We're getting 'Gamification' all wrong

The more I see businesses attempt to 'gamify' their offerings to drive engagement, retention and other metrics, the more I can't help noticing how often they're getting it wrong. This comes from a fundamentally wrong understanding of the single most important thing that makes games compelling, and keeps players coming back. Hint : It's NOT the reward systems.

Most gamification efforts - loyalty programs, employee motivation systems, sales promotions and the like - rely heavily on the extrinsic rewards systems that popular games use. The most commonly used techniques include achievement badges, completion and progress statistics (those incredibly compelling 7/10 tasks complete status bars), and social features that use comparison and validation metrics (leaderboards, likes).

While these are effective and proven techniques, they are largely useless unless another critically important condition is fulfilled.

The single most important gamification lesson is this - Make your customer's core action enjoyable by itself.

Super Mario Bros is fun because the core actions like jumping and running are fun and enjoyable. Not because it has cool achievements, leaderboards and unlockable rewards.

I wrote about this a few years ago in the context of making games, where the rule is critically important because games are essentially just frivolous entertainment, and making the core moment-to-moment experience enjoyable is the only way to retain the player's attention. Only if the 'game' (running, jumping, shooting, any other CORE action) is fun will the 'metagame' (achievements, leaderboards, clans, level progression) work to drive behaviour.

This design approach offers a huge and mostly untapped opportunity to all kinds of product and process designers to make their user experience engaging. If you don't make the core action enjoyable, none of your other 'gamification' efforts will work. Ask yourself this one question : What are the opportunities I have to make my user's core experience more enjoyable?

For example

How can I make my signup process more fun? Perhaps through more fun messaging and imagery?

  • How can I make the process of buying a ticket more fun? Maybe I could progressively reveal a teaser trailer during the ticket buying process?

  • How can I make my basic interactions like tapping on a button or navigating a menu more enjoyable? Have polished sound effects and smooth animations?

  • How can I make my waiting room experience better? Can I make the displays more entertaining and engaging?

The idea of 'gamification' is always to use design principles from games to make other products and services more enjoyable and to keep customers coming back - the way they do to their favourite games. With a clear understanding of exactly what it is that makes games compelling, your 'gamification' efforts will be far more effective.

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