gamification UX

Summary: Gamification, if approached delicately, can be leveraged to help your users stay motivated, engaged and move to the next “level” with your design. Puzzle question: What do elementary kids like best, levels or badges? (Answer in article below) ;-) 

Many design teams talk about “gamifying” a UI or plan to use gamification, yet struggle to make it meaningful to users. Many teams don’t even know where to start or how gamification applies to their user experience. The first question anyone should ask is: “Is gamification even appropriate for our experience?

The confusion around gamification is understandable. Gamification requires teams to apply pressure at the right points. One wrong “leaderboard” played in the users path and you can loose your relevancy.

How does Gamification really work?

First let’s define it:

Gamification is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts to improve user engagement, organizational productivity, flow, learning, crowdsourcing, employee recruitment and evaluation, ease of use, and more. (Wikipedia)

The key here is to use elements of game design (fun, motivation, reward) to get users to do something that is in their benefit (and deepens your business goals).

LinkedIn pioneered the UI pattern of profile completeness  (and just-in-time tips and prompts) as a way to prompt users to share more information. This is now a default design pattern in web applications.

But gamification is difficult to do well, we have found, and it does not help that there there is much contradictory information about gamification. For example,  there are a lot of posts proclaiming that gamification is “dead”.

In reality, gamification continues to be relevant more than ever, and it continues to bring a lot of value to user experiences from healthcare and banking to Virtual and Augmented Reality experiences. 

Even the latest Skype install experience uses gamification:

skype gamification

What is Gamification good for?

The most important point about gamification as a UX tool is that it triggers motivation. For many web apps and mobile experiences, this can be a competitive differentiator (if done right). Gamification can be used in almost any part of your product, be it in attracting new users, engaging existent users or even bringing back old ones.

Dropbox famously used gamification in its onboarding process, and they said it was one of the most important UI elements of their early user adoption strategy.

Dropbox, like Skype, uses gamification as part of onboarding. Note that neither of these apps take it into their main web or mobile app experience. And that's okay. We call it "sprinkles of gamification". 

Getting gamification right

While you can sprinkle elements of gamification here and there, to really benefit from its value, you need strategic alignment with user motivations.  

Specifically: What are your user goals and the unique conditions surrounding their motivation toward their goals? These motivation mechanics are usually colored by social or emotional nuances. For example, showing a user's score for losing weight is embarrassing in an open community online, but in a private support group where everyone meets regularly, users told us it is welcome.

Side-note: In some user research we conducted (published in 2014) on fitness motivation, we found users wanted to “Share” only milestones, not every single update--which is what the running apps they were using offered. Competitions followed a similar poorly aligned gamification opportunity. 

In UX design, we use the term “user centered design” when we adapt a design to user needs. In gamification, think of it as “player centered design”. (The term was coined in Gamification at Work book by Mario Herger and Janaki Kumar). As you can see from the illustration below, like every successful product, user interface, or engagement technique, at the center of everything is always the customer or player.

Mechanics, mission and motivation are entirely influenced and governed by social and emotional needs and considerations. Detecting those are essential to discovering your opportunities for gamification.

After you understand what goals your users have in mind and what motivates them, you can choose appropriate game elements that can be incorporated into your product. The key here is what constitutes 'appropriate'. For some educational software, we interviewed elementary school teachers who told us ‘badges’ were boring, instead ‘levels’ were extremely motivating to children (See our NWEA case study).

Placing the player in the center of any gamification effort is a cornerstone of how to make your products more engaging. However, there are still many pitfalls with gamification that may lead you to failure.

Beware of these 5 Gamification pitfalls

There are many reasons why gamification often doesn’t work. We’ve already touched some of them in this article:

1. Manipulative mindset

Gamification is not about manipulating users, it’s about motivating them. At the center of any gamification approach should be concern of what specifically constitutes fun for your user.

Productivity apps like Todist gamify with features 'Karma' points that let you track your productivity over time, visualize your daily and weekly trends, set goals, and challenge yourself to keep improving. The more points you earn, the higher your Karma level rise.

2. Gamification vs ‘A game’

Many teams try to gamify enterprise software and turn the effort into “wasted time” for users. This is the biggest danger, hesitation and challenge of using game design techniques. If you are gamifying a UI, make sure you know what you are doing. Work with experienced professionals.

A note on ‘experienced’ professionals: Many companies hire game designers but often they are too steeped in game play and go too far. Conversely, many UX designers don’t have deep experience in successfully applying gamification, and don’t go far enough.

Salesforce Engage offers game mechanics throughout the web application with gamification classics like Badges, Levels and Achievements. Gamification is organic to the user experience versus opportunistically sprinkled throughout.

3. Magical Pill

Though the gamification movement is not new and started long before its recent boom, it still is perceived as a gamble. While proper gamification really tends to make miracles, having a miracle mindset is dangerous.

In today’s visual world, creators often wrap bad products in a good package, as compensation for a failing UX or product strategy. A cool design for a crappy product is like putting ‘lipstick on a pig’. With poor gamification, it's like a clown jumping out of a box, when you open it.

Gamification is not a magical pill. It won’t save a failing application and “make people love it”. offers a Financial Fitness Score with points earned throughout the dashboard web app experience.  

4. Gamification cannot force boring to become fun

With proper gamification, good can become great, but bad becomes worse. With improper gamification, everything becomes worse. Making something fun that shouldn’t be is like torturing users, or as the story of fitness tracking apps illustrated, social sharing of the wrong things at the wrong times adds embarrassment and doesn’t feel fun.

Fun comes from taking tedious tasks and adding motivation to them in a clever way. For example, the email engagement add-on, Gleam, offers competitions, quizzes and rewards that can be added to MailChimp campaigns for example to gamify engagement- an industry wide problem.

5. Treating Gamification as a feature

Another common mistake is treating gamification lightly. “Let’s add a leaderboard and check gamification off our list”. Adding a few scoreboards sounded like a good concept a few years back, but it’s not. It never was. If gamification is treated without a comprehensive UX strategy approach, then it becomes a feature instead of an experience. This approach is not recommended! With casually gamifiying your UI, you risk a range of consequences from undermining current your user's trust in your brand to hindering business goals (profit loss or app uninstalls).  

Above: The Khan Academy user experience revolves around gamification: progress bars with your current course completion, badges you’ve earned while learning something, etc. Though these elements will not substitute clever course structure, they definitely motivate people to finish what they start and track their progress in more fun and engaging way.

Where to start?

Educate your team to understand gamification as a nuanced and delicate product design strategy, that can have a transformational business impact. Start with defining your user goals (by doing Field Studies) and understanding your user's unique motivation mechanics (social and emotional factors impacting, influencing or blocking their goals).

Next, figure out what constitutes fun from your user's perspective and make that the basis for fun engineering (see the book Funology-- yes there's a reason it has sold for $148 for many years on Amazon). Finally be sure to test your game design tactics with users. This should include testing at launch and follow-up monitoring to ensure the gamified experience feels relevant to users over time.