Pokémon Go and its value to strategic design

Shifting human behaviour through technology

The boundaries between technology and the physical world are constantly blurring. Living in what Dan Hill (2015) describes as a “hybrid digital/physical” space [1], we find ourselves navigating a new series of complex problems for which there is no clear precedent. John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, created a company hoping to tackle two such problems.

The first challenge was to encourage people to get out of the house and start exercising. To combat our increasingly sedentary lifestyle [2], Hanke and his team proposed to design a piece of software that forced users to go outside and visit new places.

“We came with an idea about seeing the world with new eyes, I think is how we put it. But the basic notion was there’s a lot of cool history and lore and unknown secrets in your own neighbourhood that you don’t know about.” (Hanke 2016) [3]

The second challenge was to design an artefact or service that would encourage social interaction in the real world. Niantic saw opportunities to help people connect physically using the concepts behind social media. In what Hanke describes as “a post-Facebook world”, the team envisaged there must be ways of translating online connections into real world relationships.

“We didn’t know exactly what form that would take, but we felt like there was an opportunity to unlock something there. We had those as our guide rails for the product and we took it from there.” (Hanke 2016)

Using these guiding principles the team at Niantic created Pokémon Go, an app that had more first week downloads from the Apple App Store than any other app in history [4]. A few months after its first release, Pokémon Go has attracted massive global attention, caused people to jump in front of traffic [5] and generated millions of downloads. The ‘Augmented Reality’ (AR) app is a location-based smart phone game that overlays pokémon characters in real time onto our screens. The game builds on another of Niantic’s ‘real world’ games Ingress [6], leveraging data from Google maps and contributions from players around the world who have tagged unique locations.

Interestingly, the success of the app can be seen in the impact it has already had on human behaviour. The design of the game is based on users moving around and discovering local landmarks, a feature unique to the mobile platform. Described as “TripAdvisor meets Fitbit with a game attached” [8], users need to explore the physical area to find Pokémon and hatch eggs.

The game is also designed to be naturally social, with users converging at physical locations and features within the game encouraging people to work together. Niantic has found a way to soften the line between the digital/physical and set a new precedent for how technology can bring together physical communities [9].

“ One pair of friends told me that they looked up and made eye contact with others who were playing in the same area, and the entire group broke out in grins and laughter to think they could all tell what the others were doing.” (Wanger, 2016)

Niantic are continuing to add new features to Pokémon Go to encourage interactions between players.

Pokémon Go and strategic design

Whilst Pokémon Go is now used as a shining example of how guiding principles can shape user-centred design, seeing it as only that would be selling it short. In attempting to tackle a problem as complex as the barriers between technology and the real world, Niantic has not simply designed an artefact but a larger strategy for shifting human behaviour.

Drawing on the techniques from other disciplines such as industrial, interactive, gaming and service design [11], strategic companies such as Niantic take a high level approach to complex problems and provide us with a framework in which we can identify key principles of strategic design. As described by Hill (2014), strategic design attempts “to draw a wider net around an area of activity or a problem, encompassing the questions and the solutions and all points in between.” [10]

1. Creating a context for problem solving

One of the main strengths of strategic design is its ability to create new contexts. If problem solving is the core tenet for traditional design disciplines, then strategic design is about providing the context that enables those problems to be solved (Howard, 2016) [12].

At Niantic, the world of Pokémon Go is this new context. Their open platform allows Hanke and his team to continue exploring ways to encourage physical human behaviours. As explained by Hanke (2016), the team at Niantic are constantly updating the app with features to encourage “healthy outdoor exploration and social gameplay.” With new interactions such as multi-user trading and battles, the app is both a design intervention and a diving board for future interventions to occur.

2. Ripples of change

Strategic design is all about transformation and changing things (Howard, 2016). However for complex problems or deeply resistant organisations, a single design intervention may not be able to create the drastic changes required. In these cases, a staged process of different solutions may be needed in an approach that Zaana Howard describes as a “ripple effect”. Strategic designers provide this opportunity for change, acknowledging their contribution is the first catalyst within a greater timeframe.

Similarly, the team at Niantic don’t expect Pokémon Go to completely transform the modern sedentary lifestyle overnight. Instead, their app provides a new model for how technology can positively affect the way we behave. It’s an innovative splash out there in the world, encouraging other designers to join them on a much longer journey.

3. Human-centred design

Finally, strategic design is human-centred at its heart and relies on its stakeholders’ willingness to put the user first (Howard, 2016). This is also a driving principal within the gaming industry, where designers have spent decades learning how to master motivation and engagement with no other purpose than to keep the individual playing games happy and entertained [13].

The gaming industry was one of the first to master human-centred design, providing a structure that is found at the core of Pokémon Go. Niantic’s design strategy is guided by their vision to affect user behaviours so it’s essential that the app appeals to its audience. Described as “an endorphin-stimulating combination of randomness, delayed gratification, and scarcity” (Wanger, 2o16), Pokémon Go uses the engaging and motivating elements of game design to create an artefact that attracts the user and whilst also encouraging its strategic end goal.


Whilst Niantic wouldn’t consider themselves a ‘strategic design company’, there are strong parallels between their guiding principles and processes and that of strategic design. Pokémon Go sets an important precedent for how well-considered design interventions in mobile technology can create worldwide impact and it will not be long before other businesses follow suit with a similar strategy.


[1] Voices from the future (2015), Dan Hill https://soundcloud.com/rmitmdf/sets/voices-from-the-future

[2] Australian Bureau of Statics (2013), Australian Idle: Physical activity and sedentary behaviour of adult Australians

[3] Ayres, S (2016), Niantic Says its Philosophy is to Make Players Go Outside to Play Video Games

[4] DMR (2016), Pokemon Go Statistics (September 2016)

[5] BBC News Northern Ireland (2016), Pokemon Go: Man jumps into traffic playing smartphone game

[6]Hanke, J et al. (2016), Niantic Labs Blog

[7] Wired (2016), The Psychology of How Pokémon Go Gets Inside Your Brain

[8] Wanger, J (2016), The Explosion of Pokémon Go: A Product Designer’s Perspective

[9] Tuckle, S (2012), Alone Together

[10] Hill, D (2014), Dark matter and Trojan horses: A strategic design vocabulary, United Kingdom, Strelka Press.

[11] Di Russo, S (2016), I think, I design

[12] Howard, Z (2016)
In an interview with MDF students (RMIT University), August 2016

[13] Sood, S (2016), What does Pokemon Go mean for service design?


Jordan, N (2016), What has Pokémon Go Done to our City?

Hanke, J et al. (2016), Niantic Labs Blog

Gilbert, B (2016), 8 new features coming soon to ‘Pokémon GO’

Kumparak, G (2016), I played the new Pokemon Go for iPhone/Android and it’s awesome

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