How gamification can improve user onboarding

gamification blog

Photo by Joey Kwok

What if there was a way to make user onboarding fun? This is what gamification can do under the right circumstances. With well executed gamification principles, user onboarding can be enjoyable and help nudge users later in the product experience with gradual difficulty

In this article, we will be focusing on gamification in mobile B2C applications. It is in these product ecosystems that these principles thrive. It can be used in B2B,  in the VR/AR medium, and in the real world (yup, your local coffee shop punch card is a mini form of gamification) but it is most effective in mobile B2C.

1. What exactly is gamification?

The term Gamification comes from a programmer, Nick Pelling, who coined the phrase in 2002.

Applying game-like accelerated user interface design to make electronic transactions both enjoyable and fast

I want to emphasize something from Mr. Pelling’s description: enjoyable. The core purpose of gamification is to make a SaaS experience fun. If this isn’t part of the mission for your product, I would recommend exploring the fundamentals of user onboarding.

2. Some principles of gamification

Please bear in mind, using gamification in your user onboarding is also using it throughout the rest of the product. Gamification isn’t a bag of UI tricks that can be thrown into any onboarding experience. Executed correctly, gamification and the user onboarding experience can complement each other. User onboarding is there to quickly show and provide value to the users. Gamification arms your product with multiple ways to provide praise and investment in the experience from the first tap.


Giving users the feeling of winning is one of the best ways to encourage users through the user onboarding experience. In gamification, this is done via achievement, and it can be manifested in a number of ways within a mobile app. 

  • Badge systems are a great way to nudge users to the feeling of achievement. Studies have shown they have a direct impact on user motivation
  • Levels in an application can help users feel like they are progressing, crossing a threshold. 

Gamification is a great vehicle for a reward system in a B2C application. What’s great about reward systems is they’re well established, they work, and they can be throughout the customer experience, not just user experience. From credit card points to Duolingo’s lingots, they help keep us hooked. According to a study on game reward systems, a noticeable feeling of fun was measured in the gamer’s experience before even spending anything. The presence of the reward system before “cashing in” can help build that critical feeling of enjoyment.

Community building

Part of the reason fitness, finance and educational based apps have been able to leverage gamification more than other industries is the potential for community building. Within this community comes a competitive edge that carries the user past the onboarding phase. 

Leaderboards provide extrinsic motivation for users based on other people’s performances. Another way to maximize leaderboards is providing a reward. This can be moving up a level or more in app currency. 

community building

Leaderboards are especially effective within fitness apps. Fitbit saw a 15% increase in daily steps by introducing the feature. 

Communication is the cornerstone of community building. This can be something as simple as sharing an achievement or progress report with someone else in the app’s community. It is important to have enforced guidelines that encourage healthy competition and respectful dialogue. Otherwise, we get the comment section from youtube.

Note: Not surprisingly, apps that use gamification will give you a badge for adding or inviting friends. The more these principles interact with each other, the more they strengthen each other.

Having a forum within your product can be a challenge. In March 2022, Duolingo removed their forum since it became harder to manage. They still have an active community dialogue, but on unofficial platforms outside of the app. 

3. Other ways to enhance gamification

There are other ways to give your product the feeling of a game, if it aligns with your product vision and strategy. Most are not strictly gamification or onboarding principles but they can be used to enhance both.


A tutorial in the onboarding experience is learning the actual functionality of the product. Let users learn by doing and make these moments of “doing” digestible. Every facet of user onboarding has importance, but tutorials make or break companies. If most users are struggling to use your product, it might be time to figure out why. 

Tutorials are where most of the gamification principles are also being introduced. So it’s not just learning how to use the app but it’s also laying the groundwork for the systems that will motivate your users. Users who have come to the app are usually approaching the application with a feeling of motivation. Take advantage of this with a tutorial experience that doesn’t feel like a tutorial experience. Educational based apps can capitalize on this opportunity a little better because it’s not a tutorial, it’s “the first lesson.”


If user onboarding had a karate belt system, DuoLingo would be a 10th degree black belt. I share this example because even before they launch users into the first lesson, they take the time to clarify goals. It may not look like it but they are easing their users into the experience with just a few screens so the first lesson has more impact.

Progress bars

Progress bars are used in user onboarding and gamification in two ways. 

  1. The steps in the onboarding process. One of the core tenants of user onboarding is letting users know how long the experience is going to take. Without it, a sense of unease and frustration can quickly develop. 

Above you can see how many steps this fitness app has with its onboarding.  The purpose of progress bars and all UI elements is to effectively and quickly communicate with the user.

Note: A way to “level up” your progress bars is to label the key action that will happen with each step. This helps manage expectations and clarity for the user. 

  1. Showing the user how close they are to a reward. A reward system on its own is fine. Showing how close they are to achieving that reward just adds another nudge to help them keep going. It is also a recognition of the effort they have put in so far.

4. Is gamification right for your product and users?

It may seem like a silly question, BUT does having a fun experience work for your product?  Gamification isn’t a wand that you wave to magically improve your product. Too many organizations add these features as a coat of paint rather than a foundation to their product. Before launching the product, test to see if gamification helps users recognize and internalize your product’s value. 

5. The Benefits of gamification

6. The pitfalls of gamification (when not used properly)

So is the goal, then, really to help us find relationships? Or is it to get us to have a relationship with the apps themselves?

7. Conclusion

The image above is reminding us that a product’s user onboarding is arming the customer with the right tools to do pretty amazing things. Gamification can be one of those tools. 

Gamification elements rarely exist on their own, they are usually complemented by another principle. This shows that the process should be part of the fundamentals of your product’s development. Principles work with each other and because of the other. 

Good user onboarding, regardless of the product, user, organization or business model, is a vehicle for providing value. Gamification is a great way to make discovering that value a fun experience. This approach isn’t a band aid for a product missing a well thought foundation: it is there to enhance an already good product and make it fun.

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