Unnecessary Badges: When Your Reward System Targets the Wrong Behavior

CHAMP!! (1)Badges are an incredibly common way that app developers try to hook users of their product. Theoretically, badges aren’t a bad idea. They could conceivably support user competence by providing positive feedback for continued activity or achievement of new accomplishments. When properly applied, badges can encourage users to keep up desired behaviors such as product purchases.

But unfortunately, often app developers do not align the badge concept with desired behavioral outcomes. There are two main ways I’ve seen badges go wrong as motivational tools:

  1. They reward the wrong behavior
  2. They unnecessarily reward a behavior

I picked an example of each type of badge misalignment to demonstrate how these two issues can lead to unintended consequences (or the failure to achieve wanted behaviors). I also picked one app that I think is doing a badge-type reward system really well.

They reward the wrong behavior.

This gets back to the principle that when designing any sort of app or intervention, it’s important to clearly define what you actually want your user to do. What has to happen for your product to be a success? (This is where BJ Fogg’s Behavior Grid can come in handy.)

Some of the many Foursquare badges users could earn through check-ins
Some of the many Foursquare badges users could earn through check-ins

Foursquare is basically the godfather of badges. Prior to its ongoing transformation into a location-based search engine, Foursquare was essentially a social location-based check-in app that allowed people to declare their physical location and share it with their network of connections. Other apps would incorporate the Foursquare API to add location-based functionality. Over time, as users accumulate check-ins, they can earn badges, as well as claim “mayoralty” of specific locations if they are the most frequent visitor. Badges might be related to check-ins within a specific geographic location, a type of business (retail, Italian restaurants), or a time period.

Foursquare has the potential to encourage behaviors that interested parties would find desirable. It’s easy to see how a retail chain, for example, might want to encourage Foursquare users to visit multiple locations by awarding a badge for checking into the same store in more than one city. At some point, Foursquare began awarding physical activity badges for using affiliated services such as Runkeeper or HealthMonth. These badges were then discontinued in June 2012.

Why? Well, one reason is that over time, these badges fail to reward the desired behavior. Presumably there are two levels of desired behavior here:

  • Use the affiliated app or device
  • Actually engage in the healthy behavior

Well, the way Foursquare’s third party health badges were structured, you could only earn each badge one time. That means that after your first month on HealthMonth, or your first 5k with Runkeeper, there were no further rewards for that activity. As a runner, I’ll comment that it takes long enough to build up from a 5k to a 10k level that if you are really hoping the badge will sustain the behavior, a one-time award isn’t going to cut it. A good reward system aligns with the target behavior.

They unnecessarily reward a behavior.

Sometimes apps reward a behavior that is already intrinsically rewarding, and doesn’t need additional justification. Worse, because of the discounting effect, adding the extrinsic reward of the badge may lessen motivation to use the app (if not engage in the actual behavior).

Some of the Untappd badges I've earned--and exciting new badges to unlock by drinking more beer.
Some of the Untappd badges I’ve earned–and exciting new badges to unlock by drinking more beer.

My best current example of an app that awards unnecessary badges is Untappd, a social app that records the beers you drink and shares them with friends. Untappd also provides badges for a number of behavior types, including drinking a certain number of beers in a category (e.g. IPA or lagers), drinking beers on certain days (e.g. Independence Day or New Year’s Day), or drinking a certain number of beers in a defined time frame (e.g. three times this week).

Now here’s the thing: I have never once decided to drink a beer, or chosen a specific beer to drink, because Untappd might give me a badge for it. I’ll take it further and say I’ve also never recorded a beer in Untappd in order to get the badge.

Drinking beer is already a rewarding activity, so a badge to encourage it is completely unnecessary. And the Untappd app has a clear purpose that also doesn’t necessitate an external reward: It lets me track interesting beers I try so I can remember to order them if I see them again. It also lets me peek into the beer tastes of friends who I know to be connoisseurs, so I can try the things they like. Badges do not enhance Untappd’s usefulness. In fact, given the undermining effect, adding a badge in on top of an already motivating experience could have the unintentional result of making users less engaged. (For beer drinking, this would likely look like less use of Untappd rather than less drinking of beer.)

Only implement a reward system when it makes sense to reward the desired behavior with something extrinsic. Otherwise, it’s wasted time and effort, and may be counter-effective.

But there’s hope for badges!

Starbucks' mobile app rewards the behavior of buying coffee, which is exactly the behavior they want to encourage.
Starbucks’ mobile app rewards the behavior of buying coffee, which is exactly the behavior they want to encourage.

Starbucks, the ubiquitous coffeeshop chain, has a mobile app for both iPhone and Android that is a great example of badging done right (although what they award is not precisely a badge). The Starbucks app lets users sync a credit card with their phone and pay for purchases (including tips) at brick-and-mortar locations using an individual barcode displayed on the screen. The app also tracks purchases and awards points for purchases. When users accumulate enough points, they earn a higher tier or level within the reward system, and free coffee. Free coffee! Yes, the badges within the Starbucks app provide people with a reward that we know they value based on their purchasing behavior, thereby encouraging more purchases. Brilliant!

The Starbucks app is popular, too. According to Starbucks, as of March 2014, 14% of their total American retail purchases are made via the app. The link to the press release is no longer active, but I saved an article noting that $26 million in purchases were made using the app in its first year.

(By the way, this example pains me a bit. I love coffee but don’t particularly care for the Starbucks variety.)

How do you do badges right?

The key with badges, as with any product feature, is careful planning. When developing your app, ask yourself:

  • What do I want people to do?
  • Will a badge encourage that behavior?

If the answer to your first question isn’t clear and concise, you have some planning to do before you can really design your product. If the answer to your second question is “No,” or something like “Maybe, if for some reason the person isn’t actually planning to drink a delicious frosty beer but might be convinced to do it if they receive a digital badge for their efforts,” you should reconsider using badges. Only when you’ve determined that badges make sense to reward a behavior and that behavior is clearly defined should you proceed.

What apps do you think use badges especially well? Which apps have unnecessary badges?

2 thoughts on “Unnecessary Badges: When Your Reward System Targets the Wrong Behavior

  1. Really interesting and I’m kind of amazed you managed to talk about badges without using the word ‘gamification’ (unless I just missed it!)!

    Coming from an online learning technology perspective, the most effective thing for engaging learners is undoubtably gamification. And you’re absolutely right – badges must be awarded for the behaviours you want to encourage (like completing eLearning units, communicating with other learners online and getting answers right).

    But over and above this, badges need to amount to something more: superiority or mastery of an activity/subject.

    That’s why leaderboards and Mayor status are so effective in getting repeat behaviours. If you’re just three badges shy of the top of the leaderboard, of course you’re going to make the extra effort to knock the current leader off the top spot!

    Anyway. Great post, I hope to read more from you!

    1. Thanks for the very thoughtful comment! I agree that getting close to that top spot can be incredibly energizing–I’ve been there.

      I didn’t realize I didn’t use the word “gamification,” but it makes sense. I try not to talk about these principles so much in that context because I think we can push similar psychological levers without the appearance of a game. That ends up being a hair worth splitting in the health field.

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