Five ways to build flow into your Web 2.0 site

Five ways to build flow into your Web 2.0 site

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Before Charles Forman started to build his social networking site, he
knew he had to do something unique to attract single, young hipsters. A
few years back while working in Seoul, he noticed that young, cool
Koreans were addicted to the popular social networking site Cyworld
because of its game-like qualities. So Forman decided to apply gaming
strategies to online dating. He designed a scoring system in which a
player creates a short game and suitors attempt to outbid each other to
gain the attention of the host.

The result? The invite-only startup with the terribly long name, Iminlikewithyou, turned flirting into a competitive sport and became an instant hit.

Social networking sites like Iminlikewithyou are just the latest to
incorporate the same concepts that game designers have been using for
years to get people to play video games. E-commerce sites like eBay
(EBAY) and Amazon (AMZN) were early adapters of gaming principles,
followed by social media sites like Flickr (YHOO), YouTube and Digg.
Even non Web 2.0 companies like Cold Stone Creamery and Entellium,
which develops enterprise software, are aggressively adopting gaming
concepts to get ahead of the competition. Says leading game developer
Raph Koster, “The gaming world is no longer a geeky pursuit. It’s gone
mainstream.”

Leading the game mechanics movement is Amy Jo Kim, the creative
director for Shufflebrain,
a design firm. Kim, who helped eBay develop its
power sellers program, consults Web 2.0 startups on building fun,
engaging sites using game mechanics. Last December, she posted her
presentation, Putting the Fun in Functional,
which describes five game mechanic principles popular social media
sites are applying, online. She has since been flooded with hundreds of
emails from developers using her deck. “I have
twice as much work as I can take on right now,” Kim says. “Game design
acceleration has been growing steadily in the past couple years.
There’s a wave of younger people growing up with the web and with
computer games.” Along with the new Internet demographic, programming
tools like Ruby on Rails and Ajax are making it easier to include
highly interactive elements and make sites fun.

Here’s a look at how companies like eBay, Digg and Flickr are incorporating Kim’s five gaming commandments into their sites.

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1. Collecting. Hoarding stuff is a fundamental instinct. That’s why one of the first words to come out of a two-year-old’s mouth is "Gimme." Iminlikewithyou
does an especially good job capitalizing on this game mechanic. Users
collect friends by picking a winner from their own games and collect
points by answering yes or no questions like, Have you ever gone to
work with a hangover? (The answer: Yes.) They
can also add other users to their watch list or invite people to start
games within IILWY.  "For people at work who don’t have much to do,
this is a good way of capturing their eyeballs," Forman says. "I want
to make something that users will find value."

2. Points. Earning points is a way to keep track of
your nerd score. Points give users incentive to improve their standing
and serve as a reward for new privileges, access or power. It’s also a
big motivation to compete for points when you find out someone has more
than you. Kim worked on eBay’s power seller program
for its members who sold a lot of merchandise. Says Kim, "Once you have
points, you can then start building levels. eBay power sellers is an
exclusive level, and it was really motivational for members. It’s
analogous to frequent flier miles. You want to work hard to get to the
next level."

A good reward system encourages both ends of the spectrum. It should
be easy for anyone to attain the lowest level and very difficult to
master the highest level. Entellium, a
customer-platform software company, recently launched Rave, a
gamer-influenced application, that exploits this concept. Entellium CEO
Paul Johnston hired ten game developers to work on the software, which
uses a leaderboard to encourage sales productivity. "The wonderful
thing about gaming is that you can regenerate. If you fail, you get a
second chance," Johnston says. "We’re encouraging risk taking in
salespeople  and the ability to go back and improve." Johnston says
companies like Cold Stone Creamery and Seriosity, which makes
enterprise solutions software, are using game design to develop
training and learning systems for its employees.

“A lot of applications are designed to make things easy. Fun comes from
challenge. It’s about taking risks and taking risks that are wrong,”
says Areae president Koster, who speaks to packed audiences at tech
conferences about what makes sites fun. “If you look at eBay, a huge reason that it’s
addictive is because you can lose. You get hardcore users who can swipe
things from people in the last three seconds.”

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3. Feedback. Digg
cofounder Kevin Rose knew that in order for his site to work, it would
take a very active community (more than 17 million visit the site each
month), and he tapped into this powerful tool early on draw users. When
a Digg member submits an article, the expectation is that the user’s
contributions will be recognized – whether the submission reaches the
homepage or others comment or vote on it. Digg’s feedback system is a
metric of how good you are at finding and discovering unique stories.
"There are parallels between the gaming community and the Digg
community.  Like gaming, a reward system is used to keep people pecking
away," says Digg VP of marketing Mike Maser. "One reason that Digg
members are so passionate is because our site gives them a unique way
to gain recognition. A user’s contributions to the overall community
are worthwhile, and it keeps people coming back for more."

 

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4. Exchanges Explicit
and implicit exchanges, like taking turns in a chess match (explicit)
or giving someone a virtual Facebook gift (implicit), encourage
interactive behavior. Photo-sharing site Flickr took
off because it wasn’t just about posting pictures, but also exchanging
social interactions.  Flickr, which evolved from a
lightweight MMPORG called Game Neverending, lets its members tag
photos. "You can tag a photo as ‘sunset’ or ‘bicycle’, but then you
quickly find quirky, interesting ways to associate photographs with
objects and finding things that have been tagged by other users," says
Doug Tygar, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley. "It’s a bit
like shopping in an antique store. You treasure that serendipitous
moment when you find that gem." Like when you find a Flickr tag of old
ladies stretching at the beach.

Well-designed games employ the simplest social exchange. You make a
move, and something else happens. Consider Amazon’s one-stop checkout
process. You click once, and you’ve suddenly purchased something.
Hooray! "We’ve done studies where one-step checkouts have approximately
twice the volume of multi-step checkouts," says Tygar, who specializes
in e-commerce. "It’s more fun than going through many intermediate
steps. It’s almost obvious that the more fun a website is, the more
people want to hang around that site."

5. Customization Letting your user have some
control over preferences (ie. being able to personalize your MySpace
page or Google homepage) increases their investment and creates
barriers to exit. The more you let users try to exploit the system, the
more interested they’ll be in sticking around. One afternoon Forman was
riding the subway and overheard two girls talking about his website,
IILWY. "This one girl was highly competitive, and was looking for a way
to get more bids. She studied all the other girls in New York and
figured out that 27 was the optimal dating age, so she changed her
stats," Forman said. "One thing that I’ve learned from this whole
experience is that people like to know how games work and then find the
way to be the best at it."

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