Although the games of today bear little resemblance to their ancient predecessors, human beings have played games for millennia. The oldest game known to man, Senet, originated in ancient Egypt around 3500 BCE, and other games such as Go, a strategy game invented in China around 2,500 years ago, are still played to this day.

The electronic video games that began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s borrowed many principles from the earliest board games, but they also introduced many new concepts. Today, we don't merely “play” games; we're gamers. Unlike our ancestors, gaming is no longer an isolated activity between small groups but a global phenomena that has spawned entire industries, such as the growing eSports market.

One of the main reasons for the explosion in the popularity of video games and gaming in contemporary culture is how cleverly many games make use of compelling emotional triggers to keep players engaged. In other words, they can be incredibly addictive. While this aspect of video gaming has troubled concerned parents for years, it has also created new opportunities for marketers and product designers. Today, many apps and products beyond the sphere of video games leverage these addictive qualities to keep us glued to our screens.

For UX practitioners, gamification—the practice of incorporating features commonly found in video games into products and apps to increase engagement—is an immensely powerful tool. However, if implemented poorly, it can frustrate our users, distract from the core features of our products, and even encourage potentially harmful addictive behaviors.

Let's talk about how to get gamification right and when to use it.

A (Very) Brief History of Gamification in Action

One of the core elements of gamification is the creation of reward systems that encourage users to take specific actions on a regular basis. For non-gaming products, this often involves identifying behavioral triggers that encourage users to take action, then rewarding them for doing so in the form of point systems, badges, and the chance to unlock premium features.

Although gamification is often framed in the context of digital apps and entertainment products, many companies have been leveraging these principles in the real world for years. McDonald's annual Monopoly promotion, store loyalty cards, and even the concept of frequent flier miles all use similar principles to encourage consumer loyalty and ensure repeat business.

Starbucks has been using a gamified loyalty program for years that began offline before moving online. Like thousands of other coffee retailers, Starbucks has offered a loyalty stamp program for many years. Customers received a stamp on their loyalty card with every purchase and, after accumulating a sufficient number of stamps, could redeem them for “free” beverages and snacks.

What's fascinating about Starbucks' reward program in particular is how well the company adapted the offline program for its mobile app:

In terms of the loyalty program itself, very little has changed. However, Starbucks has masterfully incorporated elements of UX design to make the program, its app, and its products significantly more compelling. By using the Starbucks app, users can track their rewards more accurately, allowing them to plan future purchases around the loyalty program—significantly increasing the likelihood that app users will visit a Starbucks store to take advantage of their points.

Even the visual nature of how a user's current rewards level is presented makes the overall experience more compelling; users can see the coffee cup gradually fill with stars—offering a similarly satisfying and intuitive visual cue as a progress bar—and see how far they are from the next reward tier:

As UX practitioners, it's our job to design rewarding, satisfying experiences for our users that keep them engaged and ultimately coming back for more. To do this, we need to:

  • Offer users a range of fun and interesting goals to work toward.
  • Implement a simple, easily understood rewards system that makes sense to the user and feels realistically attainable.
  • Provide occasional bonus rewards to serve as reminders about the potential value of the rewards program and reinforce the value of our brands and products.

When Gamification Goes Wrong

Aside from strong, intuitive design, gamification is one of the most diverse and effective tools at our disposal as UX practitioners. That said, getting gamification right is a delicate balancing act; make a challenge too easy and we risk boring our users (bad), and if we make gamified tasks too hard, we risk frustrating our users (worse).

Another risk of gamification is the natural tendency to focus too much on the game elements of our products to the detriment of addressing and solving the needs of our users. This can result in an experience in which the gamification elements—the points, the leaderboards, the badges—overshadow the rest of the experience of using our products. In addition to drawing unwanted attention to design elements that should go largely undetected, this also results in an experience that feels cheap.

Put another way, poorly implemented gamification can create visual noise and distract users from the genuine value our products offer.

One of the best ways to avoid this scenario is to focus on how gamification can support your users as they move through your product, rather than merely providing them with unnecessary distractions for the sake of entertainment.

How can we do this? By bearing in mind a principle used by professional game designers known as cognitive flow and how it relates to our broader UX:

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It's important to remember that we're UX designers, not game designers. Gamification can make our apps and products a lot stickier, but it can also introduce a lot more potential problems.

High Scores: Gamification Done Right

One of the best ways to approach gamification as a UX practitioner is to really understand what makes our users tick and their motivations for using our products. Once we know exactly what drives our users and the problems they're trying to solve, we can use the principles of gamification to deliver a rewarding and entertaining experience to our users.

Here are four real-world examples of apps and products that got gamification right by taking the time to understand their users and what really motivates them to take action—and what keeps them coming back.

FitBit

As well as being the dominant player in the fitness tracking space, Fitbit was also one of the first companies to really nail gamification as a motivational tool.

Fitbit understands that for many of its users fitness itself isn't the end goal. Many Fitbit users track their stats in order to make tangible gains in terms of their stamina, endurance, and competitiveness. It's this understanding that makes Fitbit's gamified rewards system so compelling; it leverages the intrinsic motivations of the user and offers an addictive reward for doing what they want to do.

In addition to its fun badge system, Fitbit's leaderboard system is a powerful motivator. Being able to compete with friends and challenge one another to beat personal bests align perfectly with how—and why—many people track their fitness using Fitbit, putting it at the top of our UX gamification scoreboard.

Todoist

Few things are as inherently satisfying as checking off the very last item on a to-do list, and it's this principle that makes productivity app Todoist's gamified elements all the more compelling.

Gamification in Todoist is simple. Users are awarded “karma points” for every task on their to-do lists they successfully complete. Conversely, if users fail to complete time-sensitive tasks, they are “penalized” with negative karma. It's a similar system used by popular websites including Reddit, and it's remarkably effective.

What's really clever about Todoist's karma system, however, is that accruing karma points actually unlocks new tiered levels, ranging from “Beginner” to “Advanced.” This reinforces the sense of accomplishment that users crave and gives them bragging rights for how productive they've been—which users can then share via social media for an even more satisfying dopamine hit.

Wish

Flash sales are tough enough to get right from a UX perspective to begin with, which makes discount shopping app Wish's gamification strategy all the more impressive.

The first step in Wish's gamified user flow is a Wheel of Fortune-style interface that users spin using a swipe gesture. The wheel's spinning animation helps create and build anticipation, but it also determines how long users have to shop for bargains. Unlucky spins of the wheel mean less time to shop, but discounts are applied to every item a user places in their shopping cart during their discount window.

Of all our gamification examples, this is easily the most “game-like.” Spinning the wheel creates excitement—just like spinning a roulette wheel in a casino—and the resulting discount window is a race against time, another mini-challenge in itself.

Although the game elements of Wish are front-and-center in the app's design, it never feels boring or frustrating by being too easy or difficult, instead settling on that sweet spot right in the central cognitive flow we identified earlier.

Calm

Mindfulness and meditation apps have been all the rage for some time, but few manage to incorporate gamification as effectively as Calm.

Calm's purpose is to gently remind (presumably stressed-out) users to take a few moments out of their busy day to either meditate or sit in quiet contemplation. Because most newcomers to mindfulness techniques are trying to form positive new habits in their daily lifestyle, Calm utilizes a winning-streak system that rewards frequent logins.

For every meditation session users complete, they're rewarded with a star and a positive message. Completing guided meditations on a regular basis creates “streaks” that are featured prominently in the app's interface.

This is clever in two ways:

  • It leverages gamification to help users create new habits, which is the goal of many Calm users who want to incorporate meditation and mindfulness into their daily routine.
  • It makes it harder to ignore the app's reminders to meditate by reminding users of the streak, which can be a powerful motivator for not skipping a day.

Design for Users, Not Players

Gamification is becoming an increasingly commonplace technique in product design. However, it's a lot harder to get right than it may appear, and introducing gamification elements can create complexity and the possibility of overlooking what really matters—our users and the problems they're trying to solve.

As we mentioned earlier, truly understanding your users' motivations is crucial to successfully leveraging gamification in our UX and our products. If you're considering gamification for your next project, it's vital to keep the user experience in mind at all times:

  • How do you want users to use your product?
  • What problems are your users trying to solve, and how can gamification help them do so?
  • How are you segmenting your user base to identify how different types of users utilize your product?
  • What elements can you A/B test to determine the right approach that will appeal to the most users?

Remember—we have to do what's best for our users. This means resisting the temptation to incorporate gamification elements for their own sake or because another product in your vertical included them. Above all else, keep an open mind, be willing to experiment, and, most importantly, really listen to your users.