How eBay and Amazon Wield Gamification Techniques

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(Below is a manuscript snippet of my book, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right to order the book when it launches. This post may be moved into a Premium Area after a certain period of time).

The First Gamification Site that I was Addicted to

One of the most popular blog posts on my website is a list of the “Top 10 eCommerce Gamification Examples that will Revolutionize Shopping,” with my first choice being eBay (Disclosure – I’ve worked with eBay on a couple projects in 2013, none which are mentioned here).

eBay.com is an online auction site that was founded in 1995, fairly early in the internet era. It became one of the largest Dot Com boom successes, and till this day is one of the leading tech companies.

Less known to most people, is that eBay is also one of the earliest eCommerce companies that built gamification in its core DNA.

If you just think of creating a generic ecommerce site, it’s not necessarily intuitive to have a competitive bidding system, a mutual buyer-seller feedback interface, a “path to level up” through achievement symbols such as Yellow, Purple, and Gold Stars, as well as Power Seller statuses.

Interestingly, eBay was the first platform to trigger my first business. Without eBay, it is very likely that I would not have become an entrepreneur, and as a result you would not have this book to read.

When I was about to enter UCLA as a Freshman, there was a local barbeque event where second year students shared their experience and tips with us newbs. At that event, there was a drawing of two football tickets to the first game in the season.

I was conveniently selected to be the student to draw one name out of a box to win these tickets. Call it Divine Will, fate, coincidence, or what have you; I drew out my own name from the box.

When I said it was my own name, everyone became astonished, and the event organizer joked with a wink, “Congratulations! Just make sure you don’t sell it on eBay! We’ll check!”

At the time, I didn’t really watch any sports (later on, the UCLA Epic Meaning & Calling mentioned in the previous chapter turned me into a football fan, during the years I had the luxury to follow sports), and I thought, “Hmm, they mentioned this eBay thing. I wonder what’s that?”

I did some research on eBay, and shortly after sold my two tickets through the platform (I hope the event organizer does not read my book).

That one transaction was surprisingly thrilling and fun for me. When I received my first bid from an anonymous stranger on the Internet, I almost jumped for joy (cultural joke: but I did not get stuck), and I became obsessively glued to the screen when another bidder joined in on the war.

During the few days of listing, that was the only thing on my mind. I continuously checked my listing, seeing if people would outbid the last bidder. Of course, it was life-endingly depressing when no one had put in a new bid after my FOURTH three-minute check! By the way, this is what I now call a “Torture Break” (Game Technique #66), where a user must wait a duration of time regardless of her actions and incorporates Core Drive #6: Scarcity & Impatience.

When I finally sold the two ticket for few hundred dollars, I was ecstatic. I felt that I had just accomplished something great (for a person just graduating high school). I made my first money as a seller!

I started to find other things to sell on eBay. During this time, I noticed that the final price of an eBay auction is usually determined by what part of the day the listing ends, as most people like to wait for the last few minutes to put in their bids and steal the deal. In that frenzy, people quickly outbid each other before the time runs out. This effect is a combination of a Countdown Timer (Game Technique #65) and a Last Mile Drive (Game Technique #53), where users feel that they are so close to the goal they rush to complete it. For the record, these are all Black Hat techniques.

Observing this effect, I began a small business buying and selling TI-83 Calculators, which was often a high school and college requirement. I would start to buy all the TI-83s I could find that ended their listings at 2AM, when no one was bidding against me, for $40, and then I would resell them when the auction ending time was late in the afternoon, when everyone was bidding against each other, for $60. Compared to all the boring mathematical theories of economics and college parties, this was the game that I needed to master.

When I sold my tenth item on eBay, I received an email from eBay itself! It was a certificate sent from this person named “Meg,” congratulating me as a valuable eBay seller and giving me a Yellow Star!

I was so excited about this Achievement Symbol (Game Technique #2), that I printed it out and put it on my dorm room for many years. Even today, I think it is still sitting somewhere in a box with my parents.

Even though this was not the original certificate I received, it looked something like the image below.

Yellow Star Award from ebay

Eventually, I would start to sell a plethora of other items, including new electronic products such as digital cameras, iPods, GPS devices, and even some string quarter songs I wrote!

Example of an ebay seller's profileAn example of an eBay Seller’s Profile 

At the height of my eBay career (second year in college), I received over 1,100 positive feedbacks (which I believe gave me a Red Star ranking), with a 100% satisfaction rate. Unfortunately, towards the end my reign, my account was falsely banned for unexplained reasons, ending my first addiction towards a gamification site.

I’m grateful the ban happened, because it allowed me to move on towards greater and more epic things in my life.

“I overpaid for my product. Take that, Suckas!!”

Based on the above, it’s easy to see how eBay uses Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment to make the experience more fun and addictive for the Seller.

But what about the Buyer? What makes a buyer want to continuously buy on eBay?

For the buyer, the genius thing about eBay is that when you buy something on eBay, you didn’t just buy something online like you do on other eCommerce platforms. No – instead of feeling that you just acquired some items because you exchanged your money for them, you feel like you’ve WON!

Sure, after some adrenaline-filled bidding at the end, you may have ended up paying 10% more than you otherwise would have, but you at least achieved victory over the 11 other bastards who were bidding against you!

“Take that Suckas! It’s mine!”

Instead of just paying your way to success, which anyone could do easily, you worked hard and actually achieved a Win-State!

You feel accomplished, and the value of that happiness far exceeds the extra money you end up paying for the item. On eBay, you are not paying to purchase; you are paying to play.

Along with that thought of buying the feeling of victory, in 2007, eBay actually launched an entire marketing campaign called Windorphines, or the endorphins your brain creates when you win on eBay.

Through a series of cute avatars, a “leaderboard,” and some phony doctor science, the Windorphins campaign shows videos of a laboratory where two test subjects are being measure on their “windorphin” values. Both of them appear to be rather bored with non-existent windorphine values, until one person suddenly “wins,” and along with him jumping with joy, his windorphines shoot up massively.

Windorphins Image Even though this showed a very accurate understanding of how Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment played a giant role in eBay’s product success, the marketing campaign itself woefully did not effectively tie in any Core Drives to motivate users towards stronger ROI besides a feeble attempt at Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity, and the entire campaign was dropped a few months after spending a significant amount of money on billboard and bus ads, as well as seizing the domain Windorphins.com from The Motley Fool.

Technically, the concept behind this campaign is sound, but the execution lacked Human-Focused Design. It was a campaign aimed to be fun, but only had the Shell of a fun game design, not the essence.

Regardless, eBay’s gamified platform allowed it to transform from a personal hobby to a Fortune 200 that is worth over $70 Billion.

What about Amazon?

Upon the point of how great eBay is, people may ask, “But what about Amazon? Aren’t they even more successful?”

It’s true, founded in 1994, just a year before eBay, Amazon is now a Fortune 50 giant worth around $150 Billion, and they don’t do “gamification.”

Well, they don’t do gamification as in put in points, badges, leaderboards, and they don’t have narratives or paths to level up. However, they have spent a great amount of resources nailing down many techniques within Human-Focused Design and many of the 8 Core Drives, which are also the backbone drivers of successful games.

If you recall from previous chapters, good Implicit Gamification is often invisible like a doorknob – you don’t even notice its there, but use it to open and close a door without thinking.

Through Amazon’s optimized design, we can see a few Core Drives being implemented into great effect.

First of all, the Core Drive behind Amazon’s business is Ownership & Possession (#4). As mentioned in chapter 4, the premise of this Core Drive is that if you feel like you own something, you want to improve, you want to protect, and you want to get more of it.

Amazon has worked hard to streamline this process of Ownership & Possession. It is an optimized engine that allows you to own and possess things quickly, accurately, and without hassle. It has established itself as the prime place to “get more stuff,” and you know you are likely getting the cheapest bargain on the market. With Amazon, you know you can own more, faster.

Also, as it is constantly learning about your preferences and personalizing what you see to whom you are, something I call the Alfred Effect (Game Technique #83), that sense of Ownership & Possession grows even more as people now identify it as a “My Amazon” experience that no other eCommerce site can provide.

Don’t fall behind your neighbors!

Along with the Alfred Effect, is the Recommendation Engine that is infamous in the personalization industry. Amazon’s recommendation engine, according to Amazon’s own reports, led to 60% of their sales. That’s a fairly significant factor for a company that is already making billions of dollars a month.

In fact, JP Mangalindan, a writer for Fortune and CNN money, argues that a significant part of Amazon’s 29% sales growth from the second fiscal quarter of 2011 to the second fiscal quarter of 2012 was contributed to the recommendation engine.

And what does this recommendation engine look like?

Amazon.com recommendation engine

 (The red box is my own overlay)

“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.”

Amazon quickly realized that, by learning about what other people similar to you are buying, you have a much higher tendency to buy the same items too.

Can you think about a Core Drive that pushes this behavior?

Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness.

By knowing what other people similar to you are buying, that relatedness and social proof helps consumers make decisions with more confidence, helping Amazon increase their sales and upsells.

Of course, another “Social Influence & Relatedness” factor of Amazon that heavily contributed to its early success, is the millions of user reviews on books and other items.

“My friend Bob says the doctor is wrong – and he reads a lot about health.”

Amazon Customer Review Page

Research has shown that the average consumer trusts reviews done by peers as much as professional critics. This is somewhat odd, because these professional critics have made it their life mission to tell the good from the bad. For every published review, they would spend a tangible amount of time collecting all the necessary information, going through the experience, and write a well thought-out piece that reflected their deep knowledge and hard work.

But when it comes down to it, consumers seem to prefer the thoughts and opinions of other consumers, whom likely do not have the same level of sophistication and understanding towards the product, nor have spent the same amount of time experiencing and reviewing the item in question.

At the end of the day, we value the thoughts of people we can relate to, sometimes even more so than the voice of authoritative experts.

In Amazon’s review interface, you see the term, “4.1 out of 5 stars,” followed by a “leaderboard” of reviews that are voted up by the community.  For the top review, “333 of 362 people found the following review helpful.” Coincidently, the review was given by “Jack,” who is labeled a “Top 1000 Reviewer.” Oh wait, there is also a leaderboard and status labeling on Amazon?

If you thought Amazon does not use gamification, think again. While you are at it, try to remember what the color of the last doorknob you held was.

Don’t make people feel dumb, stupid!

I’d like to take a moment here to point out, even though the focus of this chapter is on Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment, it is almost impossible to evaluate a good experience or product without considering the other Core Drives, as the 8 Core Drives are intricately work together to create a unified and motivating experience.

Even though the success on Amazon is seen through many other Core Drives, such as Scarcity & Impatience, as well as Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback (something they are investing a great deal of money pushing on in recent years), lets refocus back on the theme of Development & Accomplishment.

Beyond improving one’s ranks and obtaining badges, a very important type of emotional accomplishment is to “feel smart.” We all like to feel capable and competent, and feelings of being incompetent or powerless can become some of the most scarring memories of our lives.

A product that makes users feel stupid, no matter how great the technology, is often a failing product.

If a user spends four seconds on an interface, and can’t figure out what to do, he feels stupid, and the experience has lost the user.

The Google Search Engine does this well. Before Google became Google, Yahoo! was technically the search engine giant. However, Yahoo! saw itself as an online portal where people could discover new content instead of being a pure search engine.

Interestingly, when the Google Founders wanted to sell their search engine to Yahoo for a measly $1 Million, Yahoo turned it down because, even though they recognized Google to be a more efficient Search Engine that took people to their destinations, that went against Yahoo’s Portal strategy of showing users many links to click on, leading to many more links to click on (a Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity play), and along the way clicking a few of their advertisements.

Consequently, when you go to Yahoo’s homepage, you will see a great deal of content and links. Even though it does drive many clicks and exploratory activities for many users, sometimes it could be a bit paralyzing for users who can’t decide through so many choices.

Google, on the other hand, focuses on Core Drive #2 Development & Accomplishment. When you go on Google.com, you usually only see two things: Google’s logo, and a search box. There is almost no chance for you to feel confused about what to do next. You type in the search box.

Even if you are not exactly sure what to search (a moment of feeling partially stupid), the auto-fill function jumps right in to give you suggestions.

Have you ever wondered why in the game Candy Crush, when you don’t make a move for a few seconds, the game shows you a “Glowing Choice” (Game Technique #28) of a potential solution that is often not the best way to beat the game? I mean, why would they show me a solution that does not make me win? Is this a trap?

The truth is, Candy Crush understands that, feeling a sense of progress and ultimately losing is much better than feeling stuck and confused. If you play the game through and lose, your natural instinct is to start a new game; but if you are stuck and can’t find three gems to match for a long period of time, you may just abandon the game and start doing other things.

Google understood this very early, and, according to the book The Google Story, by Mark Malseed and David A. Vise, was so clear on this strategy of having a clean homepage, that they turned down many great monetization opportunities on its homepage, even till today. It is said that a organizations strategy is not what they choose to do, but what they insist on not doing.

Unfortunately, that understanding and sophistication of making users feel smart from Google doesn’t always spill into their other product lines. Google+ is a common example of how a great technology can make users feel dumb and lose traction.

Even though Google likes to tout Google Plus’ “active user” number makes it a top social network in the world, the average consumer knows that it is because they were somehow tricked into the Google+ interface while using Youtube or Gmail, something I call “brute force distribution” (no game technique here). Other web savvy users also continues to use Google+ because of alleged Search Engine Optimization advantages for marketing, which is credited to the brilliant work done by the search engine itself rather than the merits of the social network.

Despite being the “number one social network in the world,” if you look at Google’s own blog, which is the most bias user audience towards the Google platform, chances are you will see way more tweets and Facebook Likes than Google +1s. An unnamed Google employee once told me, “At Google, there’s this joke, ‘If you are organizing a party and you don’t want anyone to know about it, share it on Google Plus.’”

In 2013, I made a 100+ slides presentation deck on Slideshare.net, titled, “Why Google+ Sucks and what to do about it.” Without deliberate promotions due to fear of the search giant cranking down on me, it continues to be one of my more popular slide decks on the Internet.

Back to Amazon; Amazon makes people feel smart when they buy things. They do it in many different ways.

First of all, as much as possible, Amazon avoids the 4-Seconds Rule by making sure users always knows what to do next.

Amazon product listing Screenshot

On this screenshot of a product listing, most of the screen is white with black text, but graphically there are two Desired Actions to do.

The first is the “Look Inside” button on the book, displayed in vibrant colors with a pointy arrow, similar to interactive onboarding tutorials found within games. This is an example of Glowing Choice (Game Technique #28), where an user is visually guided by obvious signs on how to proceed.

The second Desired Action is the green zone on the right, with two time-tested orange action item buttons that serve as the real conversion metric for the business. Interestingly, the two orange buttons don’t even have the same color, with the “Buy Now with 1-Click” showing a cursor index finger pressing a button within the button.

It is important to note that this Desired Action is the only part of the page that is visually “colorful,” and the eyes automatically are guided to that direction. I call that a Desert Oasis (Game Technique #38), where visually nothing else is present besides the main Desire Action. The Desert Oasis looks green and juicy, and it subconsciously suggests that there is a Win-State behind this option.

The final result of this design, pertaining to Development & Accomplishment, is that the user never feels confused about what to do next. You move forward with the Win-State, and especially if you made the “feel-smart” decision of purchasing Amazon Prime, your item will ship to your home within two days, with easy return with full refund options. Amazon’s new Amazon Prime Air even promises to deliver that “feedback reward” to you within 30-minutes of reaching the Win-State through flying droids delivering small packages to your home in the future.

eBay on the other hand, does not enjoy the same luxuries of making users feel smart. To start, eBay’s interface is a bit more like Google+, where the user doesn’t really know where to find what she wants. With a variety of horizontal and vertical menus on the same screen, along with multiple dropdown menus, it’s easy for a user to spend over 4 seconds before figuring out where she wants to go.

Also, because of eBay’s DNA of being a bidding marketplace, it does not have as much control over the experience of the users. When a user finally buys a product, eBay cannot guarantee the item will arrive within two days. In fact, eBay is at the mercy of the amateur sellers, who may not even ship the product out in a week.

Even when the seller has shipped the item, sometimes they don’t record their item as shipped, let alone including tracking numbers. During this time of waiting, the buyer has no idea whether the product is shipped or not, and when it will arrive. The user does NOT feel smart during times of wondering and inquiring with the seller whether the product has been shipped or not.

Luckily, when that dream item finally arrives, joy is reinstalled, and that delayed gratification fuels the drive to buy again on eBay.

Unfortunately, when the item didn’t come in the form you dreamt it to be, there lies the limitations of eBay. Especially as a used-item market, sometimes you receive items that are in different conditions than described, damaged during shipping, or just plain out different from what you bought. And in the case of eBay, they can’t just give you a return-refund. The seller who shadily sold you the product in the first place has to.

Sure, you have the option to leave a negative feedback in eBay’s reputation system, but for years, there is a strange feedback standstill phenomenon, where when a bad experience has obviously been reached, both sides refuses to leave the first negative feedback in fear of negative feedback retaliation. Even though I had a bad experience buying at eBay, I don’t want to give the seller a bad review because the seller would turn around and say I was a bad buyer. That’s another bad feeling to go through, where the user doesn’t feel quite smart.

Sure, the user can take this bad experience up to eBay or even report fraud on Paypal (which is owned by eBay), that process is grueling, with lots of waiting, frustration, and lack of communication. Letting users get stuck in bureaucracy (or be transferred back and forth on hold) is a sure way to make them feel dumb.

Imagine a game you play, where upon working hard and reaching the Win-State, you have to wonder for a week when your reward will show up. When it does, it might actually show up as a penalty instead of a reward, and the only way to sort it out is to go through long steps of negotiation and bureaucracy. How often would you play this game?

It becomes much easier to move on, and never come back again. Perhaps this would make a great story in the users’ daily complaining rituals too.

Of course, even though I firmly believe that both Amazon and eBay can drastically improve their metrics even more with better gamification and Human-Focused Design, both companies are incredibly and intimidatingly successful.  With billions of dollars in revenue, each company powerfully wields the different Core Drives that make them so successful, while ameliorating the Core Drives that they are weaker at.

9 thoughts on “How eBay and Amazon Wield Gamification Techniques”

  1. I could spend hours at a time (Ok, I have spent hours at a time) on Amazon… investigating, reviewing, and ultimately buying. I guess however they designed it must have worked on me.

  2. LOL, I found an Octalysis Prime graphic showing a “Dessert Oasis”. That got me wondering if someone had been dieting too long & headed to The House of Pies!
    Seriously, though, I was totally impressed with this analysis of the different markets.
    I am one example of how one bad feature can kill all the fine design – I do not use Amazon, because they sell customer data & I want more privacy (CD8). That’s true even if I may have to pay more to go elsewhere for product.
    BTW, Yu-Kai, where do I go to buy your book if not Amazon?

  3. Interesting read, with lots of details about things I didnt know yet.
    I especially like the part where you are saying that good gamification design can often not be seen.

  4. Yu-kai Chou Ryan Julyan Great 🙂 thank you.
    I have noticed that you have added a few here and there that I did not see in previous posts and has caused me to skim over a few of the older ones.
    I look forward to finding them all.
    Regards Ryan.

  5. Ryan Julyan Hey Ryan, splendid catch! I’ve did some tiny refinements on the GT #s in the past 6 months, and you happen to spot them! 
    I’ve spread the GTs to #2 being Achievement Symbols, aka badges/trophies etc. I’ve modified the other blogpost to:

    Status Points (GT #1) and Exchangeable Points (Game Technique #75)

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