gamification feature image

Rethinking Gamification

I first heard the term “gamification” in 2012, when a friend of mine at design school suggested we incorporate game mechanics into one of our projects. Our project was an app which sought to encourage collaboration across all majors of our university, increase class attendance and raise levels of engagement. I really liked the idea of addressing gaps in our education with a new perspective on motivation and community-building, but questioned the efficacy of badges and point-based rewards to do so. The purpose of the app wasn’t to earn kudos—it was to produce better work.

A few years later, I was presented with the opportunity to revisit my thoughts on gamification and how it fit into product development. At, I was asked to help my team improve upon a client’s gamification strategy to increase user engagement in their platform.

Addressing the Issues

The platform in question was built to function within a clinical trial, collecting information from parents and caregivers of children with a serious developmental disorder.

Gamification elements
Initially, the game elements introduced were intended to:

  • Motivate the parents to be compliant with the clinical trial requirements (log X once a day, fill out Y form)
  • Show parents their accomplishments
  • Encourage parents who already have a lot on their plate
  • Make the clinical trial experience more enjoyable and engaging

However, in user testing we learned that:

  • Parents did not understand the badges or how their levels changed
  • Parents thought the badges were for their child’s good behavior, not their participation level in the study
  • Badges seemed to trivialize serious or stressful situations
  • Parents did not know what they needed to do
  • Parents viewed daily requirements as exhaustive
  • Language like “You need to do X” was too forceful and off-putting
  • Parents wanted to see their child’s progress, not their own.

Gamification feedback

Real Rewards

The issues voiced in user testing made it clear that we were missing the big picture. What makes games so enjoyable can’t be reduced to points or badges. Games are about creating meaningful relationships between actions and outcomes, providing rewards that motivate deeper diving, and guiding the user throughout their experience. And in user testing, we learned that a lot of these basic gaming concepts were lost.

Just like in my previous experience, the benefits of the system were bypassed when considering how gamification could be applied. The real rewards (learning about their child and being able to easily participate in a clinical trial) needed to become an integral part of the design.

Gamification 2.0

How did we improve the system’s gamification strategy?
Gamification chart
Focus on Learning:

  • We shifted the parent’s main focus from achieving study compliance to learning about their child. Knowledge is the reward.
  • What they put into the system (and what is required for the trial) is displayed in a real-time data visualization, and provides a rich view of how their child is doing.

Gamification tasks
Provide Feedback:

  • We introduced a daily checklist and progress bar that refreshes each day. As the user completes each item, it gets checked off the list, the progress bar increases, and the chart is updated.
  • We added mobile notifications to remind users about completing certain tasks.

Gamification survey
Improve UX of Most-Used Tasks:

  • We streamlined a daily survey to only ask questions that the user signifies as relevant.
  • We redesigned the survey to measure each item on the same visual scale, instead of an exhaustive wizard of Q&A with endless radio buttons and confusing language.



Before adding game elements or gamification to your next app or current platform, ask some questions. What is motivating your users to use your product? Where do they find the most value, or reward? What are their pain points? Will adding game elements to your platform encourage your users, or demoralize and confuse them?

Instead of trying to incorporate points and badges into your system to make it more fun, look to the more fundamental concepts of game design like behavioral psychology and feedback loops to improve your user experience.

What have your experiences been with gamification?
In the mHealth space especially, what have you done to boost patient engagement?