Gamification: What If the Game Is Over?

Gamification, using game-play mechanics for non-game applications to engage users and drive desired behavior, has become all the rage, or so it seems. Like any hot trend, there is a tendency to overcompensate for the sake of participating in the new, hot concept.

The herd mentality leads everyone to think they need to gamify their product, app or solution to just to keep up with the pack.

By 2014, some 70 percent of large companies will use the technique for at least one business process, Gartner estimates. The problem with hip concepts, however, is that the devil truly lurks in the details. Gamification has its place — the key is modesty.

Context Matters

We live in a world where context is becoming increasingly important. Consumers are bombarded with too much information from a variety of sources. Because of this, what people hear and see gets lost without context. Without that context, relevance and meaning are lost and people lose interest altogether. In order to create engagement, users need the right amount of feedback at the right time.

It is increasingly common for companies to throw in an abundance of features without understanding the exact challenge that needs to be solved — inadvertently creating additional levels of complexity and confusion. Adding elements such as badges, levels of achievement and other useless information without providing a value-added or beneficial outcome can feel pointless and distracting for the user.

When to use or to avoid gamification is a case-by-case decision, but the end goal should be to engage users while meeting an objective. Through user research, designers can uncover what motivates users and pair their needs with the organization’s objectives.

What qualifies as a good or bad use of game theory is subjective, but tech news reports can point to several examples of infamous gamification failures. By analyzing the data and looking at the root cause, it will generally point to a poorly executed strategy that includes a lack of understanding user needs, context, motivation and feedback.

There are ways to successfully gamify. Using gamification to enhance the user experience must take different user motivations into account. For example, if the goal is to drive user to donate to a cause, a reward system should engage them to return more frequently and feel emotionally connected with the process. A ranking system might be implemented to encourage friendly competition between users. Whether the goal is to increase donations or competition, understanding motivation is key.

One of the first objectives of gamification should be to understand the critical needs of the user; this can be further narrowed down using Kano analysis, a process for measuring and categorizing users’ emotional reposes to features. User interface designers can use this to determine what kind of features will directly affect adoption and the success rate of a product.

Failure to Connect With Users

It should be no surprise that gamification for the sake of gamifiacation is not going to hit the mark. Diving in headfirst without understanding what truly motivates the user demographic and providing useless feedback is a recipe for failure. For example, Zappos and Google both found that their gamification efforts were a disaster for similar reasons.

In 2010, Google unveiled Google News Badges, which let users earn more than 500 types of badges based on articles they read. Readers could move up the ladder the more they read and shared their badges with friends. Did this really motivate people to go to Google news to read articles? No, it did not. To collect the badges, readers needed to turn on Web History from their Google account. As it turns out, earning badges for reading articles is not enough of an incentive for readers to share their Web history. The initiative was killed in September.

Recently, shoe retailer Zappos fell into the meaningless badge game as well. VIP members could earn badges based on their activity, such as writing reviews and shopping. The problem was that it was not clear what the badges meant. The badges didn’t have any monetary value toward future purchases, which caused confusion. Without context or relevance, the badges tended to distract rather than keep shoppers engaged.

What Is Working

When done right, gamification can create meaningful and impactful solutions and applications. Appealing to the competiveness and the desire to measure progress, Nike+ hit a home run. Runners use their iPod and a sensor system attached to their shoe. After their workout, they can connect their iPod to the Nike+ website and get a visual representation of their run, including time, pace and distance. This enables runners to measure their own progress, compare different runs as well as compare their training to others. Nike+ gamified running by providing immediate and relevant feedback in a way that motivates runners.

Corporations are not the only ones using gamification. A number of nonprofit organizations are using it to allow people to set up their own fundraising campaigns for a cause or to motivate people to donate. Playspent.org is a fundraising site designed to drive donations to Urban Ministries of Durham. The interactive site engages visitors through several game scenarios demonstrating how difficult it can be making ends meet for those making minimum wage or less. After playing, the site directs you to a place where you can learn more about the mission of the organization and how you can help.

Game Over

While gamification will continue to be a hot topic, not everything needs to be gamified. However, when used in the right context, it can create a meaningful user experience. The best approach for adoption is through user research, identifying the exact needs of the core demographic and adjusting conventions to address those needs. The results of the research can show what the users of a specific product or service truly need. Once that is determined, a UX strategy can be established incorporating the best fit for the user. Gamification is all about the user experience, just like any other user interface design strategy.

It will be game over for those who rush to market with out a well-thought-out user experience strategy, but don’t hate the player — reinvent the game.

Peter Eckert is cofounder and chief experience officer at projekt202.

1 Comment

  • Great article. Self-control when urged to follow the herd is a very important technique that can be applied to a number of fads in digital marketing. Gamification itself can produce wondrous results but as with almost anything moderation is key.

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