iSimu VR is Georgia's first and largest virtual reality arcade. It features 12 room-scale virtual reality stations (HTC Vive headsets) and over 40 games and experiences. The company was founded in winter of 2016 by three Georgia Tech grad students. The arcade opened in April of 2017. I joined the team of 10 people in August of 2017.

Overview

In efforts to franchise the business, the team decided to codify store operations through an operations manual. Here's what I did:

  1. Provided valuable feedback by auditing the current process.
  2. Used my copywriting expertise and analytical thinking to (re)write parts of the manual.
  3. Delegated each employee to focus on the part of our operations they were most familiar with.
  4. Reviewed and iterated on the manual by
    training new hires with the documentation.

From all this, I was able to improve our customer service, which increased our 5-⭐  reviews from ~150 to over 500 across multiple platforms.

NOTE: This is a retrospective case study. I was not in a design-related role at the time, but looking back, I realized that much of my process seems to fit fairly well into service design. Either way, this gives a great idea of how I work.

Actors:

Front-desk employees ("Front Desk Receptionists and Game Assistants")

Locations:

The arcade building, the virtual reality station (booth), the virtual reality game launcher, and the website

Props:

Virtual reality equipment (HTC Vive headset, controllers, and base stations in a 10x8ft space) and a computer monitor, mouse, and keyboard at each station.

Associates:

VR game studios for licensing

Process:

Very thin standardized processes in place for customer service, troubleshooting, arcade cleaning and maintenance

Existing Problems

A new company with no documentation

iSimu VR is Georgia's first and largest VR arcade. The most popular arcades across the country franchised early in order to gain brand recognition. We wanted to do the same, and needed to codify our operations to be franchise-ready.​

These are the biggest problems we needed to solve:​

😔

It took roughly a month to train new employees due to disparate systems.

😕

There was no standard way to quickly troubleshoot technical issues.

😶

Every employee had their own way to interact with customers.

😖

Competitors had the same general technology with additional features.

Here are all the problems I identified

Hiring and Onboarding

When I joined the company, I was trained by every employee on different but overlapping systems. This gave me a good idea of everything we did, but it took weeks to grasp it all and there were many conflicting viewpoints.

Everything from the job title and description, to the customer service and troubleshooting was a little bit different for each member of the team.

Troubleshooting

The first week of the job is literally playing games. We had over 40 games and experiences, and as a 'Front Desk Receptionist and Game Assistant' I had to know how to play every single one. Not only was it important to assist players through gameplay, but we also had to know how to fix common technical glitches and bugs people might get.

Additionally, the hardware itself was notoriously difficult. The HTC Vive could lose tracking if it's sensors or base stations were obstructed, which would cause the player's view to scuttle about, making them nauseous. Controllers would break or just stop working correctly. The headset display would cut out unexpectedly, casting the customers into a black abyss. Even the wires connecting the headset to the computer could pose a choking hazard if they got too low. And of course players might bang into the drywall at anytime, hurting themselves and putting holes in the wall that could take weeks to fix.

On top of all that, there were the usual computer game problems: freezing, crashing, low frame-rates, long load times, etc.

All of these problems were only addressed with reactionary troubleshooting, therefore increasing the risk of potentially bad customer experiences.

Customer Service

Similar to troubleshooting, customer service was a multi-channel process. You had to know how to talk to customers over the phone where it was difficult to hear on either end, in person when people came to make or use their reservation, as well as in the headset where they immersed in a whole different world.

There was a general understanding of what types of things we needed to say to people who were interested in coming to the arcade but had no idea what VR was about. Likewise for when it was time to show people how to play and aid them in their experience. However, every employee had their own way of explaining what virtual reality was, how to play at our arcade, and even how to help customers in-game.

Some of the especially glaring issues were fielding large event calls such as birthdays and corporate events. These customers were used to a streamlined experience and did not like having different messages every time they called to ask more questions or confirm their booking.

Competitors

VR Arcades were not a novel idea even in 2016, when the industry was at its peak hype. Small family entertainment centers and trendy bars were buying headsets for people to try while they were there. Long time VR fans who were paying attention to the Oculus acquisition saw this as a resurgence of the classic arcade. The term 'VRcade' was coined very early on before most people knew it was an option.

However, in Atlanta, not many people moved as fast and decisively as this company's founding team to establish a large family-focused arcade. A few months after iSimu VR launched (the name being trounced on reddit), another virtual reality arcade opened barely 5 minutes away. Yet another opened up in the middle of Atlanta, but it was a bar with very different customer base. A few others popped up in and around the city.

Each competitor seemed to have something we didn't: more space, newer headsets and faster computers, more games (some of which were not available for commercial licensing). Unlike arcades opened up by retired businessmen with their own private jets, our team were recent graduates (or current students) who barely had enough investment to have a runway.

What was our competitive advantage? How would we stand out in this increasingly crowded field that supposedly was doomed to die out as the 'fad' faded?

Auditing Operations

Using fresh eyes to spot oversights

This project was already in motion when I joined the company. Since I was the newest member of the team, I was able to provide feedback on what parts of the business that were not easily understood.

  1. I first inspected the most visible part of the business: front desk operations (sales, reception area, customer service).

    🖥️
  2. I then reviewed my favorite aspect of our arcade: the games and the virtual game selection menu.

    🕹️
  3. Additionally, I analyzed various backend processes: troubleshooting, cleaning maintenance, and our inventory system.

    📋

Read more about my auditing process

  1. Front desk operations included exploring the point-of-sale system as well as customer-facing communications such as phone calls, our website, and walk-in customers.
  2. The virtual game selection menu was an immersive environment that allowed people to get used to VR even before they selected a game. I had to understand how this worked, as well as how we found, tested, and licensed games.
  3. As stated in the previous section, there were many problems with our backend processes. I took stock of our equipment, floor plan, cleaning materials and sanitation practices, food supplies, party supplies, as well as cash drop process.

At each step, I would pepper every team member with questions, from the founders down to the person who only worked when he didn't have too much homework. This gave me a very thorough understanding of both the current operations and everyone's perception of the operations.

After understanding the employee point of view, I would ask customers about their experience. Sometimes through just casual conversations, other times through surveys I recommended we do. This helped me empathize with customers as well as notice how different types of customers had different experiences according to their own perceptions and expectations.

Finally, I would find, read, and ask questions on forums and communities of other VR arcade business owners and even VR game developers/publishers. Understanding what other people in the industry did with the same issues we had allowed me to see the greater picture of what worked and what did not. The game developers I spoke to also had very unique perspectives on the role of arcades in the industry.

Suggesting Improvements

Streamlining the employee experience for better customer service

Confident in my knowledge of how every aspect of the business functions, I not only gave suggestions on what to document, but also what improvements we should consider:

  • The POS system needed to be simplified to reduce employee mistakes, subsequently increasing customer experience.
  • Our website needed to be more clear since ~60% of phone calls were asking about basic information that was inadequately explained on the site.
  • Employees would benefit from having a policy and a guide to communicate more effectively and consistently.
  • Troubleshooting needed to be standardized and communicated with the team more efficiently.

Troubleshooting needed to be standardized and communicated with the team more efficiently.

This pricing chart was fairly difficult for people to read. Not only was it behind the front desk, but it was also hard to understand. Customers would see it and then ask how the pricing worked immediately after.

Old iSimu VR Pricing
New iSimu VR Pricing


This pricing sheet was displayed on a monitor directly above the front desk so that it was never obstructed. Customers rarely ever asked for clarification after seeing this. (But, to be 100% honest, I did steal this design from our competitors ;)

Check out the other improvements I proposed

I used my experience as a project manager in my last job to create user stories based on what we needed to improve. Looking at what people wanted as an employee, customer, game licensor, and even as the founders themselves, I was able to propose solutions to every problem I pointed out.

  • Employees needed standard policies and customers needed consistent messaging. This would make all front-facing communications much more polished and clear.
    >> I wrote down a customer communications guide that outlined what we needed to cover when people called, when someone walked in the door, how to help people and what to say while troubleshooting, etc.
  • Our game licensing partners could be the difference in our ability to stand out from the competition through exclusive games or game-modes that was more arcade-friendly, so we needed to foster that relationship.
    >> I created a sales-like process for finding, engaging, reviewing, and licensing new games.
  • Our immersive game menu needed to reflect how customers perceived our brand/industry, which was immersive gaming with friends.
    >> I worked with our developers to help them redesign the virtual environment from an individual experience to a shared one where an entire group could interact with each other as soon as they donned the headsets.
  • We needed to ensure the arcade was cleaned consistently, and that everyone on the team was contributing. Relatedly, we needed to keep track of inventory and restock before supplies ran out
    >> I worked with the founder and the manager at the time to create spreadsheets that listed out every single object or surface that needed to be stocked or cleaned and put them all on a schedule.

Taking Lead

Delegating tasks to increase productivity

At this point, the prior project lead wanted to pass the project on to me. After gaining ownership of this initiative, I decided to restart the manual and pivot to reflect the changing landscape.

🎯

The original format was via powerpoint slides, but this made it too difficult to fit all the information we needed, so I created a document that was more comprehensive.

🎯

We eventually realized that franchising wasn't necessarily an appropriate goal, so I encouraged the team to focus on internal documentation that was more detailed.

🎯

I found Superhuman's product-market fit survey and used that to determine customer types as well as the best/worst parts of our service according to each of those customers.

🎯

I introduced the idea of Objective Key Results (OKR) to address concerns the owner had with productivity during slow times, and employee alignment with the vision.

🎯

I also revamped our hiring process to be more standardized, transparent, and exciting

Here's more details about the OKR and hiring process

Implementing Objective Key Results (OKR)

The team used an impromptu 'Project Status List' that was intended to share tasks that needed to be done. However, it was a simple spreadsheet that quickly got out of hand. It was difficult to keep track of and everyone had varying amounts of assignments. Some folks had a lot to do, some had almost nothing to do. There was no real cohesion on what each employee can do to move the company forward.

Furthermore, performance evaluations depended almost solely on what the manager and founding team could remember of your contributions over the last 6-9 months.

I searched for tools to help with productivity, performance evaluations, and task management at small companies. I cam across the concept of Objective Key Results and eventually found a free and simple tool: Alexander Jarvis's google sheets template for OKRs, KPIs (Key Performance Index), and PPPs (Progress, Plans, Problems).

It took a few weeks to convince the founder to switch to this method.

His main concern was that we did not have a traditional team nor functioned as a typical startup. We were primarily a retail center with hourly workers, so not everyone worked the same amount of time or had time to work on other tasks if the arcade was busy.

I showed him how this would allow people who had a lot of downtime to still contribute, while also helping those who usually worked during busy hours to align with the overall vision and thus be excited on where the company is going beyond the daily grind.

Through implementing this system, I improved the communication channels between the founding team (who usually worked in their home office) and the arcade team. Every employee had a chance to speak with the founders on a more regular basis and shared their thoughts, hopes, and feedback on the business. This helped us tap into more of their talent, and get employees more involved in overall business strategies.

Standardized Hiring

Another key result of the operations manual was a complete overhaul of our hiring process.

I used my experience working at an HR tech startup prior to this position to inform my process. In short, I did the following:

  • Created a standard set of questions that we'd ask all applicants
  • Recorded answers and left notes of good/bad answers to cross-reference with performance once hired to find correlations
  • Crafted an exciting job description to attract top talent
  • Offered applicants a free play session so they could see if this is something they really wanted to do on a regular basis
  • Organized team events to welcome new employees and bring together our remote coworkers

Outcomes

We were able to improve the business in a number ways through my contributions. I was promoted to the new Arcade Operations Manager position to continue implementing and improving end-to-end operations where I could.

Thanks to testing our virtual environment with customers, we were able to:

  • Reduce the time it took to launch a game from 5 - 8 minutes down to under two.
  • Increase player engagement with the environment over 150%.
  • Witness 10x more 'Woah' moments.

As a result of creating standardized communications with customers we:

  • Increased customer conversions by roughly 20-40% per employee.
  • Aided in the redesign of our website which increased conversion-rates by .7%, found reason for varied bounce rates, and reduced phone calls asking for info that is on the site by as much as 50%.
  • Improved customer service, which lead to the increase of positive ratings from ~150 to over 500 five-star reviews across Google, Yelp, Facebook, and TripAdvisor making us one of the highest rated arcades in America.
  • Switched to a POS system that was more user friendly for both customers and employees, reducing the time it took to do any action from ~5-10 clicks down to 3.

Thanks to creating holistic services for business operation we:

  • Standardized our hiring process, from job descriptions to interview questions to training manuals and an employee handbook. This reduced the time it took to onboard and train new employees from nearly a month to under a week.
  • Made an inventory checklist that ensured we never ran out of critical supplies during customer events, and allowed us to restock more proactively.
  • Switched to a POS system that was more user friendly for both customers and employees, reducing the time it took to do any action from ~5-10 clicks to 3.

By documenting and implementing our troubleshooting process we:

  • Decreased the time it took to fix most technical issues from 10-30 minutes down to 2-5 minutes.
  • Discovered a critical failure point in the VR hardware that allowed us to save costs and reduce downtime preemptively.
  • Empowered every teammate to solve technical problems with the arcade software, VR hardware, and individual games as well.

Though I did not get to design the new virtual game menu space station myself, I did play a large part in testing various iterations via contextual inquiries and scenario-based usability tests, then relaying those results to lead each iteration.

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