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Reading time: 11 minutes

The Hidden Power of PBLs

Adding Purpose and Context for Maximum Impact

You’ve signed up for a news service, where you get a daily email of all the best pieces of news from around the country and the world. The next morning you get your first blast, finally, you don’t need to trawl through various feeds, it’s all curated for you. You grab the first article and it’s about the latest scientific discoveries, your favourite topic, you devour this article. And as soon as you finish it and click away, you get another email from the news service, is this another bonus news blast? No, it’s an email saying, “you managed to gather enough points to earn our top reader badge!”. You’re a little confused now, you only one read article so far, how many points was that then? And how are you a top reader already, you only just signed up and read that one piece. Was it because it was a specialist topic? You ignore it for now and read another article, about local politics. After finishing that article, you get another email informing you that you are in the top 10% of gold readers and you’ve earned another badge, a gold badge.

At this point in the story, you’ll be wondering what these points and badges mean. What is their value, how did I achieve this, and if you’re getting the top 10% gold badge after two articles, how good is this service?

This is a fictional example, but it’s based on real events. The example highlights how an engagement and gamification strategy is not done well. The service believed that adding these things would motivate the reader, but it managed to demotivate them because the rewards were empty, the “why” was missing, and the service had not properly contextualised the value of the rewards.

Only by giving a good reason, a proper “why” and context for the rewards, do you create value. Adding mystery is fine, but the audience needs to know and understand the system first, if there is a hidden guiding hand that no one is aware of, then it’s usually met with suspicion.

In this blog article, I’m going to explore how a well-thought purpose and good storytelling can transform the most basic form of engagement mechanics, the dreaded PBLs, into one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal.

PBLs: The Empty Vessels

Points, badges and leaderboards, or PBLs, are usually used as shorthand for bad gamification and engagement tactics. This is mostly because they tend to be used on their own. Somewhere along the way a belief was created that as long as you add some points and badges, like games do, then you’ve created an engaging gamified experience.

Nothing could be further from the truth though. PBLs on their lack meaning and value, and because they lack these two things there is no motivation attached to them.

As our fictional example at the start, receiving badges for no reason after accruing points you weren’t aware of, has no inherent value. You weren’t working towards these, and the surprise has no meaning because you didn’t know about it beforehand. There was a lack of information and context. And because of that, you will not feel motivated to continue working because you don’t know how you did it in the first place.

One of the most famous examples, and technically the fictional example is partly based on, is Google’s Google+ social media attempt. This famously gave users Google News Badges for reading various articles. Unfortunately, this backfired, as the users didn’t expect it and it did not have any value to them because of that.

Another example of where PBLs have sometimes failed is with frequent flyer programs. In this case, it isn’t so much that the context or why is missing. The audience knows that if they fly, they get points, and these points can be exchanged for flight tickets. The issue with the frequent flyer programs is that the purpose is lacking for the average consumer. Many of the programs are gamified with a few engagement mechanics that utilise the PBLs. However, an audience will not feel motivated to achieve something if it is so very far out of reach. Often the first points reward will highlight that you may need to do that activity (flight) another 100 times before you might even start to qualify for a free flight. This is highly demotivating and lacks any real value or purpose for the audience.

PBLs on their own therefore are not enough to engage an audience. Your audience needs a why, they need a goal that they work towards. They require a challenge that creates meaning. Surprisingly, achievable hard work is what creates value with PBLs.

The 'Why' Factor: Adding Meaning to PBLs

Providing a clear why or purpose behind your PBLs is very important. These are the goals and reasons that can motivate your audience, and they need to be well-defined.

The why and reason behind a PBL has to do with the mastery track of your experience. As your audience progresses through the experience, gaining mastery at various levels, they are doing that through some sort of measurement system. One of the easiest measurement systems for progress are PBLs. Your audience knows what they are aiming for and what’s required of them to move forward. This is the why, the raison d’etre for the experience.

Essentially the way to correctly use PBLs is to work backwards. You have the goal that you want your audience to reach. Then you start figuring out how your audience is going to get there and how you represent their progress and what the reward milestones are for hitting certain points in their progress. This framework, action and guiding policy of your experience is what then informs and contextualises the PBLs.

One of the most famous examples of good use of PBLs, and one that has a very compelling why behind the goal and the journey, is Duolingo. This example keeps popping up in every piece you read about engagement and gamification. And there is a good reason for it, it’s very enduring, Duolingo is still around and still successful because of its engagement strategy.

As the learners go through the experience of trying to learn a new language, they are immediately introduced to Duolingo’s PBL system. There are no hidden surprises or lack of context. They do an action, such as doing several days in a row, and for this, they are awarded a ‘streak’ badge, the name already says enough, but on top of that the badge has a short description. If there’s a progress points bar, it will also have a clear demarcation in terms of how many points were earned and how many more are needed for the next step.

Another example is with Audible. These at least are a little bit more fun than of any specific value in terms of learning progress. But they are contextualised and there is a reason behind the badges. However, I would say that Audible is very much on the edge between a meaningful PBL and an empty vessel.

A Quest for Engagement: PBLs within a Story

One question you are likely struggling with now is, how you effectively incorporate PBLs into your experience. Yes, you need a clearly defined goal to give a reason to your audience. But that’s pretty boring, you don’t want it to simply be “Hey you need to do this activity 20x over to get enough of X points so that the system understands that you have mastered this skill enough to be given a harder challenge.”

What you need to make that more compelling is a narrative. A story adds a level of interest, curiosity and immersion into your experience. Now I don’t mean that you need to craft some elaborate role-playing story, you can if you want to, but it doesn’t need to be to that level. The story also needs to make sense within the context of the experience.

It’s perfectly fine to create a quest line and narrative around the why and the purpose of the goals you want your audience to achieve. But it should fit for the context it is in. For example, at a manufacturing plant or construction site, there could be a sign that says so many days without incidence. If for some reason this needed additional engagement beyond the need and want for a safe work environment, then the narrative could be close to the real-life story of how Average Joe takes care to always be safe, ticking off all the boxes, gaining points and progress toward ensuring a safe workplace for him/her and their colleagues. Thus, achieving rewards, badges and safety certificates from their employer, and maybe a bonus in terms of holiday or money. This story is far more engaging in this context due to its reflection of reality and what others can relate to. And it would have longevity because the outcome is safety and getting to go home happy (and uninjured)

If you were to go down the ‘turn it into a game’ type of gamification, then the story might be more fantastical. Perhaps a ‘Donkey Kong’ themed concept of avoiding barrels is related to keeping the workplace safe. And when a day of zero incidents goes by is represented by saving the princess. Now this may work over the short term, due to novelty, but that novelty will wear off pretty quickly. The story here doesn’t add enough context, and if the PBLs are themed to that narrative, they will lose their meaning when the novelty wears off.

That said, the PBLs do need to be integrated into the narrative, they should reflect the context in which they are placed. If in the ‘Donkey Kong’ example, the PBLs were generic and stale and were not in theme with the story, then the disconnection would happen immediately. There wouldn’t even be time for the novelty to wear off. In the close to real-life example, the PBLs could reflect the general safety branding of the organisations, the design and aesthetics would be recognizable and it would likely be more valued as part of the brand identity that every employee identifies with.

Designing PBLs with Purpose

Essentially what you need to aim for is a narrative that fits the context of where you’re trying to improve the engagement for it, and the goals and purpose need to align with that narrative. From there the use of your PBLs needs to reflect that narrative in style and be the reason why value is being created in the progress towards the goal.

Now that’s a dense statement, let’s unpack through an example.

For you to even consider PBLs you need a why you would use them. In most cases, the why stems from a need to recognise that your audience has mastered something and that this needs to be represented in some way. So, the purpose of the PBL is to represent a collective understanding of what the value is of something that has been mastered. A good example that most people will know or have come across is the belt system in Eastern martial arts.

For simplicity of the example, the narrative with these martial arts is the rich history that they have. Such as the monks of the Shaolin temples who practiced wing-chun kung-fu, and how every initiate and practitioner in the modern world is following in their footsteps to become grandmasters. Now to represent this journey from novice to master, the individual will need to put in several hours of training (points). After which they will need to prove that they have mastered that level of their training (challenge), and upon success they will receive the appropriately coloured belt (badge/reward) for completing that level. As they are likely to not be alone, an informal competition may occur where each student is trying to be better than the next one (leaderboard). But each level of mastery and each belt follows the narrative and reasoning of the ancient masters. Some levels will focus on strength, others on spirit and so forth.

In this example, the PBLs align perfectly with the goal. The audience is clear on the goal of becoming a black belt master. They understand that other belts must be gotten first, because that is how it has always been done, since the humble beginnings of the Shaolin monks. The visual, touch and linguistics used in all of this create a strong context, reason, purpose and why for how this version of PBLs has been used, especially within the modern age of commercial martial arts.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, PBLs are not inherently bad, they are just usually badly used and implemented due to lack of purpose and context. You need to have a good “why” before you consider using PBLs and from there the PBLs need to have a value that reinforces the reason and purpose of the experience.

Building a narrative, defining a goal, and working backwards from there to correctly implement PBLs is one of the better methods of figuring out how to use them correctly. Use the martial arts example as a starting point. When you focus on the “why” and emphasise the narrative elements that are contextually correct for your experience, then your audience will find meaning in the PBLs you offer, and they won’t be left questioning your intention.

If you found value in this piece, then I recommend that you click the button below to sign up for our email list. This way you can always be the first to find out when aeStranger releases a new piece of content in the field of audience engagement.

And very soon aeStranger will be releasing a beginner’s course on AEX Design, through which you can learn more about the effective implementation of PBLs, how to define good goals, create mastery paths and much more around implementing your own successful audience engagement strategy.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æ, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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