Gamification: The buzzword that can ruin your apps and business

This new piece of tech jargon is mainly about short-term marketing, though some aspects are worth understanding

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But Keitt singles out Microsoft as especially effective in using gamelike approaches that tap self-worth motivation and make normally unappealing tasks fun by turning them into a game. Those who help debug the Microsoft Office ribbon user interface aren't debugging -- they're playing Ribbon Hero.

Gamification for software developers
There's one more meaning to "gamification," namely the use of gaming interfaces in applications. Being told that you should "gamify" your apps so that people use them more can be very dangerous advice. An app meant to be played, rather than used, often requires more work because it's not designed for efficiency or effectiveness but for increasing engagement time. Instead of being able to just do your work, you have to go through all those levels (or whatever) each time.

A game-savvy UI makes sense for a game, and it could make sense in a training or learning app. But once you know how to use the app, a gamified UI could become a big problem.

Some user experience advocates yield the trendy gamification label to sell the long-standing principles of user-oriented software design. If the "gamification" term helps get us past the arcane, unfriendly, overly complex, and inconsistent user interfaces so common in both consumer and business technology products -- from unfathomable controls on VCRs and TVs to Microsoft's hieroglyphic ribbon interface -- then I'm all for it.

The perils of gamification
Although gamification can be an effective technique, it can also backfire. Keitt notes that gamification is best-suited for dull jobs that are not intrinsically motivating. That's why it's popular in call centers and fast-food service, where the number of calls resolved or burgers grilled per hour become results to compete over and where games are used periodically to distract the employees from the drudgery of their actual work. (Turnover in these jobs remains high, but Keitt says gamification has reduced it to more manageable levels.)

On the flip side, gamification can turn off smart, self-motivated employees and customers who see it as insincere or manipulative, Keitt says. Thus, gamification can depress the involvement of the best employees and drive away customers. Keitt says research shows that these people respond better to gamification in situations such as training and education, where they are competing mainly with themselves and being rewarded for showing their smarts and abilities.

There is the peril that the effectiveness of gamification wears off. People get tired of the scratch-off game or bug hunt and they stop responding -- especially the vast majority that doesn't "win." I suspect that even systems with ego boosting at their core will see people tire of the abstract rewards and leave if real ones don't arrive. If your Klout score doesn't translate to a meaningful job, promotion, or reward, you'll move onto some new game or fad. Remember Second Life?

This article, "Gamification: The buzzword that can ruin your apps and business," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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