Book Review: ‘Decoding the Why’ by Nate Andorsky

This book “Decoding the Why: How Behavioral Science is Driving the Next Generation of Product Design” by Nate Andorsky can be summed as the one attempting to bridge the gap between what is loosely known as gamifying the product experience and a typical product development in non-games companies. As you would have observed, even before Covid – product companies were focusing on driving user engagement and retention through non-monetary interventions. In a horizontal product world – everyone trying to do almost everything else – user attention is literally a currency!

Image 1: Book Cover of “Decoding the Why” by Nate Andorsky

In author’s own words, the book is intended to give readers a baseline understanding of how behavioral science integrates into the product design. What now follows is summary of the book in Q&A format

What are the limitations of an archetypal user research oriented product development process?

Basic flaw with user research could be that most of the time, one is asking users to provide explanations of behaviors they don’t truly understand themselves! OTOH, mimicking competitors’ products creates an echo-chamber of product design

Our innovations will only live up to their full potential if they are built on an understanding of the human experience. While context plays a significant role in how our behavior manifests, the underlying mechanisms remain constant and this is where behavior oriented process gives an advantage

How does the human brain function?

Tversky and Kahneman’s seminal paper, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” proposed that we attack complex problems using a limited number of heuristic principles—basically shortcuts. The brain typically operates in one of two modes: automatic and reflective, often referred to as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 runs on autopilot and it’s possible for these systematic errors to be understood and “predicted”. System 2 is slower, more methodical, and dedicated to solving complex problems

How does one get started on this new approach? 

The author introduces three kinds of data points one should be cognizant of

  1. SAY data: subjective information collected from users
  2. DO data are the analytics—what users are doing on the website or product
  3. The WHY data. If you understand the WHY data behind the DO and SAY data, it unlocks a world of possibilities

How do we fight inertia wrt current user behavior?

We have a bias toward the present, giving stronger weight to present payoffs than those that will happen in the future. Present Bias ties into another theory, Hyperbolic Discounting, which states that we have time-inconsistent preferences

The way we perceive our future selves is similar to the way that we perceive a stranger. The further out into the future the loss or gain happens, the more heavily we discount it. To offset Present Bias, we must close the gap between our current selves and our future selves

In general users who perceive more personal stability over time tend to behave in a more future-oriented fashion—one that aligns better with their future self. However when the reward is too far off in the distant future, one needs a substitution to fill the void

OTOH users need guidance when they make decisions. Without guidance, they can fall into Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice i.e. when presented with too many options, we have a hard time making a decision. This is why good on-boarding and product tutorials may be sometimes critical to product adoption!

How do we design for a reward cycle?

It is important to first consider the desired action before one integrates the reward

The fundamental building blocks of a reward cycle are: trigger, action, investment and reward. Nir Eyal notes that the reward should be variable, and there should be an investment component where the user puts something into the product such as time, data, effort, social capital, or money

Dopamine is the high you get from experiencing something new and exciting. The nervous system produces dopamine during the experience of reward, but even more interesting is that the production of dopamine also happens in anticipation of a reward. The closer we get to receiving a reward and missing it, the more likely we are to engage in said behavior again. Overall, rewards and incentives don’t necessarily have to be financial as anyone who has watched Tik Tok’s growth can vouch for!

How to choose between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators?

Daniel Pink, NY Times Best Selling author opines that the three elements he believes make up true motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Intrinsic motivation drives creative tasks that are open to interpretation.

A good rule of thumb is to leverage external rewards to promote interest in an activity that is easy but may not initially interest a user. If it is a specific, relatively easy task with a concrete outcome, easy to do, and with an endpoint, extrinsic motivators would be a good place to start

Then, if possible, trigger intrinsic motivations to reinforce the action over the long term

How do we get people to keep acting on their intentions?

Commitment devices help us follow through on our intentions. A common form of a commitment device involves a person voluntarily giving up something of value that they can only regain access to by following through on their commitment. It’s more effective to structure a commitment contract where the reward money is theirs to lose rather than gain. Think of an example, of incentivising student participation in class by tying higher participation to a picnic the school will organise later in the year

Commitment contracts don’t always have to come in the form of money. These commitments can be to another person or a group of people. Goals should not be so big or far in the distant future that they feel unattainable

One should not underestimate the power of cues in precipitating an action. Others give us cues regarding what we should do. Even a small subset of a larger group making a confident move can influence the rest of the group. Social norms and the pull of the crowd can help your users follow through on their intentions. The way to drive behavioral change predicatively is by changing norms and changing the rules, effectively changing someone’s environment. Important part is to understand how to change the behavior, and the outcome will follow

Why are goals so powerful?

Regulatory Mode Theory studies the development of goal-pursuit as well as motivation. The theory lays out two main approaches from a social cognition perspective regarding the pursuit of goals: one is assessment, and the other is locomotion. Scoring high on assessment means you evaluate your options before making a decision and while scoring high on locomotion means you need to always be doing something

Streaks are a powerful way to incentivize action. They provide a sense of progress that plays into the natural way we see the world, our desire to avoid loss, and our need for growth and accomplishment

For example, the primary focus of Duolingo is to make the long-term benefits of learning a new language more immediately salient. Winning streak that increases its attractiveness as it lengthens, becoming a self-reinforcing system. On Duolingo, the grouping of these streaks is completely arbitrary. However, streak loss can be demotivating for some participants. Duolingo has countered this by allowing learners the ability to restore a broken streak

In short, people who set goals make more progress!

How do we signal trust?

We have a natural inclination to trust people who look and act like us, a bias called similarity bias. Aribnb used this to build trust between two people who have never met before in the absence of multiple reviews by creating similarity between the renter and rentee. However, if users share too little or too much about themselves, acceptance rates go down

So how did they design for this? Airbnb nudged users to write an introduction of the correct length and to include the right details about themselves. Airbnb also discovered that at a certain point, reviews trumped similarity bias. When a listing accumulated more than ten reviews, everything changed, people started trusting ratings more!

How to retain motivation?

Leaderboards spur competition, but they have weaknesses. Leaderboards can backfire. If a user gets too far ahead or too far behind, they disengage. In games, there are techniques employed like Dynamic game difficulty balancing (DGDB), also known as dynamic difficulty adjustment (DDA) or dynamic game balancing (DGB), which is the process of automatically changing parameters, scenarios, and behaviors in a video game in real-time based on the player’s ability, to avoid making the player bored (easy game!) or frustrated (hard game). Overall, a competition between users is a powerful technique to motivate action

How to leverage loss aversion to our advantage? 

Losses psychologically feel twice as great as an equal gain. Only prospective (future) costs are relevant to a rational decision, but we fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. IKEA effect which describes the increase in the valuation of self-made products. While the participants weren’t experts, they saw their creation as ones created by experts. The more of a hand we have in creating something, the less likely we are to part with it. Fitness app Noom uses this to its advantage in their onboarding flows

Peanut effect as a way to counter big loss aversion!

The peanuts effect is when we fail to consider the consequences of small losses. In this case, it is a good thing. The peanuts effect is part of the reason slot machines steal all of our money. The decision to save is easier when framed in a way that spreads the potential losses into smaller increments. Momentum leverages the default bias and the peanuts effect to help everyday people close their intention-action gap

How to use emotions?

We process information about one identifiable person differently than information about a group of people. Identifiable Victim Effect, which seeks to understand what moves us to offer help. Think back to a powerful marketing campaign, and it would have revolved around stories. To move people emotionally, tap into layer two and convey the emotional experience to your audience. We are visual machines. The brain can identify images seen for as little as thirteen milliseconds. All types of companies can help users achieve their goals by making them the hero of their own journey – the way Pain Squad does for its users

How to integrate behavioral-first approach while building products?

The process is quite simple and can be summed as a series of steps below

  1. What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  2. Collect the SAY and DO data
  3. Compare SAY and DO data
  4. Identify potential behavioral drivers
  5. Identify potential behavioral solutions
  6. Create interventions
  7. Test interventions
  8. Iterate

As one can see, steps 4 and 5 are the most crucial ones and this is where learning and having an opinion about behavioral theories may help

Overall, we are just getting started in this interesting domain of marrying behavioral insights with product design. Academic understanding of what drives behavior precedes the implementation by about ten to fifteen years. Product managers and designers learn by taking theories and putting them into practice. Hopefully one should be able to discern where assumptions break down and where they start to work and then hypothesize why and fine-tune it!

Book Review: Gamification — Using Game Elements in Serious Contexts…

I have been reading up on how to gamify core product experiences and the current state of art. Came across this book Gamification — Using Game Elements in Serious Contexts, it’s published by Springer whose technical books I tend to like apart from the venerable O’Reilly’s. This book is structured like a compendium of research articles, prose has the same “academic” overtones and each chapter can be read independent of one another. Some familiarity with standard terms in gamification parlance would definitely help in quickly skim through the short but dense book consisting of 11 chapters

Chapter 1

Some points and key definitions are belabored again and again throughout the book, mostly since each chapter is contributed by different researchers. For example, definition of gamification i.e. using game mechanics in a non-gaming / non-serious / business context — so called funware. Also defined at many places are external and intrinsic motivations and how gamification can help generate the latter

Equally important is how affordances for gameful experience may enhance user experience AND outcome. The book also differentiates between a play and game — the latter being rule based and goal oriented form of playing

This 2×2 explains the use of play and games and their integration into products (cited from the book)

Courtesy: “Gamification — Using Game Elements in Serious Contexts

This chapter then introduces well-cited MDA framework i.e. mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics of gamification design. Then various types of game mechanics are enumerated namely points, leaderboards, levels and achievement systems or meta tasks. Game dynamics is defined as the run-time behavior of game mechanics acting on player’s inputs and each other’s outputs while aesthetics describe the desirable emotional responses in a player. In the gamification context, aesthetics should represent goal of the gamified system. The chapter then lists the player types as killers (acting on other players), achievers (acting on the world), socializers (interacting with other players) and explorers (interacting with the world)

The chapter ends with describing different types of achievements per achievement goal theory. Instructors are used to guide users throughout the process, quests are unlocked when users accomplish significant tasks, content discovery achievements encourage users to explore the applications, grinder achievements are unlocked when a task is repeated given number of times, Herculean tasks are like bar raisers — relatively difficult and hard to perform tasks. Trophies are designed to mutually exclude other users from winning them and are therefore rare. Loyalty achievements reward the most loyal users

The chapter sounds familiar — more so when many of the current product engagement hooks built by the likes of Flipkart, Amazon, Swiggy, live quizzing products (MMOs) are using these achievements types as part of core gamification design. Sample these: random often silly sounding games in ecommerce apps’ home screens, product hunts, game design of referral programs, loyalty programs which can only be unlocked at the end of the month, extra lives for watching game till the end….

Chapter 2

This chapter can be termed as core of the book with important inferences as to how user behavior can be influenced by gamification. Motivation (desire to perform an action) is an important factor since it drives human behavior and is used to start an activity. Extrinsic motivation (doing things solely for their outcome) doesn’t create sustainable gamification effect. Use of cultural influences is considered in shaping people’s preferences. Four cultural categories in communication are time (2 mins delay is not the same everywhere!), space (personal or shared), context (explicit or direct) and information flow (e.g. message speed). Culture and design can be combined to create serious games e.g. cultural appropriation can be employed to support game’s mechanics, storylines and interface by designers. Amazon’s Great India shopping festival and the use of elephants in logo!

From this perspective, semiotics, symbolic interactionism and metaphors are important extensions.

The authors then proceed to explain Fogg Behavior Model which shows that human behavior is an outcome of three elements: motivation, ability and trigger happening concurrently. Now famous Nudge Theory covers the last two elements: ability and trigger wherein designer simplifies the environment and the context that lead to a certain action while tiny habits method breaks down the desired method into easy-to-adopt small habits

Chapter 3

This chapter touches on gamification analytics — tools that help to monitor the success of gamification projects, to understand user behavior and to adopt gamification designs

One can sequence activities in gamification analytics as business modelling and requirements, design workflow, implementation, monitoring and adaptation. No surprises there for a product manager!

Some of the key metrics while analyzing gamification:

Gamification feedback rate: while gamification feedback is any state change in the game which the user perceives as success. Feedback rate describes total amount of feedback per time user spent in the gamified application. Too low feedback rate could imply — scope of gamification is too narrow vis-a-vis problem space or game is too hard!

Point distributions over users can help detect flaws in the balance of point amounts for gamified actions

Achievable gamification elements: helps to see overall progression of users in the game. Also useful for making adaptation in gamification design — too easy or too hard game!

User distribution on gamification element state: this should be self explanatory

Temporal statistics — how long users need for the completion of particular gamification elements

User characteristics related cohorts

The chapter ends with evaluating certain tools for gamification analytics e.g. Upsight, HoneyTracks, GAMEhud, GameAnalytics etc. Criteria or product capabilities used for ranking the tools are: ability to monitor app KPIs, gamification elements stats, gamification design adaptation, user group of interest and simulation

Chapter 4

This chapter discusses use of gamification in customer-oriented strategies specifically Open Customer Innovation (OCI). OCI to me seems fancy term for denoting prosumers. More generally, it can be defined as the process for integrating customer feedback into companies’ processes collaboratively

OCI can have different stages basis how much value companies extract from their customers. For example, OCI can just be an idea spotting tool or a tool to identify customer’s interests and preferences like surveys. It can also be used as co-creation concept or coproduction (provide new products on a regular basis). Design thinking is in fact one variant of OCI wherein customers are integrated in design and innovation process. Certain risks of an OCI approach could be: non-awareness on part of customers vis-a-vis their responsibilities concerning the final product, retaining customer motivation to cocreate on a regular basis, lack of creativity on part of customers in the long run

Gamification can help in leading to mental states like self-efficacy and flow. Playing can support divergent thinking while learning / unlearning can be initiated by exposing players to new situations. Customers can also be provided background stories to make customer familiar and acquainted with the company as well as its values and vision thereby mitigating some of the key risks of an OCI approach driven product creation

Chapter 5

This chapter focuses on obstacles and challenges in the use of gamification for virtual idea communities (VICs). VICs are the communities in which distributed groups of individual customers focus on voluntarily sharing and elaborating innovation ideas. As an aside, open source software has developed along these lines from the beginning. Linux Kernel Mailing List ( is legendary we all know! Firms benefit from VICs since 1. These are less complex than face-to-face workshops, focused group studies or panels 2. Customer base can be broader in VICs

However having knowledge about customer motivation to participate in VICs is important for firms. Customer may be motivated by 1. Having fun developing ideas 2. Altruism 3. Product innovation and enhancement 4. Capability-signalling motive or self-marketing motive 5. Recognition motive 6. Learning motive 7. Need motive e.g. lobbying or influencing the firm and its products 8. Contacts-to-peers motive

Some of the game design elements which can be used in VICs are game points (as starting point to drive competitive behavior), social points (for fostering a sense of social belonging and as competitive anchor), redeemable points (autonomy for individual development and differentiation), levels (to increase competitive character of the community and to enable inter-user comparison), leaderboards and high scores (highly competitive game design elements to drive behavior), virtual identities (to overcome hierarchy levels and silo thinking) and collecting (to demonstrate social status)

Some of the challenges behind gamifying VICs are misuse by developers and decision makers, manipulative users and overjustification effect demonstrated by players in which external incentives harm intrinsic motivation

Chapter 6

This chapter focuses on designing social media based on open innovation tool to harness potential of play by applying game mechanics to innovation management. There can be broadly two ways 1. Enriching open innovation tool with game mechanics i.e. gamification 2. Adjusting a multiplayer online game for the purpose of ideation (online ideation game)

There are two challenges organisations face regarding design of social media based on open innovation tool 1. Motivating individuals to participate in a state of high involvement and flow 2. Inspiring individuals to generate creative output. For this purpose, online ideation games OIGs can be of high gamefulness i.e. high extent to which design of the system appears to be a game

How to structure game mechanics in the context of innovation management?

One way is so called genex framework . According to this framework, efficient creativity supporting software tool must encourage four generic behavior: accumulating (learning from previous work), relating (consulting with peers and mentors), creating (exploring and creating possible solutions) and disseminating (spreading elaborated solutions)

Game points can serve as trigger for all four behavior while social points can trigger “relating”. Redeemable points can serve as trigger for creating and relating. Two of the largest idea management systems in the world Hype and Spigit use virtual stores

Levels can trigger accumulating and / or creating. When levels are implemented as sections, it indicates possibility of browsing through information and hence accumulation. While when stages are implemented as stages for example by providing ever-increasing challenges they relate to creating. Leaderboards can trigger accumulating and relating while collecting can be assigned the behavior of accumulating

On the other hand, OIGs follow the idea of game with a purpose. They have two design elements: mission specificity and duration (not necessarily though)

In online communities, minimizing the risk of fraud is very important. Few thumb rules to increase fraud-resistance of a gamified system or OIG are

  1. The larger effort and more time to cheat the system, the lower the probability of fraud. For example, users can receive game points based on their trustworthiness levels. Trustworthiness can be calculated by rating the rater or by using meta data about user behavior. Similarly social points are only allocated if certain persons rated the idea positively. Downside is it can lessen site’s credibility and usability
  2. The more transparent the rules are, easier it is for cheaters to find strategies for cheating. That why Google and Amazon’s rankings are a secret!
  3. The more the true identity of a user is known, the lower the probability of fraud. Completely anonymous virtual identities may trigger fake identities and spam. However if privacy concerns are to be addressed effectively, real identity characteristics of every community member can be made visible to only administrators. Thankfully, recent changes in Aadhar point to adopting similar approach when only virtual Aadhar details are to be shared for authentication!

Chapter 7

This chapter focuses on gamification in the context of social collaboration. The central argument of authors has been that gamification elements have mostly ignored augmenting intrinsic motivation. Game elements that include monetary oriented goals can be seen as extrinsic stimuli whereas achievements to learn or improve in a certain activity lead to intrinsic motivation. In specific elements like points, badges and dashboards could diminish intrinsic motivation of users since these elements only support extrinsic motivation. This effect of secondary extrinsic motivation lowering the primary intrinsic motivation is known as overjustification effect

Authors then review certain market tools in this space e.g. Chatter, IBM connections, SharePoint and JIVE. Assertion is that market for gamification in social collaboration software is dominated by third party plug-ins. Microsoft SharePoint remains an exception

Chapter 8

This chapter is pretty interesting, more so product managers. Think about gamification as a market research method for purchase decision process! This space has been traditionally dominated by classical qualitative market research methods e.g. focus groups, interviews and diary studies. Few “problems” with these methods are: methods may be outdated providing only hypothetical and unrealistic results. Probands (best consumers) are rarely able to describe their purchase decision retrospectively since it’s mainly an emotional process. Besides sample bias may be dominant and problematic. Additionally studies themselves run the risk of influencing the decision process!

The universe of games and related research fields can be visualized in this 2×2 (adapted from the book). Horizontal axis denotes the difference between designing a full game and merely employing some game elements in another context

Courtesy: “Gamification — Using Game Elements in Serious Contexts

Serious games are also games but with another purpose than mere entertainment for example, teaching the player something

Why games in market research studies?

Advantage could be that games allow players to immerse themselves deeply into the topic. As result, player gets in a so called flow and give more valid answers. Players are also more attentive and authentic. There could be higher willingness to participate as well

Authors then describe a hypothetical serious game (a board game) which mimics purchase decision making process by making the users park the car in middle of the board after having reached a predefined number of information fields. One advantage of having smartphone application of this game is insights can be transmitted to researchers in real time. By changing a few design elements, authors claim that it could be adopted to other products or simulate different processes altogether

Chapter 9

This chapter should interest all product managers — use of gamification in requirement engineering (RE) and stakeholder management! Essentially gamification in RE establishes feedback loops that reward the “useful” participants. On the other hand, related trend of crowdsourcing can be employed to maximize the number of participating stakeholders — crowd-centric requirement engineering CCRE. To be unambiguous though, the chapter falls short in suggesting some practicable action points for typical software products

Two pillars that authors have proposed to increasing stakeholder engagement and participation are: gamification as means to improve motivation and finally quality 2. Crowdsourcing to achieve higher and broader involvement by means of an open call

The resulting CCRE method has seven phases

  1. Feasibility analysis (determine applicability of CCRE for the specific situation) including scope of the method. CCRE would be unsuitable for a product with very few clients and products for which PM has clear vision and low openness to crowd. Conversely CCRE would be more suited for products with numerous customers, low vision and high openness
  2. Context analysis: analyses the context of requirement elicitation by identifying candidate stakeholders to involve in crowdsourcing as well as existing channels used to provide feedback
  3. Crowdsourcing preparation: before actually involving the crowd, it has to be formed, its characteristics assessed and members prepared for success. CCRE method should provide enough incentives through gamification elements e.g. roles, points, leaderboards, group formation, exploration and endorsement
  4. Crowd involvement: this is the phase where gamification and crowdsourcing occurs
  5. Requirement identification: one has to distinguish between minority and mainstream requirements as well the requirement priority based on business value, implementation cost and business risk
  6. Focus group execution: organized selectively for requirements with higher business priority and shareholder value

Challenges of applying crowdsourcing for RE

Diversity may render decision making processes harder to achieve (inconsistent requirements for example). Collaboration among stakeholders may also lead to dominance of certain opinions and clustering among the crowd providing the requirements

Challenges of applying crowdsourcing for RE

Gamification of RE processes has technical and organisational costs. Stakeholders may be given an option to opt out of gamification which has its own complexities. Gamification may also negatively influence trustworthiness of elicited requirements as certain users may participate just for the sake of it. Some stakeholders may also lack intrinsic motivation to participate

Chapter 10

This chapter takes example of gamified e-books to discover distinctive rhetorical resources used to enhance reading experience and achieve convergence with original literary world. Convergence i.e. the capacity to enhance rather than distract from the narrative is considered a key element for assessing an interactive e-book. Three dimensions to examine convergence between gamified e-books and literary world are: enacting the material world, navigating the medium of text (this can be measured by ratio of reading to other actions, implemented as animated or interactive calligraphy or adding digital materiality to draw attention to text or by concatenating text as taps and choices on user screen), empathy / perception / emotion and choice

Empathy can be developed through perception for example through animation and interactivity, through choice, through emotions

In specific, multimedia feature of e-books has a small positive effect on young children’s literacy development.

Chapter 11

This chapter analyzes gamification of teaching in higher education and I found it a little underwhelming. Authors have developed a game called GamEducation in a master’s level course over two years. While gamification improved major fields of university teaching e.g. motivation, fun, participation and learning efficiency — work load for both students and teaching staff increased. This has roots in both increasing competitiveness among students as well as increased number of challenges

Typical learning management systems (LMS) are criticized because of their restrictions, refusal of use, complexity and reconstruction of established procedures. However even with integrating game mechanics, projects may not always result in increased learning efficiency. The chapter ends with qualitative evaluation of GamEducation game as described by students themselves

This is a unique book, little theoretical in its approach — nevertheless to their credit authors concede this limitation at few places in the book. However if you can correlate your workplace learning with amazing situations various contributing authors place their readers in, this book could teach a thing or two.