Incentive-based design

A man smiles while showing another man something on an iPad, presumably a delightful incentive-based design pattern.

Gamification is a buzzword used as a magic elixir for mobile apps’ engagement woes, and many companies are quick to recommend it for virtually any user interaction symptom. Seeing a drop-off of active users after the first week? Gamify! Can’t get users to convert after a complicated user flow? Gamify it! It’s a category of tactics that covers all manner of sins, but there is some truth to the notion that consumer brand apps can learn from best practices in gaming, and that’s what incentive-based design is all about.

Gamification versus incentive-based design

The best mobile apps that are grabbing headlines and featured slots on the App Store incorporate elements of gamification, better known in UX circles as incentive-based design. Incentive-based design rewards mobile app users the way games do, but in non-game contexts, playing off of users’ natural propensity to chase task completion, competition, achievement, and mastery. Tactically, this commonly takes the form of leaderboards, badges, points or tier systems, progress indicators, and more in some of the most popular apps.

So why are these tactics so pervasive in mobile app design? Because they work. Gamification strategies have been shown increase engagement metrics by 100% to 150% in mobile applications1 and are deployed by brands to great effect in a myriad of industries. But gamification isn’t a magic bullet that will automatically boost effectiveness and engagement, particularly when it comes to branded apps touting loyalty programs. There are a handful of useful applications of gamification strategies that brands can lean on, and most of them lean on the existing game mechanics found in traditional loyalty or rewards programs for decades.

Maximizing minimal session lengths

Users are increasingly engaging with digital products in what marketers are terming “micro-moments,” the few-second interactions that millions of users make within apps in between meetings or as they’re waiting for their train. Considering that mobile session lengths hover at just over 60 seconds—less than half of the average session length for desktop—optimizing an app for micro-moments can help users be more efficient in their interactions with a brand and also feel more comfortable weaving those interactions into the fabric of their day-to-day lives.

As apps have begun to be designed around these interactions, appropriate design thinking around shorter session lengths has actually been shown to boost engagement and user retention in the long term. Helping users accomplish the one frequent task that makes the app valuable to them—say, checking a balance or making a quick payment—with as little friction as possible will delight users and help earn the app’s place as part of their daily stable.

Within the realm of loyalty or engagement programs, this means making common tasks related to reward criteria as frictionless and expedient as possible within the user flow. Identifying key red routes is an essential part of design planning and content architecture before launching an app, and understanding personas can help inform these decisions even more.

Intersection with loyalty programs

Traditional loyalty programs already make extensive use of gamification mechanics, and were doing so long before mobile gaming became an industry force to be reckoned with. For that reason, many brand loyalty and engagement programs already have these components built in—reward levels and tiers, progress indicators toward next rewards, and badging systems for qualitative interactions are all common among loyalty programs today.

But there’s no reason brands should draw the line there. Many loyalty programs operate like a virtual punch card, rewarding users automatically for ten visits and resetting the card after they’ve redeemed their reward. But brands need to consider not only how these existing experiences can be modified to play better to gamification mechanics, but also how they can be presented differently to reward gaming pathways in a mobile context.

Consider the simple punch card, and how it might be presented differently to introduce some variability and game mechanics into the user experience. Maybe each punch becomes a tile on a game board, and users progress toward an end state that holds their mysterious reward. Maybe each punch unlocks a new badge—a random one each time, or one tied to the item they’re purchasing—and fills out a virtual lapel that users can boast about to friends on social media. No matter the end-user representation, it’s important to note that none of these approaches necessitate a change to the actual loyalty program itself, but instead just present it differently to play to gamification mechanics.