Get Free or Try Hard: Limits of UX Gamification

Get Free or Try Hard: Limits of UX Gamification

If it’s free, it’s for me!

I love free stuff. I mean, who doesn’t?!

Frugality runs through my veins. 50% off if you buy 2 or more; buy one, get one FREE; subscribe and save; free shipping… I am always looking to snag a good deal regardless of what I’m buying. 

My penny-pinching mentality is being taken advantage of from time to time with this little concept known as gamification. 

What is Gamification? 

One of the core elements of gamification is a reward system that incentivizes users to routinely do something. In a non-gaming context, products that include gamification often have triggers that encourage continued use through point systems, badges, and a chance to unlock a neat perk. 

Starbucks is a prime example of how companies have been leveraging gamification principles. To join, users sign up for a free account that can be accessed through a mobile app. By making a purchase and paying through the Starbucks app with a linked card, you earn 1 star per dollar spent. Every 25 stars, you get freebies like free coffee, a birthday treat, drink refills, and more. 

Starbucks launched its rewards program in 2009 and now, more than 10 years later, they’ve mastered elements of UX design to make the program, its apps, and its products more compelling. If I was a daily coffee consumer who enjoyed purchasing my drink (as opposed to preparing it at home), and I’m already spending the money, Starbucks encourages me to spend my dollars with them to track my next reward. 

Does gamification in UX really work?

While there are plenty of examples where gamification provides an outstanding user experience, I’m a believer that it doesn’t always work. Here’s why: 

  1. Target audience and scope of the problem
  2. Overvaluing the FREE pricetag 
  3. Rethinking Starbucks

Target audience and scope of the problem 

 Gamification is a balancing act between making challenges achievable but also worth working for. If a task is too easy, then your product risks boring the users (bad!) but if it’s too hard to reach the goal, your product becomes frustrating (really bad!).

I think Lyft has it a little confused when it comes to their idea of gamification. Every so often when I complete a ride, I get notified that I’ve earned a new badge. Upon looking it up these Newbie Badges are meant to commemorate milestones as a new Lyft rider. “For every new milestone you hit, you’ll unlock another one. Think of it like a bumper sticker from your Lyft travels,” says Lyft in their promotional emails. Upon looking up some of these badges, I realized how ridiculous these may be… For example, the “Early Riser” badge is earned when a ride is completed between 4 AM-8 AM. 

It seems like Lyft is attempting to use gamification to keep riders engaged, but this badge system wouldn’t motivate me as a rider to inconvenience myself by taking rides at odd hours for the sake of completing a badge. Not to mention, there is no incentive here – after earning a badge, I don’t get a discount or benefit. So, when it comes to finding a ride in the future, I’d probably pick the rideshare app offering the cheap trip option. 

Now, if Lyft wanted to turn this badge system into something with more incentive, they could just track the time and distance of your usage. For example, a badge for completing at least 5 rides within a month could yield a half-off ride the next time. Or, if you’ve been an active user for x amount of time, you can receive a free ride to get your vaccination. 

When implementing gamification to a product, it’s important to think about what is the problem being addressed and how it can be seamlessly integrated for the user. If it’s been added for the sake of bringing a “fun” component, chances are it’ll be ignored. 

Overvaluing the FREE price tag

People tend to value free products more than they would otherwise – I’m guilty of this. But with Dunkin’ Donuts, it was really easy for me to realize this. When I moved to Boston, I realized that there were more Dunkin’ around than Starbucks and I started seeing ads for free donuts on Fridays. There were a couple of barriers that stood between me and this “free donut”:

  1. I needed to be a DDPerks member – this required the account creation, app downloading process
  2. I needed a mobile order or pay with my Dunkin’ app
  3. I needed to make a drink purchase for this “free donut”

Assuming I overcame the barriers of having the app and ordering this donut, the cheapest drink on the Dunkin’ menu is a small hot coffee for $1.94 while the price of a donut is $1.21. What if I intended to only get that donut? Well, I would have paid an extra $0.73 for a donut and a side of coffee. 

Likewise, if I was on my way to Starbucks before work and it had a sign that said FREE tall regular coffee, how much time am I willing to wait in line for a free coffee? What if they “run out” by the time I get to the front of the line? Assuming I might be willing to wait in line for 15 minutes for a free Starbucks coffee which would normally cost me about $3.00, how does this compare to my hourly pay rate of $30.00? If I made $30/hr, 15 minutes of work is worth $7.50. So, by waiting 15 minutes in line for a “free coffee”, I’m spending $7.50 that I could have otherwise been making at my hourly salary (more than double the price of a regular coffee). 

The message here is at first, it seems great to receive something free but in exchange for that “free” thing, we sacrifice something else. If a user realizes that gamification causes them to lose something else that is a higher priority for them, they might abandon the experience altogether. 

Rethinking Starbucks

Let’s think back to the Starbucks example I used above… For every $1.00 I spend, I earn a star that I can exchange for rewards in a given timeframe. To help me earn “Bonus Stars”, or receive my next reward quicker, I am able to complete these other purchases like buying a handcrafted beverage and a bakery item. Similar to Lyft’s badges, Starbucks takes advantage of FOMO (fear of missing out, in this case, a good deal) by suggesting “Hey, do this to get that next freebie faster!” But if you normally just go to Starbucks for a regular cup of Jo, you’re now baited into spending more money on other things. 

If you look closely at this “deal”, it requires some mental calculation. A regular brewed coffee is under $3.00 while “handcrafted” beverages exclude brewed coffees, hot teas, and bottled or canned beverages. Handcrafted beverages average around $5.00 and bakery is around $3.00 each. So in total, you’re spending at least $5.00 extra to get your bonus stars which, in return should lead you to a freebie… Except, you just paid for it! 

But does it work? 

Starbucks’ business still wins because it taps into the psychology of variable rewards. To many users, app offers seem like an opportunity to earn different rewards, with different requirements. If users only just want 1 drink, they’re keen to check the Starbucks app first to see if they’re getting anything extra for it—or if they should order just a little bit more to get the stars. The gamification creates a feedback loop between Starbucks and its users.

The role of gamification in UX

Gamification is fun, but also an important vehicle in product design. It’s being incorporated in a lot of products but only a handful are doing it “right.” Beyond just getting the aesthetics of a product right, introducing gamification elements adds complexity and the possibility of overlooking the scope of the project – who we’re designing for and what the problem is. 

Thinking from an empathic UX perspective, gamification empowers designers to utilize human emotions to make a product more successful due to the user’s reaction. Here are some things to think about when designing:

  1. What are the problems your users are trying to solve, and how can gamification help them solve those problems?
  2. Consider the cost/benefit ratio for users: what amount of rewards make it worth it for them? This applies even if a reward is “free.” 
  3. Which elements can you A/B test to determine if this is the right approach for your users?

Looking for some resources to get into gamification and more? 

DISCLOSURE: The following contains an affiliate link to Skillshare, one of UXB’s educational partners. If you click the link and make a purchase, we receive a commission. This is at no cost to you and helps support our ad-free site. Thanks!

Check out How to Build Habit Forming Products, a Skillshare class taught by the bestselling author, Nir Eyal of “Hooked.” 

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  • Trigger
  • Action
  • Variable Reward
  • Investment

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