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Game-like elements can motivate users and increase interaction with a product. But how can you achieve a well conceived gamification concept?

Gamification refers to the enrichment of products with game elements. According to Gartner, this approach has already passed its peak in terms of popularity. It became apparent that gamification isn’t a panacea either. This article shows how sophisticated gamification can still unlock a great potential.

What gamification means

It is a splendid idea, in fact, and therefore has gotten a lot of attention for good reason: Common tasks, which otherwise would be tedious and uninteresting, get augmented with game elements. Such elements may be points, avatars, different levels or badges. The aim is to intrinsically motivate users so that they perform the respective task gladly and more often.

Intrinsic motivation means that a person performs an action for its own sake, be it out of amusement or interest. The opposite is referred to as extrinsic motivation. In this case, a person performs an action in order to achieve something else in return. This may, for instance, be money or appreciation.

Examples of gamification

Many cases of application have shown how effective gamification can be. An elucidatory example, which is often mentioned in this context, is an installation in a subway station in Stockholm. Here, piano keys had been pasted on the steps of staircase. If a person would walk on the stairs, the sounds of the respective keys would be played over speakers, as if the person was walking on a giant piano. The installation was really well received: Many people, who usually would have taken the escalator, decided to take the stairs instead.

This little experiment shows two different things very well. On the one hand, intrinsic motivation can indeed cause a change in behavior. It can even break such strong habits as to take the escalator. On the other hand, gamification must be implemented correctly in order to be effective. The experiment could only work because not every staircase in Stockholm looks and sounds like a piano. And it works because the intended behavior – taking the stairs – is linked to a direct feedback in the form of piano sounds.

Many online platforms like eBay and Airbnb have implemented such game-like elements, too. On eBay, sellers can be rated by their customers with stars. If someone wants to buy a product, the different sellers will be displayed in a list, which can be sorted by their customer rating. On Airbnb, hosts can receive a badge once they got verified by the website. For this purpose, they have to send in a copy of their ID and indicate some additional information.

In both cases, the game elements were implemented to make users perform a certain behavior. For instance, the badges on Airbnb motivate to complete all steps necessary to get verified. A short label reading “ID was submitted” in place of a nicely designed badge would barely have the same effect.

Why it just doesn’t work at times

If gamification is such a great tool, then why is it at the trough of disillusionment in Gartner’s diagram? This may be related to the fact that gamification is often applied like a remedy for colds: If the product is diseased, it probably hasn’t been administered enough gamification. It would be better to think about the reasons for the disease in order to strengthen the product sustainably. Gamification is not necessarily the best choice.

Generally, gamification is an option if an action seems to be uninteresting and dull or if it elicits a certain kind of resistance within the user. In contrast, if the product is rather unintelligible or if its functions don’t match the user’s requirements, then stars and badges will hardly bring any improvement.

What is more, you want to check whether gamification fits the context of your product, at all. Let’s consider the area of finance for example. A software that assists in compiling one’s tax declaration may benefit form some gamification to make the task more interesting and rewarding. However, gamification might be totally out of place in an online banking app as it might challenge its reliability.

Many books and articles describe the different elements that can be part of gamification. This scientific article by Robson et al. from 2015 is a great read to dive deeper into the topic.

Yet, a fact that tends to be overlooked is that not only the selection and design of the gamification elements determines whether they are effective. In order to have a lasting impact, the elements also need to cohere with the product as can be seen from the examples of eBay and Airbnb. When applied superficially, game elements can turn into an extrinsic source of motivation and eclipse the actual product. Users may then only use the product in order to collect points and stars. This is not a very sustainable motivational source, since after a while most games tend to become boring.

Gamification needs to be intertwined with product features to have a lasting impact.

If the extrinsic motivation fades away, game elements might remain as basically a useless informational layer that complicates the product. Therefore, before letting oneself in for the balancing act of gamification, a sophisticated concept is necessary to ensure that people are willing to use the product in the long run.

How to implement gamification properly

So how can you properly enrich a product with gamification? To intertwine the game-elements with the product, you may want to follow these four steps:

The four steps leading to sophisticated gamification.

The four steps leading to sophisticated gamification.

Identify weak points of the product

Firstly, you want to exactly identify which parts of the product need to be gamified. The general observation that the product does not work as intended or could be more appealing will not be sufficient. In which situations do users not perform the desired action? Where does user interaction recede to quickly? Which features of the product are crucial to keep the general concept running? For example, problems often arise when users need to make difficult decisions or are asked to create content on their own.

Analyze users’ motivation

To recognize potential sources of motivation, you want to investigate why users currently do not perform the different actions. Convenience and habits are common reasons. Sometimes, though, it can also result from a fear of negative feedback from the social environment or a feeling of not being capable of coping with a certain task. In case you are not aware of the causes, it will be best to ask the users themselves. This way, you can ensure that the gamification addresses the right aspects.

The second part of this step should be to find out, which things could motivate users to perform the action. Interviews may be able to point in the right direction. However, users will often not be able to unveil the full bandwidth of potential sources of motivation. Reasons may be that they are not aware of certain motivators or that they are not willing to disclose them in front of you. For instance, people sometimes do things because they are hoping to get approval from other people – yet they will not necessarily admit this in an interview with a foreign person. In this case, you also want to draw on findings from psychological research.

Render sources of motivation into gamification elements

As a next step, it is time to think about how these sources of motivation can be realized in the context of your product. An example: Let’s assume users of a certain website are not ready to donate money because the thing filling out the respective form with their details is too cumbersome. However, if the receiver of their donations would thank them personally, it might balance the effort for them. Unfortunately, if the donations are sent to a third world country, which is quite far away, this might be unrealistic.

So the question is how this idea of a personal thanks can be best transferred to the website. Donators could receive a pre-formulated message as a response. This might not be personal enough, though. Users of the website also would not be able to see that they will receive such a message before completing the actual donation. A personal and maybe also more appealing option may be to award donators with one of different thank-you-badges. On the website, there could be a placeholder so that people will know right away that they can receive a badge for their social commitment.

Embed gamification in the product

Wait, there is still one step left. Gamification may be implemented in the right points of the product now. However, it is not properly embedded yet. In other words: Gamification only works, if it is kept alive. In the example, one would have to ensure that users actually receive a badge for their donation. One way to do this would be to automatically award the badge as soon as a donation was submitted. This might be sufficient in case of the donation website.

In another context, though, it might be better to personally select and send a badge, as this would increase the ideational value of the badges. To achieve this, a second mechanism would have to be implemented for the receivers of a donation, which incentivizes to award a badge. Often times, you will find that it makes sense to create another gamification piece as counterpart of the first one. For instance, every receiver of a donation could get an automatic, public rating that includes, amongst other things, how quickly they respond to a donation by sending an individual badge. Of course there would be plenty of other gamification elements except for badges and ratings that could be integrated in your product.


The example in the last section showed that gamification can enrich products, but also inflate them in a certain way. They claim more room and significance in peoples life. This is why you should also discuss whether your product can and should claim this room. Perhaps many users visit the donation website only once. In this case they would probably not be inclined to collect different thank-you-badges.

This does not mean that any kind of gamification would be misplaced. As an alternative, the effort of filling in the website’s form could be subdivided in sections (levels). Given the website collects donations for food, an illustration of a plate in front of a person (avatar) could fill up with food with every section a user completes (progress bar).

Potentially, the website should even be simplifies to the point that users only have to spend as little time as necessary with the product. This approach is referred to as slippy user experience and can, in a way, be described as the opposite of gamification. We will deal with this approach in greater detail in one of the next articles.