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How Not to Apply Gamification
Or
You’ve Earned the “Me Too” Badge

I was registering for a new web based service this past week, when I noticed something at the bottom of the screen that had displayed after I successfully created my credentials. It was a small icon and a message that read:

“Congratulations! You have earned the newbie badge.”

If you are unfamiliar with gamification, it’s the application of game elements to a non-game setting. Through popular application such as Foursquare and Nike+ gamification has become more mainstream over the past couple years. Game elements are popping up everywhere from social networking tools, to employment applications to home automation tools. Aside from badges other common gamified elements include points, leader boards, game progression and goals/missions which users can track their own progress through a process or system along with having the ability to compare their progress against others.

Now I’m not going to shame the site that rewarded me for creating an account, but that’s not really a task worth rewarding. In fact, not every system should make use of gamified elements. So then why does it seem that everyone is doing it? Well, to an extent it’s become the thing to do. Consulting firm Delloite predicts that 25% by the start of 2014, 70% of global 2000 businesses will be “managing at least one ‘gamified’ application”. Many of those businesses are following a trend, and there are enough examples out there of how gamification hasn’t worked out for businesses. Gartner Research put out their own report stating that by the same 2014 date 80% of gamified systems will fail to meet the business objectives their businesses set out to achieve because of “poor design”.

If done the right way, there are benefits to introducing game elements to an existing system.

Behavior Change
People like to be rewarded and they like to feel that they have built some sort of an expertise. If your application or service has features that have real world purpose but are underutilized, rewarding users by giving them a badge for making use of the system in the desired way could help in getting others to adopt it and continue to use it. You have to be selective however in the behavior you want to reward. Rewarding the user for the sake of rewarding the user for every behavior or task they complete (such as creating a new account) diminishes the value of the badges.

Building Community
If the nature of the service gamified elements are being added to are social in nature, then bringing in elements that allow users to compare themselves against their friends makes perfect sense. In this situation, leader boards that allow users to see how they rate against their friends and compete with them is a good use of game elements and can help drive further usage. However, if your app is designed around the model of an individual user or the context of an individual gamification is probably not the answer. The adoption of the system by others would irrelevant to the individual, and you’d be inventing ways to compare them to others.

Progression through a Process
Game elements can be useful in guiding a user through a process with a clear end goal. This can either be done through the use of badges at defined stages of the process, creating levels the user progresses through or through a convention as as simple as a progress bar that let’s the user know how much further they need before reaching the goal. The key there would be presenting the goal as a goal, and not just the culmination of all the steps leading up to it.

So why should you avoid the use of game elements as part of the user experience of your system? Well, if you are using them just to make your system seem “fun” that’s probably a bad idea. Systems should be usable, engaging and useful. Trying to make a system fun that under ordinary circumstances isn’t fun may be novel, but it doesn’t guarantee increased adoption.

If you are using them because you think people like getting badges, or that they like being “#1” on a leader board you will end up using game elements for the sake of game elements. They will end up feeling disconnected from your system or just inappropriate for the situation and ultimately will become ignored by your users.

Gamification for behavior change can be a great thing. However, if you are looking to use gamification as a way to deliberately manipulate your users into conducting themselves in ways they normally wouldn’t solely for your benefit, gamification would be an irresponsible and frankly an unethical decision. Users should be able to see the value an action, feature or function has to them and they should decide to continue in that behavior based on their own devices.

If your application lacks the right features to capture the market you desire, gamification can’t save your app. Game elements should be used to compliment existing functionality that has been designed properly from start with. The game elements should not become the focal point of your service.

Finally, if you are convinced you should be using game elements because everyone else is. Well, I’ve designed a badge for that.

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I am a certified usability analyst, user experience & graphic designer, and information architect with web & .net development experience based in Cleveland, Ohio.

Copyright 1996 - 2014

Member, American Mensa