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part four: gamification

Ikea store in Toronto, OntarioPeter Power/The Globe and Mail

IKEA may be known for its vowel-happy furniture and cheap Swedish meatballs, but the famed household department store is also an expert in another area: flow.

That's the same cognitive sweet spot - a state of mind between boredom and anxiety - that game developers try to exploit. It's part of what makes Angry Birds so addictive, and is the same organizational strategy used by IKEA to purposely guide shoppers through its stores.

But as far as gamification is concerned, not every experience is successful as buying extra Swedish linen - or as satisfying.

"There are lots of games that suck," says Daniel Debow, co-founder and co-CEO of Toronto-based Rypple Inc. "Just because they have badges and leaderboards doesn't mean they're good games. The underlying gameplay has to be engaging."

However, that's not something everyone always understands.

Always iterate

Microsoft Excel is perhaps the most popular office spreadsheet application on the market. But from a game design perspective, it has a serious problem.

There's no progression, and no built-in mechanism to help educate new users. The hundredth time you open the application is the same as the first. And unlike Angry Birds or IKEA, there's certainly no flow.

Gabe Zichermann likes to use the social gaming hit Farmville as an example of what does work. The gamification consultant and author says Farmville is designed in such a way that users are slowly introduced to new, complex and potentially unfamiliar mechanics, with key tools and features building on those taught in previous "lessons."

What's more, the progression to mastery is invisible, allowing the player to go from planting small crops to orchestrating swaths of farmland with little effort.

In recent months, Ottawa-based Jaded Pixel Technologies Inc. has been working to implement a similar "mastery" system of its own. Their service, better known as Shopify, allows users to establish their own online stores through which goods and services can be sold. Clients range from big-name bands to small-town knitters of nerdy apparel.

The challenge, however, is guiding users through the initial setup process successfully, without discouraging less-savvy merchants. Of Shopify's 16,000 users, many have little previous experience selling goods or services online.

"We need to be able to demonstrate to users how much they've done and how much they have left to do," explains Harley Finkelstein, Shopify's chief platform officer. In the process, "we've learned what steps work and what don't."

In particular, the first 60 to 90 days of operation can be crucial - and if a merchant's experience is poor, they'll be unlikely to return. However, with the aid of various game mechanics, the company hopes to increase the number of successful launches, and encourage long-term success.

A simple progress bar indicates what elements of the initial setup process have been completed, and what steps still remain. And in the coming weeks, Shopify will also roll out a set of benchmarks and milestones with which a merchant can gauge his or her shop's performance.

For example, an achievement might be awarded for the first 100 sales, or one thousand unique visits, giving owners a metric on which to improve.

It all comes down to "encouraging behaviour that isn't typically natural," says Mr. Finkelstein - and that's not something you'll always get right on your first try.

Right your wrongs

The key, according to Mr. Debow, is constant iteration. It's not the end of the world if a game mechanic or initiative fails, but it's even worse if you don't learn from the experience.

"We look at how people actually interact with the software in real-time," he explains. "Even changing the text, size or colour of something can make a big difference in the way people engage with your product."

And if you want to do gamification right, it's about knowing what not to do wrong. Mr. Debow has some tips.

1. It's not a panacea. As previously mentioned in this series, slapping badges, tokens and leader boards on product or site without purpose or thoughtful design won't necessarily make for a more engaging experience. Just as IKEA optimizes each of its locations for flow, your design should have a similar direction and purpose.

2. Gamification is not a quick fix. You need to identify which behaviours you're trying to augment, or which process you're trying to improve, and why you're trying to do it. It takes time to figure out. Iterate frequently, learn from your mistakes, and plan for the long term.

3. Don't go it alone. If you want to have a big impact, this isn't the sort of thing you can do in house or on the side. Platform providers, such as BunchBall, Badgeville or Rypple, have the long-term industry experience needed to build great games and mechanics - not you. A good gamification strategy is something you need to get right, and you don't want to get it wrong.

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