Gamification is one of the hot, new buzzwords within the UX industry. It is drawing the attention of businesses, so much so that demand for gamified websites has sparked the growth of a new industry of companies that specialize in gamification. This new industry provides a range of services from consulting on gamification to supplying a plug-and-play gamified experience. While games are appealing, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of social gaming companies like Zynga, careful consideration should be given to what can be gamified. One has to question if and when gamification is not only relevant but also beneficial to the user experience. Where do the gimmicky marketing-based add-ons end and the real fun begin?
What is gamification?
Let’s start at the beginning: gamification is the use of gameplay mechanics for non-game applications. In its most basic form, gamification could be a simple reward program, like a frequent flyer program to build loyalty.
Why is it so hot right now?
Businesses are interested in building engagement. The appeal of gamification for businesses comes from the desire to get customers on your site and keep them coming back. The main belief is that higher engagement with your site will drive preference and increase site stickiness. Proponents believe that if people use your website, stay on it longer, and return more frequently, revenue will increase. This is of course all contingent on the company’s business model. It’s debatable about whether or not it is true that increased time spent on a site will drive up revenue; however, pleasing experiences can drive loyalty which may in turn increase revenue.
Businesses also see gamification as a way to get users to behave in a way that benefits the business. If a business wants to have increased interaction with a certain area of the site, gamification is an appealing way to drive people there.
What types of game mechanics are commonly used?
In his book, “Gamification by Design”, Gabe Zicherman introduces some common gameplay mechanisms that are based on rewards systems, including:
Status allows players to build a reputation and rise in estimation in the eyes of themselves and their peers. Status is like leveling up. This already exists in many other contexts, like Tai Kwon Do belts or achieving Platinum status with your airline carrier. You get benefits as you increase in status, though those benefits are not always tangible. Leaderboards are a common display of the status of others.
Access is a reward that can allow those that acquire it special privileges that others do not yet have. For example, Gilt allows their best customers access to sales 15 minutes earlier than the rest of their users. Early access or easier access are rewards for behaviors you want to encourage.
Power allows players more control. Allowing loyal forum users to become forum moderators is an example of bestowing power to the most loyal and trusted users. Moderators don't gain any actual advantage except for power over their peers. They have the power to judge the comments of others and remove anything that may be amiss. They actually end up working for free, but the increase in power and control is a motivator to adhere to the site’s desired behavior.
Another way to reward users is through the use of stuff. You can give away actual products or merchandise. The downfall of stuff is that users will only engage with the site long enough to acquire the stuff. One of the ways that gamification experts have worked around this is by substituting things that can’t be estimated in value for physical stuff. One example of this is badges or stickers that are acquired through desired behavior, but because they’re not actual real-world “stuff” they’re harder to estimate in value, and thus keep people engaged to acquire more of them. Get Glue is a good example of this - they offer digital stickers that you can eventually trade in for physical stickers.
Is gamification right for my product?
There are three major components to consider when determining if an experience should be gamified.
Motivation: The user’s motivation plays a large role in determining if a site can be gamified. The type of motivation to accomplish a task helps to determine which activities are fulfilling and engaging and which are, conversely, annoying. There are two types of motivation that must be considered: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, as defined by Zicherman, is motivation “derived from our core self and are not necessarily based on the world around us. Conversely, extrinsic motivations are driven mostly by the world around us, such as the desire to make money or win a spelling bee.”
If a task is already challenging and engaging to a user, it might not be a good idea to try to gamify it. There are studies that show that rewards can detract from our natural ability to self regulate. Two researchers discovered what appeared to be an aversion to over-justification among children who received a reward for drawing. Those who always received a reward, spent less time drawing than those who received no reward, or rewards at random intervals (Lepper et al., 1973). One must keep in mind the original goal of a user when designing a system for them, because they want to participate in an activity because they like it, have to do it, or derive an internal satisfaction from activity completion. Because intrinsic motivation is the more powerful of the two types in regards to interaction with an interface, it’s a bad idea to slap an extrinsic reward on an activity if a user is already motivated to complete that activity.
Goals: The user’s goals should also be considered. A user has come to the site to accomplish something. Their goals are often different from the business’s goals, and the business goal of adding gamification should not come between the user and their goal of learning, purchasing, or conducting any other business they have. It is important to understand how the user already uses the site, and then find a way to integrate gamification to build on or make more enjoyable the goals they already have. Gamification should be used to supplement, and not be imposed as the main focus for the user. Game mechanics should still allow them to continue happily in their goals.
Process: The process to be gamified must be evaluated for compatibility with gamification. Not all processes can or should be gamified. For example, a life or death task, like a system for a 911 operator, should be functional first and not necessarily fun.
Ready to gamify?
If you can’t simply reward people for using your product, what can you do? The real key is to build enjoyment at a deeper level, keep a user’s motivation in mind and supplement a good design with fun elements. You can begin creating meaningful interactions by understanding your user. This can be done with research and through prototyping, play testing and iteration. But keep in mind that testing games is different; it’s about fun and engagement which are areas that your average usability test does not cover. You would want to test whether or not participants can complete their goals, which is still important, but also how much do they enjoy using the interface to accomplish them.
Start with a good foundation, and follow basic UX principles with the entirety of the product. If the product itself is quality, engagement has a much better chance of being higher than a poor quality product with some bells and whistles attached. Help users accomplish their goals to start with, and supplement them with game mechanics. This can make a task they’re already highly motivated to do more enjoyable. But, conversely, don’t let the game mechanics get in their way. If they are used to accomplishing a task in a certain way, allow them to continue to do so, but use game mechanics to add in helpful information along the way, or introduce additional areas that might improve their experience.
If you require a lot of information for your users, for example in a registration or profile building process, provide ample feedback about how far they have to go to accomplish their goal. A status bar is a simple gamification device that can improve the user’s awareness of what is going on within the system and how much farther they have to do. LinkedIn is a great example of this simple mechanism. Their profile completion status communicates how many more areas of the profile need to be filled out to be complete.
People are motivated to play games, and engage in fun activities. Your site can be fun too, but beware of those trying to sell you a one size fits all. People play games for different reasons, but, if your product’s purpose isn’t solely to entertain the main focus should still be on the user’s original task or goal. If you get to the heart of what the user’s goals are, and use gamification to ease their process or enhance their experience, you’ll build loyalty by being the best in class in your category and offering a rewarding experience. Providing the best experiences and not extrinsic rewards will win you more customers.