Blog: Game mechanics for better interactive walkthroughs

Game mechanics for better interactive walkthroughs

Marek Sotak
Customer engagement

Interactive walkthroughs are one of the key user engagement patterns that came from gaming. Game designers discovered a way to get players up-to-speed quicker. Instead of referring players to manuals - interactive walkthroughs put the user in control. A player sees a sparkling door, they click on the door, and the adventure begins!

What can we learn from gaming to apply to application design, user onboarding and interactive walkthroughs? First we'll look at why we should take gaming seriously. And then we'll look at three simple ways you can make your interactive walkthroughs more engaging.

Make interactive walkthroughs more engaging

Taking Gaming Seriously

The brain is still mystifying scientists. One theory suggests that “dopamine invigorates actions toward desired goal” and another that “dopamine is a teaching signal.” Either way, it looks like dopamine plays a vital role in motivation and learning. And now scientists are looking at how games stimulate dopamine, and how that in turn, increases motivation to continue playing.

We can learn a lot from gaming about stimulating motivation in users. The notion of gamification conjures up ideas of employing game mechanics like badge collecting and point scoring. Yet, Product Marketers and Product Managers don’t need to be so literal with interpreting game mechanics.

Games demonstrate social psychology and concepts in behavioral economics that product designers can build into their applications. So this weekend, why not spend some time playing a game? All for research purposes, of course. The next time you do, observe these concepts in action and consider how to apply that to your user onboarding experience.

Apply Game Mechanics in Web Applications to increase User Engagement

With the first time user experience in mind, here are some tactics you can employ in your plans to slowly reveal advanced tools, functionality and concepts at just the right time in the user's journey.

Each of these game design tactics correlate to design concepts in web applications. For example, the sparkling items or “pulsing circles” in games indicate what players can interact with. In a web application, a Product Marketer can place cues like Launchers which are “baked into the gameplay” of someone using an application. Users can click, launch the tour and learn-while-doing.

Other game mechanics correlate well to web application design.

  • Starting areas in games are like your Blank or Empty States in a web application. Deliberate gaps and clear calls to action motivate users to complete and fill out the missing items.
  • Leveling up in a game can be like Progressive disclosure in a web application. As your skills improve, you get ever more complex spells and harder but appropriate challenges.
  • Immersive game play is like the consistent branding and experience of an application.

Find out more here:

Product Marketers are looking for ways to create custom user onboarding experiences and interactive walkthroughs, which they can’t build into the application.

How can you apply this ideas to the user onboarding experience?

Three simple ways to make user onboarding more engaging

Over at Gamasutra, they applied theories from motivational psychology to explain gamer behavior. What made some activities more sticky and addictive?

Perhaps some concepts are quite gaming specific: “Rewards that are unpredictable (loot drops) are generally more motivating than rewards that are predictable (100 xp per monster)” That type of advice might be trickier to apply in the context of using an application.

There are three ideas Gamasutra highlights which are immediately useful to apply to user onboarding.

  • Show users progress.
  • Provide a meaningful reward.
  • Reinforce the message.

Where’s the best place to demonstrate these three? As part of your walkthrough! Let’s break these down.

1. Show Users Progress

After your users complete tasks, keep track of their progress. Here’s an easy way to do this:

  • Start step 1 of your tour with a check list. This is an outline of what they will accomplish.
  • After each task is completed, display the checklist again, with one item marked off.
  • Continue through the steps until the tasks are done.

This is a simple trick - but it also gives you an easy way to reinforce your message.

2. Provide a Meaningful Reward

Use encouraging words and graphics - but make sure to connect them to a real result. “Great job!” really should mean something.

Start your tours by offering a tangible benefit. We looked at crafting that offer in our post on how to create short and practical interactive walkthroughs.

When users opt in, they should know what the offer is. For example:

“Do you want to [do task] so that you can [gain benefit]?”

When they finish, you should be able to demonstrate the meaningful reward of achieving that benefit. If they signed to get a free valuation or to create a free asset, that is your meaningful reward.

3. Reinforce the message

Don't miss out on the chance to reinforce your message. The final step in your user onboarding tour should relate back to the promise you made.

Remind users of what they have achieved e.g., “You’ve just finished…” or what they received, e.g., “Here’s your new... “ Games tally up experience points to remind uses of the time and work they invested, and what they achieved. In the same way, remind users of what they've already invested in your application. This helps them connect what they did to the value they experienced.

Now you can reiterate your overarching message and the next call to action.


Game mechanics are already widespread in application and software design.

If you take gamification too literally by building in point-scoring or other gimmicks, it might not fit your application. And even game designers can improve their user onboarding game, as Samuel Hulick shows in his recent tear down of the Super Mario Game onboarding,

We should look to games to inspire designs of interactive walkthroughs. By giving your first time users clear goals (quests!) and rewards, help them stay motivated to get their work done, and bring them closer to success with your application.

How many things are truly rewarding in our daily work? We have multiple tasks on our plates every day, loose threads, and open feedback loops. Getting something useful done with a tangible benefit is incredibly valuable, and why not celebrate it?

With a few simple improvements we can make an interactive walkthrough more engaging, motivating. Users will get a greater sense of accomplishment, and the path to success will be immediately visible.

So the next time you play a game, think of how the game shows you progress, gives meaningful rewards, and reinforces the message.