ARTICLE: Jacob Hansen

Motivational design: a new perspective on gamification in UX design for EdTech

Gamification is a term that comes up frequently in user experience (UX) design. It’s a method whereby designers borrow design principles from video games to create products that are more intrinsically enjoyable to use. Think Duolingo: it’s a language-learning app with game-like features that keep users motivated to become fluent in a new language.

When used correctly, gamification does more than increase user motivation. It also increases usage and efficacy and secures brand loyalty. However, gamification can also be a tough sell in EdTech, depending on the audience. 

Product owners and sellers aren’t always as familiar with the nuances of gamification in UX. Their point of reference often is popular video games, and many of those features are inappropriate in an EdTech context. Especially in higher education courseware, gamification can imply a lack of stakes or seriousness that makes it sound unsuitable for educational purposes.

It’s difficult to discern which principles make sense for your product unless you have specific UX expertise. So how do you pick and choose the gamification principles that are right for your EdTech and appeal to stakeholders? 

Below are some tips on how to frame gamification so that it elevates your EdTech and creates buy-in for all stakeholders.

Shift Your Mindset from Gamification to Motivational Design

Gamifying your EdTech product can open the floodgates to a wide range of solutions — some of which may not actually improve your user experience. That’s because not all gaming principles are appropriate in an EdTech context. A helpful reframe? Think of gamification as motivational design. It’s a mature and strategic user experience design approach that gets at the heart of what makes gamification effective, but without taking gaming so literally. 

Rather than simply adding gamified elements — like virtual spaces, cosmetic rewards, or badging — motivational design challenges teams to unpack why certain features motivate users to engage. After that, your team can deduce whether those features translate to your EdTech users.

The limitations of conventional gamification

There’s a reason everyone in the kids’ soccer league gets a trophy at the end of the season or orange slices and Capri-Sun after the game. Rewards like these incentivize players to continue playing, knowing there’s something to sweeten the experience.

Whether you’re playing a video game or learning algebra, a reward at the end of a session inspires users. In sports or video games, you earn trophies or badges. It adds to an already fun experience of playing.

However, rewards are a little more complicated than that in EdTech.

Take homework, for example. Let’s be real: Homework, especially in higher ed, isn’t exactly fun. It is certainly rewarding when you’ve put hours into studying a new concept and have it down cold. But “fun” isn’t the sole objective of homework — learning the course material is. 

Instead, students are mainly motivated by grading. They recognize that the more hours they log into their courseware, the more they deepen their understanding of the material. And the deeper their understanding, the more they improve their performance in class. It’s a different kind of pleasure-reward system that renders badging or trophies unnecessary. 

We see UX teams add unnecessary gamification all the time — badging is a common offender. In rare instances, it does make coursework more enjoyable for users, such as with K-12 users whose brains are geared for play. But otherwise, gamification for the sole purpose of gamification comes across as an out-of-touch, feigned attempt to motivate users.

So which gaming features do inspire user motivation?

To know whether a specific gaming feature will enhance your user experience, you must first understand how the feature is designed to enhance user motivation.

For example, some modern live-service games have daily or weekly challenges, which entice players to come back frequently to gain rewards. Your products might not have rewards in the same way that a game does (e.g., skins, virtual currency, etc). But you can unpack this model to figure out why it works. In the case of Fortnite, for example, users find value in visualizing their progression and are motivated to engage frequently by completing tasks that speed up their progress.

Taking a page from the most popular live-service game, Fortnite, you can design UX features in your EdTech product that allow users the opportunity to see an overview of how they’re performing. You might provide shorter-term progress checks, where users have frequent opportunities to visualize where they are in their learning progress, in addition to daily and weekly challenges. A map with these features would be a valuable feature to motivate the user to achieve their outcomes. No rewards or virtual currency necessary. 

How to Identify Which Gamification Techniques Are Right for Your EdTech

Understanding your user and their current user experience is critical to discerning whether a gaming feature will work for your product. If you’re searching for motivational design solutions without user insight, you’re sure to waste time and money on solutions that won’t stick.

Get to the bottom of dwindling user motivation

First, validate where your users are losing interest. At which point do they bounce off of certain flows? Is it in onboarding? During the mid-semester slump? When their score on a test drops? 

Next, determine why your users are losing interest. Understanding their reasoning focuses the conversation around how to motivate them so you know where to start with your design. The best way to ascertain why your user loses motivation is with a UX research plan. User surveys and interviews will surface where and why your users lose momentum.

Personalize your EdTech’s motivational design to increase brand loyalty

Motivational design only works if it feels authentic to your user. If it isn’t, you won’t garner the all-important power users you need to make your product successful. 

In other words, effective motivational design is personalized motivational design. When you design an experience tailored to your user base, it sends the message that you know them well enough to understand what intrinsically motivates them to achieve their desired outcomes. This increases your EdTech’s usage and efficacy, thereby bulking up your brand’s reputation and loyalty.

Strategically gamify your EdTech with an expert UX design team

Everyone is eager to gamify their EdTech, but you risk harming your UX if you add it without thoughtfulness and foresight. At its best, gamification can do much to propel your users. At its worst, poorly chosen gamification techniques make your product look unsophisticated to your user and your stakeholders. And that hurts all-around buy-in.

UX research and design agencies with specific expertise in EdTech ensure that your motivational design resonates with your users. Reach out to one of our design experts to learn how you can apply these principles to your EdTech.

  • Photo of Jacob Hansen
    Jacob Hansen

    In the role of UX Design Lead at Openfield, Jacob’s collaborative approach to helping our clients plan and execute upon key product roadmap priorities is an asset to all those around him. His responsibilities include mentorship and guidance to ensure Openfield staff grow and uphold our standards for excellence. Jacob is a prolific character illustrator, a passion that blends his love of design, fine art, gaming and cartooning in both traditional and digital media. He is a storyteller who is inspired by both film and its history. He’s also a huge fan of Disney theme parks for the visitor experiences they deliver. Additionally, Jacob enjoys running road races, kayaking, gaming and learning on guitar and banjo.

Spread the word – help avoid the traps of digital product development!