Frontend dive: Gamification

Hey hey, ready to play?

“Gamification” first caught on as a buzzword back in 2010-ish. 🐝

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It has a few definitions, but the interaction design foundation provides a good one for gamification + apps. They break it down like this: 

Gamification is a technique designers use to add gameplay elements to non-gaming settings in order to enhance user engagement with a product or service. By adding suitably fun features (like leaderboards and badges), designers tap into users’ intrinsic motivations so they enjoy using the product. 

The thing is, it’s very hard to do this well, and a lot of folks in the past decade got it dead wrong. 

Why this became and stayed a thing 🤔

Gamification is a powerful tool. 

And really, it’s nothing new. Parents have done this forever. Ever seen a toddler that’s reluctant to eat...until Mom turns the spoon into an airplane? That’s gamification. Eating was eating. Now it’s a game of airplane. ✈️

You probably have a physical example in your wallet too. To encourage repeat visits, local food establishments give out stamp cards. Get 10 stamps and you earn a free coffee. 12 stamps to a free doughnut. And so on. 

Here’s my collection. 👇#willrunforbeer🍻

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Even if you don’t have one of those, you’ve heard of Fitbit. They took walking, the ordinary action we take to get to the fridge and bathroom, and turned it into a challenge. With Fitbit, you compete against yourself and others to accumulate steps. And so walking became a game for a lot of people who struggle to get active. (A good thing!) 

Unfortunately, tech isn’t neutral and any good tool can be used as a weapon. 

Gamification is harder than you think 😬

Let’s go back to our definition for a sec. Gamification hinges on adding suitably fun features” to an experience. Meaning, it’s not just slapping a badge on something.

To apply gamification well, you have to: 

  • See through the eyes of the user

  • Provide value to the user 

  • Determine what’s appropriate: for your audience, brand, and the task in question 

  • Complement a valuable app 

For years, companies crammed game elements into crap apps. 💩But that doesn’t work. It’s like making a cereal box fun to open and stuffing it full of cardboard-tasting bits. As Adam Loving put it, “You cannot increase the intrinsic value of something by adding game mechanics.” 💥

When gamification is harmful 🙈

Bad gamification prioritizes the needs and motivations of someone other than the user. “Someone other” could be the app creator, designer, advertisers, or the founder. 

Bad gamification ignores the user or abuses them to accomplish a goal that isn’t theirs. This can look like: 

  • Applying overt manipulation: conning the user into actions they don’t want to take.
  • Abusing addictive behavior patterns: inducing negative emotional states to retain users. 😰

  • Forcing users to play: I don’t know a single adult who likes being forced to do anything. 

  • Making the app hard to use: getting value out of your app shouldn’t feel like unlocking the 60th level of Super Mario World. 🎮

These types of gamification are what have given the word a sleazy feel in recent years. 😝

Thankfully, some companies have done way better than this. 

When gamification is a really good tool 💙

Good gamification prioritizes the needs and motivations of the user. When a user has intrinsic (internal) motivation to do something beneficial, and needs a little extra encouragement to keep doing it, gamification is a delightful solution. 

Good examples of this include Asana, Duolingo, and the Nike running app. 

I use Asana to track to-dos. Every so often, a cute creature zooms across the screen when I check something off. It’s unexpected, delightful, and totally motivates me to stay productive. 🚀 (What creature will I get next?!)

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Duolingo uses more overt gamification. They utilize locked features, leaderboards, defined goals, and choose-your-own-journey tactics to help users want to learn. And it’s effective. This app taught me plenty of Spanish, and I loved it. 🤓

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Nike Running App is a third great example. 👟It provides in-app encouragement and cheers while you’re running. You’re already motivated to run—you just need a little help crossing the finish line. So the encouragement adds a ton of value. 🙌

Gamification can add value, but you don’t need it to create value

It’s worth noting that a lot of the apps you and I use most often don’t apply gamification. At least not overtly. 

Your weather app doesn’t give you points every time you check the forecast, and Netflix doesn’t have a public leaderboard for “most shows watched” (god help us if they ever do that 😨). 

Gamification, when used well, can add value to your app, but it’s not a requirement to create value. That’s why we reserve it for v2 most products we make. ✌️

Remember, a great product with killer value should always come first. 

Into design? Us too. Here’s what else we’ve written 😁