Onboarding Gamification: How to Level Up User Experience and Engagement

Create in-app champions. It’s time to level up your UX with gamification strategies that will engage your users from GO!

Ray Slater Berry
10 min read
Onboarding Gamification: How to Level Up User Experience and Engagement

If you're not gamifying your onboarding process, then you're hardly putting your best foot first in the retention race. Applying gamification to user onboarding solutions is a sure-fire way to get users hooked from the get-go. If you're struggling to incentivize user engagement, you can borrow a lot of gamification tactics from video games—you can imagine how tough the research was for this article. 😉

“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.”

We're about to take you through the highs and lows of the gamified onboarding process for your users. Navigating new onboarding flows can be a bumpy path, but just like the old man helped Link by handing him a sword (Legends of Zelda fans rejoice), we’ll help you decide if you should be considering gamification for your ICPs, and, if so, how you can do it justice. 

Ready? Set. Game! 

  • A gamified user onboarding experience boosts engagement and user retention by setting challenges, milestones, and rewards to motivate the user.

  • It’s not for everyone! It’s important to evaluate whether a gamified onboarding experience makes sense for your product before going for it. 

  • There are many types of gamification tactics like progress bars, badges, rewards, leadership boards, in-app challenges, and more. The goal is to bring out the user’s competitive edge.

  • It’s not only games. There’s more to gamification than UX strategies: storytelling, use of media, and timing are also important.

What is a gamified user onboarding experience? #

A gamified user onboarding experience is an onboarding flow that brings out the competitive edge in your users. Typically, it will set users challenges, award them for hitting milestones and bring more joy to an otherwise cumbersome onboarding journey. 

Whether it's for user adoption or an employee onboarding process, great gamification can boost engagement, and create happier, more productive in-app experiences. Their competitive element encourages users to hold their fellow in-app colleagues accountable for completing in-app challenges/actions. 

What can we all learn from video game onboarding? #

Video games are a perfect example of getting users hooked from the moment they pick up that controller. Whether you’re a video gamer or not, almost all video games have a common denominator in how they keep users engaged. 

Video games start small and (literally) level up. The gamer knows that their character will get stronger, their knowledge will increase, and challenges will get tougher. 

This idea of accomplishable challenges that progressively get tougher but provide higher—more satisfactory—rewards is a sure-fire winning recipe to keep gamers wanting more. It's precisely this recipe for increasing user engagement that SaaS onboarding models can learn from and add their own sauce to for the perfect gamify onboarding mix.  

How to know whether you need to gamify your onboarding flows? #

Now, we’ve come in heavy with the benefits of gamifying user onboarding. Yes, it can help you fight user churn rates and create more engaged first-time product experiences. However, it is not for every SaaS. 

As much as it pains us to say it, some users simply won’t want a gamified onboarding flow; and that’s okay! We get it. What you can do in this case is pick and choose from some of the gamification onboarding elements we’ll share later. 

There are a few easy ways to determine if gamification UX will work with your user base. 

Ask users directly

Ask your current users what they would have preferred for their onboarding experience. You can run customer satisfaction surveys, 1-1 catch-ups, or focus groups to get the qualitative feedback to build a hypothesis on if this will work for users to come. 

When you collect feedback this way, make sure you apply learnings in a way your entire product team understands, A/B test them to assess performance, and don’t be afraid to admit they’re not working. People may say one thing but actually want something else. 

Test in cohorts

Run small gamification tests in timed cohorts. For example, the only differentiating factor from one cohort to the next would be the time they signed up. You can give one cohort a gamification experience and not the other, then compare your churn rates at the end of it. 

💡 Top tip: Ensure you have enough users between the two cohorts to make this data valid and usable, so you can better understand how to gamify onboarding. 

Run a market analysis

Take a look at what your competition is doing—gamify your gamification strategy! Are they running gamification tactics? Are they beating you in the market? It will help you understand if you should employ user onboarding gamification or not. 

Survey churned users

You didn’t hit your customer retention goal? No problem! Let’s make the most of it. Many product teams forget the power of the insights they can get from those who have churned. If you can incentivize survey completions with this segment, then you may understand if a gamified onboarding experience would have prevented them from jumping ship. 

Leverage onboarding emails

Create a gamified onboarding experience and make a big announcement about in your onboarding email flow to encourage users to complete it. If your click rates go up, you’re on the right track. As Christiaan Huynen, CEO and Founder of DesignBro, puts it, “You can see if your gamification is successful through the amount of interaction and feedback on that onboarding email and the subsequent follow-up responses”.

And not only that. As Christiaan Huynen further points out:

“Gamifying increases the appeal of learning, interaction, and retention. This is because our brains are wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and playing a game is always a fun thing to do.”

– Christiaan Huynen, CEO/Founder at DesignBro

How to gamify user onboarding: 7 gamification tactics to try (with SaaS examples) #

Right, let's get into some onboarding gamification examples that you can use to keep your users happy, playful, and glued to your product. 

1. Progress Bars #

First up, progress bars are an easy win and a toned-down gamification element to try on those audiences that may not want a fluffy mascot awarding them badges. They’re also great for tooltip design and provide rapid-fire ways to storm through a learning curve. 

Progress bar screenshots from Cooltra and Wise

Cooltra & Wise

In our examples above, Cooltra uses a simple dotted progress bar to let users know they’re cruising through onboarding, while Wise uses a progress bar replicating Instagram stories, something most are familiar with. Both represent a simple way to gamify user onboarding. 

2. Badges and awards #

On the contrary to progress bars, there are occasions and product audiences that would love receiving badges and awards as they progress within your onboarding tutorials and beyond. 

Screenshot of Duolingo gamification example


One of the most famous examples of these game elements comes from Duolingo. This wouldn’t be a gamification article without featuring their fluffy mascot and gamification strategy. 

3. Leaderboards and streaks #

Leaderboards are a go-to strategy to help build a community within your product and bring out the competitive edge among your users. This could be something that helps boost employee engagement internally for your business, or you can take it beyond and build a competitive community around your product and niche.

Screenshot of Headspace leadership and streaks example


In our example above, Headspace does a great job of encouraging streaks and sharing data points with the user so they can see an overview of their progress.  

4. In-app prompts and challenges #

In-app prompts can be gamification elements that don’t necessarily reward actions or keep track of levels but still bring a more challenge-orientated angle to user onboarding. 

Rather than showing users what they can do, ask them to try it and create a self-serve onboarding culture where they can learn at their own pace. Make sure you celebrate each completion!

It’s a fun way to gamify user onboarding. One example of this is the smart usage of empty states, nudging users to start adding their content or building out their own tables and dashboards. By using in-app messages, you can guide users on how they can do it.   

To recreate the example above, you can use Chameleon to create customized in-app prompts to encourage users to complete tasks. It could be a tooltip with additional information on what to do, or it could be a three-step tour that shows a  progress bar and celebrates the successful completion of each step with confetti. 

5. Levels  #

Now we’re really stepping into a fine gamified experience. Levels are a fun and engaging way to keep your users hooked—be it on level one or level 100. You can encourage users to climb the ranks by fulfilling certain onboarding tasks. Of course, as their knowledge of your product grows, so will their level and the difficulty of their tasks. 

Duolingo reward gamification gif example

Great for creating engagement loops, motivation, action, and feedback while increasing the difficulty to keep people hooked. This is something that Duolingo also excels in, and if you haven’t used the app in a while, your “level” is assessed—fab! 

6. Redeemable awards #

This gamification tactic may be a little hard to implement. However, if you have the time and resources, then it’s certainly worth the lift. Awards are a fabulous way to drive your users into action, especially when it’s a reward tailored to them. 

Screenshot of Verse and The Fork rewards examples

Verse & TheFork 

However, that’s not to say you need to swing a $25 Amazon voucher to every new user that completes their activation. Find ways your users can redeem rewards within your app. Perhaps it’s unlocking new features, templates, or functionalities that they don’t get at the beginning stage.  

This is typically the best way to motivate users to engage with your product, it certainly did for Verse and TheFork. Here, you can see the user has a cash gift for joining Verse, while Yums works as a currency within The Fork that the user is able to redeem as a cash value in restaurants.  

7. The Hero’s Journey storytelling tactics  #

This might not be such a direct link to UX gamification tactics. However, it’s certainly one to consider and one that many brands are doing; whether they’re aware of it or not. 

The Hero’s Journey is a 12-step framework derived from Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, explained in his book The Hero with Thousand Faces. It is a narrative structure that guides the adventure of any hero. It’s a proven hit with all types of audiences and is most famously used with Disney protagonists. 

However, if you apply The Hero’s Journey to your onboarding processes, things can get a little spicier. 

The journey of a hero is divided into the departure, the initiation, and the return:

  • It’s down to your Marketing and Sales team to help users with the departure of their current way of doing things

  • It’s up to your gamification strategy to focus on the initiation (read: activation) within your product

  • It’s up to your Product team to continuously improve the product experience to help users solve their problems and keep returning to it

There are a few phases within the initiation/activation that you can apply to your onboarding and perhaps even create characters within the experience to increase activation rate. Needless to say, the user is the hero of this story.

Let’s see how this could play out.

The road of trials

Sends the hero (user) through a series of trials, i.e. in-app challenges, so they can begin their transformation.

The meeting with the goddess

Giving the hero an ally to help them continue on their journey (within your product). Think of the Duolingo mascot or Mailchimp’s Freddie. 

The Apotheosis

As a result of your hero’s trials and tests, they gain a new understanding of the purpose or master a new skill. You’ve guessed it, they’ve hit their “aha!” moment and now feel equipped enough to tackle their job to be done

The ultimate boon

Your hero/user achieves their goal/job-to-be-done, and rests assured knowing they’ve achieved what they set out to do. 

The gamification, storylines, and plots you can weave around these steps are instrumental to the success of your product onboarding, user engagement, and understanding of your SaaS.

Key points to remember #

All of these gamification tactics focus on two types of motivation: extrinsic or intrinsic. 

Extrinsic motivations are external factors like rewards, levels, and leaderboards. 

Intrinsic motivators include internal factors like joy, desire to do better, and genuine interest in the task at hand. 

It’s important to know which type of motivational factor resonates best with your user personas and ideal customer profiles so that you can adjust and create an irresistible, joyful onboarding experience for them.

Conclusion: Time to level up your onboarding strategy #

Remember, novelty is a big part when you implement onboarding gamification. The more you use the system, the less enticed users are by it, so you need to be constantly mixing things up. 

And there's more: use media wisely, whether it's video onboarding, graphics for product tours, or something else. Make the most out of the visual aspects of your SaaS.

Some say only three gamification tactics prove successful in SaaS: social validation, completion, and prizes. Although this will obviously change depending on your user base, this is good to keep top of mind if you're implementing gamification for the first time. 

Lastly, ensure your games are an option, and something to be enjoyed, not something that has to be done in order to complete a task. Keep your users happy, gamifying if they want to, and engaged with your product from day one. Let the games begin!

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