Competition! Competition! – Can an app change your behavior?

Posted December 20, 2016 By Sara Conzemius

A couple of weeks ago, we published the blog  Wanna, Hafta, Track, Win. In that post, we talked about to consider when developing apps or digital engagement platforms designed to motivate changes in behaviors. As you may recall, we highlighted 4 findings from secondary and primary research recently completed by ILLUME. These were:

  1. Choice & reciprocation: When participants feel a lack of choice they often rebel against the asked behavior. It cannot feel like a “hafta”. Users want to feel they are getting as much as they are giving. In short, to affect behavior, people must want to use the app.
  2. Community, not competition: Users want to feel a social connection in their interactions, a cheering section.  They are less interested in competing with others.
  3. Simplification & building:  Apps that make an existing behavior easier to do, simpler, or more rewarding have a far better chance of changing user behavior than apps that ask people to do something completely new. Start simple and build towards more complex actions over time.
  4. Alignment – If an app includes rewards or incentives, they need to be aligned with the desired behavior (e.g. giving a discount on running shoes for completing a set number of work outs)
4 Design Keys for Behavior Change Apps
Figure 1: 4 Design Keys for Behavior Change Apps

We focused on choice and reciprocation last time, and today want to talk competition. Competition as a form of engagement has been developed into a strategy called “gamification” and is used in various fields from education to health.   The idea of gamification is not new to energy programs. According to a paper published by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) there are sizable savings to be achieved by adding game-like features to a customer interactions (and we encourage you to review the ACEEE paper for more detail), however only if it’s “done right”– but what does “done right” mean exactly?

If you are going to go with a game design, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • A simple level of design (badges, challenges, points), while easy to design and deploy, can quickly disengage users. More challenging design features retain engagement.
  • Points, what you earn or how you earn, it should be clear and transparent. Having scoring systems that are not intuitive or confuse customers as to who or what they are competing against are not motivating.
  • If you are going to go with gamification you must stick with it, if you get customers into your game, they can become disengaged if the game component ends.
  • Games are most successful when participants get kudos from other participants, connect with other like-minded people, and are part of chatter. Not only does this make the app feel more like a “wanna” but it helps create communities, and community is key.

We all know (or should know, if we are paying attention to our own behavior) that the apps and digital platforms we most regularly engage with are about community. Think Facebook, twitter, Instagram. These platforms have, without any games at all, modified our behavior and our world. These apps work not because of games or tracking, but because of the friendship and community they foster.  Our research found that participants were much less likely to select apps that included competition, recognition, fun and even gamification over apps that provided the opportunity for community. Participants were motivated by the ability to connect with like-minded (or like careered) people who could share, learn and support each other in their collective efforts to save energy.

Apps are compelling.  They offer unprecedented avenues to link customers with services and support. In many cases, apps can dramatically improve satisfaction and engagement. However, apps must be designed thoughtfully and included embedded evaluation to ensure they are connecting in the right ways and encouraging the behavior changes you have planned. They are not a quick fix. Place significant emphasis on make apps that are mutually beneficial, that make actions your customers are already taking just a little bit easier, and help them connect with and create communities. If not done well, you may find yourself having invested in something that isn’t used and may do more harm than good in the long run.