Admittedly, I thought twice about focusing this week’s post on the topic of choice — gamification.  For one reason, in its broadest sense, it’s a really big topic.  What I finally decided, though, is to focus on one simple example of gamification, one that we encounter every day without giving it much thought.

What is it?  It’s a number.  More specifically, it’s a number that we watch appear, then disappear, then reappear…  but it’s the ‘going away’ part that is the actual objective of the game.  We see the number in a growing list of places and we know that, if we don’t make it go away, the number will just get higher.  It’s usually a number that appears in white in a blue circle or, at other times, in a red circle.

I’m referring, of course, to notification badges.  They appear on our phones at the corner of the icon for the application with which they’re associated.  They start at 1 when the first unacknowledged notification appears and go up incrementally until we begin to acknowledge them.  As we act on them — view the messages they represent, for example – they decrement until there are zero notifications, at which point, the badge will typically disappear.

That’s all kind of basic stuff, right?  So why a blog post about this simplest approach to gamification?  Well, it’s all about user behavior.  More specifically, it’s all about driving desired levels of user engagement.  Struggling to get users to respond to the capabilities of an application?  Add a badge.  Want users to spend more time with some aspects of an application?  Figure out if there is a way to add a badge.  As simple as it sounds, ‘gamifying’ an app in this manner can turn even the most mundane task into the start of an engaging experience that demands our attention.

When we see them and then get rid of them, by performing the task(s) the application provider wants us to perform, we get two rewards.  One is the content that it has guided us toward, which may be nothing but a message but could be something more important, interesting, or immersive.  The other is – don’t laugh — the sense of accomplishment at succeeding at the game of getting the number to go away.

Gamification can be very complex, requiring lots of thought and intricate design.  Or, in the world of mobile device usability and user engagement, just a little number can be a really big thing.