This is the fifth and the last article in the miniseries Ranks Designed to "Flow".
I've introduced many design principles for building an optimal ranking ladder for engaging your superusers. I must emphasize that it is very important to implement these rank design principle in the order that they are presented. It is meaningless to flow with your superusers, if you don't know your superusers' capability. And it is useless trying to surprise your superusers with special privileges if the gaps between your ranks are so large that it takes them years to get a promotion. They will never get there and never be surprised!
Part of the fun and the challenge in gaming is the unpredictable elements in games. The player can never truly know the outcome of his play. When the gamer has just figured out the game, he moves into the control state. When he is able to predict the outcome, the game is probably too easy for him. And soon he will find the game boring and move onto something more challenging. Likewise, a fun and challenging ranking ladder should be cryptic, and it is best when there are some elements of surprise built in. In a previous post, I talked about switching after year 2 to a very regular and predictable arithmetic progression (a.k.a. linear progression) for our ranking ladder. The problem is that your smart superusers will most likely figure out this ranking scheme.
In a benchmark study I conducted last year, we found that healthy and vibrant communities that have many superusers generally have a large number of ranks. In fact, the benchmark list of top communities has an average of 31 non-role-based ranks (ranks that are achievable through participation). If we include role-based ranks (that were assigned), the average is 59. Among these top communities, the number of ranks goes as high as 134 ranks. But does this apply to your community? The important questions are: How many ranks does YOUR community need, and how many is enough?
An important mechanism for getting into the state of flow is to have a balance between ability and challenge. In a community, this means having a set of ranking criteria that matches your superusers' ability. If the criteria are too easy, superusers will quickly reach the top rank and become bored. But if the criteria are too difficult, superusers will become frustrated over their lack of advancement. In either case, the risk is that superusers will give up trying and abandon the community eventually.
Previously, we discussed how games transport players into flow. A well designed game usually has many levels. with the difficulty between levels increasing slowly so that the gamers can easily find challenges that match their skills. By extrapolation, an engaging ranking ladder for the superusers should mimic the gradually increasing difficulty levels of a game. Although the ranking criteria may depend on any combination of metrics we collect, I will use the most common criterion, post count, as an illustrative example.
A common mistake that many communities make is to use the convenient geometric progression as the post criterion for promotion to successive ranks. A geometric progression is a numerical sequence where successive terms are obtained by multiplying the current term by a fixed common ratio.
Have you ever experienced a time when you were so immersed in what you were doing that you forgot about your physical feelings and the passage of time? This highly-rewarding mental state is known as flow, and it is studied and characterized by a renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I had the great pleasure of hearing Prof. Csikszentmihalyi himself speak on this topic at the Persuasive2009 conference. The talk was enlightening and made me understand why I sometimes forgot to eat or sleep when deeply absorbed in solving a problem.