Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…


Way back in 2002 or so, I devised the idea of “gamification”, a clunky (but useful) way of proposing that electronics devices of all sorts would be vastly improved by taking on board the lessons games companies had had to learn. My position was simply that the games industry was the ‘cradle’ for the major technology waves that were just about to break, and that tech people needed to get their heads around that.

The people at Apple certainly did: in terms of how I personally describe gamification, I’d say that the iPhone, the iPad, the iTunes Store and the App Store are prime examples – near-frictionless interfaces coupled with a games-industry-informed platform-centric way of doing business. And that certainly has done the company nothing but good.

Websites, too, were something that concerned me greatly back then: when I looked (and still look) at websites, the thing I look for more than anything else is a kind of ‘authorial voice’, an online corporate presence in a rather more literal sense than the phrase usually connotes. You also find this in packaging copy and TV voice scripting (e.g. Innocent Smoothies have a great ‘voice’, Shakeaway usually pitches it right, More Than has become pretty good, Orange used to nail it but has lost its way, Apple comes and goes, Coca Cola sucks terrifically, Macdonalds is even worse these days, etc).

In retrospect, what subtly linked my twin obsessions from back then was what I now call the notion of psychological distance – for if authorial voice is the process of ‘humanizing’ a company to the point that it can actually talk to you in a language that you can almost accept as human, then gamification is very much the process of using technology to reduce the psychological distance between you and it – bringing you emotionally closer to it.

The example I like to give to show the limits of gamification is the whole idea of a government tax website: though it would make sense to tune users’ flow through the tax website, the idea of using gamification techniques to bring the user psychologically closer (and somehow more emotionally aligned) with The Taxman would seem somehow alien to a lot of people.

But even though this seems like a kind of counterexample to the whole gamification-is-universally-good gospel, maybe – just maybe – you could make a positive difference here. All the same, you’d have to start your design process from a radically different corner to normal… that of psychology and empathy.

The most basic ’empathy hack’ would be to add a changing sidebar showing simple top-line statistics about what your tax money does for people – education, healthcare, etc. Tax shouldn’t be presented in a stark, oppositional way, when it is actually the backbone of how a civilized society functions. Tax is how we get money fairly from the people who make it to the people who need it – and illness or changing personal circumstances can rapidly alter which side of that whole equation you happen to be sitting on.

My point here is that by reducing the empathic distance between the website user and the website owner as a first step, we are already oiling the conceptual wheels in a very direct way. By adding this kind of touch, we’re giving The Taxman a believable human voice (rather than a cartoon bowler hat, *sigh*). Only then can we start to think about anything so fancy as gamifying the interface – in sales terms, you need to answer the “who cares?” question long before you try to close the deal.

Beyond that, it’s an open question about what the tax website people would need to do: but my larger point is that gamification is hugely dependent on a collaborational mindset having first been invoked or engineered. Without a proper appreciation of psychology (and how things like authorial voice can to a large degree help), gamification isn’t really a lot of use.

I think it was Gartners who claim that 85% of current gamification projects are likely to fail: my point here is that without actively trying to reduce the empathic distance first, many such projects would never have a chance of working at all.

More generally, in these days of customer-centred design, I’d contend that interface design is fast becoming an exercise more in psychology than in programming. But I’m not sure if even a single current CompSci course has this as a design precept, not even the computer games courses. The world is changing fast, that’s for sure…

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