Product Management Thiguys UX Design

Gamification’s important role in product development

A little while ago I read ex-IDEO experience lead, Bunchball CEO and now Google Product Manager, Rajat Paharia’s, ‘Loyalty 3.0’. His book dives deep into how gamification is, and can be, utilised to generate and grow loyalty to brands, products and services. It’s had me analysing everything I do and feverishly looking for ways to make products more alive, more rewarding and better at helping users get to what attracted them to the product in the first place – value.

Paharia argues many companies are building meaningless loyalty programs, generating nothing but mercenary loyalty based on promises of freebies ‘earned’ from frequent/repeat transactions. These programs are easily forgotten and replaced by equal or lesser competitor equivalents with similar benefits and are largely driven by coincidental convenience, rather than loyalty. Paharia built his business on the basis that considered implementation of gamification mechanics can help garner more meaningful relationships between brands and their customers by helping them actually get to the outcome they came for.

Gamification has been somewhat of a buzzword in the business world and having always worked in customer-focused roles, I’ve been among a heap of discussions about it, but have very rarely come across many sound understandings, let alone successful adoptions of it. In my experience, a lot of people’s natural thought progression when considering gamification as a way to differentiate is to jump to thinking about how to turn their idea, service or product into a game or game-like experience. It’s an understandable jump, given the nomenclature, but a common and tragic misconception. In reality, gamification is the process of carefully considering how game mechanics can be used to make an experience more engaging, meaningful and valuable to users and seamlessly weaving them into the experience to help them feel more informed and accomplished through their interaction.

When I came across the book, I was compelled to learn how someone had built a highly successful company and career out of something seemingly very few people and products have a firm grasp on outside of the world of actual games. The fact is, game mechanics and how we’re able to leverage them in modern products, experiences and services are grounded in behavioural science and have been adopted in more ways than you’d imagine and are particularly prevalent in some of the world’s most powerful and successful products.

The core tenet of the book is Paharia explanation of the key links between human motivation, game theories and mechanics and how they can be used utilised to foster genuine loyalty and engagement. Importantly, throughout the book, Paharia isn’t just talking about loyalty ‘programs’ which I originally thought the book was all about. He’s trying to express how these elements are also fundamentally solid foundations to consider for successful product design, in turn generating an engaged, loyal user base.

A few key things to get out of the way up front:

  • Gamifcation is not about making games, it’s about understanding the key value exchange of your product, your customer’s needs and motivations and using game mechanics to spur meaningful, rewarding engagement with your product, service and/or brand.
  • Humans are not motivated by things which are irrelevant to them and lack significance, reason or impact. They are motivated by things that connect with their personal and professional values, goals and aspirations and aid in helping them realise and achieve them.
  • Loyalty is not fostered through mercenary offerings of free stuff to coax further acquisition of not-free stuff (which, shocker, is really just slightly subsidised from previously secured profits), so one may frivolously obtain more ‘free’ stuff. People aren’t stupid and they catch on, or simply don’t care. Loyalty is built through meeting needs and wants, helping people reach purposeful goals and outcomes which can be logically associated with those needs. As a business, you’re ideally able to do this through a uniquely valuable product or service.

Human Motivation

Paharia points to 5 key intrinsic motivators for his ‘Loyalty 3.0’ programs:

  1. Autonomy — Urge to direct our own lives (“I want to control”)
  2. Mastery — Desire to get better (“I want to improve”)
  3. Purpose — Yearning to be a part of something larger than ourselves (“I want meaning/ to make a difference”)
  4. Progress — Desire to see results associated with mastery and purpose (“I want to achieve”)
  5. Social Interaction — Need to belong, be connected to and interact with others (“I want to connect with others”)

The first three form the foundation of Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT). The last two have surfaced in more recent behavioural studies as notably powerful additions to broader human motivational theory and are largely supportive to SDT motivators; Progress informs results towards mastery, while purpose and social interaction add reason to pursue mastery and autonomy. 

Note: For a further deep-dive on this, Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive’ is a fantastic supportive read on human motivation.


Those five intrinsic motivators are at the core of gamification mechanics. We are hardwired to be satiated by the fulfilment of these motivators and each mechanic is designed to touch on them, driving desire for repeated engagement by informing, incentivising and rewarding progress and achievement.

To put it all into context, below is a summary of each of the gamification mechanics with descriptions and the intrinsic motivators they’re linked to:

Fast Feedback

-Immediate feedback or response to my actions

Progress, mastery


-See where I and others stand quickly and easily

Progress, social interaction


-Clear short and long term goals to achieve

Purpose, progress


-Earn and display evidence of my accomplishments which others can see

Mastery, progress, purpose, social interaction


-Progress through ranks and achieve status in my community

Mastery, progress, purpose, social interaction


-Learn quickly and easily in an engaging, compelling way

Mastery, progress


-See how I’m doing against others and challenge them (directly or indirectly)

Mastery, social interaction


-Others can help me accomplish my goals

Purpose, social interaction


-See and engage with others, who can see and engage with me

Social interaction


-Tangible evidence of accomplishments

Progress, social interaction

Note: another great supportive read which helps tie all this together is Nir Eyal’s ‘Hooked’. Many of the concepts he discusses, particularly in the categories of ‘Triggers’ and ‘Variable Rewards’ in his Hook Model, often utilise gamification mechanics to spur user engagement.

To put the mechanics and motivators into context, take eBay as a prime example: Buyers and sellers rate each other (community, transparency). The more they buy, sell and accumulate good ratings on the platform, the higher they rank in the community (levelling up, points, social interaction, community). Their ranking is represented with ‘status flair’, i.e. ‘Power Seller’, ‘Trusted Seller’ etc., on their profiles and listings to build marketplace prominence and buyer and seller confidence (progress, mastery, badges). All previous buyer and seller profiles and ratings history can be viewed (transparency). When bidding on an item, you can see current highest bid (competition) and are notified when your bid is entered, beaten, time is running out etc. (fast feedback, progress, transparency). It’s brilliant.

Here’s how that impacts user behaviour and helps them get better outcomes: When I’m using eBay, I cross-check sellers based on the elements mentioned above, which give me confidence I’m safely buying legitimate products from reliable sellers. eBay is but one example of this (see also: Amazon, Kogan) and the way these elements have been carefully considered and weaved into it are part of what makes it one of the world’s most powerful online marketplaces.

In product development, we focus on user needs and goals to deliver meaningful experiences people value. Every goal has motivations behind it and the key is to develop pathways to help drive people to reach their goals. Implementing thoughtfully designed gamification mechanics give products a way to help users achieve their goals in a way that’s engaging, rewarding, grounded in behavioural science and even, dare I say it, a little bit fun for them to learn, explore and use. All the while continuously giving them compounding reasons to engage with your product. Win-Win!

It’s also worth noting how impactful and important gamification could be in an increasingly connected future, especially in health-tech. Imagine the potential of putting more control of preventative healthcare in people’s hands. Using their current and historical biometric and medical data to inform personalised programs based on their individual records and current level of health and fitness to motivate them to learn and develop better habits.  This is already starting to happen in the health-tech/wearables space to an extent, but both the hardware and software are still lacking to make a real impact.

Throughout the product life cycle it’s important to consider the role gamification mechanics can play in improving how engaging and rewarding your product can be for users. Implementing gamification mechanics should help users get what they came to your product for in the first place and deliver value every time. This will help you cultivate a more loyal customer base who actually want to use your product, instead of thoughtlessly leveraging it for the promise of an occasional bonus. Every product team should be thinking about how they can utilise gamification to elevate the unique value their product brings to customers and help them achieve their goals.

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