Everyone loves a good game. Heck, even the ancient Egyptians took the occasional break from building pyramids and worshiping cats to enjoy a rousing game of senet.
As games evolved into video games, they became increasingly complex—and increasingly popular. Whole vocabularies developed, “playing games” became “gaming,” conventions sprung up around the world, and app store downloads skyrocketed.
What makes video games so popular? The answer, in part, is that they're addictive.
Many games offer rewards that appear at varying intervals or only after specific tasks are completed. As a result, people keep playing in the hopes of eventually moving up a level, reaching the top of the scoreboard, or simply getting a hit of dopamine as their brain processes a pleasurable event.
Concerned parents weren't the only ones paying attention to the addictive effects of video games; product designers have also taken note. Gamification—the incorporation of game design elements into products and marketing initiatives—is on the rise in everything from music streaming to takeout apps as companies compete to attract and retain users.
But how do you implement gamification without going overboard and frustrating your users with gratuitous elements? Here, we look at some of the pitfalls of gamification gone wrong—and how your team can get it right.
Gamification in action
Some games are more addictive than others (remember Pokemon GO?). These types of games focus on getting users to complete tasks that resonate with them and keep them engaged.
Gamification applies this idea to non-game products by figuring out the things that trigger users to take action and rewarding them with features like point systems and badges. The result is a product that motivates users and keeps them coming back for more.
Savvy marketers tapped into this approach long before digital became the default: McDonald's Monopoly, frequent flier miles, and loyalty stamp cards are all examples of early gamification strategies.
Starbucks has been using a gamified rewards program for years, allowing customers to collect points that can be exchanged for “free” food and beverages. The rewards program takes the sting out of a pricy latte and ensures that customers return to Starbucks time after time.
Starbucks's rewards system is now offered through their app. Customers can track their rewards and plan future purchases around them. As the coffee cup fills with stars, customers can see their current balance and how far away they are from the next reward level.
By using gamification in their program, Starbucks is able to attract more customers and keep them engaged for longer periods of time. Customers are more likely to choose Starbucks over other options in order to maximize their rewards and get the most out of the program.
Like Starbucks, you want your users to be engaged and come back to your product often. That means you need to:
Give them a variety of interesting tasks to complete.
Implement a simple rewards system (and make sure rewards are obtainable).
Offer bonuses to remind users of the value your product offers.
The pitfalls of gamification
Gamification can be powerful, but there's a delicate balance between engagement and frustration. The hype around gamification can lead teams to think that it's an easy way to make their product stickier. But instead of focusing on their users' needs, some teams get caught up in the novelty of gaming, losing sight of the true purpose of their product.
The result is an experience that has all the obvious game elements like a simple point counter, badges, and leaderboards, but overlooks the game mechanic—the core of successful gamification—making the experience feel trivial and gimmicky.
Attempting to gamify a product without careful thought leads to visual noise that clutters the interface and distracts users from the jobs they need to get done.
To avoid this mistake, concentrate on how gamification can support your users as they move through your product, rather than simply entertaining them for the sake of it.
Remember that you are in the business of product design, not game design. If users feel as though your product is too gamelike and doesn't add enough value, you've taken gamification too far.
Examples of gamification done right
The key to using gamification well is understanding user motivation. Figure out what matters to your users by asking questions or tracking data; then use gamification to enhance or improve the features and functions that your users care about. Give your users what they want, but better.
Here are 4 gamification examples from apps that figured out what motivates their users and used those findings to enhance their products and improve user experience:
User motivation: Improve fitness and track progress
App response: Fitbit offers three different in-app challenges to meet its users' fitness needs: Weekend Warrior, Daily Showdown and the Workweek Hustle.
Users can form groups, pick a challenge and track their progress against other members. Leaderboards encourage and challenge users to continually step up their fitness game to keep up with the group.
User motivation: Build stamina and improve running or cycling times
App response: Strava, a tracking app for runners and cyclists, tracks user progress on the routes (or segments) they run or bike.
Users can track their performance and progress over time and against other users. As their times improve, users can compete against their entire city.
User motivation: Buy quality products at low prices
App response: Wish, a discount shopping app, gets users to make quick purchase decisions by offering time-sensitive discounts.
Their Deal Dash promotion allows users to spin a wheel that determines how much time they have to shop at a special rate. Anything added to their cart during that time qualifies for the discount. Users have to make quick decisions and “play” to access lower prices.
User motivation: Incorporate relaxation into their day
App response: Calm is a meditation app designed to help users meditate and adopt habits that promote relaxation. Users can activate notifications that send them daily reminders to meditate.
For every meditation session they complete, users find themselves rewarded with positive reinforcement. For instance, when a user completes a number of sessions in a row, the app recognizes that they're on a streak and rewards them with a shout-out and star. It's often just the pat on the back that users need to adopt a new habit.
Gamification for success
Gamification is becoming a ubiquitous part of product design. Done correctly, it can be an effective way to keep your users engaged and make accomplishing tasks more enjoyable. When done poorly, gamification can be distracting and gimmicky.
Successful gamification is all about balancing your users' needs and motivations with their desire to be entertained.
Figure out what motivates your users and find ways to use gamification to inspire them. And always keep UX at the front of your mind:
Think about how you want your users to utilize your product.
Segment users and track how each group uses the product to help you find and address their pain points.
A/B test different elements to find the approach that appeals to the most users.
Don't feel as though you have to stick to one formula just because other products in your niche offer something similar. Try something new, experiment, and listen to user feedback. With trial—and perhaps a little error—you'll figure out the right amount of gamification for your product.
Margaret Kelsey is the Director of Brand & Creative at Appcues. Before Appcues, she built content programs for InVision’s design community for 3.5 years and has roots in painting and PR. She’s a big fan of puns, Blackbird Donuts, and Oxford commas—probably in that order.