Three Keys to Mobile Application Design – Part 3 Gaming and Entertainment

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at mobility and app design. In Part 2, we looked at social aspects. In Part 3, we will look at gaming and entertainment features to consider with mobile app design.

Gaming and Entertainment

We spend an enormous amount of time playing games or using entertainment apps and services on our mobile devices. When I ride my local commuter train, I see people using e-readers on tablets all around me. I also notice people playing games on their smartphones. When I am on an airplane, there are people all around me with tablets or smartphones reading, playing games, watching TV shows or movies, or simply listening to music.

Entertainment and games tap into a different part of our brains than other activities. We enjoy them, and we find them addictive. They appeal to our emotions: a TV show or movie give us a brief respite from stresses in life. A book requires our imagination, but it too helps provide a break and triggers creative thoughts as our brains fill in the visuals of the story for us.

With games, we feel challenged and a sense of accomplishment when we complete a level or finish a quest. We will spend hours doing repetitive actions in a game so we can get small rewards within it. In a social application, we tolerate repetitive tasks, such as uploading all of our vacation photos, because the intrinsic value overcomes our feelings of boredom or frustration. We know that our friends and family will enjoy seeing them (as will we) and that they will spark comments and conversations.

Contrast this with tasks that we encounter at work. We often procrastinate over repetitive or tasks we find boring, because there is little motivation for us, or the reward won’t be realized in the short term. Application designers and process wonks have noticed this contrast, and have begun to apply game-like processes to applications. There is enormous productivity in gaming and entertainment applications, so how do we tap into that for our corporate apps?

One movement that has become popular lately is called Gamification. Gamification involves imposing game-like structures on work tasks to help make work more entertaining, and help workers become more productive. Another concept is game theory which uses mathematical models to study decision making. Understanding both concepts can help us as we design apps.

Here are a couple of concepts to think about when designing your mobile app:

  • Gamification (provide incentives to use the app, or to take some of the tedium out of repetitive tasks)
  • Interactivity, media, other features of entertainment (tap into emotions)

Gamification can be as simple as providing rewards in an application after you complete a certain number of repetitive tasks. It might be a visual representation, such as note that says: “good job” or a graphic equivalent of a gold star. More sophisticated implementations may unlock new features or content in the application for you, or provide a media break, such as a short video that is entertaining, but provides information that users will find useful. When thinking of a game in this context, think of games that have quests and achievements, where players repeat tasks to score points, or acquire goods or credibility within the game. Some app developers are even looking at enormously popular social games and modeling their entire workflow in a similar manner.

Interactivity, media, and other forms of entertainment are features that allow us to tap into people’s emotions. We like nice colors, sounds and things that move. Features that stimulate our senses (see, hear, touch, smell, taste) tend to evoke emotions. (I haven’t figured out how to appeal to taste and smell with apps, at least not yet. 🙂 ) A clean design with great graphics and appealing colors will evoke an emotion. An app that provides tactile feedback to help train you to work with it in certain ways helps us understand concepts more quickly, and reinforces emotional responses. A bit of video or sound can go a long way. On one app I worked on, we replaced long paragraphs of text with short videos where a professional speaker provided the same content in an entertaining way. They were easier to consume and understand, and fit the devices better since they reduced scrolling and eye fatigue that we experienced with the wall of text effect.

The devices themselves provide a lot of affordances for gaming and entertainment:

  • Game-specific animation and graphics libraries
  • Media: camera, video and sound recording and playback
  • Rich graphics support with high resolution screens
  • Networking to connect to information and different people
  • Natural User Interfaces to support touching and gesturing
  • Movement sensors to support different kinds of inputs or control

Gamification of tasks, and adding entertainment features can help with serious applications as well. One aspect is to reward the completion mentality. When I do chores around the house, or work on my car, I sit back and admire my work when I’m finished, and bask in the sense of satisfaction for a job well done. This is more difficult with knowledge work. It is virtual, so I can’t sit there and look at the job I completed. We can put these affordances in our apps. Furthermore, if there is a sense of reaching a level and getting some sort of completion notification, I may stick with a task and finish it, rather than procrastinate or engage in distracting activities. A user might just spend a few more minutes with your app if they feel they can get some sort of reward for completing a level or a task.

I also like gamification and entertainment features to help inject some variation to keep people interested. lately, I’ve been advising a startup that is developing a mission-critical app. Gamification is incredibly important here because the information and activities in the app are very important, and the people using the app need to be brain-engaged and paying careful attention, or learning something important. If the same old same old pops up in the app all the time, people will just tune it out and click to dismiss, much like we do with terms of service or end user license agreements. We do what we can to dismiss it and do something else. (I remember a popular personal firewall program that popped up with so many messages, people would just turn it off.) Variation and interaction is important to hold our attention, and so that people with different learning styles can synthesize and retain information.

Gamification and entertainment also entice people to use our apps. Many people have over 100 apps on their smartphones or tablets. The difference between them using our app or a competitor’s app can come down to how well we entice them to use our app. If there is little to entertain them, there are no rewards, or no sense of completion when working through the app, why would they swipe three screens over to start our app, when they can use a similar app that is on their home screen?

Charge Extra for Cheating

There are also revenue opportunities to upsell premium content. One app that I designed unlocked premium content at various levels of completion. As a user worked their way through a workflow, premium subject matter expert content was made available to them. After so many steps of activities or completion, consider providing something to reward the users. However, I advise allowing people to cheat. Let them unlock the premium content without going through all the steps, but for a premium price. That appeals to our laziness, and instant gratification culture, and you can charge a lot more money for these sorts of features than you can with apps themselves. Just look at popular game platforms. They have enormous markets related to buying things that are unrelated to the game or quest. You can buy a shield, or different armor for your character, or pets, and other status items just like in real life. A user might only be willing to pay $0.99 for a game (or get a free version), but they might spend $20.00 accessorizing, or for getting other premium content. Look at how popular gaming platforms have their own marketplaces, and the kinds of things they sell. These items appeal to status (I can brag socially about it, or have status over other players because I am unique), and to intrinsic motivations that users may put more of a dollar value on than our actual app. There are even eBay and online classified services that allow you to purchase virtual currency, or a player that is at a higher level of game play that already has worked through many levels within the game. Some people will pay a premium for shortcuts, so tap into that.

The key point here is that we have a lot of choices in the apps we use, so we need to put in mechanisms into our apps that draw people back into them. If we don’t provide incentives to use the app, they may go to an app that is more entertaining and rewards them for repetitive tasks, or is simply more enjoyable to use. Furthermore, if app usage and the information in the app is important, you don’t want them to tune it out. If you want people to keep going back and using your app more and more, you will need to figure out how to tap into gaming and entertainment.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this series next week.

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