What eCommerce User Experience Designers Can Learn From Game Design (Part 1)

I recently read a great article about game design.  It discussed how most successful video games share the same basic structure and usability pillars, and delved deeply into the basic human behavior that makes those elements so effective.

In the eCommerce world, retailers hoping to stand out from the crowd can draw upon these same elements to create an effective and engaging eCommerce user experience . Of the seven pillars mentioned in the article, several are directly applicable to online retail experience. In fact, some of the best retailers already employ these tactics.  In this post (the first of two on the subject), I’ll explore several common game characteristics that are useful in creating an online experience.


Nobody likes a boring experience. And if your site is simply says, “Here’s my stuff, and here’s how much it costs”, you’re probably offering a pretty boring experience. To avoid the bore-factor, employ the following tactics.

  • Compelling Content: Content is King, and the monarchy is alive and well. That’s why it’s so important that your site bring your products to life through great photos, illustrations, and videos.  After all, a monarchy without subjects is rather useless.Think about your site dialogue – not your copy, but your dialogue. Create a two-way conversation on your site.  Put your customer at the center of your product story. Get them engrossed in your products. Be creative. Tell a story that uses visuals and dialogue to assemble a fascinating experience in which customers can see themselves. Otherwise, there’s a very good chance you won’t see them at checkout.
  • Design: This is the framework, or the binding that holds your story together. Good design that lacks the strength that engaging content provides is nothing more than an empty suit – and your users will pick up on it right away. Conversely, engaging content without great design is basically a diamond in the rough. And in this impatient world, very few will take the time to dust off the coal to discover it. Great design clears the way for customers to experience the value of your great content, and thus, your great products.


In most games, the sense of urgency is native to the experience. A countdown timer, or an opponent who has the same goal as you, are used to motivate and excite the players. The best commerce sites can replicate this experience by creating excitement, and generating a sense of urgency to purchase. Retailers typically achieve this by employing Private Event Retail tactics and/or Flash Sales.  But it’s important to note that urgency isn’t always time-focused.  It can also be emotional.  For example, “You should get this before your friends” is a tactic that Apple successful employs time after time with their latest iWhatever.

A strong online brand presence is all about motivating people to interact, and then act. People don’t stand in line for days for an Apple product because they fear there will be none left.  They want it first because Apple’s brand story is driving emotional urgency by placing the customer smack dab in the center of it.


In order to make their experience seem more lifelike or real, many video games will intentionally leave imperfections behind. A game where a car won’t start, or a player loses their grip while climbing are two examples that come to mind. And, no, I’m not saying you should litter your site with imperfections. Instead, I’m suggesting you should consider holding some of your cards close to your chest.

In this world of endless data, retailers often know much more than they need to about our customers. They offer what they think is the perfect experience for their users. But data driven perfection can seem oddly cold to a real person on the other end of that TCP/IP connection.  To put this perspective, let’s say data tells you that people living in Georgia who leave a snow shovel in their cart for more than 15 seconds are going to abandon the purchase.  That doesn’t mean you have to jump out from behind their virtual shopping cart with suggestions and incentives that almost force them to checkout immediately. Yes, cart abandonment rates are high.  But if some knucklehead did this in a store, you’d probably be extremely creeped out.

A less annoying, and much less creepy, approach is to offer shoppers the experience of continuity over time. In the previous example, perhaps an email offering a snow shovel discount would be appropriate. Sure, there are those shoppers that employ that tactic regularly. Maybe you’ll like that, maybe not, but there is data available to let you know about that.

Don’t portray your brand as being so needy that you have to extract all the value you can from a customer on their first visit to your site. Create a relationship, an experience that gradually unfolds through thoughtful content and design. Establishes a desire in your customer’s heart that compels them to return again and again through different channels.  Don’t jump right out and yell in their face.  Motivate them with emails, mobile notifications, or social media. Be a helpful online brand ambassador, not a pushy used car salesperson with a fake smile. Yuck.

Stay tuned for part two of this post where I’ll cover several more video game design techniques that can be applied to eCommerce user experience design.


Add Comment