fit.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 79(6), Dec, 962-974.

Weber, B. and Hertel, G. 2007 ‘Motivation gains of inferior group members: A meta-analytical review.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 93(6), Dec, 973-993.

Worchel, S.; Rothgerber, H.; Day, E.; Hart, D.; Butemeyer, J. 1998 ‘Social identity and individual productivity within groups.’, British Journal of Social Psychology, Dec, 37 (Pt 4), 389-413.



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