The first time I heard about gamification, it seemed like a very good idea. It was about adapting the way people worked and adding a fun layer, with challenges, badges, and leaderboards. Strangely enough, it seems that it stopped there, which is like taking a good idea and delivering only half of it. Forget about badges or leaderboards. Gamification is more than adding game elements to your application; it’s a whole new way of interacting. It gets you thinking about core experiences, getting your message across, and keeping your users engaged. Because there's so much more to the game.

The Invisible and You

Let’s take a trip together. Imagine you help companies around the world create all sorts of applications—from enterprise tools to sophisticated B2C experiences—to all sorts of industries. Your job is to design and help implement those applications in the fast world of low-code with OutSystems. You deliver quality work, and there’s pretty much nothing you haven’t seen before.

One day, a very special customer comes along. (We’ll call her Laura.) You notice how different she is from the moment you both start talking. You don’t need to explain what you do; she knows. She knows how user experience can be the deciding factor in the success of her project, measured by things like satisfaction and adoption. On top of all of this, her company, “Solo Athletics,” is a startup, so the project is a life-or-death situation for Solo Athletics.

She then throws you one of the biggest curve balls you’ve ever had to catch by telling you: “I want to solve an invisible problem. I know you guys can design the best-looking app, test it with users and make it really intuitive. I know it will create the buzz I need, and that will work for a while. But then comes real-life. And for this kind of application, the excitement will die down pretty fast, no matter how beautiful it may seem at first sight. So I want to solve that invisible problem: I want to keep motivation high; I need them to have fun and come back for more.”

Designer sits up straight. Puts glasses on.

“So what kind of app are we talking about?” you ask. “Fitness and healthcare,” she continues, “a kind of health buddy to help you eat better, exercise regularly, and keep track of your medical requirements and doctor visits. There are a few of these in the market, and most are not used over the long-term. I believe this can be addressed by making it like a game. Make it really fun to use.” 

Gamification Is Not a Feature 

You dream of a briefing like this. But the first thing you need to make clear is that gamification is not exactly an extra feature. It’s part of the experience itself and should be handled with care. You don’t just add game dust to an app; you build the experience based on what it is for. Gaming is not a way to manipulate users into doing things, for example. And if the product is not good enough, no fireworks will do the trick.

But, in this case, the app is good. It’s a white-hat app. It will help people and make them challenge themselves. And your customer made something very clear: a standard approach will not be enough. You can design something that works, based on all the evidence you’re going to get from user research or usability testing, but the fact is that the product is new, and you’re not in the place of testing something that is long-running. There’s no last-longing relationship yet.

Designer frowns.

First realization: this is not something you can force people to use. This is not a work app; users don’t have signed contracts. Adding to the challenge is the fact that the competition is fierce; there are big players, some even selling watches and other gear to go with the app. In fact, they’re all playing the game pretty much this way.

Your app is the opposite. You have an app, and you can make it work with different gear. Plus, it is not just for exercise and food plans; it comes with that health buddy thing which includes being able to save data from doctor appointments and meds, which seems like smart positioning. The product seems good enough, but it is easy to remove it from a phone. Therefore it, doesn’t stick around to remind someone that it was a bad investment or that the user needs to get back to it someday. There’s no commitment; it’s too easy to just leave it.

Effortless and Fun

Second realization: if you want to address motivation, you need to get to know your users at a whole new level. Understand who would download an app to get a healthy meal plan in place, and how, after a couple of days, it becomes a nuisance to havee to log the food or how a birthday party can threaten willpower. How do we keep users on track?

Understand the types of people who have given up on gym membership a few times, are optimistically trying to live by new year’s resolutions, or are just enduring the infinite sadness of trying on a bathing suit. But the bed is too warm and comfortable in the morning, and the work day was so tiring; how will you make them want to do burpees and push-ups like crazy?

Understand the type of people who like to keep track of chronic disease, logging doctor recommendations, uploading exams, and setting medication reminders. The manual work required to keep everything updated seems like pure boredom. How do you balance the effort with the great benefit of having all health information in one place?

Designer relaxes in the chair. Takes glasses off.

“Well, ma’am, all these types of people, they all like to play. You just need to give them a good reason to. You are to want to gamify this app. It will make things easier. Users will see that it is not so difficult to keep up with good habits, and that they’re not alone. That’s important too.”

If this were a productivity app for work, gamification could even make it fun, but here we are in a different level. We are aiming for so much more than daily workday tasks. We are talking about gamifying something that is actively improving people’s lives. Imagine what we can do in this scenario.

The Core Drivers for the Core Experience

This is where gamification meets user experience. You start isolating the experience you want to build, your core experience, and think about your users as players, not just as people completing tasks in a piece of software. What are your players’ stories? What will appeal to them? If you want to drive their behavior, you have to identify not just the task, but also their missions. You must understand their motivation.

From here, you select the mechanics to include in your screens, and this is where it gets tricky. You need to carefully single out the core drivers you want to activate as part of the core experience. Core drivers are nothing more than the driving forces behind motivation: what makes people do things and engage with something.

There is a well-known gamification framework that describes eight core drivers that you can use as the starting point for design.

Octalysis Framework
Octalysis Framework

Epic Meaning and Calling

Players need to feel they’re part of something bigger, whether belonging to a team or fighting the good fight. For this app, the health motto will have to stand out.

Empowerment of Creativity and Feedback

You need to give players the building blocks and let them play. This can be done by helping them create their own meal plans with food that they like and can easily find in the supermarket down the street.

Accomplishment

People function better if you celebrate small victories—short-term achievements instead of marathons. This is where you can offer badges.

Ownership

If users own something, they’ll feel the urge to protect it and try to get more. If people have been doing exercises for 4 weeks in a row, think about celebrating that, and they will want to continue and not ruin results.

Scarcity

Play with their impatience, and they’ll want things beyond their reach. They’ll want to go for the moonshot. In the app, why not propose a crazy running challenge for a weekend?

Unpredictability

Because they don’t know what’s going to happen, they’re constantly thinking about it. What happens next in the app? Change the rules every now and then.

Social Influence

People do what they do based on what others do and think, and they’re always comparing themselves with others. So, use top scores, leaderboards, sharing options and such.

Loss and Avoidance

They don’t want bad things to happen. Let them know their health risks based on personal data (but don’t scare them off or cause panic); remind them of doctor checkups.

Designer smiles.

In the Distinctive Moments

There is so much you (we) can do, ma’am, but we must not try to use all of these at once. Focus on the drivers that actually can cause a positive response to the core experience. And you don’t really know which they are until you test and iterate, just like a standard user experience. Also, you need to cater for two distinctive moments.

First, a leap of faith. Don’t think of them as users; think of them as players who just downloaded the application and are ready to engage with something bigger and more meaningful. This is what will have an impact on them. They trust you with their health, and this is big. Don’t let them down. Take the opportunity to celebrate their choices and help them achieve their initial goals.

Then, the thrill of having accomplished something. If this is a health buddy, try to create good habits and be there for the sick days, the cold, and the bad-mood days. Forgive them for failing, and don’t be too hard on them when they do. Try, and this will be your biggest challenge, to keep them in the flow, in the fuzzy zone between anxiety and boredom, where all efforts to exercise, eat right or upload their medical exams are a piece of cake (low-fat, low-sugar, gluten-free, etc.).

In the end, always remember to design with the visible and the invisible in mind. Because that, ma’am, is the secret to keeping them playing.