Gamification for smart alecs

Corporate IT gets away with terrible design because it can. A change in development mindset is required in order to please users rather than just grant them capabilities.

Seeing some of the new games out for the holidays this year has reminded me of what a high quality user experience really is. 

“Gamification” has been the hot meme lately, referring to the use of game mechanics to non-game applications. Usually those game mechanics include capabilities like scoring, badges, leveling, and so on.  But I think there’s a more subtle aspect that underlies it all: high quality user experience.  What about thinking of “gamification” as making interfaces that are as polished, responsive, attractive, and intuitive as a game?

I was a game designer and developer in the late 1980’s before moving into corporate IT and remember an exchange that pointed out the difference in UI mindset between the gaming and IT worlds. 

Working on the user interface design committee at a credit card company, I was hammering out UI standards for colors, menus, button naming, etc.  One day there was a dispute – I think it was about what the hotkey should be for menu items that begin with the same letter.  I described a workable potential solution.  But another committee member, known for being the senior programmer on the high-profile call center app (and for being a smart alec), disagreed.

“Where did you get that idea?  From a computer game?” he sneered and others in the room began to chuckle.

“As a matter of fact, yes.” I said to some more giggles.  “But you know, people used to pay ME to use my programs. We have to pay THEM to use yours.” The room went silent and it’s the only time I remember that guy not being able to find a comeback.

My point still stands today. Corporate IT gets away with terrible design because it can – the users are prisoners to the app. When the user can just stand up and walk away with no adverse consequences – as they can with a game – a higher level of usability and design is required.

And except for a few optional apps (like social networks or collaboration sites), an IT developers’ success will be judged on checking off capabilities, not how many users it accumulates. In gaming I was paid on “net sales” – copies sold that were not returned within the grace period. 

Some apps have a blend of required and optional functionality where this dynamic plays out.  Consider a tracking or knowledge management system where employees are required to close out a record for each transaction, but have a wide range of latitude in whether to fill in the minimum amount of data necessary to close it out versus providing more metadata, longer descriptions, or more accurate data. 

With a poor UI, the organisation will capture much less useful information than with a better one that made it easier and less stressful to provide enhanced information about the transaction.

I don’t want everything in my corporate apps whizzing around the screen or playing like a first-person shooter. Come to think of it, I don’t want anything from my IT department whizzing or playing like a FPS!  But I would welcome a change in development mindset that suspends the belief that users must use your app and consider how user experience would change if you had to please users as well as grant them capabilities.

Craig Roth is a vice president and service director for Gartner Research, in Burton Group's Collaboration and Content Strategies service. You can read his other blog posts here.