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Gamification can be a powerful tool to encourage people to change their behaviour, but if implemented poorly can drive them away

There are now a multitude of apps designed to help you improve some aspect of your life, whether it be your fitness, mental health, or education. Runkeeper, Headspace and Duolingo can be powerful motivators, largely thanks to the fact their clever designs mean they feel less like chores and more like games.

How apps like these successfully encourage people to alter their behaviour (such as going from minimal physical activity to exercising every day) is the subject of a recent piece of research from Imperial College Business School and the University of Cologne. Based on interviews we conducted with the users of gamified apps, we identified several key elements that drive customer engagement, and how each one encourages a person to change their behaviour. We also identified how users respond to them – but also found that not all engagement is necessarily good.

The name of the game

There are a number of principles that go into successfully gamifying an app, with goals and rewards perhaps the most obvious. These are an app’s capability to set targets for an individual, and recognise when a user achieves them. Without either of these, a person is not likely to know if an app is working for them. Unrealistic and vague goals – especially with no acknowledgement of success – aren’t particularly motivating.

App developers have a number of tools at their disposal to encourage users towards goals. One is tracking progress and relaying that information to the user both clearly and accurately. Graphs, charts or numbers are all straightforward ways of showing a user how far they’ve come, and how much further is left to go. These quantifying records provide a simple sense of achievement, holding off frustration and discouragement.

Gamified apps have the potential to help people change their behaviour in ways that might have only been possible with a personal coach

Going hand in hand with progress tracking are prompts: reminders from an app to put in that little bit of extra work to hit a goal. This could be something as simple as a notification or a text message updating a user on their progress.

The last two important elements are a sense of control and social interaction. Users need to feel like an app is empowering them towards their goals, rather than just manipulating them. For social interaction, the ability for a user to share their progress with friends – especially if they are also users of the app – adds a layer of competition.

Here we go

Combined, these principles of gamification can be an incredibly effective force for getting people to change their behaviour and, ultimately, their lives.

Exercise tracking apps can be extremely good examples of this. Users can set achievable goals, such as a certain number of steps in a day. These apps provide regular, detailed feedback to a user about how many steps they have taken, and how close they are to reaching their goal. If they are falling behind, a notification can provide a friendly reminder to push a bit harder. When a user reaches their goal, they are rewarded with a sense of self-satisfaction and perhaps a little trophy for their digital profile. They can share that trophy on social media, and compete with friends who are also using the app.

At their best, gamified apps have the potential to help people change their behaviour in ways that might have only been possible with a personal coach. In an ideal scenario, a person could reach a point where they no longer need the app anymore: with a firmly established routine, the encouragement might no longer be necessary.

What’s the hook?

However, there is a delicate balance between a user feeling an app offers positive encouragement and exhausting manipulation.

Our research found users of these kinds of apps were driven by two different forms of motivation: hope and compulsion. Hope represents a user’s belief that an app can help them reach their goals. Users keep their focus on the goal and the app supports them towards that end.

On the other hand, users expressing compulsion experience something more akin to addiction. They are using the app, but find it tiring and frustrating, or feel they are relying on it to an unhealthy degree. Games of all sorts have the potential for compulsive use, and apps applying the principles of gamification are no different. These users might be working towards their goals, but the “hook” of the application is more compelling than the outcome.

Unrealistic and vague goals – especially with no acknowledgement of success – aren’t particularly motivating

How these different motivating forces affect the long-term profitability of apps is intriguing. Our research has found that, over time, there is a stronger link between hope and users making a purchase than compulsion.

In compulsion, the act of using the app and the positive feedback it provides is a user’s focus; while it might be effective for a while, its novelty will eventually wear off and people will inevitably stop using it. People focused on goals retain a more positive relationship with apps since the outcome of using the app is their focus, not just using the app itself. In terms of enhancing customer engagement, the latter is a stronger force.

The upshot then is, how could you gamify your daily routines for a healthier, more successful, happier life? That’s an ongoing quest.

This article draws on findings from “Hook vs. Hope: How to Enhance Customer Engagement through Gamification” by Professor Andreas B. Eisingerich (Imperial College Business School), Professor André Marchand (University of Cologne), Dr Martin P. Fritze (University of Cologne) and Lin Dong (Imperial College Business School).

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Andreas Eisingerich

About Andreas Eisingerich

Head of Department of Analytics, Marketing and Operations, Professor of Marketing
Dr Andreas B. Eisingerich is Professor of Marketing at Imperial College Business School, Vice-Head of the Management Group and Programme Director of the Full-Time MBA.