What is game theory and gamification?
“Game theory is essentially the branch of mathematics that is concerned with the analysis and devising of strategies that deal with competitive situations where the outcome of a participant’s choice of action depends critically on the actions of other participants. It is at the least, the insights that lead to optimal decision-making of independent and competing actors in a strategic setting.”
The concepts and ideas on which game theory is built has been extensively cited and applied to contexts like war, business, technology, and even biology. Using game theories in areas not otherwise associated with games is often referred to as gamification and it is one of the key influencers when it comes to interaction design. In the context of interaction design (specifically) gamification is used extensively to design task flows and interaction touch points across a product which will challenge, aid and resolve the users’ needs.
Here is an example to illustrate …
Think of the ubiquitously used task flow – logging in to a product. “What possible strategy can be applied to overcome this “challenge”?”, you might think.
Now envision this situation being faced by someone who has never used a digital product. It surely will be challenging to them. How do you think the user will apply gamification? Their first logical step would be to relate the term “logging in” to something meaningful to them? The terminology they will see on the screen might appear challenging – so, they will try to strategize their next set of actions to accomplish this task. They will relate it to what they think is relevant to logging in. They have the process by which an individual gains access to a system in their mind and will immediately start looking for something that will allow them to do so. A key! A password. By the end of this thought processing, they will know that need a key or somekind of password to proceed.
Now, in the scenario where they have a username and password already provided to them, they will simply enter those in the input fields and login. But, in the scenario where they do not have a username and password already provided to them, they will look for clues and visuals that might resemble a key or an option to obtain it. In comes the “Not a user? Sign up Now” link or maybe the key or lock icon that will preceed the password input field’s label or maybe the textual instructions like “You email address is your username”.
Why is it important to “gamify” interaction?
In both of the above scenarios and the process preceding them, the users’ best bet is to look at the infomation presented on the screen, process it and then strategize their way forward. This entire process of strategizing and proceeding step by step never really stops when users communicate and navigate through designed products. Products are designed keeping in mind the preferences and comfort of its user base but realistically, designers have to accept that they are working on set guidelines and perceptions that can help them capture the attention of and be usable to most of its user base but not everyone. What will not fail them however is the inherent quality of humans to devise plans and take judgement calls to help them navigate through life. We do this day in and day out, everyday. And gamification in interaction design can help designers use this strength of their own user base to make their products have the following key attributes :
- A product is persuasive i.e. its primary objective is immediately apparent.
- A product is emotional i.e. it has a positive emotional impact of making the user feel accomplished and successful in their usage of the product. And finally,
- A product is credible i.e. at no point in time should the user feel misguided or come across a screen or message which they can not relate to their intended aim.
It’s natural, then, that game theory influences interaction design. Gamifying a site or app can create a more fulfilling and personal user expreience – not to mention it is more fun!
How important is it to consider ‘habit loop’ when strategizing a product’s interactivity?
The habit loop from game theory is essentially what makes video games (and many other other activities enjoyable) fun, and it translates directly to user experience design. It is a powerful tool indeed for user experience design because it guides – almost trains – users to continually perform favorable actions. This is used extensively for task flows that are common across multiple sites/apps to create a general perception of a user interface pattern. Think about a form, a button, a login page, a menu. Now think about the same user interface patterns across as many sites or a app you might have used. They all have a common structure, a common goal and a common acknowledgement – doing these functions again and again has established these user interface patterns in a user’s mind to such an extent that they can do it with zero strategizing! Gamification even applies to interactivity where it is invisible and not even remotely apparent.
According to product design expert and famed author Nir Eyal, all great habits hook users through four interconnected phases:
Cues (or triggers) – In this context, the cues are the visual information that prompts a game player (a user in our case) into action. Eg. Think about the statement “What is on your mind?” in your Facebook feed page – user starts thinking about how can they communicate this to Facebook and Facebook provides him with more cues on how to do it – whether they want to convey through and image, a video, their location, an audio clip etc. A product has multiple cues strategically placed through different points, in it.
Routines (or actions) – These are what the player actually does in the game (a product in our case), whether it’s fighting monsters, shooting bad guys, or solving puzzles. Eg. In the context of Facebook you are continually bombarded with data, some information and the same repetitive action of communicating “What is on your mind?” to Facebook and your social media friends.
Rewards – Tangible rewards include leveling up and unlocking achievements or items, while intangible rewards include the visual delight of advanced graphics and fun gameplay. Eg. its Facebook again and think about the likes and personalised reaction that you receive from your social media friends for following the cues and keeping up with the action of letting them know “What is on your mind?”. This cycle when continues, creates a tangible value with which your social media influence can be measured.
Investments – As players strengthen their character and advance in the plot, they become personally invested in the game’s events and final outcome. Eg. think why billions of users are hooked to Facebook? Because the validation of their social media influence elevates their position further in their social circle and helps them reach more and more people. The user becomes invested in tracking and monitoring their influences when measured on various scales like time, media, connection and so on.
Gamification works based on human behavior – it coincides with the natural mechanisms of learning and having fun that are already in place within us and it is upto a good user to integrate a sustainable and stable relationship between the 4 phases stated above to create a habit loop that will make a product’s user experience fun for users.
Following are some of the ways in which designers can apply their understanding of gamification to make their design engaging and hence letting the users be more engaged or invested in the experience.
Make the users feel smarter
Enhance the tasks that the user already has to do by removing obstacles and barriers. Guide by hand the first time, then allow users to do it by themselves. Avoid a patronizing tone and keep congratulations to a minimum.
Enable discovery of advanced features
When you hide advanced features, you simultaneously make things simpler for novice users while giving power users a sense of accomplishment and exclusivity. As described in our Interaction Design Best Practices: Book I, the discovery of new features gives users tiny, random rewards that makes them more productive and engaged, entrenching a habit loop to search for more.
Slick, elegant UI
Well-planned interfaces – with good performance, smooth transitions, consistent tone, and polished design – make users themselves feel more polished and their tasks better executed.
Let users define their standards for progress
People have wildly different notions of “better.” Don’t enforce your rules on them, and instead give users ways to set their own milestones. The system should be a measurement tool rather than a coach.
Show users their progress
Make them see their achievements in an objective, rational way. Remind them subtly of how they were when they first began.
Flow is critical
Cut out interruptions. Allow users to immerse themselves completely in a task. Offer discrete feedback to what’s happening. If possible, allow users to lose their sense of time. When you are motivated, time flies.
Don’t force things to be a game
This should be pretty obvious by now. Imposing a game over existing social or behavioral dynamics will make everyone feel awkward. Real games are fun precisely because they are opt-in, not forced. This distinction can make all the difference.
And now, for some great example of digital products that use gamification to improve their UX are :
Learning languages in Duolingo is really fun, light, and motivating. The key is that it provides a fun way of learning something that users already wanted to learn. People really want to learn languages for fun, for travel, for business, for relationships, etc and Duolingo tackles this tough subject with a light approach and provides the student with a sense of progress. By making you advance through levels, it gives users an objective measure of their advancement. Passing these levels is just the right amount of difficulty, so users do make a few mistakes, which in turn actually enhances the sense of unpredictability that is key to keeping them engaged.
Far from the typical to-do list, Trello is a notable exception that acknowledges that tasks may have different states, and that the binary “done” and “not done” approach is not useful for most purposes. Intermediate states allow users to differentiate the tasks they have already started working on from the things they have not. This is crucial, because starting a task is the most difficult part. A binary to-do list does not let users see that.
Dragging and dropping cards across stacks is a natural interaction pattern that and helps users feel that they are actually making a task move forward. And, most important, they have a stack of “done” cards, so they can see things you already achieved, creating a habit loop that motivates them to achieve more. Trello succeeds by recognizing that the things a user has done matter just as much as the ones they have not done yet.
GitHub is a weird hybrid of a repository hosting service and a social network. As a repository service it works quite well, but the social features are what makes it shine as the largest repository of code in the world. Like no other platform, GitHub allows developers to showcase and visualize their work. This is true in many of their features: from the most followed or forked repositories, to the network graph visualizer, the profile contributions graph, and so on.
These tools allow users to assess the quality of a developer in a rational way, so the prestige earned in the platform is completely deserved. That’s why many companies who hire developers are actually relying much more on profiles from GitHub than LinkedIn – or even resumes – and developers in turn show proudly their GitHub profiles as proof of their talent.
The currency of GitHub is true work reflected through values such as number of commits, contributions and the intensity of it on a project, followers and so on. These values, when visualised, prove to be infinitely more valuable than any point system like the recommendation system on LinkedIn when gauging the quality and knowledge of a developer.
GitHub even arranges the developer’s contribution visualisation chronologically, allowing developers to showcase their growth over time.
Just like Duolingo, Fitbit device and the accompanying app thrives on the user’s own motivation. It follows very basic yet important gamification principles that allow users to set their own goals and track their progress.
Beyond the basics, it also takes advantage of the merits of competition by enabling users to share their progress in a community setting.
What works about Fitbit, along with other successful gamification apps, is that they enhance what’s already there. Their usage of the habit loop fits organically into the structure the users themselves desire. It understands that losing weight and staying healthy requires social support to be successful, then transforms that process into a competitive yet encouraging activity i.e. it utilises the path of least resistance rather than gamify the product by creating artificial motivation.
To conclude, what truly works towards the success of a product is a progressive narrative, an intuitive learning environment, enabling an activity to be either competitive or collaborative, and the overall enjoyable nature of gaming are all concepts that will always apply to UX design. Once a user is emotionally invested, a designer would have successfully formed a habit of interacting with the design. And that is what it is all about!
In the end, it is only common sense that if a designer wants to make their design addictive, they have got to make it habitually enjoyable.