How Gamification Can Hinder User Experience

Photo by Kirill Sharkovski on Unsplash

Over the past years we have seen various gamification mechanisms being included into every odd platform, product or service out there, and rightfully so — if properly set, they do wonders to increase adoption, boost continuous user engagement as well as alleviate learning curves. Nonetheless, we must be especially weary while employing these techniques because however tempting they are to use, there’s a very real possibility they may backfire, leading users away from the actual purpose of your product.

Exhibit A:

Recently I had the opportunity to work on a scheduling app for a tech-conference, that was held here in Sofia. The goal of the app was to make it easy for people to browse the conference agenda, info about speakers & sessions and plan their conference day. We also had features that enabled you to engage with speakers and sessions by commenting and and liking different things.

In the process of building the app, we made a decision to introduce a rather heavy gamification layer on top of the basic functionality: Users would have profiles and virtually anything from commenting and liking to rating and sharing on social media granted you points, leveled up your profile and earned you achievements.

There was also a leaderboard, showing everyone’s points, as well as actual prizes for the top 3 contenders in the leaderboard at the end of the conference day: a PS4, an Air Drone and a Land Drone.

As one would imagine, when people got wind of the goods in store if they were to make it to the top, heavy competition started to emerge. It turned out the most efficient way to accumulate points was exploiting the comments section under each conference session. You would earn substantial points for commenting, liking comments, and receiving likes on your comment.

Having no real moderation apart from a basic spam filter, this effectively nuked the commenting mechanic:

The points system was a massive underestimate in regards to people’s motivation to win, so what could have been streams of various conversation topics were now walls of shameless spam, with likes!

Probably the worst backlash was that during the breaks and sessions, a lot of people were busy with their phones exploiting the app, hoping to win a prize, rather than talking to each other or enjoying the talks.

Despite these mishaps the app did its job well, people logged in and received the information they desired. The major downside was that the rating and commenting sections were tainted by artificial interactions — not the end of the world, but surely a missed opportunity to make people’s time using the app better.

Oh, and another nice silver-lining to everyone going crazy over points was that one of the ways you would earn them, was to enter a code that you got after buying something from the charity booth. This contributed to an overall higher donation count.

Boosting engagement in this instance was not only disruptive, but unnecessary. User engagement would have manifested organically, since the application was the only source of information about the conference . People that wanted more information or a personal agenda, would have interacted with the app either way.

Investing resources in implementing gamification in this case was a waste of time, all cons (insincere ratings, spam comments, meaningless interaction, unnecessary UI) and no pros.

Exhibit B:

Back in 2009 Foursquare came into existence and instantly became widely popular, arguably due to its very well implemented gamification. Checking in a location, earning achievements and competing with your friends in this context turned out to be extremely addictive, so much so that it propelled the company to the top of the mobile market in a very short period of time.

Checking in however, was originally meant to be the foundation of Foursquare’s recommendation algorithm — when people mark where they’ve been, the app could tell where they might want to go. The problem was that people needed an initiative to feed the app their data, so making a game out of the whole thing was an excellent decision, which worked out very well. So well in fact, that it slowly but surely began to hijack the app’s original purpose, which according to the company credo, is to “..help you find places you’ll love, anywhere in the world.”

People were using the app but not entirely as intended. Foursquare became the “Check-in” app rather than the “Finding cool places to go” app. This was not necessarily a bad thing as Foursquare closed 2013 with 45 million registered users.

However, Dennis Crowley, Co-Founder and CEO of Foursquare had some thoughts in regards to where that whole thing was going:

“Listen, the point of the company, this whole thing, was never to build an awesome check-in button…”

In 2014, the New York based company made a courageous move — it split its creation in two: Foursquare became an app focusing on the company’s initial goal, finding great places to visit, and created a brand new app called Swarm, being all about social location sharing, earning stickers and competing with your friends.

The story of Foursquare and Swarm tells the tale of just how much gamification can weigh in on your product. What started out as a fun way to get people to enter data (a means to an end), eventually consumed the entire app, started changing the way people were using it.

We need to proceed with caution and think everything through when employing these techniques into the experience that we would like to deliver, because they just might work. They can be much more than mere parlor tricks — they make us want to advance within the game so much so that the desire can potentially override even the most thought-out interaction flow, leading people away from their actual goal, just for the sake of points.

Gamification should enhance user experience rather than to enfeeble it, it should be subatomic. Good gamification should be as good design is — invisible.

Product designer from the East EU