Gamification is a fad. Shall we call it Motivational Design?

Less about mechanics more about motivation

Yep! I said it, the term gamification is a fad, now let me tell you why. The term ‘fication’ is a suffix which usually denotes the transformation or action on something or someone. Here are some examples:

Simplification: simplifying something further.

Beautification: making something either more beautiful or less hideous.

Solidification: turning something into a solid state.

This, from the start instills a mentality offication’. Meaning that it’s ok to build a system, a framework, a flow, a design, an experience and ‘fication’ it, i.e. add game mechanics at a later stage. I can hear you asking so what’s wrong with that?

Debunking the buzzword

Well a buzzword’s main achievement is that of popularising a coined term so that everyone understands what we are talking about (except my parents… they still don’t have a clue of what I do). The problem with the ‘fication’ mentality is that it’s like putting lipstick on a pig (💄+🐷).

Gamification is not simply taking something and putting game mechanics or elements on it to make it gamified. It’s more than that. So from now on let’s agree to call it motivational design. Ok? Ok!

Referring to Gartner’s Hype Cycle every new innovation almost always follows the same curve. Gamification was not different, it followed the same 5 stages of the Hype Cycle Curve which are the following:

  1. Innovation or Technology Trigger; Early 2010 there was the innovation trigger, let’s call it “the spark” where gamification gurus started introducing and evangelising gamification as a way of enhancing your products and services.
  2. Peak of Inflated Expectations; everyone started slapping the glorified PBL (Points, Badges, Leaderboard). People tried to mimic simple games in the early 80’s that had huge success with such simple mechanics. This was done ignoring all the underlying game design that went in these games to achieve an engaging experience.
  3. Disappointment; Gartner predicted that by 2014, 80% of all the gamified solutions out there would fail due to poor design.
  4. Slope of Enlightenment; after the wave of disappointment, people started realising that it’s not as easy as it sounds. As long as these mechanics did not augment the experience of using the product and genuinely engaged people then it would not work.
  5. Plateau of Productivity; eventually the curve stabilises itself reaching a consistent plateau of productivity where gamification finds it’s niche in the market and actually starts solving real problems and get good ROI.
Gartner’s Gamification Hype Cycle

The Designers’ Evolution

The whole tech revolution brought with it a series of interesting events, software and online services were developed mainly for one reason — to get the job done. With the consumer-isation (see what I did there?) of tech the industry started realising that these systems need to be well designed and look better so people would love using them.

Enter web designer whose sole purpose at that time was to develop and design a pretty system whilst following all the hip trends happening at that time (we all are guilty of bevel and emboss and all ‘em lens flares). Some more time passes by and people started realising that this is not cutting it because apart from making these systems look pretty we should make them usable too.

This gave rise to the mighty UX unicorns who carried the flag of usability, user centric design with a side dish of hipsterism. So the gold rush of UX was mainly bringing about the concept of designing for the most frictionless path possible for the user. Some more years pass and gamification emerges as a buzzword, “games get people hooked for hours at end”, so let’s take game elements (Leaders, Points, Badges) and slap them on a perfectly usable system and voila Gam-‘ification’. WRONG! So what’s wrong with that? Well, what was happening is that since gamification was being applied as a cool afterthought in some instances it was failing miserably and not living up to its promise.

Motivational Design

Enter motivational design. I think this will be the next gold rush in design. It’s not acceptable anymore to design for the path of least friction; us designers have the role and responsibility of motivating our users towards a desired action. Ok, so let’s engage in this example for a second.

Someone can give you all the tools, facilitate and remove all friction from your way to punch a wall, but would you? Now imagine someone would do the same thing and challenge you that they could punch the wall harder than you and if that holds false you would become the 🏆 🏆 Champion of Wall Punching 🏆 🏆 Ha! you were thinking about it for a second!

Nothing major changed in both scenarios, in the second scenario you where motivated to do an undesirable action just by framing it in a narrative and promising you status.

Let’s take another famous example, the escalator one from Odenplan, Stockholm. The Fun Theory (Volkswagen) embarked on a mission to change subway users’ behaviour. Can we get more people to go up the stairs vs using the escalator? Using the same analogy we used before the escalator was the UX response towards society (the path of least resistance). What people from the Fun Theory set to do is to get people to use the stairs more, contributing to their overall health by using two simple game mechanics randomness & creation. People did not know what to expect when they saw the large piano stairs so they engaged with it and where delighted with the outcome, in fact 66% more subway users chose the stairs over the escalator.

Piano Staircase — Odeplan, Stockholm

Going forward this will be a very important skill that us designers need to refine and advocate. A couple of years ago UX designers were these unicorns that you employ and DONE — all your problems are solved. Well, those days are over, UX design is a prerequisite for any product designer and I think motivational design will be as well very soon, not only for designers but for everyone that is trying to tackle a problem and solve it in a creative way.

Motivational design is a state of mind, it’s a way of thinking i.e. when trying to find a solution to a problem your first thought will be how can we motivate users and direct their behaviour rather than putting lipstick on that damn pig.

A product enthusiast in love with untangling complex problems and passionate about technology and design.