How the Gameification of Interfaces Keeps Users Engaged
To continue with my "intersection between games and UX" theme, today I'm talking about the gameification of mainstream products and services and how this additional or atypical functionality impacts user engagement and enjoyment. The idea behind gameification is pretty simple - make a task simple, enjoyable, and rewarding, and more people will do it.
We'll start small. Everyone knows it's healthier to take the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator, right? But given the option, most will go for the easier, lower exertion option, because the reward for increased exertion feels small and intangible. A group in Sweden decided to test an idea for encouraging people coming out of the subway to take the stairs... by turning them into piano keys. The group found that with the added interest and fun, a whopping 66% more people chose the stairs! That's a huge user conversion.
Now let's go big. Some of the most widely used examples of gameification comes to us from the marketing world. Marketers have long used sweepstakes, giveaways, and similar gambling-inspired techniques to improve customer engagement. But in the past few years we've seen an explosion in the number of companies using gameified systems, especially on mobile devices, to keep us in constant and useful contact with their brands.
Starbucks is a prime example. In 2009 they launched their My Starbucks Rewards app, a quick and easy way to pay and order ahead that uses stars, badges, and other status symbols to encourage repeat use. Customers gain stars every time they use the app, earning badges and rewards all the way up to a physical gold card. Even once this status symbol is earned, the app continues to push seasonal promotions and exclusive deals that are easy and fun to redeem.
I saw the power of this app firsthand with a group of my coworkers. They would compete to go on coffee runs so they could get the rewards, and the day the first person in the office got her gold card was red letter. That tracks with Starbucks' results, which show that even by 2012, one in four transactions was processed via their app, up to 6 million a day.
Another example comes from the education sector. Duolingo is a language learning app that takes the traditional structure of language education and applies interactive games, points, levels, and badges to encourage users to keep coming back. Users earn recognition for keeping up a daily streak, which keeps a "strength bar" (a visual representation of how well they should remember lessons) full, or for excelling at lessons, which keeps a "health bar" full. Tasks are widely varied, and test recognition and recall, audio and text, with instant feedback that is contextual and helpful. The curriculum is also dynamic and adjusts both content and difficulty based on user response, so that it's never too hard or repetitive.
All of this ensures that the app consistently hits the same reward centers of the brain as a video game, to the point that while doing a lesson to refresh my memory, I got distracted and played "just one more," something that never happened with my college French homework.
As UX designers, interface creators, and functionality brainstormers, it's undeniable that recognizing user engagement and rewarding it, monetarily or otherwise, is an incredibly powerful tool. Gameification is well on its way to becoming a necessary consideration for keeping companies and interfaces competitive.