Gamification and user engagement in e-learning and documentation

For the past year I’ve been working at a gamification startup company called Badgeville in Silicon Valley. Badgeville is one of a handful of companies specializing in “gamification.” When you gamify an application, you integrate game elements into non-game contexts to better engage your users.

If done right, gamifying an application can increase the engagement of your users by up to 48%, compared to only 28% for those who don’t use gamification, according to surveys by the Aberdeen Group.

When your users are engaged, they participate more fully on your site – commenting, voting, sharing, rating, posting, downloading, or performing other actions. This is why Gartner predicts that 70% of companies will have at least one gamified application by 2014.

Examples of gamification

When I tell people I work for a gamification company, their reaction is usually one of confusion. Yet the world around us has been gamified for a long time under other names.

Here are a couple of non-Internet examples you’ll immediately recognize. The badges in scouting programs are a game element. Sewing a badge onto my daughters’ Brownie and Daisy Girl Scout uniforms gives them a sense of achievement and status which in turn motivates them to participate in their troop even more. The badges in Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts derive from the badges and ranks in the military.

When you get a punchcard at a local store that requires you to buy 10 ice cream cones in order to get one free, that’s a game element. When you get frequent flier points and free hotel nights for flying thousands of miles on an airline, that’s a game element. These game elements are designed to increase your loyalty by providing a concrete measure of progress and encouraging you to perform specific tasks with a free item as the reward.

Gamifying activities isn’t new, and now companies are gamifying their applications too. No doubt you’ve seen game elements on many forum sites. For example, with Madcap Software forums, as you respond to user threads, you rack up more posts and increase your status. As you increase your posts, you move from a Junior Propellerhead to a Propellus Minorus to Senior Propellus Maximus and more. Your status increases both your trustworthiness and reputation.

Stackoverflow.com provides another example of gamification. Your reputation increases as you answer questions, receive votes for your answers, and participate in other ways. Here’s a profile of a user who has provided more than 2,000 answers.

stackoverflow profile

In community settings like forums and wikis, where user interaction is needed to drive the site’s content, giving users reputation points, badges, status, and other feedback can inspire them to participate and engage more.

Many online education sites, such as codeacademy.com, khanacademy.org, codeschool.com, and others implement game elements to better engage users. The more courses and lessons you complete, the more badges you earn.

Here’s a screenshot from Khan Academy. The goal or “mission” is to complete all the tasks so that you darken each square in the bar. This simple graphic helps you visualize your progress in mastering a skill.

Khan Academy

Of course, you don’t go to the sites because of the badges, but the game elements do make learning more fun and rewarding.

Designing gamification solutions

Engaging users through game-like elements is not an easy task. Although many companies are gamifying applications, Gartner says that about 80% of the gamification programs will fail.

To design a successful gamification/engagement strategy for your application, you have to do some careful analysis and planning. You start by identifying the goals of your users. What do your users want to do and achieve?

Next, you define the goals of your business. What business objectives do you have for your users?

Then comes the magic question: Are there ways to leverage your user’s goals and values to achieve your business’ ends? Figuring out ways to overlap the users’ goals with business goals is the art and science of successful gamification in the corporate world.

If you’ve ever been on a site where you “earned a badge” without even understanding what the badge is for or what it represents, the game element can be somewhat meaningless.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to learn JavaScript and you suddenly earn the “JavaScript Level 1” badge, this badge is much more meaningful. It relates to an actual goal you have.

If the badges motivate your users to subscribe to your site to continue learning, then you’ve achieved a business end.

Intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards

When designing rewards, one factor to consider is whether to focus on intrinsic rewards (like a badge representing learning), or extrinsic rewards (such as free airline travel).

Despite what you might expect, extrinsic motivators aren’t the most powerful form of engagement. The problem is that extrinsic rewards place the value of the activity on something other than the activity itself.

For example, if you give your child $5 for reading a book, you might soon find that the child becomes interested in reading as a means of earning money. When you remove the extrinsic motivator, the child might lose the desire to read.

Nevertheless, extrinsic motivators have their place in engagement. At times, users may not know the value of the activity. An extrinsic motivator can help introduce users to an activity they might not otherwise perform. And once introduced, the user can transition from an extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

For example, Ellis Pratt relates how Atlassian provides T-shirts to users who successfully implement JIRA, completing the Dragon Slayer installation game. The T-shirts are pretty popular. Though an extrinsic motivator, the T-shirts help people feel good about their success in installing JIRA. It helps transition them to actually using and administering JIRA.

However, when possible, engaging users intrinsically is preferable. Intrinsic motivators connect with a user’s inner values, so intrinsic motivators can engage users for the long term.

For example, if you want to live a healthy lifestyle, an application that counts calories and gives you badges for hitting your calorie targets can motivate you intrinsically. In this scenario, the company doesn’t need to send you a free T-shirt for performing the desired behavior because that behavior already connects with a goal you value.

If all users’ goals already aligned with business goals, companies wouldn’t have much of a need to gamify anything, since users would already be engaged. Gamification can help get users to take the next step, such as to downloading, subscribing, or purchasing a product.

Status motivators and universal reputation

One of the strongest intrinsic motivators is status. Badges that reinforce your status as an expert in a specific industry have a strong appeal and innate value to professionals in that industry.

For example, in tech comm, when MindTouch released their industry influencer badges, dozens of people quickly added these badges to their sites because, although just a simple graphic, it had real value and meaning. (The badge also served a business objective for Mindtouch: increasing the visibility of their company.)

One problem with badges is that they often have meaning only within the site where you earned them. For example, the badges you earn from codeacademy.com appear only on your codeacademy.com profile. But what if you could take your badge with you?

Mozilla’s Open Badges project does just that. You can “earn badges from anywhere, then share them wherever you want—on social networking profiles, job sites and on your website.”

Mozilla Open Badges

For example, organizations might create an e-learning course on their site focusing on a specific skills (e.g., SharePoint Administration), and reward users with an Open Badge for completing it. The user can then display the badge on his or her own site and profile, which increases the value of the badge beyond the scope of the site where the user earned it. This kind of status recognition is known as a “universal reputation.”

Gamifying documentation

The many successful examples of gamification probably have you wondering whether gamifying documentation might help increase engagement among your users.

It certainly could, but gamification solutions are usually more connected to e-learning than standalone documentation. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, you need a login system to track users. This usually means your documentation needs to be housed on a website where each logged-in user and their actions are identifiable.

Second, you’ll probably need developer resources to integrate your engagement program with your website. Each time the user clicks a button, views a video, or takes some other action that you want to encourage, you need event listeners to trigger and communicate with a system that gives points, rewards, or other feedback to the user.

In your documentation, you might give points to users for reading content, voting on articles, and providing comments. Additionally, if you have a wiki, you might give users points and badges for editing and creating new articles.

However, this kind of gamification isn’t nearly as successful as giving users points and badges for finishing courses, watching a series of videos focused on learning a specific goal, or for demonstrating expertise in a knowledge domain.

Badges in an e-learning context are meaningful to users because they represent progress in mastering a subject the user wants to learn. When you complete a course, you receive immediate positive feedback in having achieved more learning. The badges are a way of visualizing your progress and effort in learning a specific subject.

In contrast, documentation – written as modular, standalone topics – usually doesn’t encourage users to master a specific subject in the same way. Users often consult documentation as they would an encyclopedia – to find answers to specific questions, or to learn how to do a specific task. But documentation isn’t written from the perspective of guiding users to achieve mastery in a specific skill set. That’s more in the realm of e-learning.

When considering the best ways to leverage gamification for your documentation, instead of looking for ways to gamify your documentation, look for ways to integrate documentation into e-learning and other gamified strategies.

If the e-learning course requires you to do specific tasks, look for ways to integrate documentation into those tasks. This means more context-sensitive help within an interface, and more modular documentation that can be repurposed into e-learning contexts, where the documentation guides users toward specific learning missions.

In the following screenshot from a jQuery course on codeschool.com, you can see how the on-screen text within the gamification program links to documentation for more information.

codeschool.com course on jQuery

Another strategy might be to more seamlessly blend documentation and training. Rather than putting documentation in one silo and training in another, bring your training content into your documentation by including tutorials for users to complete. Gamify the tutorials with progress indicators, rewards upon completion, and other challenges. In this model, not all content is gamified — just the tutorials, exercises, and quizzes in your documentation.

Conclusion

Companies leverage game elements into their products because gamification has proven to better engage users. Connecting tasks that users value with business objectives can be challenging, but not impossible, especially when mixing intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Gamifying e-learning contexts seems to have the most promise for technical communication.

Whether you use gamification in your company or not, you can get value out of the basic principle of gamification, which is that making an activity game-like, with points, badges, leaderboards, and other game components, makes it more fun. When an activity is fun, your engagement increases.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for The 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

6 thoughts on “Gamification and user engagement in e-learning and documentation

  1. Diana Logan

    Great post. Demystified and beautifully explained as always. Good extrinsic/intrinsic reward explanation. My kids love the “awards ceremony” that goes with the completion of a reward chart way beyond any token prize I might offer!

  2. Mica

    Nice post Tom!

    In participating at StackOverflow, it seems like the gamification has gone overboard at times… are there negatives to gamification or a point where it becomes more about the game and less about the content? What are the possible negative implications of gamification?

    (I can understand if you don’t want to comment and/or delete this comment… please feel free to do so.)

    1. Tom Johnson

      Mica, thanks for your comment and question. Yes, I think there are a lot of examples of poor gamification, which might have negative implications. For example, at one point Microsoft came out with a game called Ribbon Hero to make it easier to learn Office products. In my experience, the gamification is so game-like that it detracts from the real purpose of the effort — to help users learn. You don’t have to create a whole video game with tons of animation, interactivity, effects, sounds, etc., to engage users. Frankly, giving users some exercises to do can fulfill the purpose and help people learn.

      Another problem with attempts such as Ribbon Hero is that users are stuck with low-level tasks. When you try to verify that someone is clicking in the right spot, jumping through the right hoops, etc., your task has to be somewhat simple. As such, users tire of the game after they reach an intermediate skill level. But what if you want users to perform a rather complicated task and there’s really no way of verifying that they did it correctly? How do you leverage the game to assess and verify completion of the task? I think at that point it breaks down. As a user, a simple button that says “I completed the task” would be sufficient, in my opinion. What do you think?

  3. Vinish Garg

    Thanks for this post, as an introduction to gamification.

    I am planning the facebook page strategy of a product. While designing a contest for this page to seek user engagement, we plan to offer some coupons to the winners. The objective is also to generate traffic for the product page, and convert to leads. Shall we call it a gamification strategy? I have thoroughly enjoyed this from day one!

  4. Pingback: What if my e-learning is a bit flat? | Gamification NationGamification Nation

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