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Experience Design

Gamification: UX strategy increases results and retention

No doubt you have heard the term gamification, and maybe you have already designed an application using this relatively new interactive strategy.
Here, we’ll define the term, review the fun behavioral science behind the scene, and wrap up with some practical concepts.   (If you reach the end of this blogpost, you will get your Spark-Blog Diamond Badge!)
What is Gamification?  
 Rewards for actions or thresholds.
That’s it!   In the science discussion we will use terms like motivators, variable-ratio scheduling, and human need analysis.   But its simple: human behavior demands recognition and status symbols.   In the real world, we have thrones, crowns, sheriff’s badges and corner offices. These now have the digital analogs of avatars, points, scoreboards, challenges, levels, quests, badges, rewards and “social graphing”.

Let’s consider an example of gamification.   Below the training site Treehouse uses colored shapes, game cues, and flat/game-board design to draw the user in ( I like the blue badge).   Notice the game-like directions, a 1-2-3 seemingly easy and achievable process resulting in the “win”: in this case, a dream job.

Treehouse Badging Sample

Does Gamification work?

  • USA Networks had a recent popular show Psyche.    They gamified their show’s app and generated a 130% increase in page views and a 40% increase in return visits. That added up to a decent financial pay off, including direct ecommerce.
  • Deloitte gamified their Leadership Academy training site, and even though this was a voluntary resource, they saw 37% increase in return users.
  • ExactTarget created ROI from sales and savings by using the Knowledge Guru game engine for CSR and increased first-call resolution by 45%.

These companies and hundreds more see result from gamification via accelerated feedback cycles, clear goals and rules of play, a compelling narrative, and tasks that are challenging but achievable.
The Psychology of Gamification
Lets start with B.J. Fogg, and his model of Behavior. His model has three parts: Motivation, Ability and Trigger.   Let’s focus on the first factor, Motivation.   What motivates us are needs.   Human needs have been identified in this order:

  1. Physiological: air, food, water, sex, sleep, etc.
  2. Safety: health, personal well being, financial/employment stability, security against accidents, etc.
  3. Belonging: love, intimacy, friendship, family, social cohesion, etc.
  4. Esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respects, etc.
  5. Self actualization       ( – Maslow, 1943)

Needs 3, 4 and especially 5 are the gamification sweet spot:   we want to belong and we need self-esteem: these derive from self-actualizing acts that benefit ourselves. Here we begin to collide with another behaviorist you may remember, BF Skinner, of the school of Radical Behaviorism which involves reinforcement via operant conditioning.
Skinner did research on learning and motivation that used a criteria of “reward scheduling”, that is:   when, how many, and at what rate rewards are given or removed? He found that a fixed-interval schedule like a countdown or appointment is useful for established behaviours – like driving.   But to maintain or spur new behaviors, a variable-ratio schedule is far more efficient:  think surprise.  This is called an operant conditioner and explains, for instance, the motivation for gambling addiction.
At a recent TED talk, Tony Robbins made the case that our primary psychological need is certainty, but the second is uncertainty.   This supports Skinner’s findings: we want the jack-in-the-box, the gotcha-moment in the movie …the unexpected positive reinforcement.  This is the core driver of gamification.
Working with Gamification
Gamification is now a mainstream UX strategy.   Platforms such as Bunchball’s “Nitro” are now deployed by companies like IBM, who use it to increase usage of their Connections product (USA Networks used this as well).   But many applications can integrate gamification into their UX from the design git-go.
Towards this, here are some tips:

  1. Keep your eye on the ball: what is the primary problem we are solving for the user?   Paste that sticky at the top of the whiteboard:   every game aspect must support and never impede solving this problem.   Therefor, game rules and elements should support the solution, be clear, be simple, and even be visually secondary.
  1. Application type: the issue is then what kind of system or application are we talking about? Gamification applies best for applications with repeat users, and even better, expert users who work in a community. This is why many community/knowledgebase environments use gamification.   For example, many repeat-contributors at AT& Community can earn the title “Community Expert” and this badge appears next to their names.
  1. Application complexity: Another aspect that supports gamification are intermediate steps or functions that support or create the user’s main goal: think selective complexity. Unselective complexity- like a sequential sales wizard with numbered steps – is the exact wrong time for a game (it’s a fixed-interval schedule!).   But if I have choice as to how I use the system, either in order, features or depth, this is gamification opportunity knocking.   Motivate users to explore features, reward new actions, or use the competitive-carrot of “social graphing”:  e.g. … you are now in the top 90% of expert users!
  1. User competition: If users “see” each other, allowing avatars and score achievements to be visible can motivate younger markets.   Broadcasting user achievements in the UI can bring the competition up a level and serve to remind users about aspects of the application they may not be using.
  1. Narrative: Can you create activities that are fun, friendly and that works for the cross-section of your demographics? If not, say no to gamification!   But if a narrative can be created that is engaging and goal-supporting, this can add penetration into your user-base.   For instance, Nike uses a narrative of a race-car like dashboard for their top-line sneaker website with which you can track your speed and distance.   Foursquare uses a royalty narrative: you can earn the title of “Mayor” for their geographical app.The narrative can also include a race, challenge or quest metaphor: this type of gamification can be layered on the UX- it does not need to be embedded into the UI. It can also be real world:   a narrative based on season or holiday, event-oriented, celebratory, or coordinate with a marketing campaign.
  1. Metrics: a persistent or even temporary gamification attempt should be measured in code-based quantitative and feedback-based qualitative methods.   Not everyone will buy in, but if more do than not, your clients are the winner.

There it is, Happy Gaming everyone.   And if you have read this entire blog post, thank you..   Here is your Spark-blog Diamond Badge!
Links & Further Reading
A good review of samples is in an Information Week article
That’s what happened when Deloitte gamified their Deloitte Leadership Academy (DLA).
Anthony Robbins enters the picture with his set of human needs (TED talk 2006)
IBM is using a company called BunchBall’s platform Nitro

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Thomas Moore

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