Gamifying study habits through clever use of psychological principles

Using several psychological principles drawn from literature, we aimed to develop an application concept that would gradually align user's actual self with their desired self by motivating better study habits.

Team size



Design, research, prototyping


2017, 6 weeks

Dark patterns for good

Productivity apps are aplenty, but we decided to give it a shot and chose several key social psychological principles to guide our design and come up with novel concepts. Convincing users to upend their current studying process is a double edged sword. Users need to feel a sense of accomplishment when completing tasks effectively, yet they must also maintain and improve their current studying momentum.

Wabbit game completion screens

Guerilla observations

To quickly observe the study behaviour of our target audience, our team decided to conduct guerilla observations across common study spots near campus (libraries, coffee shops, etc). One observations that stuck out was then when people are studying (their phones next to them), a would notification come in, they'd glance at it, and then turn back to their work. Apparently the notification stays in their minds, and eventually they'd cave, grab their phone, and lose focus for about 5 to 10 minutes.

    Floorplan from Studio Genie for illustrative purposes. Augmented with real observation data.

    Initial sketches and brainstorming

    We started with whiteboard sessions where we drew on our own understanding of the class theories and personal ideas to come up with initial concepts. We then validated these concepts against the theories, culled the features that didn't adhere to the theories, and developed paper prototypes to start user testing.

    Testing and validation

    Over the span of 6 weeks we tested multiple iterations of our mobile application in various fidelities. Usertesting took the form of interviews, storyboarding, heuristic evaluation and think-aloud studies throughout concepts, paper prototypes and digital prototypes at various fidelities

    Key findings included a lack of perceived accountability, misunderstandings in the interaction flow, and crucial misalignment between psychological concepts and our designs (concept). Luckily, these prototypes were low fidelity, allowing us to quickly pivot and iterate.

    Key findings from usertesting

    “I don't really understand why I would have to join these rooms in physical spaces virtually. Don't I already see who's studying around me then?”

    A user study participant

    Starbucks, South Craig street

    Increased distraction by our solution

    Initial prototypes made the timer screen too sticky; users continuously wanted to know how they were performing compared to others, and would adjust their behaviour accordingly. We removed the intermediate leaderboard from the timescreen, allowing users to only compare their performance at the end of the game.

    Rewards were confusing and unrelated

    Besides being challenging to implement and maintain, users didn't see a connection between the rewards and their behaviour, and the disbursement of rewards wasn't clearly explained. We decided to remove this feature and rely on user's inherent motivations, driven by the applied psychological principles

    Unclear study breaks

    In our research we found that taking frequent short breaks can help overall performance and prevent short-term burnouts. As we included this feature, users didn't directly understand the value, or how they could use it. We made the visuals of the break button more prominent, and rewrote the copy on the button so that users could easily infer what the effects of taking a break would be on their (team's) performance.

    No difference between physical and virtual

    The most important takeaway from these first user studies was that users did not perceive a difference between physical and virtual study rooms. They saw the value of virtual rooms if they weren't in a physical study space, but joining a physical study room in a digital app (while for example studying in a library) seemed redundant. We slightly pivoted the concept, moving towards only virtual study rooms.


    Taking the feedback from our first rounds of think-alouds, observations and heuristic evaluations into account, we scheduled another collaborative whiteboard session to determine how we could tackle the problems that arose. Given the time we had available, this would be our last iteration.

    Final concept

    Our solution is to gamify studying by merging it into the competitive format people are familiar with from online games. Users join a study group and compete in teams where they accumulate points by maintaining long streaks of productivity.

    Users enter into a study room of a predetermined length (think online game lobby), get placed into teams (minimal group paradigm), and compete with the other teams to see their studying efficiency. They will be placed with users of a similar level (relatable social comparison) as them and get badges as they rise up the ranks (gamification and rewards). Users get points depending on how much they have personally accomplished and how well their entire team does (accountability in groups).

    Physical signalling

    When the countdown ends, players are prompted to flip their phones face side down. This goes back to our earlier findings during guerilla observations, where students would be distracted by incoming notifications. We couldn't figure out a technical implementation to disable incoming notifcations, so instead ask users to perform a physical action that signals they are in 'study mode'. A timer for the session begins. The Marathon, Endurance, Maniac, and Insanity sessions are given two to four free breaks during the session. Any additional breaks will get the team to lose points.

    Seamless flow

    In earlier iterations of the prototypes we built, progress completely disappeared after users finished a game and showed their awards on the game leaderboard. We received feedback from students during our class presentations and think-aloud studies that in light of user retention, we should include some kind of long term progress view.

    Inspired by Github's commit calendars, we included a progress overview that allows users to track their progress and aid in retention (don't break the streak).

    Incorporated theories

    Social comparison theory

    Social comparison theory states that we naturally want to evaluate our opinions and abilities against other people where there is a lack of objective standard of evaluation (Kaufman 2017).

    Minimal group paradigm

    The minimal group paradigm states that when people are placed in extremely arbitrary groups with little to no cohesive group identity they will still favor their own group and work to promote group success.

    Goal pursuit and habit formation

    Goal pursuit and habit formation can be motivated in two ways: intrinsically, when there is inherent reward in doing something, and extrinsically, when there is an external reward to achieve (Kaufman 2017).

    Basking in self-reflected glory (BIRG)

    This requires that users associate themselves with other successful people and celebrating a collective rather than individual victory (Kaufman 2017).

    Rewards and motivation

    To strengthen the implementation of social comparisomn theory, we added virtual rewards that allow users to concretely compare their performance against other players in the game. On the flipside, these virtual rewards can be used to motivate consistently underperforming players; a consolidation price might keep them sufficiently motivated to keep using the application.

    Uninterrupted streaks

    Awarded for periods of uninterrupted study time. Awarded in 10-minute intervals (10, 20, 30).

    Top-n medals

    Given to players that finish in the top three (team-independent). Awarded in silver, gold, and bronze.

    Carrying your team

    Awarded to MVPs of the game. Without this player, the team wouldn't have won.


    Awarded to the entire team for making a comeback in the last half of the game.

    The endgame

    At the end of every session, BIRG and social comparison theories surface again when individual performance is placed in the context of the two competing teams. We drew inspiration from online multiplayer games that instigate a heavy sense of belonging to an arbitrarily defined team.