Did you know that video games are more popular now than ever before?
Since smartphones were popularized by the first iPhone back in 2007 and console hits such as Call of Duty and Wii Fit created a more mainstream audience, the industry has exploded.
By the end of this year, the video game industry is expected to produce $115 billion in annual revenue and, according to TED, we spend over 3 billion hours per week playing games.
Clearly, video game designers are doing something right…
There’s a good reason why video games have transformed from a pastime of the introvert spotty nerd stereotype to such a pervasive phenomenon.
And that’s because designers have mastered user onboarding by using the brain’s “dopamine reward system” to get people hooked.
The best part? It’s a strategy SaaS companies can use, too.
What’s really going on upstairs?
There are a number of chemicals in the human brain that make us feel awesome.
Serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are few. But dopamine is the one we’re interested in right now.
It’s a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good when we guess the potential outcome of a situation correctly and make progress as a result.
The mechanism is there because of the evolutionary process. It’s a survival aid that helped our ancestors stay on the right track.
In an article written for edutopia.org, neurologist-turned teacher and author Judy Willis explains how this powerful mechanism works and why its successful implementation in video games is now being used to teach children in schools, it’s so damn effective. As Willis points out:
“The motivation to persevere is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine — the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement”
What that means is, when a student, gamer or SaaS product user feels that first surge, it encourages them to seek another one. It motivates them to continue. They want more.
You can imagine why that’s a good thing for your use onboarding flows. It’s certainly doing a great job in the video game industry.
When we achieve a small win through a task, a neuronal pathway made. The brain is then hardwired to seek another, similar experience, ideally through a slightly more challenging task, just like you find in video games.
It’s not the video games we get addicted to. It’s the dopamine release of making progress, learning a new skill, strategizing and then implementing ideas to get bigger and bigger kicks.
Actionable onboarding wins
Some months ago, we wrote an article titled about why actionable user onboarding always wins. The basic premise is that it teaches your users a skill.
And that skill is how to use your user interface.
This is especially important when there are a lot of features to learn. If you can make people feel like they’re getting good at something, they’re much more likely to come back.
It’s actionable onboarding, only we’re looking at the science to back it up. And it’s a simple leap of logic to see why gamification has been such a successful tool for SaaS and other sectors.
But, whether you want to implement full gamification or not, the process still holds true. Let’s look at five steps of this research to help you make decisions with your onboarding flows.
1. Start off easy
There’s a school of thought in user onboarding that says you should guide your users as quickly as possible to a “small win”. Again, the science behind the dopamine reward system backs this up.
The researchers found that if your users perceive the challenge as being too easy, they’ll lose interest and won’t be engaged.
Conversely, if the challenge is too difficult and seems insurmountable, the brain will lose interest just as quickly.
Smaller, bite-size steps work best. And, when you’re deciding which of these steps should be the first aspect, it’s important to take into consideration your “Aha!” moment.
You must deliver the easiest and fastest step towards the greatest value.
2. Make things incrementally harder
As the neuronal pathway created by that first success is made and becomes stronger, larger doses of dopamine are needed to keep the user interested.
Remember, the goal is “intrinsic reinforcement” and it happens when things get more difficult. The series of incremental successes as the motivator to continue.
A great example video game of this is the indie bestseller, Super Meat Boy. The first levels of the platformer are incredibly easy, but later they get are fiendishly difficult.
Players must simply go from one side of the screen to the other. In the above Screenshot, there are a few simple jumps with no real obstructions. The later levels? Well, see for yourself.
It may seem counter-intuitive to make things more difficult.
But, as users progress through the onboarding flows, they want more of a challenge. If you do a decent job of delivering a small win to them, you should find this creates the best results.
3. Let them know they’ve won
Another requisite of enlisting the dopamine reward system to your glorious user onboarding flows is letting users know they’ve won.
As Willis points out in a different article written for Psychologytoday.com:
“In addition to the challenge required for the dopamine reward pleasure response, the brain must be aware that it correctly solved a problem”
In video games, some kind of reward is pretty standard. Whether it’s experience points (XP) that contribute to the next higher level, a new weapon, tool or other inventory item, there are rewards to be gained.
Okay, so you can’t offer users a QuadDamage power-up for completing an onboarding step. But you can write them a message.
Try different text via a simple pop-up window with text to the effect of:
- “You’re good to go!”
- “Well done, you’re awesome!”
SaaS products make heavy use of gamification use with digital currencies and other rewards. What you use is up to you, but experiment with this tactic for the best results.
4. Change it up
It’s important to change things up. As Willis discusses in the video interview, there’s a switching mechanism in the brain that responds to fresh activity.
The “amygdala” is an emotional filter that’s responsible for deciding where in the brain information goes. When we receive info, it will go somewhere. The question is: where?
When the amygdala is in a state of stress, it sends incoming information to the lower 80% of the brain. That’s the animal reactive side, the only behavior we can expect from which are the fight, flight or freeze responses.
That’s not good for your user onboarding.
The idea is to maintain “a state of low stress” in the amygdala by avoiding boredom or fear (say, the kind of fear we might feel from a ludicrously complicated interface).
Willis explains that changing things up is how you do it.
If you use different onboarding methods in different features of your product, you’re much more likely to engage users and improve their boarding experience.
5. Quest pathway
Here’s a screenshot from kickstarter.com’s onboarding flow. You can see the checklist running along the top showing how far you’ve got left to go.
Video games have been using this pattern for many years. Even old super old school video games from the Nintendo Entertainment System such as Mario Bros 2 have this feature, right the way through to the present.
These days, Angry Birds, Plants Vs Zombies and many other highly addictive games lean heavily on the tactic.
Again, we find the reason why backed up by this science. When the progress is placed in full view, it shows us the fruits of our labor and also shows us that the challenge ahead has just a few steps rather than being indefinite or unsurmountable.
It’s the final piece in encouraging the dopamine reward system.
According to e-learning industry.com, 75% of people are currently gamers. That statistic certainly isn’t because we’ve all got more time on our hands than we ever did before.
Okay yes, it’s easier to pick up and play video games with smartphones and more consoles in more living rooms than ever. But the truth, it’s mighty easy to get addicted (to one extent or another) due to the addictive nature of dopamine.
Want a strategy around which to base your next user onboarding experiments? Here is it.
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