I'm designing badges for a client's app (when users get a certain number of points, they get a badge). It seems like badges are used in nearly every type of challenge/game app. I understand that it's a reward for the users, but I feel there can be a better alternative. Is there any theory behind why they work, or how they make the UX better?
Badges are one of the best methods of building up users' engagement. They are rewards at no cost for the system issuer, like a perpetuum mobile. The best thing is that this model is universal - it works both in systems like Q&A, forums and games - and most probably in almost any multi-user environment. This is also very similar to real life (e.g. army, sport or work with positions and various awards).
If you take a look at the badges system used here, on StackExchange, you will find that there are various activities one can build up their rank with. Badges are focused on pormoting quality content (bith regarding questions and answers) and also performing other activities.
It is sometimes good to provide ranks alongside with badges. Ranks differ from badges, because these are like titles, whilst badges are like awards. Usually, in digital systems it is pretty much organized, so the closest analogy is to the army, at least regarding ranks. Take for example this person: General George S. Patton. His rank was "general", yet he was awarded for his actions with many orders. His rank was built up from private to general. Of course, in this case awards are discretionary, so you cannot assign a direct condition that causes being awarded with a medal. In digital systems you can do it.
From my experience, some things you should focus on while creating a successful ranks/badges system are:
- ranks should be progressive, and the lower ranks should be quite easy to achieve, with progressive difficulty to achieve the higher ones.
- some ranks should be assigned automatically, based on some conditions, and the other should be assigned manually - especially the ones that give users special rights (like: administrator, "super-administrator*, moderator etc., depending on your system) - this may not apply to internet games, because in these users ususally don't possess this kind of rights (usually!).
- badges should follow the same rule regarding complexity of achieving them, meaning that it should be easy for users to get the first badge (to attract them and say "hello, this is a place for you and you're doing well"), but the next ones should be harder to achieve.
- you can provide different levels of badges, e.g. bronze, silver, gold, platinum - this way supercharging the badges system and making the whole system even more engaging.
- badges can give you "super powers" - having a badge can allow user to perform some specific tasks or boost his/her abilities (in games, for example, various levels of weapons are just like badges, but they can boost stamina etc., in forums sometimes first time users cannot post links or images to prevent invaluable content).
- it's up to you if you want to manually award some users with some badges or not. It depends on the system and strategy, and what you find necessary.
- in general, you should avoid negative badges - but again, it depends on the system. On some forums, users get warnings (which are somehow badges-like) when they misbehave. After e.g. being "awarded" three times with such flag or badge, user can be blocked from further posting.
- last but not least - you should test and adjust your badges system to check if it is engaging. Yes, this can lead to some incostistency (e.g. you can have a user with 100 points having some badge and another with 150 points without it, because you have changed the limit to 200 points for this badge to achieve) - but in general, if this leads to improvement, you should do it. This does not apply to any kind of contests of course, as it would be breaking the terms of conditions of such contest, especially when a badge gives you specific powers and can lead to a supremacy over some other users.
And, which is very important, badges are strategic elements of your system - you should plan them depending on what you want to achieve, how you want your users to behave, what kind of activities you want them to perform and how much you want these to be promoted. You whould never underestimate the power of badges system. Thus, it is more important to ask how the badges system should be created for a system than if it should be used at all.