Into the Mind of the Guest

By Abigail A. Lorden, Editor-in-Chief | April 08, 2011

You have to have a bit of thick skin to work in technology at Caesars Entertainment Corp., but such is the case in any situation where you intentionally seek out unfiltered feedback from the general public. The technologists at Caesars Entertainment not only develop IT applications, they’re also intimately involved in an interactive process for collecting and assessing live feedback from guests on new technology projects. It’s an approach that allows the team to tweak prototypes on-the-fly, and ultimately develop technology solutions that are more successful, and of greater use to guests.
  
“It’s very much been the case that it’s hard to ask a customer what they want or what technologies they might like, or even have them envision future technology,” says Katrina Lane, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Caesars Entertainment (www.caesars.com). “It’s not very realistic,” and it leads to assumptions based on hypothetical scenarios. Instead of asking guests to evaluate what-ifs, Caesars builds feedback mechanisms directly into various stages of the user experience “to make sure that a project is constantly getting that flow,” says Lane.
 
The resort gaming company began its voyage into the mind of the guest about two-to-three years ago and within the last 12 months has strengthened the effort. They’ve since applied this strategy to everything from piloting a new online reservations and booking engine, to testing out an iPhone app, to prototyping and eventually installing interactive digital signage.
 
The goal of these types of pilots, says Chris Chang, the company’s VP of innovation and IT strategy, is “to gather data on how customers are reacting to something before, during and after a pilot…and then come through the process with a better product, more quickly than what would have been otherwise possible.” They’ve also come through the process with some memorable guest feedback, such as the time one guest evaluated a prototype and commented, “This is kind of nice but you really should have a designer look at it.”
 
“Thick skin, a must,” laughs John Pestka, the company’s director of Internet operations, who played a central role in one the company’s most successful experiences with interactive customer feedback: rolling out its new reservations system.
 
Feedback in action
When Caesars re-launched a beta version of its central reservations system, they built a field for collecting feedback directly into the customer interface. That feedback was read by the project team every morning. “We were getting dozens of pieces of feedback a day, and because we were in a multi-week release cycle, we were able to fix it based on that feedback,” recalls Lane.
 
But they took the process even further with their unique approach to usability labs. Most companies rolling out new tech will do a usability lab; they’ll put their new technology in front of 15-20 customers per day, over the course of several days, and let them use it. A market researcher is usually observing the customer and collecting feedback from customers on their experiences.
 
What Caesars did differently was to bring its developers into the labs, too, to observe customers and make changes to the system on-the-fly based on customer input. By having developers observe the lab, “we can see what’s working and what’s not,” says Pestka. “If we see a customer is struggling with something…we can start tweaking things within the prototype.” The next tester tries out the tweaked version, and the process continues until, over the course of two to three days, many of the kinks are worked out.
 
“Instead of ending the week with a series of questions, we ended the week with a series of answers,” says Lane.

This process helped Caesars solve a problem cropping up with a critical booking tool in the new system: calendars. “We know for a fact that our calendars are our best performing tools in getting customers to book,” says Pestka. But in the new interface, customers couldn’t find them. The company performed functional prototyping, and tried out a toolbar interface. Toolbars are common in most every software program, including the Microsoft Office suite, so it seemed like a smart way to make calendars available to customers. “One of our engineers built a toolbar, put it in front of the customer and we thought it was going to be a home run,” says Pestka. “Nobody saw it,” even after they had the moderator give hints. “We tried moving it, tried using icons versus words. I don’t think it even made it through an entire day,” he says. The final nail in the coffin came when one tester, after having the toolbar pointed out to them, said, “I don’t think I’d use it even if I knew it was there.” Eventually, they came up with the concept of a bulleted list, which though it doesn’t sound very exciting, is clear and simple. Exactly what the customer needs.
 
This philosophy of interactive customer feedback isn’t limited to cyberspace. Caesars used a similar approach to test its iPhone app. “We went on the casino floor and recruited customers to use the app,” says Chang. It was the IT team, and not a group of professional researchers, who observed the applications in use. This allowed the developers to assess in real time what was feasible and what wasn’t. The team took copious notes during the observations, and then interviewed users to get their feedback. “It was quite critical that this was us, and not a professional research team,” says Chang. “The feedback is unfiltered and you get a visceral reaction. You can work in a lab on an application all you want, but it’s not until the actual reaction from the customer that you can see the impact it might have.”
 
Similarly, when the company deployed interactive digital signage at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas last year, the IT team performed a number of onsite evaluations. “We did some prototyping and got feedback in advance, but then we also had both us and our partners standing around the signs getting customer feedback,” says Chang. They performed a number of intercepts to get direct feedback and that input was used to tweak the system.
 
Quality meets quantity
With all of this qualitative research, Lane stresses that there is absolutely a role for qualitative analysis and professional research, including when you perform usability labs. “But with these innovation projects, our team knows exactly what works and what doesn’t with the app that you’re trying to show, which allows us to show an app that’s not quite polished,” and therefore get input during the development phase. Plus, the IT team is inquisitive: “We don’t ask once and think we’ve got it; we ask and try, ask and try, ask and try,” she says. This type of research is then always combined with quantitative data analysis.
 
What’s more, Caesars take a collaborative approach to its research and development. Corporate technology and Internet teams work closely with the properties and individual operators. “Technology, while pervasive, is still complex,” says Lane.
 
From this process, the team has learned some vital lessons: for example, that personalization isn’t the right choice in all scenarios for all customers. “On the Web, there are clearly areas that we try to personalize,” says Lane. “When we know they’re coming, we suggest dining options. But within the core booking process, as we researched, we found it was more important to let them find and pick the tools they want to use.” In the case of the booking calendar, the team learned that you simply don’t need to personalize it. “Just make it simple for someone to find the tools they need to make a reservation,” agrees Pestka.
Lane believes that this interactive approach, with the technologists invested in the feedback process, is critical to Caesars’ ability to create and deploy customer experiences. “It’s been an invaluable way for us to get better products to market faster.”
 
The process has also been gratifying for the entire team. “We do a lot of quantitative data and analytical research. The richness that we’ve derived from augmenting that with customer feedback has allowed us to go from making assumptions to really understanding,” explains Chang.
 
“Yes, you have to have pretty darn think skin,” says Lane, “but it’s amazing how much better things can become, and you have some real high-five moments.”

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