Digital Umami [#accessibility #a11y #ux]

“It seems to me that gamification may be useful to add a little spice but that without answers to the possible transfer of negative game playing traits the amount of value-added may turn out to be smaller then we imagine.”

Non-Gamified ATM

Fig 1. Non-Gamified ATM

I’ve recently been having a twitter conversation with Rui about gamification in the context of UX. Now I see myself as far more circumspect than Rui, in that I see gamification as a convenient term to describe ‘digital umami1. The object of gamification is to make non-game software more engaging to users. So I think this is mainly only useful for applications which take relatively little interaction, and for systems that you may use a lot for a time but then stop – lets call it transient interaction / use. Rui suggests that deeper gamification will have better results – although I’m not convinced how deep this goes; although to argue against myself I could propose that non-game applications which use game interactivity (not just visual design) dovetails more efficiently into the pre-learnt interaction characteristics and expectations already familiar to game-playing users.

Gamified ATM

Fig 2 - Gamified ATM

Gamification seems to include (I say seems as there are many different takes on this – as with much UX): adding game-like visual elements or copy (usually visual design or copy driven); wedging in easy-to-add-on game elements, such as badges or adjacent products (usually marketing driven); including more subtle, deeply integrated elements like % complete (usually interaction design driven); and making the entire offering a game (usually product driven). I’d also suggest that gamification isn’t applicable all over. Consider the two ATMs one gamified, one not – testing both these systems I found that the non-gamified system took 23 secs to dispense cash and the the gamified on took 36 secs. You don’t know this until you’ve used them once – but after this anecdotally from my quick survey, people only choose the gamified one if there is no choice.

Now if we transfer the positive aspects of gamification do we also transfer the negative characteristics too. So what are these? I think games can be loosely characterized as having the following (possibly negative) properties:

  • Increasing difficulty of task completion: Games rely on the increasing difficulty – in other words as you increase levels you increase difficulty to maintain interest. This suggests to me that loss of interest may very well occur in the gamified domains too – yet usability will always want to reduce difficulty not increase it;
  • Goal attainment: Once your goal has been attained you mostly stop using the game – goal attainment finally leads to non-use. This may be a real problem in the gamified world unless the outcome can be varied such that it may not be attained on a regular basis – that being the case the ‘Real’ goal must never be the gamified goal – but rather a stop on the path the gamified goal – which is transient, can change, or attainment can fail – while the real goal is always attained;
  • Limited scope for different kinds of interaction: Game interaction is limited as indicated by the simplicity of the controller. Complex touch screens as on EPOS systems or Keyboard support for general purpose computing do not exist. This suggests that rich interactivity may not be possible;
  • Boredom: Games fail over time as people become bored with the game – once they ‘know’ it, they often leave it;
  • Little keyboard input: Keyboard input does not occur much in gaming and so the level of jobs that can be accomplished through gameification may be reduced or be at least inappropriate; and
  • Non-use in general: A game is finite;

This is really just my first cut, and there may be more problems that we need to make accommodations for. It seems to me that gamification may be useful to add a little spice but that without answers to the possible transfer of negative game playing traits the amount of value-added may turn out to be smaller then we imagine.


  1. umami |oōˈmämē|
    a category of taste in food (besides sweet, sour, salt, and bitter), corresponding to the flavour of glutamate, especially mono-sodium glutamate.
    ORIGIN Japanese, literally ‘deliciousness.’

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