How to Approach Gamification Design: Unleashing the Power of Play

Think gamification is just for gamers? Think again! This powerful tool goes way beyond controllers and consoles. It's about using elements of game design – think points, badges, and leaderboards – to motivate people in non-game settings.

Intrigued? Let's dive into how gamification works and how you can harness its power to your advantage.

What is gamification and why should you care?

Gamification is a technique in which designers will incorporate fun and exciting elements in a game – known as Game Mechanics or Game Design Techniques – into non-gaming settings or real-world applications.

These elements can be a powerful tool to drive user engagement. When done successfully, this incentivises users to achieve their goals and overcome negative associations they may have with the system or tasks they’re undertaking. By tailoring the gameplay or rewards precisely to the users, users will begin to engage with the system simply because they want to. This is known as users developing intrinsic motivation.

Whether we’re practising our Spanish on Duolingo to complete our daily quest or blasting through endless dimensions of candy lands on Candy Crush, the feeling of winning can significantly boost our dopamine levels. We often feel compelled to keep on going when we see how well we are doing. 

Language-learning platform Duolingo is a great example of successful gamification; using an octalysis gamification framework, the app will analyse learning behaviour and patterns in humans to create appealing reward packages to keep us engaged. This works alongside Duolingo’s main interface, which is comprised of bright colours and animated characters; including their well-known mascot  — a green owl named Duo. While this may seem like a hindrance to some, the company has successfully used Duo and its gamification approach to grow its brand recognition, invite younger audiences onto the platform, and make learners feel valued and wanted. 

How to approach gamification design

Initial research

Before diving straight in, there are three vital steps you need to undertake when approaching gamification design. 

1. Know your audience

Who are you designing for? It is very important to know your audience. Remember that every person is different; motivations, skills and objectives will vary. You can gain a solid understanding of these by asking your users questions or tracking their data to find out what matters to them, and then using gamification to enhance or personalise any features on your app or system.

2. Define clear goals 

What specific behaviours or outcomes do you want to achieve? Why are your users here? The system must have clear goals and offer users the opportunity to achieve these, to feel like they have accomplished something.   

3. Decide which mechanics are right for your system

Explore various gamification mechanics, such as points, badges, leaderboards and challenges, and select those most relevant to your audience and goals. For example:

  • A challenge is one of the most compelling game elements to motivate a person to take action. Pair this with a reward and the user will feel even more motivated.
  • Leaderboards are another tool that can increase engagement. Not many things can motivate users better than the desire to be the leader, with the most points or badges. This healthy competition can also foster loyalty to the platform, particularly as each user will be encouraged to improve their performance and achieve a sense of accomplishment.

When we worked with the dating app Once, the first stage of the project was to understand the brand's values. We continued our research with a deep dive into the user personas to ensure every design decision aligned with brand and user needs. We designed a playful interface where signup interests fuel smart matches, resulting in one perfect connection, daily. This lets users ditch the swipe and get on with life.

Design for engagement

With the average attention span of an adult being just 8.25 seconds, UX designers need to focus on creating not only a fun product but also one that captivates the user and creates a personal relationship and journey.

In particular, storytelling can create emotional connections with users and improve longevity. This is a fantastic way of delivering new information and, by including interesting characters, plot twists and backgrounds, you can increase user-retention tremendously. 

A good example of this is a popular fitness game Zombie, Run!, where the user is immersed in a dystopian world and must run as fast as they to avoid being eaten. This immersive and motivating gaming experience transforms strenuous exercise into a captivating challenge and activity; with the individual also being rewarded for their hard work with badges and trophies.

Furthermore, one of the most important parts of the customer journey is at the very beginning of the onboarding. It is crucial to build an engaging experience to avoid user churn. Long and poor onboardings can frustrate users and make them 23% more likely to churn.

Our work with the gamification-driven fan engagement extension Sportbuff helped them win several high-profile clients in the world of football, eSports, basketball, cricket and many more. As well as the design system, Sport Buff asked us to look at upgrading the design of their Content Management System to allow for adding new features and aligning with the latest mobile strategies.

Iterative development and measurement

Iterative development and measurement consists of prototype testing, analysis and optimisation of data, and ensuring balance in the overall experience. 

So what do these involve? 

1. Prototype testing

Rather than making one prototype, develop low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes to gather initial feedback and iterate based on user testing.

Low-fidelity prototypes will often be quick paper sketches that are a low or no-cost proposition that can be easily tested and modified. High-fidelity prototypes often take more time and cost more to create, but reflect artefacts that more closely resemble the final look or function of the final product.

Regardless of the fidelity level, prototyping allows developers to iteratively test, modify and weed out any design issues and evaluate the effectiveness of the product.

2. Analysis and optimisation of data

To know whether the gamification programme is successful, you need to measure its effectiveness. This can be achieved by tracking key metrics including productivity, user behaviour and engagement, adoption and ROI. You should analyse the results and adapt gamification elements based on the data.

3. Maintain balance

It is necessary to strike a healthy balance between engagement and frustration. Sometimes, companies can get caught up in the novelty of gaming and lose true sight of their product’s purpose. The overuse of gamification can result in the addition of unnecessary features or a cluttered user interface, which makes the product less effective and less engaging for desired audiences. It is important that the user’s core experience remains valuable, rewarding, and positive.

When we worked with the edtech company Upskillme, we decided to intentionally reduce gamification aspects to appeal to older students.

Other gamification considerations

Although there is an increasing amount of research on the benefits of gamification, it is important to acknowledge how gamification can sometimes lead to unethical behaviours. 

For example:

  • Cheating or exploiting game mechanics to gain an advantage. 
  • Hidden manipulation or exploitation that persuades users to spend more time and money on a product or service, often without their full awareness or consent
  • Addiction and overuse, which can occur when gamification has been poorly implemented and so may encourage users to engage in unhealthy behaviours or spend excessive amounts of time on the platform in pursuit of rewards or achievements. If you would like to know more about how we have designed experiences that encourage participation through completing challenges, competing and rewards, check out our case studies or get in touch for a chat about your design project today.

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