Developer

Gamify your apps to increase user interaction and build loyalty

Starbucks and American Airlines apply game mechanics and rewards systems to their non-game apps to engage users. Read these gamification basics so you can start building "sticky" apps.

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There's a lot of talk in the mobile space about how to get eyeballs on your app. I understand — it takes a lot of effort to make sure users find your app in the store and are swayed to download it. But even if you are successful in your efforts, uninstalling an app takes just seconds.

Developers have to get creative to build what I like to call "sticky" apps. Sticky apps not only tend to engage the user longer on a per session basis, but users of sticky apps are motivated to return again and again. Game developers have been onto the idea of sticky apps for a long time; in fact, I think it is fair to say game developers pioneered the idea of sticky apps. But don't think that just because the intent behind tactics like leaderboards and achievements were created for gamers, they won't engage and delight users of more traditional business and utility applications.

The buzzword being thrown around to describe the application of gaming techniques to traditionally non-gaming activities is "gamification." Working for a premier app developer and some very large clients, I can attest first hand that gamifying your app is a great way to increase user interaction and build loyalty. For concrete examples, check out My Starbucks Rewards or the American Airlines frequent flyer program.

How to gamify your app

As a developer you need to understand gamification in terms of the abstract and the concrete. First, consider the bigger picture.

Game mechanics

  • Points: Points are powerful user motivators. People love to earn and collect points. Depending on the depth of your gamification, points can also be used as a type of in-app currency as we'll see in a minute.
  • Levels: People have a natural predisposition to display an earned proficiency. Levels are the digital equivalent of a belt in martial arts, a rank in the Army, or the title on a business card.
  • Challenges and achievements: Challenges are generally represented by goals. Users like to feel like they have a mission when using an app. For example, going back to our Starbucks use case, customers are challenged to check in at five different retail stores. Achievements are the visual proof of completing a challenge. Digital badges or trophies don't have monetary value, but they can usually be shared via social media. It's a fun way to engage users.
  • Leaderboards: Leaderboards can be one or a collection of high score boards that allow users to gauge their performance against peers; this encourages competitiveness among users. When employed creatively, leaderboards can be especially useful for driving a desired behavior.
  • Goods: In an app economy, users earn points to spend. While the goods purchased with points can be physical (e.g., a ticket to the destination of your choice in the case of frequent flyer programs), digital goods that have no value outside of an app are also satisfying to users. In particular, if the digital goods for purchase allow the user to express his or her creativity, they are often highly sought after. Examples include allowing a user to change the color themes of the app or uploading a custom background.
  • Gifting: Gifting is a prodigious game mechanic that can be applied to almost any sort of app. Being able to send a digital gift, such as points you've earned, encourages a relationship between the giver and the receiver and pulls the receiver into the app to redeem the gift.

Implementation

Now that you have some understanding of the high-level building blocks used to gamify your next app, how do you go about implementing them? The answer is it's up to you.

There are a lot of gamification platforms out there, though in some cases it makes sense to roll you own. Most modern gamification platforms are driven from a web console, meaning you do the majority of the configuration using a visual editor. The most popular platforms include Google Play Game Services, Apple's Game Center, and Amazon GameCircle. Although Apple's Game Center has been around the longest and has a very nice user interface, I often find myself leaning on Google Play Game Services both because I am primarily focused on Android and because its restful API allows non-Android devices to participate.

If you want to get an idea concerning the technical details involved in implementing gaming mechanics, Google has handy walkthroughs for Android and iOS.

Final thoughts

The number of apps you must compete with will only continue to grow. In many cases, gamification can give you an edge, keeping users engaged longer and more frequently.

You don't have to incorporate all the mechanics of gamification into your app — many successful games do well with only leaderboards or only challenges. You can always start slow and grow your gaming mechanics with your user base.

If you gamify your apps, tell us in the discussion which mechanics of gamification you included and whether you've seen an increase in user downloads and interactions.

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About

William J Francis began programming computers at age eleven. Specializing in embedded and mobile platforms, he has more than 20 years of professional software engineering under his belt, including a four year stint in the US Army's Military Intellige...

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