Daily UX Crash Course — User Psychology: 15 of 31

The difference between a game and a non-game has nothing to do with badges and points. It’s all about the psychology. Game design can be very nuanced, but let’s start with a couple fundamentals of:



(Just starting the User Psych Crash Course? Start here.)


One of the trendiest things in UX over the past few years have been the idea of adding “game mechanics” to things that aren’t actually games.

One thing that games do very well is structuring rewards and punishments in a way that leads users through a series of goals. If you want to that too, you came to the right place.

We will learn two major elements of game design today:

1) Feedback Loops

2) Progressive Challenges


What is a Feedback Loop?

A feedback loop has three ingredients: motivation, an action, and the feedback (emotion).

The user’s motivation might exist already, or it could be something you design for them. Like beating Bowser in Mario Kart. That smug bastard.

Once the user is motivated, they need a way to act. This is when you start the race, or show them the problem to solve, or give them a place to type their comment, or whatever.

Then, they need feedback. An evaluation, or score, or Likes, or real-time race positions, or something else that informs the user how effective they were/are.

Loop it: It’s called a feedback “loop” because the feedback should be something that motivates the user to do the action again. Maybe they will try to beat their old score, or maybe they didn’t quite win this time, or maybe other people loved what they did.


Progressive Challenges

It’s nice if a game is really easy at first, so new users can jump right in. But once people know how the game works, it’s not about just getting it done anymore. It’s about getting it done better.

To create progression, you merely have to create a bigger, better, harder way to do what the user already knows.

The idea of “progression” is the reason for levels in Super Mario, or badges in Foursquare, or campaigns in Battlefield, or stars in Angry Birds. Any goal that is more difficult than the previous goal.

Often, companies will make you pay to access the higher levels, because now you’re addicted. A Game/UX designer did that.

And you should too.


Game Mechanics are Motivations & Emotions

Feedback loops take your brain’s natural or “implicit” motivation and make it an external or “explicit” motivation by using symbols in the game. Rewards and punishments are feelings, not things. It’s how you trigger them that matters.

Badges and points are one way. Followers and Retweets are another. Friends and Likes, your job title and salary, and your street address and type of car. All symbols of progression.

Progression uses your motivation for Status to make you “level up” over and over. It’s the motivation to win, to improve, or to be better than Bowser. That arrogant son-of-a-bitch.


Tomorrow we will learn how to design these types of mechanics so they spread virally, throughout a network of people: Social and Viral Structure.