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user engagement

Image by Mariana Anatoneag from Pixabay 

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 9 minutes

User Engagement & Gamification: A brief overview

The question of how to engage people, or rather users, is something that gamification experts, UX experts, marketing, sales, etc… almost everyone everywhere are and always will be busy with. And each one has their own thoughts, interpretations and ‘wonder’ solutions for user engagement.

I by no means purport that I am an absolute expert on the subject, nor do I have all the answers or the golden formula that many often try to sell to businesses and individuals. But I do have personal experience of working with individuals in small to large groups, each with a diverse amount of people, and getting them to buy-in and be engaged with various activities. This experience ranges from working with film crews to delivering corporate team building activities and group-oriented game-based learning experiences.

Taking that personal knowledge, as well as insights from others and research I have done with my co-author Dan Griffin for our book Press Start, I hope to offer a brief look at how gamification can engage users and the elements and mechanics inherent to and required for this to happen.

This piece is a smaller introductory article on what will likely become a larger offering, perhaps as an ebook, on individual user engagement. And later on a piece about group-based user engagement, possibly in the near future.

To explore the area of user engagement, I’d like to borrow and partly paraphrase, three terms that I feel best describe the key aspects of user engagement in gamification, taken from the article on Customer Engagement: The role of gamification:

  • Motivational Affordance
  • Gameful Experience
  • Value Recognition

I will go through each of these with my own interpretations and some suggestions around how best to go about engaging your users in each aspect.

Having said that, I feel I must state what this piece won’t do. It won’t be a list of the usual points that every other article about gamification and user engagement is. These so often list just a few elements of what you ‘should’ be using, and how using these few elements will somehow magically make users engage with your product or service. For example, saying that by adding badges, points, achievements and a community where these can be shared will instantly create total and long-term engagement. This belief is somehow pervasive in every article I’ve seen, it’s not that these articles are wrong but it is a very shallow view and often really only works in the short-term. For the long-term, you require a more holistic approach, which includes knowing what your users want and how to engage them through and with this knowledge.

And in case you don’t read any further than this, then there is one aspect I can leave you with that I can assure you will always engage every user. That one aspect is that every person wants to learn something and improve on something. As long as you offer this, you will have a strong and lasting engagement from your users.

The importance of user engagement


As I’ve spoken about in previous posts on the gamified process, gamification is a method to create engagement with your audience. However, in the context of user engagement in this article, it must be said that the gamified process facilitates engagement for the user with specific elements and goals, such as narrative, a sense of belonging, mastery, knowledge acquisition, and so on. The gamified process itself, therefore, is not the engaging aspect as such, it is the elements within that that grab the users attention and engage it.

User engagement then, or rather the user’s attention level to be engaged is a finite resource and a highly valuable resource at that. When you are able to engage them, it certainly confirms that what you are offering has value for the targeted user.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the first steps to ensure that you are correctly engaging your users, and to improve your user engagement, is by finding out ‘what it is that your users want and what they find to be of value’ (Griffin, D., van der Meer, A., Press Start, 2019, p. 190). This process of figuring out what your users want is generally done in conjunction with creating and developing persona sub-groups that segment your users into easy to understand collections of wants, needs and interests.

Once you have discovered their wants and needs, and you are engaging with and receiving engagement from your users, this should firstly affirm the value of your product/service to them. But secondly, it will also offer you the opportunity to communicate with your users directly. Communicating with them will allow you to improve the accessibility and usability of what you are offering and thereby further increase its value. This organically leads to your users becoming even more engaged and motivated with your offering and promotes a sense of loyalty and trust with what you are doing.


Motivational affordance


Motivational affordance is a great term for what can best be described as the overall quality of what you are offering that the user engages with. The clearer the user can recognise the affordance that the offering gives or has, the quicker they will connect with that motivator and engage with it.

Therefore, having clear intrinsic and extrinsic motivational levers that the user can recognise, the better for your offering. The recognition of these can be due to the fact that the user finds them to be intriguing, amusing or because of an outcome that the user desires, and can, therefore, be afforded if they engage. Such as a beneficial reward for them.

As discussed in our book, Press Start, the combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and rewards, has a delicate balance. In the short-term extrinsic motivations can be used to quickly and effectively engage the user, but to ensure loyalty and longevity of that engagement, the user has to transition to more intrinsic motivations in the long-term. And it must be said that in both motivational cases, the user must choose to take part voluntarily. If at any point they feel they are being forced into something, then all engagement will be lost immediately and all your work will have been for nought.

The six intrinsic motivational levers that you need to focus on to transition your users into a long-term and healthy engagement with your offering are Purpose, Mastery, Autonomy, Belonging, Esteem and Safety. Some other experts may have more or may have less, in general, though these are what we have found to be the main levers for effectively engaging users. Having less than these is possible, but obviously lowers your chances of success, and having more may improve your chances. Though do always be careful to not overwhelm your users, this will also alienate them from your offering.

For more information on each of the motivational levers, you can have a look at our book Press Start or explore the blog section for articles on them.

Gameful Experience


Gameful experience refers to how the experience or offering is built. This means what type of gameplay is present, and what the inherent game mechanics and game elements are that are being used within the experience. Examples of these aspects are respectively, such things as resource management requirements, scarcity, quests and so forth. For a more extensive list and summary of each aspect can be found on our GBL Toolkit page.

As your users learn what your experience has to offer, the rules inherent to it, how it works and what they can do in it, they will slowly begin to gain a sense of mastery, empowerment and control over the experience’s system. This sense of empowerment, as you may have guessed from the use of the word mastery, creates an intrinsic motivation in your users, and will push them to learn more and become better at using your experience system. In addition to this, it will offer them a sense of enjoyment that is inherent to gaining and improving new skills, and the ability to better navigate the system that has been created.

This feedback loop of learning, improving, getting further, and repeating, is often the cause and state of flow that is often spoken about in gamified experiences. Entering the euphoric state of flow is yet another method of strengthening motivation and engagement within your users.


Value Realisation


The end goal of any exercise in user engagement, through a gamified process, is that the user walks away with some sense of value from the experience, such as an improvement in knowledge or skill application or skill development.

As a facilitator or deliverer of the experience or offering, you will need to be aware that your users will have various emotions when they go through and come out of an experience. The types of emotions are naturally dependent on whether they succeeded or failed, enjoyed or hated the experience. To situate these emotions, the best practice is to allow your users some form of feedback. As a facilitator, this is done through reflective feedback and discussion, either in group, 1-on-1 or both. As a business that delivers an offering, giving your users the opportunity to give you feedback is another way for them to rationalise the feelings they have, as well as give you valuable information on how and what they experienced. And how you could change or improve on it.

Do remain aware that negative emotions do not always mean that the experience has failed. Some users will simply not enjoy it or will have found it too difficult or taxing compared with others. Gaining a wide enough range of information will help you to discern which is the case.

One last thing to remember is that the user is rarely going through the process solo. They will invariably either be with other users or with people around them, they will have some sort of communal experience. Though the group user engagement isn’t the focus in this piece, (that is for a future, larger piece), it is something you must be aware of. As users will discuss and share their experience with others. Belonging and Esteem are the primary intrinsic motivators for this, this is the need for connection and how the user views themselves and how they wish to be perceived by others. And they are also some of the strongest to leverage when trying to achieve high levels of engagement with any type of user. Therefore incorporate aspects that can be shared, images, stories or achievements for your users.

Final thoughts


User engagement is a fairly elusive thing to fully achieve with any offering or experience. It is by no means easy, nor something that can be achieved overnight. But it is something that you can be successful in if you are diligent and genuine in your efforts.

The main points you need to remember when trying to solve your own user-engagements conundrums are:

  • The experience must be authentic – no hidden sales pitches or placements
  • The user should learn something of value – either inherent to or tangential to the experience
  • Accessibility – what the experience offers and how to access it needs to be clear
  • And the onboarding should be easy and efficient – to get the maximum number of users

Once you are able to develop these points with ease, then you can start to explore greater levels of complexity. You should not be afraid of creating experiences that are dense and intricate, the users that remain with you will appreciate it and they will become ever more engaged the deeper the experience goes. This I can guarantee you.

For more on engaging people, users and more on gamification, please do have to browse through our blog section and our book. And keep an eye out for our ebook on engaging the individual user in the near future!

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.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please 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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