by Amy Bucher, Ph. D. & Raphaela O'Day, Ph.D. | March 24, 2014
Gamification of wellness and health incentives can have its benefits.

Like developers in so many other fields, the creators of health and wellness incentive programs and applications have begun to incorporate gamification into their solutions in an effort to engage users. Unfortunately, attempts to gamify health and wellness have not always resulted in the desired outcomes. Why is that?

The reason that good gamification works is that it taps into fundamental human needs that drive motivation. All people need to feel some sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. We want to make choices, grow, achieve, and connect with others. Gamification that doesn’t truly support these needs — or that does so in a very superficial way — will not create the engagement that health and wellness programs hope to see. Unfortunately, the way that solutions are gamified – especially with respect to incentives such as badges, leaderboards, and point systems – does not often uphold the principles of motivational design.

So, what should you do differently? Based on principles of motivational psychology and application design, we recommend the following (assuming, of course, the approval of your legal and benefits teams). Here are our top three tips for incentives that work:

1. Align incentives with the desired behavior. One reason why many gamified solutions fail is that the “rewards” offered don’t match the behaviors companies want to see. 

If you simply want people to take a health assessment, a financial incentive to submit the information may suffice. But if your goal is actually to drive down population health costs associated with modifiable health risks, consider tying incentives instead to steps walked, days meeting a nutritional goal, or days without smoking. Not only will you drive more of the desired behavior, you also help your population feel competent as work translates to rewards.

2. Consider what your participants really value. People are most likely to start and stick with a healthy behavior when it fits with something they value. Someone who strongly values work-life balance may be more likely to cardio train if the reward is a home session with a personal trainer, while someone with a more competitive streak might respond to being sponsored in a race in exchange for compliance with a fitness program. Offering a range of incentive options allows you to more easily tap into the varied values of your population, while also supporting people’s sense of autonomy.

3. Permit flexibility in earning incentives. Just as people like different types of rewards, they also may prefer to earn them differently. Here at Wellness & Prevention, we’ve identified distinct types of people with respect to how they like to participate in health and wellness activities, and we find that most large populations have a healthy representation of each of those segments. 

If you want to maximize results, define your target outcome (e.g. “weight loss to healthy body mass index”), but supply a variety of methods to reach it. That supports your population’s autonomy (and relatedness when they can see how others choose to approach the task), and makes pursuit of the goal more likely.

Put all together, these three simple tips will lay down a solid foundation for more effective health and wellness incentive program designs that include gamification. 

Amy Bucher, Ph.D., is associate director of Behavioral Science at Wellness & Prevention, a Johnson & Johnson company, where her work focuses on how to motivate health behavior change through individual and environmental interventions. 

Raphaela O’Day, Ph.D., is a member of the Science and Innovation team at Wellness and Prevention, where she develops participation and engagement strategies that are grounded in behavioral science and support sustained behavior change.