People Love Playing Games. Use These 4 Psychological Hacks to Keep Customers Coming Back for More.

A buzzword in recent years, 'gamification' leads users to make the decisions businesses want them to make.

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By Nick Babich

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Most of us love playing games. Whether it's a sports game like baseball that we play in a stadium or a digital game on a computer, games have the potential to become a vital part of our lives. But games also have implications beyond the realm of pure entertainment: They can influence user behavior and help companies hit critical milestones.

Gamification is the technique of using game design elements within non-game contexts. The term "gamification" became a buzzword in the last few years. Today, many startups and enterprise companies introduce gamification in their products to influence user behavior. Gamification helps achieve a crucial business goal — it leads users to make the decisions businesses want them to make.

Why do businesses introduce gamification?

User emotions play a tremendous role in how users think and feel about products. A positive emotional response from using a product is likely to lead to better user satisfaction. Gamification works because it engages users emotionally (it triggers user emotions and feelings). Well-designed gamification triggers dopamine; it makes people feel happy and excited when they interact with a product. These feelings make users continue using products and positively impact user retention rates. Users return to the product to receive a new portion of positive emotions.

Related: How Gamification Is Engaging Customers and Employees Alike

The psychology of gamification

Psychology is present in any activity that influences user behavior, and gamification is not an exception. When gamification is introduced naturally in a product, it doesn't force users to make a decision: It guides them towards it. Users don't think they need to complete routine tasks, but instead think they play a game where tasks are a natural part of the product experience.

Here are four psychological drivers that can help you create good gamification.

1. Rewards

Nir Eyal, investor and behavioral economist, developed a methodology called Hook Model. The model describes the creation of habitual behaviors via a four-phase looping cycle that consists of a trigger, an action, a reward and ongoing investment. At its core, the Hook Model is about creating a user habit. However, it's possible to create such a habit only when the user receives a valuable reward. So It's important to understand what drives customer behavior and what is important to them.

One simple example of a habitual behavior cycle can be seen in many coffee chains. Customers receive a new stamp every time they buy a coffee in a particular chain. Customers know that they will receive a free coffee when they collect a certain number of stamps, so they become loyal to this chain.

In digital products, it's possible to use similar mechanisms — add loyalty points in products that users can exchange for discounts or introduce a different level of membership for different numbers of tasks completed (for example, bronze, silver and gold) that will give users relative rewards (i.e. 5%, 10%, 15% discount).

Related: 3 Secret Reasons Why Your Brand Needs a Rewards Program

2. Sense of accomplishment

Sense of accomplishment is one of the most powerful psychological driving factors of human behavior. The Zeigarnik effect, named after Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, states that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. By gracefully reminding a user that they still have some task in progress, you motivate them to accomplish this task.

One good example of the Zeigarnik effect in digital products is a progress bar that visualizes user progress in a task they've started. For example, it might be progress in learning a new skill or language. Learning a new language is a huge task. By breaking it into steps, showing users their progress towards the goal and adding playful intention, you motivate them to complete the task.

Another example is introducing milestones of achievement in product design. For example, a product can have a system of levels users go through (start with level one and move to level 10). When every next level is more challenging than the previous one, it motivates users to work even harder to achieve the next goal. Every time users reach the next level, they experience a positive sense of accomplishment, which creates a positive habit of using a product.

3. Competitive spirit

Humans are competitive by nature — competition is baked into our DNA. Competition with other people can increase our motivation and improve productivity. Psychologists often call competition an "extrinsic incentive" because the motivation to complete a particular task is sourced externally rather than internally. In other words, when people see how other people perform in specific activities, it motivates them to work harder to achieve better results, but as soon as the competition is over, they might stop doing that.

Leaderboards are one good example of this driver from the real world. The leaderboard helps us determine who performs best in a specific activity. But it's possible to integrate leaderboards in digital products to motivate users to complete particular tasks. For example, by introducing a leaderboard in a fitness-tracking app, you encourage users to improve their training results. This technique can drive users to achieve mastery in a particular exercise. As players master the game and achieve better results, they also receive positive feedback from the community.

Related: Gamification Tapped by Some Employers to Recruit Candidates

Gamification is also rooted in social influence. People need to see the results of their work so that they can share it with their circle. It's possible to motivate users to complete particular tasks by giving them a badge, a visual representation of achievement, that they can show to their friends and family. Badges become virtual status symbols because they indicate how the users have performed in particular activities.

4. Social relatedness

Humans are social animals, and we enjoy being a part of particular communities. This psychological aspect translates well to gamification. It's possible to improve user engagement if you can make users feel like part of a community when interacting with your product. In digital products, it's possible to develop social relatedness by adding membership in particular groups in exchange for some activities. For example, users have to complete X activities before receiving an invite to the top members' area.

Gamification is a powerful tool that, when used correctly, can have an extremely positive impact on a business's bottom line. Psychological drivers like reward, sense of accomplishment, competitive spirit and social relatedness can help you create a more enticing user experience. When people feel good about interacting with your product, they are more likely to be motivated to use it again and again.

But like any other design technique, the true magic of gamification lies in detail. When you design a new product and want to introduce gamification, you should always start with identifying core drives (activities that users want to complete using your product). Only after that should you introduce game elements that will reinforce those activities. If you achieve this goal, you will create an experience that feels natural.

Nick Babich

Design Director of Milkinside

Nick Babich is a product designer and writer. He has spent the last 15 years working in product design with a specialized focus on user experience.

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