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Gamification and engagement solutions that work! Motivate your employees to learn new skills or engage with something new and unfamiliar. Acknowledge accomplishment and proficiency by awarding badges or symbols of achievement.

The United States Navy SEALS, known to have one of the most strenuous selection processes in the world, begin each day with the simple task of making their beds.

Crazy, right? Why on earth would these burly men who jump out of airplanes and perform underwater demolitions do something as tedious as making a bed every morning? What does this have to do with badges and human-focused design? Well, there’s science behind it, of course!

Although making a bed is certainly a menial task, it starts the day with an accomplishment. The SEALs immediately have something to show for their efforts. They won’t earn a ‘bed-making badge’ but if they have a horrible day – and most days in SEAL training are horrible, they still get to sleep in a freshly made bed at the end of the day. The bed is the badge.

Accomplishment always leads to more accomplishment

In his TED Talk, Change the World by Making Your BedAdmiral William McRaven points out that starting your day with an accomplishment not only provides a sense of satisfaction, but it starts a momentum which builds and builds as more is achieved throughout the day.  It’s the reason why breaking a large task into smaller and more manageable ‘sub-tasks’ works so effectively. It distracts us from being overwhelmed.

Bite-size chunks…

Now imagine if your objective was to ‘teach useful skills and practical knowledge to produce well-rounded individuals’. And to make it more interesting, let’s assume that you are trying to teach eight-year olds. How would you set about doing that? Sit them down and lecture them for hours on end? Oh no…

Using badges to motivate accomplishment

Fun fact: I can sew. Not very well, but I can do it and I learned it when I was eight! That’s because I was sent to Cub Scouts, a sort of paramilitary day-care centre, and they taught me how to sew in the most ingenious way. See, they had these things called ‘proficiency badges’ and they were available for all sorts of activities. Very cleverly, they turned learning an important practical skill into a game. For each skill, which usually lay completely outside my general interest, a decorative badge signifying my accomplishment was sewn onto my uniform. It’s not that I was particularly interested in being able to ‘identify five types of birds in flight’ or ‘cook an omelette’– I just wanted to earn those badges and fill the space on my sleeves! Learning was incidental to my earning a badge. Interestingly, although I’ve long since lost the badges, I can still identify different birds in flight and I can cook a mean omelette.

Badges confer status

Earning badges has social implications, too. Unlike collectables, badges are awarded for development and accomplishment, which in turn elevates our status. We keep our collectables in trophy rooms for our sole enjoyment but in the case of badges, we – literally in the case of Cub Scouts – wear our accomplishments on our sleeves. They broadcast our proficiencies to others. “Look at me! I’ve been there and I’ve done that”.

Birds of a feather…a collective experience

When we see a person with the same badges as us, we know immediately that they went through the same things we did to acquire those badges. It establishes a sense of collective effort, that we struggled together – maybe not at the same time, but our experience was the same and that creates a bond. We could be strangers from different parts of the world; it doesn’t matter if I’m a CEO and you’re a mailroom clerk – if we both have the ‘Weekend Warrior’ badge on our app, we can immediately relate to each other as ‘consumers of audiobooks who enjoy listening on weekends’. Badges can bring us together.

Badges in human-focused design, AKA gamification

Badges appeal to everyone and have done so since time immemorial, but there has been a recent tendency to misapply them in gamified solutions. Articles abound on how PBLs (points, badges and leader boards) are either applied as afterthoughts or applied in isolation, resulting in a superficial layer of gameplay that becomes tired and boring very quickly. However, badges can still be a very powerful extrinsic motivational tool if applied along with complementary gamification elements, like the intrinsic rewards of acquiring a rare collectable or a compelling narrative.

Although internally we feel accomplished and empowered, externally we immediately have something to show for our efforts: A feather in our cap. A notch on our belts. A fresh bed to sleep in.