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Through gamification, Hawaii is taking user experience seriously.

For most people most of the time, life is not a pursuit of principle but of pleasure. People will cheerily pursue activities that offer instant or near-term gratification, while ignoring anything that feels like work. Studying for an entrance exam, preparing a big presentation for work, finishing the roof before the rainy season begins — no matter how important the task, there’s always time for a slice of chocolate cake first. This understanding of human nature is the core philosophy behind gamification, the addition of game elements into things that are not games. And it is through gamification that the state of Hawaii is changing how it delivers services to its inhabitants.

In five months, Hawaii drove up adoption of online services as much as 20 percent, and it was done through the addition of game elements like badges and leaderboards as well as through user interface improvements that make the services portal look like something people want to be a part of.

People will do work, eventually. Most people keep a to-do list, whether mental or physical, and on it can be found things like "renew permit with the city" or "file taxes." Chores are defined by having multiple steps, containing an element of ambiguity and holding no promise of a good time during or after the task. If online service adoption is low, no government needs to wonder why. It’s because renewing licenses and filing taxes are processes that are complex, stressful in their ambiguity and not fun. Hawaii found that gamification can ameliorate those shortcomings.

“Our vision is transforming government at the speed of life,” said Sonny Bhagowalia, Hawaii's chief adviser for technology and cybersecurity. “So to do that, we engaged in a business and technology transformation plan that looked at business transformation, technology transformation, and transparency and accountability. In the state of Hawaii, it’s an $11 billion enterprise with 36 lines of business and 230 business functions.”

Those sound like big numbers, but in 2014, success is measured by what happens online. The problem, Bhagowalia said, was that Hawaii was doing less than 5 percent of its transactions online. The state had to find a way to motivate employees and citizens to use its services and engender commitment to the services so they would continue using them, he said.

Through a partnership with the Hawaii Information Consortium (HIC), a subsidiary of NIC, the state found ways to personalize the online experience and shorten the feedback loop so when residents are doing business with their government, it feels less like work and more like cake.

The personalized portal of Hawaii’s online effort is called My.Hawaii.Gov. The transition from work to fun begins with the appearance. The large buttons show that the website was designed with tablets in mind, and an emphasis on graphics and a simple interface make the experience similar to what users might find in a game or app.

The portal also features a page called mySavings, where users can see an accumulation of how much time they haven’t spent in traffic or standing in line, and how much paper they’ve spared by using online services. It’s subtle but there’s something gratifying about an ongoing tally of positive impacts derived from completing what might otherwise feel like a soulless errand.

The portal has pages for online procurement, licensing, camping reservations and a history of personal and business transactions. The state continues to add services to the portal, and the unified look and feel of the service pages helps make users feel invested in the overall experience of interacting with government, rather than viewing the forms and pages they go through as a disposable annoyance they hope to soon be rid of.

When the state first began the project, officials were surprised by the jump in online adoption, said Russell Castagnaro, general manager of HIC. They had added a barrier, requiring users to create an account to use the portal, yet adoption in some cases jumped from an already high 75 percent to around 85 percent, he said.

To develop a gamification plan, HIC used the book For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, Castagnaro said. It started by taking an inventory and saw that some services had a relatively high online adoption rate, like 75 percent, while others were “dismally low,” and in some cases, users would perform one function online and another on paper. To some extent, that disparity was because people simply didn’t know that the service they wanted was online. The state began pairing services together, so for example, when people apply online for a professional or vocational license, they can also see other services related to their business and that drove up adoption.

“Just in the first five months, we saw success as far as adoption leveling with different services and even having adoption that went up 20 percent,” Castagnaro said.

There’s a tendency by government to establish institutions and expect the public to hop on board, despite people's usual routines. It’s not enough to make Hawaii’s services accessible and attractive to a wide audience, but they need to serve them in ways the audience wants, Castagnaro said.

“It’s not our job to tell users how they should come to the services, it’s our job to make sure the services are there the way they want them and it’s the easiest thing for them to do,” he said. “The easier it is, the happier they are, the better they perceive government.”

In June, the Interactive Media Awards named HIC a best-in-class winner for its work on

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.