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UX Design Gamification

UX Design Gamification: 6 UX Principles That Boost User Engagement

8 minute read | June 15, 2021
Kindra Cooper

Written by:
Kindra Cooper

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User engagement is the ultimate goal of user experience design and is crucial for business success. App developers want users to click, type, swipe, play, buy, and so on. When it comes to a digitally native company, the business’s survival depends on this engagement. Getting users to engage requires content and functionality that provides value to the user. For this reason, good UX writing is a key part of user engagement as it helps guide the user through a digital interface and encourages them to complete more tasks.

User engagement is a measure of a user’s interaction with a digital interface presented to them on a website or mobile application. Goals, funnels, calls-to-action, and gamification elements help move the user through the user flow and enhance interactivity. Gamification refers to the practice of inserting game elements into a non-game setting, such as points, leaderboards, rewards, and more.

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Social media networks are a prime example of interfaces that are optimized for user engagement. The goal of these platforms is to entice users to spend as much time as possible on the site and interact with as much content as possible, thereby making the platform more attractive to advertisers. Ex-employees of Google, Facebook, and Apple have disclosed that tech companies deliberately design apps to be addictive—the average user spends 2 hours and 24 minutes a day on social media.

UX Design Gamification

These apps are created with behavior design principles in mind—leveraging human psychology to nudge users into adopting certain behaviors—and shine a light on how and why gamification is an effective engagement tool. Changing a user’s behavior requires a three-pronged approach: motivation, action, and a trigger, according to app developer Peter Mezyk. Social media apps motivate users with push notifications that promise a reward while creating a fear of missing out (another potent motivator). Action is necessary to pull users into a behavioral loop—in this case, clicking on a push notification or hitting the ‘like’ button. The trigger is the sound of our smartphone vibrating or the screen lighting up with a new message.

Behavioral loop

Gamification is built on similar principles—inserting play-like elements into non-game interfaces to make them more fun and engaging. An example of gamification is the Nike Run Club app, which tracks a runner’s time, distance, pace, and so on using the GPS in their smartphone or smartwatch. Users can participate in weekly, monthly, and custom distance challenges, and compare their performance with other users by posting their runs on social media. Creating a game-like sense of competition encourages users to run more often, engage with the app on a regular basis, and form a positive association with the Nike brand.

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What Is Gamification?

What is gamification

Gamification is the application of game mechanics into a digital product in order to engage users. Adding fun features like leaderboards, countdowns, badges, and competitions to user interfaces taps into people’s innate desire to play games. Ultimately, gamification aims to incentivize users to achieve goals and overcome negative associations they might have with the tasks they are required to complete.

For example, filling out an intake survey for an insurance policy is cumbersome, but if you can see your progress through a progress meter or receive encouragement for each response, users are less likely to abandon the task—hence why gamification can be good for serious or mundane tasks. While gamification entails manipulating human behavior by leveraging psychological effects and may involve some addictive elements, it can also encourage people to develop positive habits such as electricity conservation, meditation, or tracking their caloric intake by encouraging them to interact with the app on a daily or weekly basis. People like having a clear goal and being rewarded for achieving it.

Gamification providers help other companies gamify their websites or mobile apps for the purpose of increasing user engagement. Good gamification amplifies the intrinsic rewards of a particular behavior by adding a sense of fun and a sense of accomplishment for the user. You cannot increase the intrinsic value of something simply by adding gamification elements. For example, airline loyalty programs are the most mainstream example of gamification. However, they do not make flying more enjoyable—they simply promise a future reward in exchange for customer loyalty.

Gamification is often confused with game design, but they are not the same. Making a game isn’t the same as designing engagement systems to change behavior. Experience in one doesn’t make you an expert in the other. Gamification is the process of introducing game-like elements into a non-game setting, while game design sits under the broader field of video game development. Game design has the purpose of applying design principles for entertainment purposes, while gamification is a UX design tool that helps build user engagement for digital products.

6 UX Design Principles To Boost User Engagement

UX design gamification - UX design principles

The role of gamification is to keep users engaged, but it’s only effective if it leverages the user’s intrinsic motivation to do something. For example, implementing a rewards system that gives the user something they value, such as connections to other professionals in their industry or lower insurance premiums in exchange for safe driving.

1. Challenges

Challenges are time-limited mini-tasks that reward users each time they complete a task. Mini-tasks can be combined into missions lasting a day, a week, or longer, with larger rewards for streaks. Missions can also help with onboarding to get new users acquainted with an app’s navigation system. They are also useful for helping users to take ownership of their habits and accomplish life goals, such as getting more sleep or exercising regularly.

2. Points

Users can accumulate points for completing certain tasks, and unlock bigger rewards the more points they have. A points system is even more compelling if points accumulation is time-limited and the number of points can be drained if users don’t engage with the app for a certain amount of time.

3. Badges and stickers

Badges and stickers serve as status symbols that allow users to rank themselves against other users. These may be rewarded at a certain point threshold or in exchange for certain accomplishments.

4. Leaderboards

Leaderboards rank players according to how many points they have and allow them to compare themselves with other users and gain social influence. Some leaderboards also enable top users to challenge each other.

5. Journeys

User journeys create a sense of progression and are especially useful for learning-based apps in which users must follow a specific path in order to gain any benefit from the app. Personal journeys represent a type of information architecture (a method by which information is organized in a digital environment) that leverages the principles of progressive disclosure so that users see information starting from simple to complex. This enables people with no prior experience to gradually master a difficult skill.

6. Countdowns or constraints

Constraints are an effective way to create a sense of urgency, encouraging people to react faster. For example, a time-constrained challenge pushes people to complete tasks within a certain time. Countdowns also generate excitement and anticipation for events like new content releases or a sale. For example, YouTube’s Premiere feature allows content creators to generate buzz before a new video is released. Users can also set reminders for when a video goes live. Finally, progress meters that show how many questions are remaining in a survey, for example, instill a sense of achievement and help the user estimate how much time to devote to a particular task.

UX Design Gamification — Top 3 Challenges

UX Design Gamification — Top 3 Challenges

Gamification is a complex discipline and it’s easy to go wrong without a solid vision. UX designers should use gamification as part of the design process or risk alienating or annoying users with irrelevant game elements.

1. Gamification is not a Band-Aid solution

Applying gamification as an afterthought result in surface-level rewards that don’t engage users in the long term or provide them with any intrinsic value. Simply distributing badges or applying a points system to reward a user each time they complete a qualifying task isn’t real gamification if it doesn’t motivate the user to repeat and/or sustain the behavior over time.

In other words, points and badges are not real rewards on their own—the reward is in what the user can achieve in the real world by completing the task. For example, receiving a badge for completing a 30-day exercise streak is meaningful to the user in terms of their personal health and fitness. Conversely, here’s an example of meaningless gamification: In 2011, Google News rolled out a badge system to encourage news literacy by rewarding users with different badges depending on the topics they’d read about. The user could level up by reading more news. However, these badges didn’t have value because users couldn’t do anything with them other than display them on their profile or post them to social media.

Points and badges alone won’t hold users’ attention if the underlying game design doesn’t motivate people to play.

2. One size does not fit all

Different users respond to different motivators. Where leaderboards might galvanize a fitness buff into action, they may discourage someone who is resuming an exercise program for the first time in years. For example, frequent flyer programs—one of the most mainstream commercial applications of gamification—are often seen as ineffective because the reward thresholds are too high for non-business travelers. Also, users receive little guidance on how to redeem their miles—studies show that 45% of airline loyalty program members don’t know how to use their rewards—and the interfaces aren’t designed to be fun and engaging. While these setbacks wouldn’t deter someone who flies several times a year, they may discourage an itinerant traveler.

Consequently, gamification elements must be tailored to specific user-profiles and their goals. Take the example of a language learning app like Duolingo. One user might aspire towards language fluency, while another is simply preparing for an upcoming trip to a foreign country. Serious users will appreciate leaderboards and point systems, while casual users would prefer smaller, bite-sized tasks.

3. Gamification can be a distraction—or even a nuisance

Before applying gamification elements to a task, make sure the task itself is a) Easy to accomplish
b) Worth accomplishing from the user’s point of view.

For example, if a survey is long-winded and filled with overly invasive questions, adding a progress bar or encouraging popup messages won’t incentive users to complete it. Another scenario in which gamification can be a deterrence is if the target audience has vastly different skill levels. Many telecommunications companies run sales contests, which reward the top salespeople with bonuses. However, these contests often fail because rewards go to the same few high-achieving salespeople, while the low and middle-achievers feel no incentive to participate. Rather than offering rewards based on total sales volume, companies could, for example, reward the salesperson who increased their sales by the largest amount compared to the previous month, thereby motivating the low performers to engage.

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About Kindra Cooper

Kindra Cooper is a content writer at Springboard. She has worked as a journalist and content marketer in the US and Indonesia, covering everything from business and architecture to politics and the arts.