Like many lotteries, the West Virginia Lottery takes part in the state fair and other festivals to garner brand attention, sell tickets and support their state. Players who purchase tickets get to take part in a fun second chance promotion for the opportunity to win prizes like instant tickets and Lottery memorabilia. In the past, the West Virginia Lottery used prize wheels and Plinko boards for these promotions. Thousands of people visit the lottery’s booth at these events, which makes it difficult for staff to keep track of everyone. When some players would quickly stick a finger into a wheel to slow it down or purposefully overflow a Plinko board, the staff was presented with a difficult task in how to handle the situation. Often, they must give players the benefit of the doubt.
The West Virginia Lottery Promotions Coordinator, Kari Blankenship (pictured, left), was rightfully frustrated and wanted a solution to the problem. After some personal research, she reached out to West Virginia Lottery Marketing Specialist Ron Lawson (pictured, right). “I’d found a wheel app on the App store. After playing around with it, I thought this could work. I asked him if he could build it for us and that we could customize it with our logo and add bells and whistles to it,” she said.
When Lawson was originally hired by the West Virginia Lottery over 16 years ago, he was an analyst. The volume of data he was given to look through was immense. “I could manipulate it, but I wasn’t getting to the core,” he said.
He went back to college to study programming and was able to apply what he learned, improving their database so others could use it to help with internal managerial decisions. However, designing a wheel app was a completely new hurdle to overcome.
Lawson understood that the program had to be built for a tablet so it would be portable, yet large enough for people to see. This meant he would have to learn new programing languages. He requested 52 weeks to build out the app and test it.
The biggest problem was the app needed to store information to help with accounting for prizes. Internet access might not always readily be available at events, so it couldn’t rely on a cloud solution. If the iPad battery died or the app crashed, the data could be lost before it could connect with the back-end system at the lottery’s headquarters. He reached out to Justin Ferrell, who works for Digital Relativity, the West Virginia Lottery’s advertising agency. “The app needed to log certain things for us like the spin count and the frequency of the play,” Ferrell said. “We sat around with four iPads trying to make the app crash over and over.”
On the design side, it was important that the app feel like it was part of the West Virginia product line. Sara Harpold (pictured, middle), Advertising Manager, West Virginia Lottery, mimicked the design of their new IGT Gemini Touch Machines. “We have been [making a concerted effort in] branding across the state to look consistent. I wanted to make sure that branding was consistent with the app,” Harpold said.
The app only took 31 days to complete, which was less than 10% of the original amount of time requested. An additional couple of weeks were needed to iron out problems, but the app was ready to go for the 2018 State Fair. Players were very positive about it. “Overall they like it. The device is completely random,” Blankenship said.
From a staff standpoint, it is incredible. Even when players have 50 or 100 chances at the wheel, it is not a problem. They no longer have to keep track of what players won, which is largely due to the app’s front-end, which Lawson was directly responsible for. The wheel has eight slots that can be customized. The wheel is color coded and clearly links which prizes belong to the segments on the wheel. After a player is finished, the player can hand the iPad back to the lottery staff member, who can quickly see exactly what the player won.
The unintended benefit of the device is the increase in the churn of players who come to the fair booth. The spin animation only takes six seconds, which dramatically reduces the amount of time players need at the wheel. “We reported to the lottery that we generated sales over $460,000 this year at the State Fair, which is the highest on record,” Lawson said.
This huge boon for the state is in a very large part due to the entrepreneurial spirit of the West Virginia Lottery staff. A problem was seen and solved internally by thinking outside the box. Each member of the team deserves a huge round of applause for their part in the process.
Perhaps the largest round of applause should go to Lawson. It is important to emphasize that he didn’t start his career as a programmer. On his own volition, Lawson went back to school to get additional degrees in programming and data manipulation. Without hundreds of hours of training, this project might never have come about and certainly not as quickly. “Having a programmer internally was a big benefit for this project. We knew exactly what we needed and how to go about designing it,” Lawson said.
“To see a need, take an idea, run with it internally and then have such success is incredible,” Blankenship said.