Interfaces,

true gamification,

and the lazy brain

The more technology seeps into our modern lives, the more interfaces we are more or less forced to deal with. No longer are we only subject to trying to figure out how the remote control works, which pretty much summed up the regular exposure to interfaces back in the eighties, we are now consistently using them, whether it’s on our jobs or in our leisure time. From mobile applications, to computers, thermostats, gaming devices, cars – you name it. Interfaces are everywhere, and by saying interfaces, I mean something no longer only consisting of a few buttons and a lever but a never ending change of layouts, metaphors and workflows. Especially now that our fingers do all the work on many a glass surface, underneath where a customised canvas of whatever task that might be at hand is present (no pun intended).


This is both good and bad. Good when it just works, bad when it does not, and that is why someone like me can make a living. However, what I will suggest here is that we need to incorporate a relatively new particular way of dealing with the bad experiences even more than we do today. Especially when we are considering how our lazy brain often stands in our way. Let me explain.

The lazy brain

Even if we are presented with a seemingly perfect interface, we as human beings have a peculiar mind, that messes with us constantly. No one has made this clearer than Daniel Kahneman where in his brilliant book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ he writes about the mind that works with two systems: A fast and a slow one. The fast one is the one mostly in charge all the time: It is the one that

“…operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.”

It is the one that makes all the ‘gut’ reactions with no consideration for the second system

“…which allocates attention to effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.”

In other words: the part of your brain that stops up and ‘thinks about it’. Although we think the second, a tad slower, system is the one we always use, we are in very generic terms ruled by the first. We mainly act before we think, even in instances where we are a hundred percent sure of having all the facts and details laid out in front of us. For a great number of examples, I highly recommend his book.

This is not good news for interfaces. Because if we don’t ‘get it’ immediately, we either dismiss it or, if we’re somehow forced to use it in any given situation – for example trying to find our way, using a map – we get immensely frustrated. We mostly do not have time and patience for trial and error in our everyday busy lives. If the interface designer’s logic does not dig into the gut feelings of system one, we have an instant conflict of interests.

Photo by Jay WenningtonUnsplash

The design of any interface should follow certain standards, or ways people know or are accustomed to. It should be nicely and properly designed graphically and interaction-wise; all metaphors should be easily understood, et cetera, et cetera. However, if designers have to introduce something new, something more complex or off-beat, say creating a new application that do more, better, but with a new way of interaction, things are getting more complicated. Even getting people to do easy tasks can be cumbersome. Especially if it is one that they do not do very often, or if it is placed somewhere in the interface where they do not intuitively think it should be in the first place, or if it interferes with what they try to accomplish.

One better solution to this problem is to utilise ‘true gamification’.

True Gamification

Gamification’ has been a buzzword for a while now. Also, historically it all got public attention with the Foursquare app, where people earned badges for the completion of certain tasks. Badges became somewhat of a buzzword in itself and almost a standard for these kinds of user interactions: rewards were given to users who accomplished desired tasks or the application used competition to engage them. However, you cannot teach anyone something new by only presenting them with rewards after he or she have solved the problem. You need be pedagogical, not only entice them. This is why we want a more ‘truer’ form of gamification, one that takes into consideration how we learn.

Photo by Massimo Fiorentino © 2014

Children learn all the time. And if you are dealing with language, they learn it by repetition of a particular call-response loop which gradually intensifies in complexity over time. They begin by seeing a tomato, asking “What’s this?” (in the way that they possibly can ask at an early age), and then their parents tell them “This is a tomato.” They quickly learn “This is a…” and “…tomato” are distinct, thus making ‘tomato’ be the word for what they see. Later on, they hear additional adjectives, such as “This is a red tomato. It is round and lies on the table. And I am eating it.” thus learning more complex nuances. Some call this “reinforcement learning”. I know I am highly simplistic here, and I am no linguist or neuroscientist by all means. But this way of gaining knowledge, in the way I am presenting it here, only using my personal simple observations as a foundation, is I believe, reminiscent of the way we all learn.

A typical Rosetta Course. © Rosetta Stone®

Understanding how to learn a language as a child has been used with great success by The Rosetta Stone Language Learning tools. There you can quickly learn a new language as an adult by utilising the same way a child learns one, by something they call “dynamic immersion.” Here you are ‘surrounded’ by the language by sounds (words and sentences spoken to you), always paired with images and summed up by interactive input from you (speaking and writing). It teaches you the structure of a language not by using grammar but experiences that gradually gives you more and more complexity, not overwhelming you underway, while at the same time reinforcing what you already know and have learned.

This “childish” way of incremental learning is also one that is very closely related to the way children play – and again, thereby learn. I’ve seen several examples of children “raising the bar” on a task incrementally while exploring and playing, and this lies intrinsically within their nature. They for example have a particular challenge: learn how to bike. They learn it, then testing its, and their limits: mastering balance and speed. This until they master it thoroughly: playing robbers and cops on bikes without effort. Then they use this skill for acquiring new tasks that lead to new skills: who’s the good cop and the bad cop. So on and so forth.

Photo by włodi (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The same mechanics are used in games in general, especially the more complex ones, such as console gaming. There you are presented with a multitude of unfamiliar interfaces, graphically / mentally (the game itself) as well as mechanical (using a console controller in the way the game demands). Many computer games make you learn the ropes by incremental tasks: First you learn to move the left analogue stick on the controller in order to move forward or backwards. Then the right stick for looking around. Then one button for jumping, the next for crawling, and so on. And then you gradually learn how to deal with specific game tasks by using these skills. Further on, great game design incorporates this method into the game mechanic itself, rendering it invisible for the user, who learns more and more, getting better and better with just the right amount of challenge at each step. If the user feels empowered along the way, acquiring new skills incrementally and in good pace, you have a winner. As long as other variables are considered, such as having fun, presenting a good storyline and more, of course.

What this progressive system does, is that it uses cognitive functions from our lazy brain’s first system, carefully not overloading it. In the meantime, it lures us into using our second system which analyses, chooses, concentrates and learns new behaviour that can be incorporated into system one again. So this loop continues on and on until you master a new skill. Daniel Kahneman describes system one as

“…effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of system two. The automatic operations of System 1 generate surprisingly complex patterns of ideas, but only the slower System 2 can construct thoughts in an orderly series of steps.”

So in order for us to learn new and complex stuff, including interfaces, is by feeding into this loop by incremental learning.

Clippy’s Second Chance

Microsoft once launched a video game called “Ribbon Hero 2” where it served to educate users of Microsoft Office, how to use the ribbon interface. The plot takes the user and Clippy, one of the Office Assistants, to different time periods where certain tasks must be completed before moving to the next period. These tasks include formatting documents, inserting graphs and pictures, and other common uses for Microsoft Office products. It became a very popular game and stood as an elegant way of making users learn a new version of an otherwise pretty well-known, established, yet worn-out interface.

Using educational pre-permission overlays as an invitation and learning tool. From Techcrunch: “The Right Way To Ask Users For iOS Permissions

Another example we can find is in creating apps for iOS, where people have been put off by security messages from the underlying iOS interface. If, for example, an app should be allowed access to the user’s photo library. If the app just threw the automatically generated warnings up on the screen without any notion to the user of what was going on, almost everyone would not accept it. Thus rendering some functionalities of the app useless. No one basically bothered to figure out why the app should be allowed to use their photos, taking the System 1 easy way out, using their gut feeling of the importance of maintaining personal security, and opted out. If the app designers then afterwards used a short introduction in the form of a few words and an image, showing them why they should allow the app access, and did not ask before the users got acquainted with the application, almost everyone accepted. The users learned how and why, allowed the access and immediately made the application more useful, increasing its value to them.

In short: more gaming, less clutter

Two different cases, but one important lesson to learn. In order for interface and user experience designers to successfully bring a user from one known place into an more unknown one, whether it’s for any slight change of an already existing interface, or if it’s for designing an entirely new utility, they need to consider utilising “true gamification” where needed. And if we all can learn by the ropes along the way, when we need to, and with a proper amount of intuitive experiences, we might feel less ‘cluttered’ by all the interfaces around us, reducing the amount of strenuous workouts for our already loaded, lazy brains.