Improving Life, One Game at a Time | with Chris Hewett of Mindbloom [Transcript]

by Joe Sherwood on September 6, 2013

Link to podcast episode: Improving Life, One Game at a Time | with Chris Hewett of Mindbloom

Jesse Lahey: Welcome to the show, Game Changers! This is the show for CEOs, HR executives, and other business leaders to learn about internal gamification. Over the course of this series, you’ll hear examples and pitfalls, discover how to assess when it’s an appropriate strategy, and learn to evaluate gamification partners in game design ideas.

I am Jesse Lahey, and today, I’m joined by Chris Hewitt, the founder and executive producer at Mindbloom, a Seattle-based interactive media company with a mission to make life improvement accessible to everyone. Mindbloom offers several game-related products, but perhaps best-known is Life Game, which helps people adopt healthy life habits, and then followed by the company’s popular mobile apps like Juice, Bloom, and Proof! which inspire people to live the life they want to live while on the go.

Chris, welcome to Game Changer!

Chris Hewitt: Thank you.

Jesse: Can you tell me the history behind Mindbloom?

Chris: We’re a life-improvement company that’s based in Seattle. We were founded in 2008, and we have about 15 employees. We’ve create a suite of web and mobile application in the life-improvement space. One of them, our first one, was called Life Game. The others: Bloom, Juice, and Proof!. Today, we have almost about a half million users who are using at least one of our applications.

My background prior to MindBloom was really in the game development industry. I spent 10 years working on games for companies such as Disney, Fox Interactive, and Warner Bros., and also Vivendi Universal, and our focus really was about creating highly cinematic action games. Long story short (we can kind of come back to this), I really found myself very passionate about leveraging gaming technology, my experiences in applying it to personal development.

Jesse: What made you make that leap from games for the sake of entertainment to games for the sake of life change?

Chris: Well, when I was at the gaming company, it was about ten years, and that industry is very intense. It got to the point where I was pretty consistently putting in 80-hour workweeks, and needless to say, I wasn’t doing much in the area of health, managing my relationships very well. I had passions playing guitar and music, for example, that I just wasn’t getting to. I really found myself getting completely out of balance, and I really hit a low point in my life. Through my own personal journey in reading various books and really following through on some of the things that these experts were telling me, I was able to get myself out of the hole.

One of the probably most important discoveries for me was I’d really discovered that I’ve been living most of my life kind of motivated by fear of failure, and so it really forced me to work really hard and never wanting to fail. When I got to the point where I let that go, instead of being motivated by fear, I could be motivated by the vision of success, a vision of a life that I truly desire. That’s what motivates me today. It was really that experience that transitioned me into a much healthier place, and it was really that experience.

So many people are struggling, I think, with work-life balance, but when it comes to getting help in that area, it’s typically reading books, attending a seminar, maybe interacting with informational website. Just being in the gaming industry, I felt that there could be much more engaging ways for people to improve the quality of their lives. That was really my motivation for transitioning out of the gaming industry and into this interactive life-improvement space.

Jesse: Oh, that’s fascinating. Now, would you say that your products, is there the sort of spectrum from gamification over to literal games?

Chris: Yes.

Jesse: Where do Mindbloom’s products fall in that spectrum?

Chris: We do have multiple applications, and each one is different in this area. I will say that probably none of our applications are actual games. However, some definitely use more elements of what games tend to rely on than some of the others.

For example, our first product that we launched, it is called Life Game, and the whole concept of that product is for people to discover what’s most important in their lives, to find their motivation, and to take small steps each day towards growing. So we used this visual metaphor of a tree, and you grow the tree by picking the areas of life that are important to you: health, relationships, career, for example, and then you add inspirational images, and music, and quotes as one form of keeping your tree healthy and green. Also, part of it is you actually checking off the actions that you say you want to do each week. That also keeps your tree healthy and green. It’s got a very visual component that games tend to have. It also does have a points system. In our product, Life Game, we call them seeds, and these seeds are then used to unlock other content and features within the application. That’s one example, one side of the spectrum.

Then we have other apps. For example, our Bloom mobile application for iOS, it almost has no gamification. There’s no points; there’s no earning of achievements, but what it does do really well is it uses the mobility of the phone (the fact that people have it most of the day) to give people reminders. We call them inspirational reminders or blooms, and these go off at certain times of the day that you’ve set to remind you to drink water, to do pushups, to practice gratitude. What’s unique about it is it delivers images and music to inspire you to actually follow through on that action.

Jesse: It’s not just sending you a text message or an email. It’s sending you more visual or audio type reminders.

Chris: Exactly. Now, I will say that when we’re at the game company I was at, we did focus on these very cinematic action game experiences. You might think of blotty games that really focus on points and achievements and what not. Our games are actually much more about trying to immerse you into almost like a movie. Like good movies and good books, they create an emotional engagement or connection with people. Movies, of course, use images and music to do that and so do the games that we did, that we’ve created.

With Bloom, for example, it’s all about emotional engagement. We wanted to use these images and the music to create something inside of somebody to spark something that gets them to actually follow through. Some might argue that that’s a gaming element, but it doesn’t seem intuitively that way. But I believe it is. In fact, we hear a lot about gamification, and I think a lot of them tend to forget about that part of what many good games do: creating that emotional creation.

Jesse: Yes, that’s right. Now, can you tell us about how Juice works?

Chris: Yes, absolutely. Juice, we describe it as the world’s funnest energy tracker. There are obviously a lot of tracking apps out there where you’re tracking the calories that you’re eating, and I just find that really tedious, and I think there’s a much larger of market to people that are wanting to improve their health that don’t have the time to track every detail of their day. The idea was really to make the tracking much, much simpler, because I don’t believe it needs to be at that level of detail.

It’s really about building this awareness. We call it connecting the dots between you routine and your energy just by tracking them daily even at a very high level. By doing that, you’re discovering kind of what habits—for example, what general sleep habits, general eating habits, activity levels might be having a big impact on your energy. So it uses a very visual metaphor as well of this kind of juice bottle that you come in and actually to rate your energy. You kind of slide your finger along the bottle, and the juice raises to the appropriate level, and then each assessment is just a little five-point slider that has really fun visual imagery too that represent the different levels of sleep, and activity, and so on and so forth.

That one, you actually do earn. This one’s kind of a little bit more in between the Life Game and the Bloom as far as gamification, because you do earn some credits. You tweak as you get your weekly report on your progress, and you can use those credits to unlock additional ingredients.

Jesse: I like the idea of it being a simplified tracker. I have an app on my iPhone that I use for tracking food and exercise. I’ve been blessed with an overactive sweet tooth, so I have to be careful.

Chris: Me too.

Jesse: Studies show that by logging your food, you’ll end up eating healthier, and I had never been consistent and that it’s always too tedious, but I’ve recently gotten back on the bandwagon and said, “Okay, I’m really going to track this stuff.” Yesterday was an example where it just was too much work, maybe because I eat so much that it was too much to log in.

Also, I lifted weights on Friday, and I thought, “I wonder how the tracker helps me track this exercise, because it was doing a good job of helping me track when I went running and so forth, but the weight lifting was really tedious. I wanted to know how much weight and how many reps, and I just skipped that, and I sort of entered it in at a really high level. I just did for 40 minutes, I’m done with it. It wasn’t really designed to be that quick and easy to use.

Chris: Yes, I totally agree with you. I also get motivated at times to do reps like that, but I never do simply because of the time. It’s hard enough just to get the work. Let alone adding another 10 or so minutes to track it.

What’s beautiful to me is Mindbloom is all about technology, and art, and science, and blending those in a way that really enable people to improve the quality of their lives. We’re not the ones trying to create all these technology. There’s great stuff that already exist that we just want to leverage, but I think in an area like even in weight lifting, with wireless techno, they’re going to make it so picking up that dumbbell and moving it, that is automatically going to be sending that information to your mobile device.

Jesse: Oh, you’re right.

Chris: Ideally, all this tracking is done without you entering anything in would be the ideal case, because it isn’t valuable to see your progress. There’s nothing—in fact, one of the points about why I think the science of games is really effective in kind of this whole wellness applications, one of them, is it’s about effectiveness. It’s getting people to be in this, what they call the flow channel if you will, where when you’re doing something for the first time, if it’s too easy, you get bored; if it’s too hard, it’s frustrating. Ideally, you’re challenging them, and if it’s just the right level, they feel really effective.

When we get that feedback, say for example on your workouts, and you’re seeing that you’re actually progressing even by just starting really, really simple—it feels really simple, when you actually see progress, it’s very powerful and motivating. The key is to make it so easy to get the data.

Jesse: Yes. Now, how about Proof! What’s that about?

Chris: The Proof! is our social challenge app. This was our attempt. It’s really focusing in on activities that people want social support with. What’s unique about it is you’re capturing a photo or a video clip of you actually doing the thing that you said you’re going to do.

For example, you could do—actually, I’ve been doing this, which is a pushup challenge.  They’re one week challenges. You can invite up to 25 people, and I can say, “All right. Let’s see if we can do 200 pushups this week,” and then everyone’s kind of taken a little video or an image of themselves each day ideally or the other day, and entering in how many pushups you do. It’s just a great social way for people to follow through on the thing that they want to do.

Jesse: That’s interesting. Now, you’ve been around since 2008, certainly at the front end of the whole gamification growing trend, and you’re already up to 500,000 users, which is pretty amazing. How much of that is through employer groups versus direct consumers?

Chris: Our company is primarily focused on direct-to-consumer business. However, this past couple of years, we have been contacted by large health insurance companies, for example, Aetna, and we’ve been working also with Premera most recently, where they’re very interested in, obviously, increasing engagement in health wellness programs that their clients’ employer groups are reaching out to them and say, “Hey, help us out here.”

So with Aetna, we did the Life Game launch and Bloom application launch with them, and then they did promote this to a lot of their members so that we definitely acquired users through there. Then also with Premera most recently, we’ve actually been creating these new mobile applications, Juice and Proof! and a few others are in the works. They’re also going to be promoted to their membership as well.

A lot of it has probably mostly come from word of mouth. Even when a member of an employer group starts to use our product, there are ways for you to invite others, share the application to people that are outside of their company, their employer group. That’s where we’ve gotten a lot of growth.

Jesse: Over that period of time, I’m sure you have anecdotal stories of the difference that it’s made in people’s lives, but do you also have any data that sort of helps make the business case?

Chris: When you compare our applications to the previous health and wellness applications that they’re promoting internally to their members, we definitely were getting at least 200-300% improvement in the ability to acquire users, to get them to actually register for something, and then to actually engage and to stay engaged. In general, we definitely got a much improved engaging level that they’re used to.

Now, I can quote some specific metrics around some of our experience that we had with our original Life Game product. Because we were developing it and had a pretty significantly long beta program, there is a point where our Life Game had a bunch of users where we still had yet to implement any of the kind of points and achievements that you can earn today in today’s version. What happens is, when someone uses the Life Game, they of course choose the areas where they want to focus, and then they add actions like drink water, or practice gratitude, or call a close friend once a week. Then they set their intentions for the week. “This is what I’m going to do this week,” and then whether they did them or not is what we call kind of this percent completion rate.

Prior to us adding in the game points and the achievements, we’re getting about a 50-60% achievement rate of people, of course, self-reporting that they did the things that they said that they’re going to do that week. After we did a major update and added in all of the extra game-like features, we increased that 50-60% completion rate to over almost 80-90%. That really was a true test in it for us that adding these elements of fun obviously is going to improve the engagement of a product.

I also don’t believe though that you can just add points and badges to any product, and then it’s going to get better. It needs to work in the context of what the product is, and in the Life Game, it made a lot of sense; in other apps, less so.

Jesse: 80-90% achievement rate, is that just sort of in the first few weeks when it seems really cool, and exciting, and new? What’s the experience like overtime?

Chris: Like any product, any game that we use, play, it can get old after awhile, and that was something that was actually a big kind of revelation for us. I think we knew intuitively, but it was something hard to come to grips with when you’re obviously investing a lot of time and money into a certain product. It really forced a shift in what we’re doing which is Mindbloom is really creating this platform, life-improvement platform experience. It integrates with lots of different types of applications. Some of them will be ones that we’ve created, and some will be ones that others have created, because there are lots of great applications out there.

Knowing that people are going to use something for awhile and be effective at it but that there’s something new and better that comes out that they can then transition over to and be utilizing that, it’s unrealistic to think that you’re going to create the one product that’s going to appeal to everybody and that they’re going to use for the rest of their lives. It’s just not going to happen.

Yes, people will use your product for awhile and be successful, but then it just gets old, and so they want to move on to something new. So our goal is to always build or offer up new applications and experiences, again, ones that we create and ones that others create. That can keep people on the path of actually following through on the things that they say they want to do.

Jesse: I like that integration. It seems it could be helpful. I had an app that I was using to record my weights, for example, and I like it. It’s all it did, and it was totally disconnected from, let’s say, Facebook or Twitter, people that I might want to share progress with. It was disconnected from the food tracker that I had mentioned to you. It definitely pulled me away from that to have a more integrated experience.

Chris: Yes. To me that’s one of the probably better use cases. It’s exactly that. If I’m using these applications over here, and I’ve found great value in them, but it’s getting old, and I now have maybe via Mindbloom have discovered some other applications, it’d be great that when I got on those other applications, they already had the right kind of information that made on-boarding into that app experience much simpler.

Jesse: Can you give us a sense for what these programs cost?

Chris: For us, we develop these applications with the partners like Aetna and Premera. By doing that, they are free to the employer groups for those insurance companies. For example, Life Game and the Bloom applications are free to be used by any employer group that works with Aetna. The benefits being that for the employer groups using these applications is that, because they’re a member of Aetna, they can get some of the premium content features for free, where regular consumers will either have to earn it as they go or purchase it. Then for Premera, with Juice and Proof!, those applications are free to use by the employer groups as well.

There’s the possibility of Mindbloom doing some real custom integration with employer groups, but it would have to be at the size where it would make sense for us. But we’re really trying to create experiences that are much, much simpler for consumers and users as well as really any employer group to just leverage.

Jesse: How does Mindbloom and the related apps compare with other solutions that are available in the marketplace? Do you know what’s unique about it or any pros or cons?

Chris: Yes, absolutely. Where Mindbloom differentiates is that we take a very holistic approach. We really look at all the different areas of life. There are a lot of companies, products that tend to really focus in on just health, where we really like to look at all areas of life. There’s already been studies that have shown that your quality of your relationships or your health, or your being, and your career, or your financial stress can have a very significant impact on your ability to follow through on your health goals. So I’ve always—again, back to the beginning of the story, for me, it was that life balance that completely got out of whack. That really is a big thing for Mindbloom: to take a very holistic approach.

The other one is our focus or emphasis on intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic. There are a lot of sites that use the financial rewards as a form of motivation or other methods that fall into that category. We really believe—again, I think that science had shown—that the studies and all these experts in the field already believe that you got to have that internal passion and desire for something for you to actually follow through on it. The short term cash rewards can be more effective possibly on getting you started, but you quickly fall off because that internal fire isn’t really there.

What we try to do in some of our products, the ones where it makes most sense, like Bloom and Life Game, is getting people to really kind of capture via images and quotes that represents the reason why someone wants to improve in their health, or their relationships, or their career, and that really being the long-term motivator.

The other, I think, real wake-up call for us, as a company—this was said by BJ Fogg. He’s a behavioral expert out of Stanford. He says, “Don’t motivate behavior change; facilitate behavior change.” I think that was a really—it’s been a great message. It’s something that we have on our walls in our office.

The reality is there’s a lot of people out there, employer groups, that just straight up are in mental space in a life state where they’re motivated, and there’s almost nothing you can really do about that unless some kind of eureka-type moment happens for them. That is almost a very difficult thing to try to design a mobile app to cause, but we really want to create experiences that facilitate that behavior change, that when someone is ready to do something, we can make it as fun, and simple, and effective as possible for them to actually achieve it. We can incorporate that in now into our designs, and I think that’s also a key differentiator for us.

Jesse: Yes, that Fogg model is basically talking about how you want to understand “are people already motivated to do something?” If so, then the tactics that you would use are different than if they aren’t motivated, for example, if they just are missing the spark or they’re missing some of the capabilities of doing that. I guess Mindbloom is coming from the side that people want to improve in these areas; they’re already motivated, and we just need to make it easier for them.

Chris: Yes. BJ’s model says that you to have three thing at once, simultaneously. You have to have some motivation, and you have to have a trigger—something that reminds you to actually do the behavior, and then you need to have the ability.

Jesse: Chris, do you have any tips for employer groups on how to be successful leveraging health and wellness applications within their organizations?

Chris: I do. The executive team for a company really has to lead by example. Not only do they need to be really doing this, using these applications, but it also really should be like a top five strategic initiative for a company that they want to truly be a healthy and productive employee-base.

What that means, then, is that the executives need to really champion and promote with the employees a corporate culture that truly adapts to supporting a healthy lifestyle, which might mean not only are you implementing these, maybe these mobile applications and web application experiences and doing any quarterly challenges or what not. You need to set up the infrastructure. Having snack machines, soda machines, isn’t obviously sending the right message. It makes it too easy for people to not be healthy.

Also, just because you have an employee-base that you can send that email blast out to, it doesn’t mean that you can send out one notification that, “Hey, there’s this new program that we’re going to do.” It really needs to be heavily promoted like any marketing of a product into the consumer space. It might even be more challenging within a company just because there’s a little bit of, maybe, skepticism depending on the corporate culture. There needs to really be this example set from the top. The whole company really set up to really promote healthy behavior, and then just to do continuous promotions and communications.

Jesse: I think that’s a good point. A lot of, let’s say, CEO or other executives might hear that and say, “Gosh, one more thing I have to squeeze into the top five. We’re supposed to be out making money.” But I’ve seen a lot of companies where the engagement among employees increases if they feel like the top leaders of the company really care about them as human beings whether that comes across as a concern for health and wellness, or a concern for safety, or other things about treating people as people instead of just machines there to make money. It actually ends up, in the long run, creating higher engagement and a higher profitability. I think that is a time and focus well-spent.

Chris: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. I think just this leading by example, whether it’s health-related or just how you do your business, I think, is absolutely key. It means you’re really walking the talk, and people respect that, and they can see that. It makes you want to follow that person.

Then it comes down to the practicality of just daily living. When you come in to work, and you don’t feel good, you’re tired, it doesn’t matter how motivated you are. If you don’t have the energy to do it, it’s very difficult. If you can really focus your efforts on creating that culture, that gets people, hopefully, not working 80-work weeks, and getting home, and doing other things, getting sleep, eating well, exercising, being creative with how you do meetings, have walking meetings for example. It seems to be a trend that’s beginning.

If you can get people’s energy levels up, of course productivity’s going to go up, and then obviously it’s going to have a very big impact on the bottom line.

Jesse: Absolutely. Chris, how can someone find out more or take the next step with Mindbloom?

Chris: Well, most people, consumer, users, or heads of HR groups can go to our website, www.Mindbloom.com, and try out our applications. We have our web apps and our mobile apps that you can get from the various stores. They can be used by anyone.

If a group does want to get more serious about offering kind of a custom solution that leverages our applications, then they can contact our partner relations person which is Bennie@Mindbloom.com.

Jesse: Excellent! Chris Hewitt is the founder and executive producer at Mindbloom, and we’ll provide the contact information for him in our show notes for this episode which you can find at EngagingLeader.com/GC11 as in Game Changer Episode 11.

Also, if you’re playing the Game Changer Series Game, our clue for this episode is the letter A as in Adam—A as in Adam. As soon as you think you know the secret phrase, just email it to me at Jesse@EngagingLeader.com.

Link to podcast episode: Improving Life, One Game at a Time | with Chris Hewett of Mindbloom

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