Since the start of this year I’ve spent a lot of time looking at how gamification and game mechanics can create more engaging user experiences.
Many of these gaming concepts work also wonderfully for data visualisation and interactive infographics (and what other else you want to call them depending on your specific vernacular).
Consider your users as players
All great games have story lines. The same is true for data visualisations: if you’re not telling a story, then what exactly are you visualising? Just as players explore a game and its narrative, think about the users of your data visualisations in the same context.
The Guardian uses the size of your social network on Facebook to demonstrate how vast the NSA surveillance net is and illustrates these numbers with familiar concepts: the size of a train, capacity of famous landmarks and populations of actual countries.
The BBC’s How Big Really? is another great example of this: simply enter your location anywhere in the world and it will overlay significant geographic data over your local area to give you a great insight into the size of certain events.
Cascading information theory
Games reveal chunks of plot to a player slowly — much like any narrative (books, films etc.). Often this is done after completing tasks in the game: kill that bad guy, find a clue or drive to a specific location. Tell your story in parts for maximum impact.
Last year for the Olympics I was designing a data visualisation for the BBC allowing users to see how they compared to Olympians in regard to height and weight. I spent a lot of time working on the actual visualisation of the data and realised after user testing that I’d really neglected the introduction to the data. Putting a scattergraph in front of users (especially those not into data or numbers) can be really off-putting.
I took a step back and thought about the story I was trying to tell: that Olympians come in all shapes and sizes. So I took the tallest and lightest Olympians and placed them on the introduction. It was a great way to begin telling this particular story. While users could enter their height and weight and be plotted on the scattergraph amongst the Olympians, they could also just click on either the tallest or shortest athlete and be taken into the dataset that way.
Here Is Today also does a wonderful (and far better) job at cascading information to the user as they explore the visualisation.
Feedback loops and interaction design
Arguably the core of all games (and pretty much anything interactive) are built upon feedback loops. You hit fire on a controller and a rocket will launch on screen along with an audible “whoooooosh” sound effect. This cause-and-effect cycle is key to both gaming and interaction design in general. It’s one of many reasons why Candy Crush is so addictive: it’s a constant series of feedback loops accompanied by stimulating colour and sounds.
All the examples listed above feature a lot of polished interaction design (and feedback loops). The web abounds with amazing interaction design, but for a fantastic example of great interaction design/feedback loops on data visualisations, have a look at Periscopic’s Inequality Is (which is also a great example of all the elements discussed here).
In conclusion, gamification and game mechanics can definitely help create wonderful and engaging data visualisations. But the more well-known elements of gamification such as badges and level ups don’t really work here: we need to look at what elements of gaming can help us tell the story that lies at the heart of the data.