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Defying the Odds of Gartner’s Gamification Prediction

Defying the Odds of Gartner’s Gamification Prediction

Barry Kirk


By Barry Kirk VP, Senior Director of Digital Strategy, Bunchball, @barrykirk

Bad gamification works.

I hate admitting that.  I do digital strategy for a living.  I’m a champion of the critical importance of great experience design.

But it’s true. Bad gamification works.  At least, to a point. 

Going Over the Engagement Cliff

The problem with bad – or rather, poorly designed – gamification is that the behavior it drives is never sustainable.  Yes, you will almost certainly see a spike in engagement with even the most rudimentary application of points, badges and leaderboards.  But, inevitably that spike will plummet back to where you started if your audience realizes you’ve offered them nothing of real value. And often this is the perfect excuse for them to turn their attention elsewhere, a phenomenon some now cleverly label the Engagement Cliff.

Know what else tends to fail without good design? Everything.  Your customer loyalty initiative.  Your sales incentive program. Your new website. That vacation you want to take next summer.  All run a huge risk of being a flop unless you take the time to be thoughtful, strategic and design the experience.

That’s an important context to keep in mind when reading the predictably ominous headlines announcing the latest Gartner study on gamification:

Most Gamification Apps Will Fail – Gartner

Badges Beware: 80% Of Gamification Apps Will End Up Being Losers, Says Gartner

…and my favorite:

Gamification, huh? What IS it good for?

The Design Deficit

The problem with these headlines is they exclude the key conclusion of Gartner’s study.  Namely, that many gamified apps will fail because of…wait for it…bad design.

The money quote from Gartner’s press release:

“The challenge facing project managers and sponsors responsible for gamification initiatives is the lack of game design talent to apply to gamification projects,” said Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner. “Poor game design is one of the key failings of many gamified applications today.”

I’m not sure I agree with Gartner that “game design talent” is the requisite skill here. I’d be more inclined to argue for “motivational design talent” which is a more business-focused skill set, but I think the point is the same.  A simplistic application of game mechanics is not enough to drive sustainable results. To accomplish that, you need to thoughtfully design an experience that takes into account how human beings think and respond to meaningful progress, status and reward.

Avoiding Badge Vomiting

The opposite of meaningful gamification design is what I call “Badge Vomiting.” Not the most subtle of terms, but it’s exactly the approach for which most of the examples of bad gamification are guilty -- tactically slapping badges or some other mechanic on top of an existing experience and expecting it to magically drive long-term results.  When you hear critics of gamification trying to make their case, it is inevitably these examples to which they turn. I’ve even done it myself.

The good news is that successful gamification is easy to achieve with the right approach.  If you want to be one of the gamification applications that defies Gartner’s odds, here is my advice:  start thinking like an experience designer now. Do this before you worry about what your badges will look like or what to call your points. A great way to get into this thinking is to work through these four questions:

1.     How good is my current experience? It needs to have some intrinsic value of its own, or game mechanics are just covering up a something that your users already know isn’t worth their time. If it’s not already a strong experience, fix this first.

2.     Who am I designing for?  Who are the human beings in your key target segments?  How will they uniquely view progress, status and reward?

3.     What new story am I creating for them? How will you use game dynamics to re-frame your current experience into something that feels fresh and interesting? What do you want this new experience to say to your audience that the old one couldn’t without gamification?

4.     Why would they care about it? Good design is about more than attention – it’s about sustainable participation.  Make sure this new thing you are creating offers your audience something that is truly worth their continued focus from a standpoint of social engagement, challenge, mastery building and reward.

Wrap your designer brain around these concepts first and then you’ll be ready to move into the more tactical application of game mechanics. You’ll create a better experience for you users, as well as one that you know has the foundation of sound strategy. The results will speak for themselves. 

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