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Why apps that fail to reward ultimately end up failing

I was in a client meeting the other day when I was asked a very blunt question. We were talking about behaviour change, gamification and apps. His question was simple. “Why do many apps, gamified or not, suck and fail?”

From a fail point of view, probably the main cause of failure is that no one ever sees them. All the money went on dev with nothing left for promotion, the cause of death for many an app.

The second reason is that the usage opportunities are so narrow there’s little point in having an app. Staying at a hotel chain the other day I was invited to download their app “to chat live with a host”. Really? I can’t just ring room service or talk to the concierge? I’m sure that it does other stuff but if this is their lead functionality, unless I am mainlining this chain’s loyalty programme, that download is never going to happen.

These two are pretty obvious, as are their solution. Don’t spend all the cash on dev, have a plan to promote your app. Don’t develop an app that only you need…

Another fail is the experience itself. This is more subtle…

The experience, particularly in health, may well not be all fun but could be challenging, interesting or even plain hard work at times. The key is that it must be rewarding. This too is a concept clearly understood by the mobile gaming industry. Many games contain an element of the “grind”. This is when, at points during the game, you have to carry out repetitive tasks in order to achieve a better level/equipment/skills which allows more interesting stuff to happen.

The way that this is handled should be of enormous interest to anyone wanting to harness gamification techniques to drive behaviour change. It is well documented that our brains release dopamine – a key reward neurotransmitter – both when we get a reward and/or achieve an objective and in anticipation of that reward or achievement.

It’s easy to see how this could work from a health behaviour change perspective. Starting with simple day-to-day objectives and tiny changes which are rewarded, then building harder to complete multiple missions around diet, smoking, activity, health education etc. with each carrying increasing perceived rewards. The piece about perceived rewards is key. The rewards experienced via dopamine can be triggered virtually as effectively as in reality.  This explains why so many millions of hours have been eaten by Candy Crush Saga™…

So the three main answers to my client’s question are as follows:

  1. they’re invisible
  2. they’re not useful
  3. they’re not rewarding

You might just survive getting one wrong (as long as it’s not the first one) but good luck surviving two!