In the past, I was a huge fan of this famous quote by the father of the modern management:

“What gets measured gets managed”

Peter Drucker

Overtime this mantra revolutionized the world and there is a lot of evidence to support this. What does it mean to measure something?

Is it only asking “What we should measure?”. In many cases, a better approach is asking “why we measure this particular parameter?” which will give you clarity on the purpose of the activity or a task you measure. How about asking “how we will measure it?”- this will provide you with a clear understanding of how will you know you achieved progress.

Companies, both big and small, use complex technologies to collect data points and analyze every single interaction with their product, intending to provide to their customers a five stars experience.

But is this really the case?

Lets move from the abstraction to a concrete example related to you and I, normal users, who want to achieve something.

And in this article I will mention below the example of learning a language using an app. Before you go to the next paragraphs, I would like to invite you to think about if you had ever tried such approach and what was your experience.

Do you really care about the gimmicks a company introduces in such a solution? Sure, sometimes they really help you stay on track, but on track of how software intended to be used and achieving the software goals, but does this metrics and gamifications take your goals and ambition into account too? Have you ever asked yourself, are those gamification tools really needed and who is it for?

If you ask any company, they will tell you that having such gimmicks helps their users to stay on track. Each day, they will strive to do better and, therefore, improve. Does having or receiving a higher score on a leadership board a good indicator for improvement?

Let’s imagine it is not, surely there are no side effects or bad consequences of taking measurements and providing motivational feedback for your end user, right?

The dark side of gamification

The picture represents a notepad written on it "Gamification Strategy" and a red sign on top with a hand representing a stop sign.
Dark Side of Gamification

I used to think that having gamification elements is a cool idea and doesn’t have side effects. Lately I changed my mind, especially looking at some apps and how they were designed. I got the impression that such “motivational” approaches don’t work for me and it got me curious am I the only one with this impression, is the industry approach to gamification really broken?

Let me give you one example. Learning a new language. If you are an adult and you want to learn a new language and you aren’t one of the members of polyglot society, who learn a new language every 6 months, it can be a hard work.

I explored a lot of options, one is to get a teacher, the other one is to use apps, such as Duolingo or Mondly, or even having digital flash cards and so on.

We can agree on the fact that there are numerous options, which serves different use cases and available free time.

In the past, I used Duolingo a lot and then I switched to Mondly. The stats and measurement they use are daily strikes and leadership board.

If we step into the shoes of someone who would like to learn the language and I am sure you had done it before, so this example would be an easy one. We can agree that the learners’ goal is not to be on the top of a leadership board. That could just provide bragging points they could potentially share with their friends. However, I haven’t seen a correlation between gaining “experience” in the app and getting better in the language.

On the contrary, there is a lot of proof showing that such features are fun at first until the user realizes what waste of time it is, because it distracts them from the real goal, they should measure – mastering of the language.

Here is a good example – comment posted by cosmo39:

“About a year and a half ago I was learning Spanish on Duolingo for a solid 6 months…. For various life reasons I then stopped using it until recently….

First thing I noticed were the new leaderboards. What a fun idea! Ever since, I’ve been working extremely hard at it and I’m now about to be promoted to diamond league.

But over the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed how I’ve learned essentially nothing, despite all the time I’ve spent gaining XP. All I’ve been doing is trying to better my XP

I realize now that leaderboards are not contributing positively to my learning and for this reason, I’m deciding to ignore them from this point onwards. I didn’t start learning a language to enter a competition and quite frankly I enjoyed the app far more how it was before.”

Duolingo user

It seems like companies create all those gamifications to make people stay and use more the app, which has nothing wrong with that. We all need a little motivation to boost our moral. But when the gamification is set in a such way to benefit only the platform, eventually their users will realize that and either move on to the next thing or stop noticing the gamification.

What can we do to fix it?

Fixing the dark side of gamification

The first thing companies must do is re-visit the customer path, needs and pain. Did the customer sign to their platform to brag about and being the best? Then give them a leadership board. This works best with competitive gaming and all sorts of competition, where there is a prize, and you want to be the best.

However, in the case of learning a language, the companies who create such software must think more like an educator. Asking the question, “How to provide confidence for our user to use the learned in a real-life scenario?”. In school we have tests, we have conversation and other approaches to help us grade ourselves and show us what we need to improve. If Duolingo or other apps provide to the learner feature like tests and examination and recommendations, what to improve on wouldn’t this be a more useful way for their users to progress and achieve their goal?

To fix the problem, we must go back to the customer.

Understand their real needs

Once we understand their real needs, which most of the time won’t be related to flashy screen and score board. It is easy to start designing better system to motivate and encourage them to use the solution. One example with Duolingo could be the introduction of Duolingo clubs of volunteers who help others to learn their native tongue using virtual rooms or why not Duolingo meetup groups.

Wouldn’t be more useful, after knowing how to introduce yourself and ask basic questions, to jump to a call or go to a meeting and immediately practice it?

Verify that this is what your users really need

Always check your assumption. Don’t jump and implement the first idea, no matter how cool it is. Create customer surveys and interviews. Have an MVP ready which someone could try it and provide you with a feedback.

Plan the solution

After the validation phase, you need to come up with a plan or business case. How long it will be needed for this solution to be built, how many new users will attract or retain. Big failure on your side will be to create something new that won’t help your business or customer further in their goal. When you do the plan and you take the business into an account, you will know if there is a match between users’ wants (or needs) and the business you are in.

Build the gamification solution

The next logical step is to provide it to your users. You have the plan and now is ready for the real work to start by creating, building, or introducing your solution. We are so used to think about digital products, but also the solution could be a physical one too. Not always the solution is app or add stars or something else to your website screen.

Launch and celebration

After you introduce the solution, it is time to celebrate. Don’t forget to monitor your data points and see if the solution really benefited your customers. It might be a good idea to plan user interviews in the future and see how the implemented gamification solution could be improved.


Gamification can enhance your solution, increase customer retention and overall satisfaction, if done right. Done wrongly and it will be another useless feature people ignore. Even worse, it could drive some of your users away and decrease retention.

To prevent that, put your customer goals first and your company and business goals second.

And remember, if you have happy customers, the business will always flourish.

Aleks Vladimriov is a Senior Software Developer, recognized Project Manager and Soft-skilled trainer and a coach.

Aleks Vladimirov

Solution Engineering Manager at Thales | Senior IT Professional | Startup Mentor and Product Manager

Aleks is experienced Product Manager with an engineer background and over 10 years of experience as a software developer. He works with different governments and is responsible for negotiation features and requirements, understanding the customers’ needs and supporting the senior management with regular reports and analysis. He held various positions starting as a software developer, moving to a team leader and software architect.

He strives in waterfall and agile environment alike. He is certified Scrum Master and Prince2 Practitioner and he knows how to design business processes and help teams optimize their work.
During his tenure, he had to wear many hats, prioritizing business requirements, delegating work and mentoring team members, creating mockups with Balsamiq, providing MS Project plan to the senior management.

He had worked in many international teams, located in the same city or distributed in different countries and continents. He had been a team leader of cross functional international team of 8 people.

In his current position, he is very much client focused. He has excellent presentation skills.
He delivers training sessions on presentation skills and leadership and he had helped hundred of people to improve their presentation skills.

He is also interested in creating more positive changes in the workplace by using entrepreneurship skills.
He had won startup competition where his team had validated and develop a business idea from scratch.

In his free time, he writes in his blog about effective product development.

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