Products can be boring… then you play


If I tell you performing hundreds of small tasks in a few hours and abiding by every single rule in a 500 page rulebook will be fun, will you call me crazy? What if I then add that thousands of people may also have fun watching you?

Before you jump to any conclusion about my mental stability, let me clarify: I am talking about games. We all love games. They are fun, exciting and at times extremely nerve wracking and not just for the players but also for the audience. The ICC rule book for cricket runs over 500 pages yet the whole country which has trouble following simple rules like “Yahhan par kachra phekna mana hai”, is enamored by the game.

A psychologist may ask why are games fun ? But as entrepreneurs and product designers, we are more likely to ask, what can we learn from games and apply to our products? After all our products expects users to take certain actions constrained by the usability of the tool. How can we make it fun and engaging?

Enter Gamification. Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts in solving problems. It has evolved very rapidly as a product design philosophy to solve complex behavior problems. Today, it is being applied to customer loyalty programs, recruitments methods, making math lessons interesting, forming healthier behavior, quality parenting and host of other behavior problems.

The goal of gamification in the product context is to help designers create a sense of flow for their end users; much like games do for the players and audience. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his seminal book “Flow” identifies factors that affect this sense of flow. Though the factors identified in the book encompass varied aspects of life such as emotions, family and work, I have listed below the ones that are important from the gamification perspective. Note that a product need not have all of these characteristics for their end users to experience flow, but it must at least have one of these:

1)     Clearly defined goals – Is the platform/product able to offer users clear goals and does the user know the exact steps required to get there.

2)     Quick feedback – Does the platform provide direct and immediate feedback to users after they take action.

3)     Balance between ability and challenge – Is the platform asking users to do things which they may not be capable of doing. Is their ability matching the challenges that the platform has set for them. Too easy and your users are bored. Too difficult, they are anxious. The right balance, on the other hand, ensures flow.

4)     A sense of personal control over the situation or activity – This relates to point 3 above and defines the “achievability” of the target set for the user. A target which challenges the users in just the right amount not only helps them push the limits but also gives them a sense of control.

5)     The activity is intrinsically rewarding – Is the activity or goal something that the users would want to achieve.

While the exact combination of game elements and game mechanics that a designer may employ to create the above factors may differ from product to product, below are some commonly used elements. You might already be using them in your platform or products. In case you aren’t, you must definitely experiment with them.

1)     Points – It takes a lot of effort for a user to login to your platform and do something. Points can be a very easy way to reward them for their effort. If properly linked to the end goal, points can also provide a great way to give users a sense of progression towards it. You can also experiment with progress bars to do this.

2)     Leaderboard – If your platform allows multi-user interaction, having a leaderboard could be a great way to make them compete. If the platform has no intrinsically defined goals (like filling timesheets at office), then competition on leaderboards can in itself provide users a sense of goal.

3)     Badges – Unlike points, badges can be tricky but very rewarding for the product designer. If your platform has a strong community play (coders, book lovers, travelers etc) then you must experiment with badges as it gives users a way to showcase their achievements to other users who really care about such achievements. The tricky thing here is the timings and actions for unlocking the badges.

4)     Levels – If the platform doesn’t have a logical end goal for a user (blogging platforms, location checkin apps etc) then rewarding users by increasing their status or level would work well to sustain engagement over a longer duration. Unlike badges which are generally limited in number, levels can keep increasing and give users a sense of investment in the platform as well. A user may not want to switch from one app to another similar app if they are already at level 26 in the first one.

If you think this sounds very theoretical, then let me also show you two everyday products that have incorporated gamification in their design.

LinkedIn: They had problems with incomplete profiles. Linked asks for a lot of information - where you studied, worked, designations, job descriptions etc, which would put off most of their members. They did a simple gamification experiment where they added a progress bar for profile completeness: "Your profile is 40% complete". This small change boosted the profile filling rate by over 20%.

Foursquare: It required users to check in every time they went to a place, which was an additional task for a user each time they went to a new place. Foursquare came up with a cool "Mayor" badge, which you can win of check in at a place more times than other users. It triggered the competitive spirit and Foursquare members began to simply go to a place just to check in and become the mayor!

Of course, gamification is much more than just badges and points but they are a good way to get started with it. Happy experimenting!

Have you used gamification in your product designs? How did they work? Please share your hits and misses with us, we’d love to hear about it.

About the Author :

Avinash Saurabh is the Founder & CEO of