The Overjustification Effect

All user experiences we create should be reward enough for the user.

The Context: Training App

Photo credit: Annie Spratt -

One of the most exciting projects I product managed at Animmersion during 2018 was a training application. Having worked with the client on prior projects, we were presented with a number of problems they were facing and the business goals they had in the field service part of the organisation, particularly in China.

For example, the training materials were not very engaging and the company wanted to encourage new recruits to connect and identify with the organisation.

After a workshop with the company I outlined a simple idea with Andi Liddell, fellow lead on the project. Animmersion have a fantastic team of animators and content producers so we were confident that simply recreating parts of the learning material would be a big step forward in engagement. However, I really believe in the principle of gamification. It was baked into some the earliest designs I had for my own company Graphicly and a big part of my second company Audacious. Employed correctly it can motivate and engage users, and I felt any application we build should contain an actual game. Linked directly to the learning content, with perks and rewards gained through learning.

We began research into the types of games that appeal to Chinese users and came up with a concept that we thought would also deeply connect the users with the client company and its values. We put together a product concept to pitch back to the client. The idea got the go ahead, was built out, and delivered for a pilot group on Christmas Eve. Last month we received the results of the pilot and amongst data gather by them was the following:

  • 75% of pilot users achieved exam scores higher than their non pilot counterparts.
  • 100% of line managers reported both better understanding of the workplace, and awareness of the clients products amongst pilot users.
  • 83% of line managers reported pilot users displayed better confidence in the role and that the app made the engineer better prepared vs non pilot counterparts.

As with many client based projects budget, time frames and changes pared back some of the features, so we were excited to learn this week, that the success of the trial has led to a request for a potential expansion. One that would lean further into the game oriented elements and would be rolled out across all the field service recruits.

While we are happy with the feedback and very excited for the next stage, the image of “colour pencils” is bouncing around my head.

The Lesson: Colour Pencils

Photo credit: Anton Sukhinov —

I had read a lot of research about the effects of gamification over the past 10–12 years, however part of one research paper had a warning which has stuck with me. Published by Carroll and Thomas in 1988, a surprising long time ago, Fun, discussed an experiment studied by Mark Lepper, David Green and Richard Nisbett in 1973.

In the experiment colour pencils were given to children to play with. Half the children were left to simply play with the pencils, while the other half were rewarded for doing so. A slightly surprising result occurred. Those told they would be rewarded for playing actually played less with the pencils and enjoyed using them less.

Lepper, Green and Nisbett suggested that the intrinsic reward of the colour pencils alone was a stronger incentive than the extrinsic reward offered for playing with them, and that in fact, offering the reward weakened the attractiveness of the pencils.

The fun of the original task was lost when the children knew a reward was coming.

This is an example of something that has come to be known as the overjustification effect. I tried to keep that in mind while designing at Graphicly and in future products, as a warning. However more and more I am starting to see the results of this experiment as a challenge.

All user experiences we create should be reward enough for the user. If we build things to match the user’s needs without causing any frustration, we will create joy for the user and any tricks, rewards or games would just get in the way.

This thinking can also help focus when building a MVP (minimum viable product). At Graphicly we had a wonderful reading experience. One which to date I still believe was the best reading experience for digital comic books. In retrospect that may have been enough to attract a user base at the start, we could have focused development on that and got the product out earlier instead of building in the game elements.

We suffered a little from feature bloat then and honestly again with Audacious, lesson well and truly learned. Every time I have planned a product since I imagine colour pencils and set the challenge to create something which is reward enough to use.


Photo credit: Denny Müller —

Which brings me back to the training application. Right now we are planning for the post MVP version of the training product, and as previously mentioned, encouraged by the client, we are looking at making the game elements not just an addition to the learning content but the very core of the experience.

It fights against the idea of “reward enough to use”, so in order to be successful we need to be sure that we are strict on a ground rule: do not get in the way of the content. Anything we add which slows down the actual consumption of, or obfuscates the discovery of, the learning materials is not only harmful but will fundamental destroy the experience for the user and break the purpose of the product.

[The lesson section of this post was originally written for a now closed blog of mine. I remembered it when thinking about the recent product and rescued it via the wayback machine, top and tailing it with new context.]

Manager Interactive Technologies / Innovation Team Lead at Animmersion Ltd :: Founder of Graphicly & Audacious. :: @techstars Alumni