Business Software Gamification Part 2 – Patterns

To start seeing some common ways that gamification can be introduced into the design of an application, you might first ask ‘Why ‘gamify’ business software at all?’.

Here are three reasons why you could consider using features and patterns normally found in games when designing your next business application.

Motivate users to complete tasks

The most common, and perhaps easiest to implement pattern is the points / rewards system. This pattern is at the core of most game systems, and is a powerful motivation mechanism.

Being cynical, there is a fine line between performance monitoring and a motivational points system. A lot depends on the metrics used, and the way the information is presented and used. It’s easy to implement something that might be resented by users, if not careful. The rule here is that the points system should be for fun – no one needs to be sacked for failing to meet their targets.

A successful system can be as simple as using identifying badges in user profiles which are awarded when certain conditions are met. The typical conditions might include things like sales value, number of records processed, time logged in, or almost anything that can be measured within the application. Badges and achievements should be designed so that they convey a users experience level, as well as provide some amusement value.

Many sales tracking and CRM applications already have built in a system to measure various business-related metrics, making this pattern by far the most commonly used in non-gaming applications. Shifting the focus from ‘top-down’ management imposed metrics to something a little more fun can be a big motivator.

Increase engagement

Complex applications often end up with many underutilised features, and introducing new features is often a struggle, as business software users are usually less engaged and less keen to discover new features than gamers.

Many applications try to increase engagement, by displaying a ‘Tips’ window either at startup or through a help system – these are even more underutilised than the features themselves. The main reason for this is that they require the user to switch context between the task that they wanted to complete, and learning about a new, probably unrelated feature.

Role Playing Games (RPG’s) use a quest or mission system that increases engagement and promotes discovery. This pattern can easily be adapted to business software.

Going back to the scenario described in the previous post, for a moment, imagine if the developer had not just pulled out all the advanced features, but simply hidden them behind an optional quest system.

This method can then be used to introduce features in a way that can be easily assimilated by the user, where the user always feels in control and not overwhelmed.

The key elements of a quest system are that:

1) Quests must not interrupt the users current task.

2) Quests must be optional.

3) The quest must encourage the user to complete a task in a new  or unfamiliar part of the application.

4) The quest ends in a reward.

For example, on rolling out a new feature, it is initially hidden, and cannot be accessed from the regular user interface. The user then has a 10% random chance to receive a notification, either when using a related feature, or when logging into the application.

This notification must not force the user to change what they are doing right there and then, and therefore should be displayed in an unobtrusive, non-modal area set aside for notifications.

When the user has time, and chooses to investigate the notification, they are given the option to ‘unlock’ the new feature in the menu or navigation system. At the same time, the user is given the details of the quest, that is, the steps required to complete the task, and the details of the reward – e.g. points, an achievement or a profile badge. This information should also describe in detail what the new feature does, and how to use it. If the user chooses to accept the quest, they are taken to the screen, and guided through the task. Each completed quest is tracked by the application, and completing multiple quests will reward the user with points or badges.

Increase collaboration

Sufficiently advanced applications all seem to end up with some kind of ad hoc messaging application built in, usually either email or chat. The driver behind this is that users want to collaborate. While this is often seen as a useful feature, it’s usually poorly implemented and under utilised.

Game design can come to the rescue here again. Like the other points above, there is no single pattern for how games allow gamers to collaborate, however, most games implement one or more of the following:

  • Guilds working toward a common goal – simply replace ‘guild’ with ‘department’ or ‘sales team’
  • Online discussion/self-help forums for users
  • Friends lists with chat and activity feeds

Business Software Gamification Part 1 – Introduction

I’ve been writing about the gamification of software for over a decade on various blogs, forums and newsgroups. In this time I have seen a massive uptake of the principles of game development in the learning/education industry, with many online learning providers now doing some kind of rewards/points system to motivate users. Any time you see points, achievements or levels on a professional development or education web site, you are seeing gamification at work.

Gamfication is defined as ‘the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity’.

Recently, in one of the projects I’m working on, a situation arose where we needed to remove features from the product due to the amount of complexity these feature introduced. This resulted in a ‘lite’ version of the software, with many features disabled.

After making these changes, I considered why it was that the features we added (which were all asked for) needed to be removed.

The following scenario is how I think the situation arose.

Imagine you are providing word processing application for an experienced typist, who has never seen a word processor, and who has always done their work on a manual type writer.

You replace their typewriter with a a PC running an application that was heavily inspired by Word 2013. Never having seen a computer, or a word processor, they are immediately confused and intimidated by the number of features available. Buttons labelled ‘Insert Table’, ‘Format’, ‘Revisions’ and ‘Mail Merge’ are just far beyond where this particular user’s comfort zone ends.

‘I just want to be be able to type up letters, change some words to bold, or underline them, and print my work.” they exclaim. You can see where they are coming from, since you do all your word processing in notepad.

So you spend some time removing all the features you added to make your word processor ‘cutting edge’. ‘Insert Table’ – gone. ‘Styles’ – gone. ‘Insert Image’ – gone. What you end up with is a glorified notepad application – you feel a little disappointed removing all those features you worked hard for, but at the end of the day – it’s the user that matters.

Fast forward 2 weeks.

Your user comes up to you and says – ‘You know, I really like this new version of the word processor you developed. There’s one problem though. I’m a bit tired of using under-scores and dashes to display tabular data. It’s a nightmare if you need to add a column or another row. What I’d really like is to be able to automatically insert a table with specified number of rows and columns, so I can just focus on entering the data, and not having to re-format my document  all the time. It would also be really cool if I could just add columns and rows as needed’.

‘What??’ you exclaim. ‘I just removed that feature 2 weeks ago!’.

‘Well, add it back, please.’ you hear.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you know that users are not able to accept rapid changes to their way of working.

I’ve been a proponent of the gamification of business software for a long time, and I think the time is right for software developers to look at the the principles and elements of game software to improve the usability and engagement of business applications by applying the principles that make games, and more recently, learning software, more engaging, interesting, and user-friendly.