Five game design principles to raise engagement

Joel shows us how to apply learnings from game design to other products and services.

Illustration of a green gaming controller on a blue background.

Video games have rapidly evolved over the past few decades - from providing fun and entertainment, to engaging and immersive experiences that are part and parcel of our day-to-day lives. The way these games command and maintain our attention is worth unpacking and learning from as a designer. Why? Because players are users.

Peoples needs in gaming can largely be divided into four buckets: social, personal, competitive and knowledge. While slightly different, all aim to satisfy a players core fundamental drive to perform an action or task within a game.

Four tiles with text and images to distinguish between "social", "personal", "competitive" and "knowledge" needs.

Fulfilling these needs again and again, however, can unintentionally create a situation where players fall into dark behavioural patterns such as addiction, anxiety and stress.

It's possible to leverage game design findings and best practices to meet both customer and business needs; whether that’s enhancing the visual experience of digital apps for users, or encouraging businesses to adopt these principles elsewhere.

It’s important to note that these solutions are not just plug and play. They must be contextualised in accordance with business objectives and the goal of the user.

Make onboarding interactive

The first hour is the most crucial portion of every game as players are evaluating if they want to continue or to leave and, perhaps, never return. This is why games with long and detailed explanations often don’t work out. No one wants to read the whole instruction manual to enjoy a game, right?

Similarly, with digital products and services, users would much rather dive right into an experience and learn on-the-go. Designers should focus on developing strategies to feed this desire and initiate users quickly to raise engagement from the start rather than building it over time. This may help to counter a user’s limited and diminishing attention span through the onboarding process.

Include the element of surprise

Attraction plays a vital role in game adoption and uptake. Besides marketing efforts, games must possess their own unique value to generate curiosity. They must plant seeds of surprise within their content, gameplay and even the mechanics to keep players engaged. They seek to explore possibilities within the game and when it extends beyond a user's expectations, the moment of unpredictability provides even greater satisfaction.

Similarly, for digital applications, users are always on the lookout for moments of unexpected delights - from micro-interactions, to interesting communication methods with graphics, visuals, style or effects. Businesses tend to overlook the significance of surprise by failing to see the impact and value that it can bring. These features, albeit subtle, are powerful enough to drive sustained use as they stand out from dull and motionless experience where users are not visually stimulated to interact with the product or service.

Provide a rewards mechanism

What is effort without reward? Research has shown that people are willing to put in work when their striatum and prefrontal cortex (two areas known to impact motivation and reward) are highly stimulated. This makes our brain seek stimuli from the activities we do whilst trying to get recognition for the effort we put in.

It is important to understand that rewards do not have to be tangible. They come in various forms. Games are adept at driving players' choices and actions through three broad types of rewards: informational, interaction and emotional. Each help to recognise, and satiate, efforts and engagement.

Three tiles showing the difference between "Informational", "Interaction" and "Emotional" rewards.

Product owners should think harder rather than just blindly adopting gamified solutions such as point systems and providing tangible benefits, especially for consumer-facing services. Although we all love receiving rewards, purely relying on these motivators might serve no purpose other than to encourage addictive behaviours. It might end up being off-putting for casual service users, too. The reward given should always correspond to the amount of effort required from the user to achieve a certain task.

Use friction intentionally

Though incorporating reward mechanisms may be one way to invite engagement, the degree of user satisfaction gained from these rewards can be controlled. In games, the harder the challenge, friction, or complexity of the game, the more satisfaction a player derives at the end. Of course, making a game too challenging peaks at a certain breaking point before users are dissuaded to continue, and rewards that are given or obtained too easily might start to lose their enjoyment value. Hence, many games are striving to strike a balance between the intensity of the friction and the desirability of the reward.

As designers, we often think that the products and services we craft should ultimately be the easiest to use and simplest to navigate. However, that little hindrance, at the right moment, might improve user satisfaction and engagement in the long run. These planned frictions are also very important when processes are moving smoothly and quickly. When signing up for a new bank account, for example, it’s important to hesitate and slow the pace to ensure users have provided the correct information.

Though friction may help to scale up motivation, not using it wisely will dissuade users and cause unnecessary problems instead. Accessibility and purpose-of-use should still be the top priority and must not be compromised. Friction points within the service should always be carefully planned to never disrupt any flows, but instead highlight considerations for both the users and the business.

Plan for new progressive content and future features

Games benefit from continuity. A game loses its value and playability if there are no further goals for existing players to work towards. When players start loving a game, they will dislike and fear missing out on an opportunity, as well as losing an existing position or advantage within the game. This explains why it becomes increasingly harder for them to return back to a game if they ever stop playing, with many big-titled games having expansion packs, new versions and extra downloadable content.

Within the lifecycle of a product or service, it is vital to leave space for developmental progression and growth in the content to sustain users' curiosity. They need a reason to continuously engage with the service to find out more about what the business has to offer. This can be in the form of new, in-line product offerings or promotions or a refreshed visual branding design that enhances customer value. Enhancements could also include shaping or adding new features using the latest technologies to streamline the user’s process. Product owners and designers should start to consider implementing design nuggets that invoke curiosity and anticipation of continuity for users within the service.


Game design helps us understand more about what drives us to perform actions based on our human behaviours and psychological needs. Whether to hook users, build engagement or maintain usage, these learnings are valuable food-for-thought for a user experience designer when serving the digital needs of users today.

Used correctly, the principles I’ve outlined can facilitate more meaningful interactions without manipulating users. They can also help to provide that edge to ensure commercial longevity.

That said, with these tactics leveraging human characteristics and innate desire, considerations have to be taken to ensure they are implemented intentionally and with care, especially for those who may not respond so favourably to these tactics e.g. neurodivergent users and those who desire a more minimalistic interface and simplistic approach to engage with services.

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