5 Key Lessons From Game Design: Creating a Strong UX

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Publish date:

November 18, 2021

Updated on:

June 13, 2024

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5 Key Lessons From Game Design: Creating a Strong UX


Application development and game design appear to be a world apart from each other, at least on the surface. While computer games might pit their players as heroes or villains in vast open battles to save fictional planets, user applications typically solve real-world needs with data and services. Yet, in reality, these two fields have far more in common than most people realise.

Application designers work exceptionally hard to keep their users on task and in their app. In comparison, game developers are able to achieve astonishingly high retention and low churn rates with seemingly little trouble. Games have the unique ability to keep players engaged and focused on difficult and sometimes frustrating tasks for hours on end.

Enterprising apps have done well to borrow some of these lessons from game design and apply them in a new way. Learning how to effectively engage, reward, and encourage interaction with users can pay huge dividends. For the games industry, these lessons have meant growing from a niche interest into a $175 Billion industry in just a few decades. For forward-thinking applications, this has meant an increase in productivity, satisfaction, and user retention that’s re-writing the rule book on what users should expect from their apps.

UX Design for Applications

“Borrowing” some of the games industry’s most powerful tools and techniques for real-world applications is a process called gamification. Marketplace apps, learning platforms, and fitness trackers are among the most common examples of apps that use game metrics and rewards to encourage users to engage deeper with difficult challenges and tasks.

Gamification is used often across many platforms because it has been shown to work. When used well, users spend more time per session in apps,  increase engagement with tasks, and heighten their level of interaction. There are few apps out there today that couldn’t benefit from at least some additional elements of gamification.

Precisely how these techniques are applied and to what degree they are used depends on the application and environment you are deploying them to.

Language learning platform Duolingo has successfully used overt gamification techniques in helping users to focus and study when learning a new language. Similarly, fitness applications such as Strava have utilised rewards, medals, and goals to help users apply themselves towards reaching difficult goals.

Source: Duolingo.com

Other applications use gamification techniques to strengthen their UX design in more subtle ways. Business communication platform Slack utilises tooltips and tutorial methods to introduce new users to the features and functionality of their feature-rich web and mobile applications.

Regardless of the app you’re designing, the games industry can share some powerful insights when it comes to putting users at the front and centre of UX design. Here we’ve compiled five key game industry techniques for building an app with a strong UX at its heart.

1. Put Action Front and Centre of UX Design

First impressions count. When it comes to introducing users to inherently difficult and unfamiliar tasks—first impressions count double. If the introduction to your site or app is confusing, muddled, and lacking in direction, then you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle just to retain users.

Game design refers to the initial stages of a user’s experience as tutorialising. Every game sets aside some time in the opening minutes to get players familiar with the controls, objectives, and game world. Often, the player enters into a guided sandbox where it’s safe to explore and learn.

In UX design, this idea can prove to be highly practical for applications too. Described as ‘onboarding’ in application development, great UX design provides a space to make and revert changes easily, which can do a lot to smooth out the learning curve and create instant familiarity.

Giving users a well-built introduction and ‘practice run’ of using the app can make all the difference in improving their experience. Done well and made fun, it can prove invaluable in retaining users through the first few, and most difficult, opening minutes.

UX Design Questions to Ask:

  • How will the app look to new users starting for the first time?
  • How can we describe the greatest amount of functionality with the least amount of user effort?

2. Create expert users fast

In gaming, players rapidly and effortlessly become experts in their field. Piloting fighter jets, achieving sporting greatness, or sorting candies with record-breaking efficiency—players can transition from novice to professional with minimal practice.

Using an effective onboarding process, users should be able to reach that same high level of confidence in a way that feels intuitive, effortless, and sometimes even fun. Encouraging users to pick up the basics this fast will build an environment they will want to return to.

Creating a positive feedback loop, this process encourages further exploration and self-guided learning in users and leads to yet more positive feedback in the future. This idea is one key reason that games are so highly engaging. Ensuring this process continues beyond just the opening minutes of use will give your app both longevity and value in the minds of its users.

Assisting in this process, a well-designed user interface can play the single largest role. Intuitive workflows and easily accessible options should guide users through common and simple tasks, for example. Tooltips and feature highlights can help to point out critical elements to help users do new things.

Today, many sites use a period of progressive disclosure, unveiling new features one at a time to introduce new concepts at a steady pace. Avoiding information overload and smoothing out the learning curve, UX designers can play a major role in turning new users into expert ones in surprisingly short order.

Efficient Onboarding Questions to Ask:

  • How can we make the product easy to master for beginners, but not limiting for savvy users who advance quickly?
  • What are the core essentials for users to master to begin effectively using this app?

3. Reward Users Often

Highly engaging games, those that keep players enthralled for hours at a time, encourage their users with rewards and achievements. A simple token or medal for completing tasks may seem like a trivial reward, but creates another powerful method of feedback to boost progress.

Today, these systems of reward and achievement have been readily adopted into UX design for applications. Social media platforms regularly use engagement metrics such as likes and replies to encourage well-crafted clever posts and create rewards for time-spend on the platform.

Fitness, habit, and productivity trackers similarly use virtual medals and awards to encourage users to meet difficult goals and overcome obstacles standing in their way. Making these tokens and medals shareable through social media platforms has shown to supercharge their effects too.

Source: Strava.com

Socially shareable rewards have been shown to keep users working harder and for longer on fitness and well-being goals than comparable apps without rewards.

The impacts on both apps and users from implementing game design features into apps with such far-reaching utility can be truly staggering. Great UX design, in these kinds of cases, can go as far as positively impacting a user's health and well-being through tiny changes in thinking.

Questions to Ask When Considering how to Reward Users:

  • What motivates your users to engage?
  • How can you design a reward system that targets those motivations?

4. Build Meaningful Stories

The “hook” that captures a player’s attention in any game, regardless of platform, decade, or genre, is a captivating story that draws you in and invests you in its outcome. No matter how vast or small the world, how focused or open-ended the adventure is, it’s a character’s story that ultimately drives a player’s choices.

The unkept secret of every entertainment medium is that people are inherently story-driven creatures. Streaming, books, movies, and games are all so wildly popular today because stories capture our imaginations. For app developers and UX designers, this is a universal driving force we can depend on to make better choices.

Find the stories and interactions that matter within your application. Every app, platform, and service has them, though they’re not always at the forefront of current thinking. On your platform, it may be drawing out the stories of your users or describing the heritage and expertise that brought your app to where it is now.

Ridesharing, lodging, and social media apps have all perfected their own user interactions through the stories of their users. A successful app in each of these categories has to be capable of building rapid relationships between its users.

Designers from the accommodation rental app Airbnb describe their entire UX design process as ‘designing for trust’. In order to connect people and create the relationships required to either stay with an unknown stranger or invite someone into your property, the platform set out to design user profiles and bios in a way that conveys as much personality, information, and trust as possible.

The Airbnb app achieves this by using UX design to nudge its users into creating well-written and comprehensively filled out profiles to build their own identity. Combined with highlighting previous reviews and activity on the platform, strong UX design choices allow both parties to get an accurate snapshot of the person they interact with.

By designing from the ground up with meaningful interactions at the forefront of thinking, Airbnb now finds itself in a position to host millions of people worldwide every single year.

Questions to Ask when Designing to Create Meaningful Interactions:

  • How can we build a meaningful connection with the stories and people behind our app?
  • How can our stories be front and centre of UX design choices?

5. Keep Users Consistently Learning

In gaming, users are most highly motivated and driven when challenged to consistently find, learn, and explore in new ways. Even after dozens of hours, players will still have new things to unlock and new areas to explore. The key to long-term retention is that players are consistently getting more and more from the game every time they return.

In UX design, we can’t hide things away from the user for a long time. We can ensure that users continue to get more and more from an application, however.

Regularly published learning resources, new tooltips, and prompts to introduce new things can go a long way to scratching that itch for things new and exciting.

You might introduce users to new tools and techniques within your app, or direct their attention to unique and interesting finds that may have otherwise passed them by. Whether done at startup, as part of a regular newsletter or introduced to the user while browsing, it’s important that neither learning or teaching end in the opening minutes or the tutorial exercises.

Questions to ask when considering how users should learn

  • What extra steps would users like to learn from our app, and how can we best deliver them?
  • What’s the next thing we can offer users to improve the experience?


Game designers engage players with vast interactive worlds, breathtaking graphics, and complex challenges that test both physical dexterity and problem-solving skills. Application designers can often feel like their role is a world apart in comparison. The reality is, however, the two are remarkably similar skill sets.

In gaming, players positively respond to the stories, novelty, action, and rewards on offer. In UX design, the user is just as likely to respond to the very same things.

Borrowing heavily from the world of game design, application developers should be easily capable of engaging users on a level that makes an application novel, interesting, and fun. The rewards for the designer are equally large too, as users prove they’re willing to return to the app time and again.

Tune in next time to learn all about how automation can help project managers take their game to the next level!


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Ian Deed

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Software developer, mobile application engineer, and writer helping companies to enhance their tech branding and improve the way they communicate with technical and non-technical audiences.

Leaning on years of experience and knowledge to understand technical communication that works from wordy jargon that doesn't.

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