The science of how to motivate your customers with app gamification

When the average human attention span is just eight seconds, getting and keeping customer attention can be difficult. In fact, a lack of customer motivation leads to the reality that nearly 3/4 of users uninstall apps within just 90 days. For this reason, market leaders like Smarty Pig and Fitbit use app gamification to drive engagement.

But what is gamification exactly? And how does it motivate customers? Let’s look at some examples of gamification and find out how it strengthens the relationship between brand and customer.

Here’s what you’ll discover:

What is app gamification?

Gamification is the strategic use of game elements and psychology used in a non-game context. This means adding gamification features like progress bars, prizes, and reward systems into your app to drive the user behaviors that help you grow.

App gamification has the power to clarify objectives and make those goals rewarding to achieve. Beware! It doesn’t mean you should turn everything into a game, rather you take the psychological elements that make a game fun, and embed those into your customer experience.

Not only will customers be more engaged, and loyal, they will also spend more and more often!

App gamification creates business growth

Companies that use gamification are often more profitable as they know how to keep their customers actively engaged. The positive effects are clear early in the user process. Case in point, product managers that gamify the onboarding process see engagement and conversion metrics DOUBLE.

How does gamification lift customer motivation?

Generally, gamification plays on two types of motivations based on behavioral psychology and cognitive bias.

Achievements and results-based drivers are called extrinsic motivators. However, long-term motivation doesn’t derive from only extrinsic motivation. These drivers trigger initial engagement and are crucial for the discovery phase. But to create user retention beyond that 90 day cut-off, customers need a little bit more.

To increase customer loyalty, you need intrinsic motivation. These are innate emotions linked to our desires or fears. Here are 5 examples of those and how you could use them to increase customer motivation:

  • Relationships – People are social creatures and are naturally motivated by competition, collaboration, and relatedness.
  • Accomplishment – Achievements like badges give customers goals to strive for. Pro tip: indicating their progress towards it motivates them even more!
  • Empowerment – Positively reinforcing customer actions, with a discount, for instance, empowers them to keep coming back to you.
  • Unpredictability. People love to explore and stay surprised, that’s why things such as variable rewards are crucial to increase customer retention.
  • Constraint. Try locking off exclusive features. Science shows the fear of missing out is as motivating as winning!
Gamification drives customer motivation

Using gamification to create an engaging app

If you want to increase user retention and mobile app engagement, you must create a compelling customer experience! Given that, here are three examples of gamification features that research shows can provide a 47% increase in engagement:

1. App personalization and the power of the avatar.

Give your users autonomy. Customization tools, such as picking your own avatar, results in higher engagement. For instance, if you display the user avatar at an achievement milestone, studies show it leads to a ‘higher level of sense of presence’. This means that users feel more involved! As a result, you tap into the intrinsic motivator of self-worth.

2. Leaderboards facilitate competition which shows off your social status.

A research paper stated that competition is a ‘media, not a purpose’. While leaderboards create fair competition, the friendly battle is only a vehicle that motivates users to win. Primarily, competitions access motivational drivers like the need for social status, the need to socialize and provide a way to test dedication. Equally important for product managers – that same research paper showed placing on the leaderboard improves user perception of the mobile app.

3. Progress bars encourage growth and customer motivation.

Progress bars fill with color as soon as the user advances. Of course, this feature does more than detail the length of a task. For one, it gives your users knowledge of how much effort they need to invest. In addition, seeing the immediate progress from your actions provides customers with instant gratification.

Examples of gamification from the market leaders

How do the top dogs do it? Let’s see how two market leaders use examples of gamification to bring the customer closer to their brand:

Smarty Pig’s progress bar motivates you to save money.

Smarty Pig is a finance app that helps users meet savings goals. Users start by setting an aspiration like buying a car. This target acts as a sort of avatar, personalizing the goal process. Notably, depositing money fills up a progress bar displayed as a cartoon pig!

In effect, it makes the user process fun and exciting. This gamification feature makes budgeting satisfying, not a chore! All things considered, the results are clear. In just 2 years, the app acquired 40,000 new customers and $250 million in the ‘piggybank’.

Fitbit’s leaderboard encourages users to run harder and faster!

Fitbit is a health & fitness app used with a wearable tracking device. The app tracks daily steps and encourages users to complete a daily goal. Steps are seen as the ‘currency’ that buys your way up the leaderboard.

The leaderboard creates a sense of social connection; a place where you can compete with friends and share the results on social media, which we call a positive intensifier. It must work, as Fitbit has over 29 million weekly active users!

To back that up, the Fitbit leaderboard thrusts, what one study calls, ‘sedentary’ users into action. Results show the leaderboard alone leads to a 15% increase in daily steps!


Customer loyalty is the challenge of today. As a matter of fact, 71% of users uninstall apps within 90 days. That’s why companies that use app gamification win.

Gamification is the strategic use of game elements and psychology used in a non-game context. Examples of gamification are often portrayed as progress bars, prizes, and reward systems. However, they need a deeper realization to push customers forward.

They do so using two types of motivators:

Extrinsic motivators are achievements and results-based drivers. They rely on our desire to get rewards. These help customer motivation through the discovery phase, but for true loyalty, you need intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivators appeal to the deeper emotions linked to innate desires or fears. In effect, studies show this creates positive behaviors like enjoyment and happiness. App gamification relies on these behavioral dynamics to lift customer motivation:

  • Relationships – People are naturally social and enjoy friendly competition.
  • Accomplishment – Give customers goals to strive for.
  • Empowerment – Customers need autonomy and personalization.
  • Unpredictability – Delight your customers with a surprising experience.
  • Constraint – Lock off features to incentivize usage.

You can boost engagement by as much as 47% if you:

  • Embrace app personalization and the power of the avatar. Give users autonomy and let them pick their own avatars. Involve them, and appeal to their sense of self-worth.
  • Facilitate social competition with leaderboards. Fair and transparent winning criteria encourage competition and usage, ultimately improving the customer perception of your app.
  • Encourage growth with progress bars. Give users instant gratification and digital confetti upon completing a progress bar, which contextualizes the effort of the task.

Indeed, market leaders are doing this already!

  • Smarty Pig uses a cleverly designed progress bar to help users save money.
  • Fitbit’s leaderboard encourages social connectedness, which keeps users active.
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