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Simplicity Counts - Even in Gamification

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Dr Michael WuMichael Wu, Ph.D. is 927iC9C1FD6224627807Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.



Last time I attempted a deeper dive into the psychology of motivation: a key factor of any gamification process. Due to the huge body of research literature in this field, we really just dipped our toes into the water. In this article, I will talk about the second factor in Fogg’s Behavior Model (FBM): Ability. And I will give some examples of game dynamics that have been developed around this factor.


Chinese Acrobat_small.jpgWhenever I talk about the FBM, people usually grasp motivation and trigger pretty quickly. Although some people may be confused about the differences between the two, they have an idea about what they are and how they are used in game dynamics. However, I do find many people often have a tougher time understanding how ability is used in gamification. The reason for this is because there are a couple of ways to look at this factor. Let me explain what I mean:

  1. From the user’s perspective: It is his ability
  2. From the task’s perspective: It is the task’s simplicity


Perception vs. Reality

In most gamification applications, the user usually has the actual ability to complete the task. If a user really doesn’t have the ability to complete the task, then all gamification can do, at most, is get the user to begin the task, but invariably he will not be able to complete it due to the lack of ability. In these situations, gamification can still be used to get people to repeat the task, so the user can truly increase his ability through practice (this, however, is a different gamification strategy).


However, many tasks are still not being performed by user who has the ability, even when he is motivated and is properly triggered. As it turns out, “ability” has a perceptual component to it. Most users won’t perform a task if they perceive their ability is insufficient to complete the task. That is, they think the task too hard to complete.


Therefore, to endow someone with higher ability to perform a task, we can either:

  1. Increase his real ability by motivating him to practice – the harder way
  2. Increase the task’s perceived simplicity – the easier and quicker way

This brings us to questions such as: “What is perceived simplicity?” But to understand perceived simplicity, we must first understand what is simplicity.


Simplicity, as it Turns Out, is Not so Simple

Simplicity is another one of those concepts of which people have an intuitive understanding, but can’t really define precisely. But to turn gamification into a real science, we need a quantitative model, which will require a precise and quantifiable definition for what simplicity means. Besides creating the FBM, Prof. B. J. Fogg at Stanford has also developed a sophisticated psychological framework (that involves six factors) to define and evaluate simplicity. Here I will present a simplified and generalized version of his framework.


Behaviors that are simple must not require any resources you lack (or have limited access to) at the time when you need to perform the behavior. So simplicity is a measure of your access to the following three categories of resources, which determine if something is truly simple.

1. Scarce resources: time, money, permission, etc.
In real life, scarce resources can often be traded off. For example, I can spend money to buy myself a plane ticket to go to a conference in LA to save time. Or I can drive there (which will take more time) to save money.

2. Effort resources: these include both physical and mental efforts, such as attention, IQ, etc.
Effort resources are associated with an individual, but they can be exhausted and replenished at different time. So they can often be traded off at different time. For example, I might be very tired now and don’t have the mental effort to solve a difficult math problem, but I will be recharged tomorrow and ready to crunch numbers again. So, by deferring a task to the future, it may appear simpler. The appointments dynamic leverages this mechanism by giving people the time they need to complete the task when they are resource-rich.

3. Adaptability resources: these are one’s capability to break norms, which may be social, personal, behavioral, or cultural.
Adaptability resources are associated with an individual and not easily traded off. Yet, they can still be traded off between individuals through collaboration (i.e. people with different resources helping each other). This is the basis of communal discovery and other community collaboration mechanics.

The bottom line is, if you don’t have access or have lost access to any one category of resource at the moment when you need to carry out a task, then that task will not be simple to you. However, I must emphasize that different people have access to different resources, so simplicity depends on the person (i.e. what’s simple for one person may or may not be simple for another). Moreover, simplicity can even change for the same person at a different time and context. For example, writing a blog article is simple for me right now because I have the time, but I might be busy in an hour and won’t have access to time anymore. Therefore, blogging may no longer be as simple a task for me an hour later. So simplicity is really determined by the prevalence of your scarcest resource at the moment when you need to perform the task.


Perceived Simplicity

Find x Here it is_small.gifAlright, now that we understand what simplicity is, we are ready to define perceived simplicity. A behavior is perceived to be simple if the user can complete it with fewer resources than he expects. So behaviors that are perceive simple, may not be truly simple, they just need to be simpler than the expectation of the person who needs to perform them.


Many game dynamics are design to increase the perceived simplicity of the task. For example, cascading information and chained reward schedules can be use to guide and reward users through small steps of a complex task. Also behavioral momentum leverages people’s tendency to follow their personal norms (i.e. routines).


In most cases, motivation and ability (or simplicity) are independent of each other. So, increasing one won’t affect the other. Therefore rather than optimizing one or the other, we need to strike a balance between these two factors to achieve the best behavioral outcome. However, on the extreme ends of the motivation and ability axis, these motivation and ability can sometimes trade off against each other. If we endowed the user with very high ability (e.g. by making the target behavior dead simple, such a single click of a mouse button), then the user may perform the behavior even if he is totally not motivated. Likewise, if the motivation is high enough, some user will find ways to achieve the target behavior even if he does not have the ability to perform it (e.g. they may spend time to increase their ability or find other friends to help).



Alright, I think we’ve successfully dived deep into the second factor of FBM today. There is definitely less existing research on ability and simplicity relative to the topic of motivation.


In summary, gamification can increase a user’s ability two ways.

  1. Motivating the users to practice the task, so over time, his ability actually increases over time.
  2. Increase the user’s perceive-ability by increasing the perceived simplicity of the task.


We also learned that simplicity (and perceived simplicity) is something that can be defined and quantified. Simplicity is a measure of your access to resources needed to complete the task at a particular time, such as:

  1. Scarce resources: time, money, permission, etc
  2. Effort resources: physical efforts and mental efforts (attention, IQ, etc)
  3. Adaptability resources: norm breaking capacities

If you can easily access all the resources required by the task, then the task will be simple. If you can complete the task with fewer resources than expected, then you will perceive the task as simple. That’s it! Simple, right?


See You at SxSW

By the way, if you are reading this today, I’m probably on a plane with the rest of the Lithium team, flying to SxSW Interactive. If you are going to be there also, please do stop by and say hello. I will be participating in a panel on The Science of Influence. And I will be available to chat from Noon – 1 PM from Saturday (3/12) to Monday (3/14) at the Lithium Suite (#1103) in the Hilton Downtown, directly across the street from the Austin Convention Center. Hope to see you there.


Next time, we’ll discuss the final factor of the FBM: Trigger. Until then I welcome any discussion on the topic of ability and simplicity with respect to gamification. See you next time.



About the Author
Dr. Michael Wu was the Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies from 2008 until 2018, where he applied data-driven methodologies to investigate and understand the social web. Michael developed many predictive social analytics with actionable insights. His R&D work won him the recognition as a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine. His insights are made accessible through “The Science of Social,” and “The Science of Social 2”—two easy-reading e-books for business audience. Prior to industry, Michael received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics program, where he also received his triple major undergraduate degree in Applied Math, Physics, and Molecular & Cell Biology.
Occasional Commentator
Occasional Commentator

Hi Michael,


Interesting, as always


Another thing I'd add that influences the perception of simplicity, would be training, repetition, and stress.


If you've ever watched Professional Darts players, you will see that under pressure their throws are never 100%, whilst when you take away the pressure, they will have perfect scores. This accuracy is based on years and years of practice, so to them it is simple to score well (whereas I would miss the target at least 7 times out of 10).


As they say, practice makes perfect!




Not applicable

Very interesting read. I wonder how the variable ratio reinforcement schedule affects the perceived simplicity of a task or what relation it has to abilty/motiviation? Would the schedule influence one's motivation or ability, or both?


Can you share some examples of businesses that have incorporated gamification well? As I read more articles from other sources, I see a lot of repetition - angry birds, foursquare, facebook. Some are games that have turned into businesses and others are businesses that had gamified aspects before this was even a trend. It makes me wonder to what depth any of these companies put effort into thinking about the psychological background of what they were doing because the why is definitely as exciting as the how.

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Mark,


Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Very glad you find my work interesting.


You are absolutely right. Practice makes perfect! That is precisely what I mean when I say you can "Increase his real ability by motivating him to practice." Clearly by actually having the true ability to do certain tasks, people will think those task are simple.


Maybe I haven't make it clear enough that simplicity is not purely a characteristic of the task itself. As I've mentioned in this post, it depends on the person. What is simple to you may not be simple to me, and vice versa. The same with Professional Darts players.


It is even time dependent and context dependent, because at different time and context, any one person may either gain or lost access to certain resources. For example, if I lost my wallet, then getting a taxi may no longer be simple to me at that moment, even though getting a taxi is normally a simple task for me. And if I won the lottery, then even buying a new car would become simple.


Alright, thank you for the quick comment. See you again next time. Or see you at SxSW, if you will be there.



Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Hunter,


Thank you for asking your question.


In gamification, the schedule of reinforcement is typically used as a way to motivate people. That is why I write about that in my last post, which focuses on the 1st factor of FBM: Motivation. But as I said in this post, normally motivation and ability are de-coupled, except in extreme cases. If the schedule is designed to give an extraordinarily large reward after a certain achievement and time, then the player maybe sufficiently motivated to increase his ability in order to get the reward. So it can have effects in the extremes.


As for business applications, I will cover that once I am done with the science and theory. The hope is that once people understand the principle, they can really design and create innovative gamification procedure that suites their business needs. So when I am done with our theoretical investigation, I will try to write a few posts on the applications and use cases of gamification.


Thank you again for asking your question. See you again next time.



Not applicable

I know a very good book, in which this is exactly the same raises. I think it would be worth seeing.

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Boros


Thank you for the book link. The book doesn't seem to be in English.


What language is it in?

Would you provide the title of the book in English?

Do you know if there is an English translation?


Thanks again for commenting.

Will Kriski
Not applicable

To me there is the issue of simplicity as you describe - making complex problems appear simple by breaking them down into smaller parts, but also determining what is actually effective in enabling a certain skill to be developed. Imagine teaching someone a step by step process and then at the end they still aren't able to perform the end skill. For example a student can play a variety of scales and exercises (the small steps) but still can't improvise.


An interesting problem in education, for example teaching people how to improvise on the guitar, is typically solved by teaching the student a variety of scales and theory. Others teach that you should learn solos note for note (imitation). So many times these scales and exercises are smaller parts of a larger whole but I usually ask 'are these steps actually necessary or effective'. Many of these processes are not measured in any type of experiments so the way improvisation is taught is never questioned as to its effectiveness.


So there has to be some faith in the effectiveness of these simple steps, not just that we can't complete them but do we believe that these steps will lead to the final desired outcome?

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Will,


Thanks again for the comment. Kudos to you for reading all the posts.


I must clarify that there are 2 approaches that I mention in this post. If the user really has the ability to perform the task, then making the task appear simpler will work. But if the user really cannot perform the task, then you need to do it the hard way, and get people to practice and really increase the ability. So before you blindly apply these principles, you must figure out your user's ability.


Great example about improvisation there. How do you teach people to be creative. I'm not sure I know how. You mention of two different method for teaching improvisation: (A) variety of scales + theory, and (B) imitate note for note. Well, my guess is that both probably has merit. (A) may work better for one types of people, and (B) works better for different type of learners. It is dangerous to assume that people learn the same way and impose only one solution to a problem.


That is why I think gamification should be a creative process, and not a recipe book that people just blindly follow. Each implementer should try, iterate, and find out what works for his specific needs guided by some underlying principles of what drives human behavior.


Thanks again for your insightful comment. I'll use that guitar improvisation example when I talk about this in the future. See you again next time.