September 02, 2011
Steptacular -- Gamification in Wellness
By: Huan Liu

We all know exercising is good for us and we all had our new year resolution, but few of us are able to carry it through. Can we inject a better motivation to help us get in shape? To answer that question, the Labs started the Steptacular pilot, in collaboration with Stanford University and Live Well at Accenture, which applies game concepts as a motivator for people to get healthy. The pilot includes several gaming concepts:

  • Clear goals: We set up a goal target for our participants, which is to achieve 10k steps a day, a recommendation from many fitness experts as a minimum required daily exercise. In addition, we set smaller goals for those that are less active, i.e., Silver, Gold and Platinum levels depending on how much you walk each week.

  • Instant feedback: Clear goals do not make a difference if there is no way knowing how far you are away from the goal. We ask our participants to carry an Omron HJ-720 pedometer, which has a digital display to instantly show you what you have achieved. In addition, the Steptacular website shows participants' step history and how they stack up against other participants.

  • Social: Social games have been a run-away success. Steptacular also leverage social features to encourage peer pressure. In Steptacular, you can connect with friends, and then you can watch (and more importantly push for) each other's progress.

  • Engaging user interface: Steptacular uses a very engaging game allowing user to redeem random rewards for their achievement. We got many love emails expressing how they are motivated to walk more in order to play the game more.

The Steptacular pilot has just concluded. Although we will be publishing the research results shortly, I thought I will share some high-level statistics. 5,105 people signed up for the pilot. Collectively, the participants walked more than 1.8 Billion steps, that is more than three times the distance to the moon. Along the way, we got many fan emails expressing how motivating it is for them, and how they are able to lose weight and lower their cholesterol level. I will post a link to the research paper when we publish it, so that you can see in details what game mechanisms worked and how effective are the game mechanisms.

From a technical stand point, launching such a pilot is not an easy task. We operated under a very tight constraint. First, we had a very short window to launch the pilot. The pilot must end by a deadline due to other HR constraints. To maximize the pilot duration, we had to act fast. Through the hard work of several Stanford students, we are able to launch in 3.5 weeks in the end. Second, the pilot is only scheduled to run for a few months. Hence, we do not want to waste money and time to procure hardware to power our application. Third, we have to manage a large number of participants, in particular, the distribution of pedometers presents a major challenge for our small team.

Fortunately, Cloud comes to the rescue. Our application is a prime candidate to use Cloud. Our application not only is temporary (only needed for few months), but we also require capacity scale up quickly (have to launch quick). A quick TCO analysis clearly shows that choosing cloud is more economical. In the end, we chose Amazon as the technology platform, and we ended up using several services, including

  • Amazon EC2: We are able to get our server quickly. With few weeks to launch, we have no time to wait for server procurement. In addition to spinning up servers quickly, we also leveraged the free Cloud Watch service to enable us closely monitor our system's performance.

  • Amazon SES: We have to send thousands of emails to our participants, for example, email verification during sign up or sending out announcements. We could not get an internal email account set up quickly (takes time to build a business case and takes time for provisioning), and we do not have access to an external email service allowing us to send a massive number of messages. It took us only a couple of hours to setup Amazon's Simple Email Service, allowing us to focus on application design.

  • Amazon retail: I have been doing Cloud research for the past several years, so spinning up server instances is easy. Unfortunately, running a supply chain to get pedometers into our participants' hand is no easy task. We looked into being our own dealer (buy bulk from Omron, then send), or using Amazon Fulfillment services, but in the end, we choose to just use Amazon retail. It turns out to be cheaper than what we could achieve ourselves. Within a couple of weeks of launching, we helped to sell 3,000+ pedometer through the Amazon retail site.

It is the ultimate dream of Cloud that you can provision any service you need by yourself, and pay only for what you use. The Steptacular pilot is definitely a beneficiary of that grand vision.

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