You are in a product meeting that has been going on for the entire day, and now all the discussions are almost loopy. The meeting is crucial as it will set the direction going forward. All the major shareholders from business, marketing and product are scratching their heads to generate enough static to light up any idea. Then suddenly, someone utters the word that is the cause of many nightmares for designers, “Gamification”. And the crowd goes wild.
These discussions are so common that they have become a parody of the trade. A lot of the time, stakeholders straight up ignore the massive undertaking a project like this could be. Not realising these considerations can lead a team down a rabbit hole that might not even achieve the business goals. If you spend more time breaking down these games, your team can achieve the same goals while minimising the efforts.
Before we get into the full breakdown of how to look at this decision, it’s important to know one thing: Visual delight is in itself a crucial part of gamification — without it, gamification can feel watered down. Just some food for thought.
Often when a business executive suggests gamification, they are bundling a bunch of expectations like generating higher user interaction, increasing user retention and overall making it “fun.” It is, therefore, important to look at these goals and identify better mechanisms to achieve them rather than following trends like sheep and ending up with a toy instead of a product.
Choosing the more “exciting” approach rather than breaking down the problem and addressing individual modules that can be easier to implement, test and move to production. The best products do not do unique things; they keep improving at a faster rate compared to the competition. Products often fail to analyse the overall cost and effort. Checking design and tech feasibility can make the product cycle much more efficient and faster.
The first thing that pops up when someone mentions gamification is games. Although the two share similar mechanics, gamification in the current product space has taken a form of its own. The hope is to replicate the immersive and tight experiences games provide inside the product landscape. Games often do this using a combination of animations and sounds. Many apps that want fluid game-like interactivity can get away with a polish of micro-animation design and a bit of sound engineering. This is not just to create a game-like environment but a vibe that aligns with product goals.
Look at headspace, for example. The implementation of streaks as a feature is not too overpowering and moulds in nicely with their subtle animations. Rather than letting “gamification” centre stage, they stripped it to a more rudimentary implementation that actually works really well with their brand’s voice. The breathy animations and gentle sounds tie the whole experience together.
It’s reckless to go for the best implementations for the features, and breaking and solving based on use cases and goals provide far more ease and flexibility to experiment with what works. If simple visual delight can do the job, then why go for something more?
Back in 2016, Snapchat popularised “streaks” to incentivise users to use the app daily. with simple mechanics, snap streaks quickly became daily check marks that provided a sense of progress and dopamine. While Snapchat could create this habit in users through some great design, it is important to note that it was not the mechanics that got the users; it was the value that streaks with friends provided. It was something people cared about, with almost a sense of responsibility towards building something together.
The mechanics of gamification require something that provides value. The scores, leaderboards, rewards and achievements need to mean something. A lot of financial products go with offers and rewards. Scratch cards with cashback and coupons provide some real benefits. The problem with these systems, however, is longevity. More times than not, these mechanisms become stale and boring. They also tend to become less attractive — great cashbacks slowly turn into boring coupons as the business costs keep increasing. Over time these scratch cards and offers collect in the product building up clutter, like the leftover ketchup sachets in your pantry.
Some apps go above and beyond with these game mechanics. Apps like Habitica and Forest provided a fresh approach to the same productivity mechanisms that existed in the past. Habitica, with its RPG-like character building and using real tasks to gain experience, and Forest, with its way of tying Pomodoro to growing your botanical garden, these apps use gamification as a core identity for their app, adding a fresh layer to utility apps.
It’s, however, not necessary to take such a heavy-handed approach for most products. It’s the type of commitment that can put you in a box for future developments. A good approach might be to approach different features as a possibility to add some character. For example, CRED, a fintech app, recreated a library of retro games as a way to give rewards to users. As a promotional event, it captured users’ attention for a while and avoided getting stale. It’s good to look out for smaller opportunities and implement those to build an appetite for bigger systems.
Add to taste
Adding immersive experiences comes at the cost of cognitive load that builds up over time in users. When and how to inject visual delight and interactions can get tricky to map out as the product gets bigger.
Trying out different things can be a more useful strategy in the long run. Bigger promotional campaigns can be used for special occasions or festive seasons, while micro-interactions could be strategically placed to smooth the jaggedness.
Build and test smaller units
Building and testing smaller units make the team more agile. Product teams can leverage these processes to push changes quicker. This has led to interesting marketing efforts at places like Swiggy, which capitalised on a meme.
Keep it simple
Lastly, keep it simple. It is crucial to keep the end goal at the forefront and achieve it optimally. It’s, therefore, not a bad idea to do a deeper requirements analysis before diving into bigger projects. One of the key objectives should be to simplify the overall project and optimise it for design and tech. The products with the best experiences can also fail to achieve product goals, so it becomes important to design the product for those goals.