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Using game design principles to activate users

Emily Wang
2 min read

When game designers create a game, they have to figure out how to usher the player through each level, ultimately encouraging them to complete the game. 

But there’s a tricky balance – if the levels are too easy, players will get bored. If players can’t figure out the game mechanics or don’t feel any sense of accomplishment in the early moments, they’re likely to give up.

My friend Bobby Prochnow, a game designer at Riot and a former software engineer at Palantir,  shared this sentiment:

“If I get frustrated with a new game – if it doesn’t click for me or I can't find the fun quickly, I’m uninstalling that game and trying out the next one.” 

That’s why game designers like Prochnow structure their games to provide the right level of information and incentives, all in the name of encouraging the player to become invested.

The same is true for any SaaS product. Users need to be deliberately onboarded to get the most value out of the experience. Once they realize the value, they’re hooked on the experience as part of their workflow.

So, how can SaaS product designers leverage the principles of game design to create better onboarding experiences?

Hot take: Most SaaS are like an “open world” game

Both SaaS products and games often dump their users into an open world where anything can be created.

For example, Notion users can use the platform to collaborate at work, but they can also create a chore chart for their roommates. So how would a user coming in know which path (or journey) to take?

Even when SaaS products are less horizontal than Notion or Airtable, they become more like open world games as they mature because there are more and more features and use cases to explore.

Templates galleries like those used by Airtable and Notion, help create "paths" in what is an otherwise "open world"

While this openness is powerful, it represents an onboarding challenge since most users of B2B SaaS tools come to get their one task done as quickly as possible and sometimes aren’t even clear-headed on exactly what that task is. Templates have become a common way to clarify users' potential goals and create linear paths.

Even then, most SaaS users are not waking up each morning thinking about how to explore their new tool. They generally want to take the path of least resistance to get their job done. While software is intended to make their lives easier, it can still be incredibly tough to get them to invest the time and energy to learn how.

For complex products, you might employ a human (often a Success manager) to help. But this doesn’t scale.

How to leverage principles of game design in SaaS onboarding

1. Design good “levels” so a user can happily progress

In game design, bad "tutorialization" can ruin a game with otherwise incredible gameplay. A common mistake is to throw the kitchen sink of mechanics at players too quickly, leaving them frustrated and overwhelmed. Instead, you want to slowly dole out these mechanics over time, so that right as a player starts to feel like they’re mastering the game, there’s a new shiny mechanic that makes things more interesting again.

Similarly, in SaaS, poor onboarding assaults the user with 27 to-dos. Even if 27 steps are necessary, consider breaking them into sections so the user doesn't feel as overwhelmed.

“The best games are almost always built by developers that have deep empathy for their player base. But it’s not enough to only understand the deeply engaged players who are already experts. You also have to keep in mind the new players who should like your game, but haven’t put in the time to learn yet,” said Prochnow.

Temper the voice that wants the user to use "all the great features" and build the flow focused on that first early win. Once that win (level) is under the users's belt, you'll earn the right to keep them leveling up.

2. Create linear journey(s) while acknowledging different goals

When someone is new to a product, it’s your job to make them aware of what it can do and incentivize them to continue. Yet too often people conflate "awareness" with "show them around our app." Instead, designers should focus on building awareness of the journey.

For example, it’s essential that players in a game understand both the challenges they’re meant to face and the tools that they have available. The first level of the original Super Mario Bros is an incredibly elegant example of this: there’s no explicit helper text, but instead the linear level design creates an implicit path to success. As the player is running from the start, the first thing they encounter is a flashing yellow question mark block floating above them. Without being told, players intuit that they need to jump to interact with the block. Their intuition is paid off when Mario bonks his head into the block and an interesting new power-up pops out.

It's unlikely that B2B SaaS tools can "reveal" each level like with a video game, but still, there are parallels. Before Prochnow worked on video games, he was a software engineer at Palantir, where they built powerful but complex software used by government and financial services employees.

“For B2B software, if there’s not a linear workflow, most users are going to quickly bounce,” said Prochnow. “For example, they might be able to see that they have access to all this interesting data, but they have no idea what to do with it.”

When onboarding for a SaaS product personalize the journey as much as you possibly can, ideally by asking the user what their goal or use-case is. But don't leave it there! With that insight, tailor the "happy path" in the onboarding flow so users are directed to a path most relevant to their goals.

3. Don't brute force it

There’s nothing more annoying than playing a game and being bombarded with prompts about how to play, particularly if they’re lengthy, difficult to read, or confusing. If users are struggling to figure something out, brute force is likely to drive them away.

“You can’t use brute force to solve approachability issues by throwing more and more onboarding at a player,” said Prochnow. “Instead, you need to make sure that the core gamplay is designed to be intuitive and easy to pick up. ”

The more that your product is designed to be intuitive & self-explanatory, the less work your onboarding has to do. But for complex enterprise software, making it intuitive is far from enough – no matter how intuitive the product is, the "paths" are likely to be different for users of different personas and with different goals. Instead of throwing every possible product tour at a user, allow them to opt into what they're interested in, when they want it.

4. Iterate until it works

Game designers do a lot of play-testing where they validate games with external players.

“When we play-tested externally, we'd quickly find out what mechanics gave people trouble,” said Prochnow. “Once you know what to focus on, you hit it from multiple angles. You try to make the mechanic more intuitive and close the rest of the gap with good onboarding."

When it comes to designing onboarding for SaaS, you can’t expect to design an onboarding experience once and be done forever. Instead, you’ll need to iterate on the experience, testing it out with users until you’re sure they have the knowledge to excel.

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Games and SaaS products are obviously different. Games are much more recreational, after all. But both need to build awareness, educate users, and ultimately get people hooked into the experience so they keep coming back for more. But don't discount the opportunities to tap into the same psychologies – especially in the early days – to cultivate motivation and a sense of progress and achievement.


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