Playing games to improve one’s mental capabilities is becoming an increasingly popular pastime. Research has shown that doing crossword puzzles regularly can help counteract Alzheimer’s. I suspect that part of the popularity of Sudoku is the assumption that daily mental exercises is probably a good thing.
Nintendo games that are intended to exercise gray matter have become popular among adults in Japan. Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training game for the Nintendo DS handheld platform has sold nearly 2 million copies in Japan over the past year and has received attention by the BBC and the most recent podcast of CNet’s This Week in Technology (TWiT). Apparently the game has just been released in the US, so don’t be surprised if you start seeing adults playing with Nintendos on your next flight instead of watching Big Momma’s House II—the commentators on TWiT say that the Brain Training is fairly addictive. One of the tasks in the game is a classic cognitive task: identify the color of a word when the word spells a competing color, e.g., the word “green” appears on screen in the color orange and you have to answer "orange" and not "green". The person playing has to speak the color of the letters (not what is spelled) into the Nintendo microphone for scoring.
This idea of of intelligence-preserving software exercises has made headway outside of the game world. NeuroTone, a startup in the Bay Area founded by the people who started the dot-com-era digital audio company Liquid Audio, has developed a similar type of “brain training” system for new users of hearing aids. Most hearing aid wearers are older and have been listening for years to deteriorated speech through their impaired auditory system. They haven’t heard sounds normally for a long time and their neural plasticity has probably readjusted to respond to distorted sounds. When a hearing aid is first worn, the brain likely needs some training to readjust to the reception of normal sounds again.
Neurotone’s software, LACE, contains speech understanding tasks and cognitive tasks that help with such functions as memory. It runs on the person’s own PC and connects to their audiologist through the internet so that their audiologist can monitor their progress. LACE also adapts to the ability of the hearing aid wearer: as the person does better, the tasks become harder so that the person is always challenged. Given the interest in keeping one’s mental ability “fit”, I wouldn’t be surprised if LACE becomes popular with normally-hearing people as adults look for ways to develop their own “brain training” regimen.
One interesting aspect of LACE from a hearing aid company’s perspective is that not only is LACE innovative as a product in itself, but it proposes an innovative business model for companies that integrate LACE with their products. The software training program provides a connection between the audiologist or hearing aid company with the hearing aid wearer long after the time of purchase. It makes wearers excited about using their aids—actually looking forward each day to the “brain training” exercises that help them better use their aids.
Imagine if other products could create that kind of connection and dedication from their users. People don’t read manuals, and if they do they have usually become an annoyed customer. Imagine if you could teach your customers how to optimally use your product with an interactive game. Or turn a moderately satisfied customer into a passionate user. Creating that kind of dedication towards one’s product is something that most companies don’t even try to imagine, but here’s a system that allows users to get excited about becoming better users of a product, and obtaining improved benefit from the product as well.
With LACE, some audiologists are actually setting up PCs in their lobby so that patients who don’t have PCs at home can come in every day and obtain their mental exercises. In the consumer product field, who wouldn’t want to give their customers a reason to return to the point of purchase? Of course, audiologists are providing LACE as a part of a best-practices approach to providing benefit to their patient. In other product areas, however, the LACE business model is an example of how to better engage with one's customers. People should be searching for similar ways to get their customers excited about learning and becoming better users of their products.
How can the “brain training” model work for your customers and inspire them to improve the benefit they receive from your product?
(Full disclosure: I’m friends with the founders of Neurotone and the renowned audiologist who developed the tests. My company gives away licenses to LACE with every one of our high-end hearing aids. These do not alter the fact that this approach to customer satisfaction is an innovation that can be adapted to other industries.)