Three Pitfalls and lessons from game design

Games typically evolve and are getting harder as the player progresses through the game by introducing new features, riddles, or ways of doing things. Also, gamers frequently take up new and sometimes very complex games. They do this without ever reading a manual or undergoing a training course.

Employees also work with ever more and frequently changing applications. Classical training concepts like class-room training, e-learning and release notes, can no longer cope with the speed at which systems and processes are changing.

The solution lies in lessons that can be learned from games. Game designers are attempting to tackle to two key problems; how to educate users to the game’s mechanic and how to keep users engaged. This is not different in the enterprise world where users must be onboarded to systems or processes and, how can we make them learn without noticing that they are learning something new, to keep them engaged?

By transferring these lessons into enterprise training, organizations can roll out new systems or processes and onboard employees more rapidly and effectively. This improves employee experience and increases their engagement, makes training more efficient and produces better business outcomes, such as quicker return on IT investment or better quality.

Games hold valuable lessons on how to tackle three major pitfalls in game, but also process or system design.

The paradox of the active user

The paradox of the active users was first introduced by Mary Beth Rosson and John Carroll, researchers at IBM, in the 1980s. While observing new users of desktop publishing software they discovered an unexpected behavior. The novice users rarely consulted the user guides they were provided, instead, these “active users” would dive straight into the software to figure it out, even if that resulted in running into avoidable errors or getting stuck at dead-ends. Users wanted to get started and be productive (production-bias) as quickly as possible, in part applying what they already knew (assimilation bias), and not waste time with reading manuals.

Games address the paradox of the active user by letting them try things out and guiding them as they interact with the game, “teaching” the gamers what they need to learn through practice.

In the enterprise context the paradox of the active user can be addressed by guiding the users as they interact with processes or systems giving them what they need when they need it, rather than relying on manuals, e-learnings, or introductory trainings.

A useful addition to this is to highlight defaults for the users, making selection easier and more natural.

Dual-task interference

Dual-task interference is a phenomenon in which people ignore alerts, announcements, and other messaging that pop up or get in the way of a person’s current task. The “dual” part of dual-task interference speaks to the idea of someone needing to deal with two things at once.

A BYU study from 2016 found that that 74% of people ignored security messages that popped up while they were on the way to close a web page window. That number rose even further to 87% where users were transferring information, for example entering a code.

The researchers found that displaying security messages during natural pauses, such as while the user was waiting for a video to process, reduced how many participants disregarded the messages by as much as 50%.

Games avoid dual-task interference by putting educational messages after the gamer completes an action. This can work in the enterprise where an information is designed to boost productivity.


Front-loading is when all the instructions and steps for learning a new concept are presented at the start of a learning experience. In business, a company might front-load all possible agreement terms into a contract to avoid disputes down the road. This technique can be beneficial in business, but it doesn’t help people learn new things, like systems or processes.

Games avoid front-loading by breaking up critical activities into three parts: Trigger - Action - Follow up

This can also be applied in system or process training by guiding through each step rather than explaining or training a process in full before an employee goes through it the first time. Think for example an employee being trained on how to process the application for a homeowners' insurance. The employee could be trained on the entire process end-to-end before doing it, e.g., register new customer (CRM), input pricing parameters (size, contents, etc.), adjust for special hazard grades, etc. and be asked to do it themselves after the training. If they haven’t already forgotten how to do step one, they’ll for sure start struggling at step two or three and need to refer to their notes. Instead, they could be guided through step by step, I.e., they get instructions how to register a new customer and do it, then they get instructions how to input the pricing parameters and do it, and so on.

Three Pitfalls and lessons from game design

  • The paradox of the active user
    Avoid by guiding and highlighting the defaults

  • Dual-task interference
    Avoid by providing information before or after an activity, rather than in the middle of an activity, e.g., a hint after an activity has been completed how it could be handled more efficiently the next time. For example, a pop-up that your PC received a critical update and needs to restart in the middle of the employee writing an email, will likely be ignored. If it pops up as the employee clicks send, they might consider doing the restart right away.

  • Front-Loading
    Avoid by breaking down new features into three parts: Trigger - Action - Follow up