What is gamification?

Can software products be designed to motivate users and increase productivity?

If you’re running an organization and your staff gets their work done using an enterprise application, you’ll naturally want to increase their productivity. Or, if you’re running a community-driven website that relies on user-generated content, you’ll want to encourage participation and repeat visits. Especially in a business setting, some of the tasks that have to be done are often tedious or unpleasant — well, it is work after all.

But there’s one class of applications that tends to have little difficulty keeping users intensely focused and always coming back for more: Games.

Games are fun diversions, of course, and yet a lot of the actual tasks that players do in games are actually quite repetitive and often difficult. If these tasks actually led to any result in the real world, they would probably be considered work! In fact, some people really enjoy playing games that are highly accurate simulations of other peoples’ day jobs — flight simulators, for example.

Some people think some of the things that make gameplay addictive can also be applied to other kinds of applications. This is called gamification, and it’s currently a hot trend.

What makes games addictive?

First, there’s the voluntary nature of game-playing: People are more likely to enjoy something when they’re choosing the activity (unlike work, nobody’s forcing you to play a game).

Second, games have goals and rewards: You want to get to the next level, and it’s satisfying when you finally achieve it. Some games have elaborate systems of rankings, and as your skill improves, you get promoted; other games might revolve around “quests” for various “items” that are desirable for any number of reasons. And winning the game is ultimately the most satisfying reward.

Third, as players achieve these goals and rewards, there is a sense of progress and and an awareness that the player’s skill is improving.

Fourth, most online games are multiplayer games, and so there is an element of competition. Many people are driven to be the best, and they want to win against other players. There is pride and social recognition in being at the top of the “high scores” leaderboard.

Lastly, multiplayer games are a social experience, whether you’re competing head-to-head with other players, or in some games, forming cooperative teams. For some people, games are a way to spend time and share social experiences with friends and family.

If these ideas make games fun and addictive, then can some of those ideas be brought to other products like enterprise applications and websites, and will this make those products more fun and addictive? It depends on the product and its users, but often the answer is yes — as long as it’s not done in an overly gimmicky way.

StackExchange, a programming question-and-answer community website, is enormously popular. Much of that popularity today is due to the vast amount of content that often shows up at the top of the search results for programming-related queries. But how did they get all that content? It was created by the users, and a clever incentive system had a lot to do with it. On StackExchange, users accumulate points for successfully answering questions and earn “badges” as recognition of achieving certain milestones. Some badges “unlock” special privileges, like the ability to moderate the community. Users with lots of points and badges enjoy respect and status for their contributions to the community.

Rewards systems can be effective for work that is easily measured. But you can breed resentment if the rewards system is not seen to be reliable or fair. Creative work is particularly difficult to reward because totally objective metrics for measuring “quality” and even productivity are often impossible to define. For example, how would you create an algorithm to judge the attractiveness of an artist’s logos? Or if programmer A took two hours and wrote 100 lines of code to solve a problem, and programmer B took one hour but needed 200 lines, who is more productive?

One proxy for quality is popularity; on a community-driven website, you can let users “upvote” or give points to other contributors to reward them for good contributions. When the community is large and active, this system can be quite effective. This sort of peer voting is more problematic in a workplace setting, though. Asking employees in small teams to judge each others’ work and hand out rewards rarely results in objective evaluations and can exacerbate office politics.

Reward systems are always well-intentioned, and yet they often lead to unexpected and unintended consequences. In a business environment, management will inevitably use these systems as a metric for judging and comparing workers’ performance, even if that was not the original intention. And metrics-based incentives encourage workers to game the system, to the detriment of the organization and its customers. I’m aware of one technical support call center that measured the time spent per call and disciplined workers whose average time per call exceeded a certain target. While the scheme was intended to reduce costs, it only had the effect of forcing workers to do anything possible to reduce call durations. So rather than try to actually resolve callers’ issues, workers would unnecessarily forward calls to someone else or even give faulty but short answers so that they could hang up as soon as possible. This only led to an increased volume of calls from angry customers!

Competition can be a powerful motivator for some people; sales teams have used competition (such as salespeoples’ results and rankings being posted in the hallway) as a motivator for years. But competition can be a turn-off for many others. If you structure the system so that there is only one “winner”, then you’ll have one happy winner and the rest of your users will be unhappy losers. And on community websites, competition tends to discourage newcomers: How can a new user possibly compete against the obsessive-compulsives who have been contributing non-stop for years and have 50,000 points?

So if you’re considering applying some of the ideas of gamification to your product, be sure that you understand your users, and be sure to think through all of the consequences.

Gamification can be very appealing to some audiences, and gimmicky to others. Established professionals, for instance, tend to be highly self-disciplined, take a lot of pride in their skills and accomplishments, and gain intrinsic satisfaction out of doing their job well. (They also tend to be rewarded with good salaries.) These people will be personally insulted by the notion that their work can be turned into a “game” with phony competition and incentives.

For professional users, the simple indication of progress on long tasks is probably the best reward. There is satisfaction in finishing a task, and for longer tasks, it’s reassuring to know that you’re making progress towards completion. Reading a 500-page book with 50 small chapters tends to be more satisfying than reading a 500-page book with only 5 big chapters, because there’s a feeling of completion and accomplishment when you reach the end of a chapter.

So in a data-entry-centric application such as income tax software, it can make sense to break down data-entry forms into smaller sections or pages that be checked off when complete. A graphical progress meter showing the percentage of work completed and work remaining can be very useful. LinkedIn has a nice example of just such a progress indicator on its profile editing page:

LinkedIn Profile Completeness Indicator


This entry was posted in Office Politics, Psychology for UX Design, Usability, User Experience Design, User-Centered Design. Bookmark the permalink.

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