The Three Fundamentals of Powerful Interactive Communications

Joystick_by_Rob_boudon_on_flickrOn the morning of 14 November 2008, a 15 year-old boy was rushed to hospital in Laholm, Sweden. He was suffering from an apparent epileptic fit, brought on by exhaustion and dehydration. Investigating doctors discovered that the cause of his illness was self-inflicted. The boy had been playing Wrath of the Lich King, an expansion of the popular World of Warcraft video game series. The game had been released just a day before. The boy had purchased the game on its midnight release, gone straight home, and started playing. He had kept playing, forgetting to eat or sleep, until collapsing in exhaustion over 24 hours later.

This is a true story. This case is extreme, but the reality that underlies it is everywhere. Video games are an exceptionally powerful and popular medium. Every year, another new game release breaks records for the highest-grossing entertainment launch in human history.

What lessons can we draw from the success of video games as we craft interactive experiences designed to change what people think, feel and do?

The video game industry has already discovered the secrets of compelling interactivity. This isn’t about gamification – it’s about creating interactive experiences that are intrinsically rewarding, experiences that people will participate in simply for the pleasure of doing so.

Games draw their engaging power from well-established design rules and principles. These principles can be adapted to improve almost any interactive digital experience – including advertising, thought leadership and other forms of communication.

Three of the most fundamental principles are challenge, direction and feedback.


A challenge that is too easy is boring; one that is too hard is frustrating. The key is to deliver a challenge just at the limit of what the player can achieve. Once players have solved this challenge, a good game immediately gives them another one – only a little bit harder. Players will stay engaged as long as the game keeps escalating the challenge level. This adaptable, escalating difficulty structure generates flow, and it is at the heart of what makes games engaging.

How can marketers and communicators make use of this principle? A rewarding interactive experience has to pose some challenge to the player. Give them something to do, not just to watch or read. There has to be some difficulty in it. Ideally, the task will be easy at first, but becomes more difficult as the player progresses and gains experience.

An excellent example of this principle at work is Josh Worth’s If the moon were only 1 pixel. This is a beautifully simple visualization of the solar system. The viewer has to scroll through it to find the planets in the solar system. This is an easy challenge, but it is a challenge – it requires patience. The player who demonstrates patience gets a payoff; finding the planets, and reading the fragments of thought-provoking text scattered through the emptiness between them.

How can you adapt the principle of challenge? When designing your interactive experience, ask yourself:

  • What challenge does this experience pose to users?
  • Is that challenge appropriate to their level of skill?
  • Do I want users to interact with this more than once, or engage for a longer time?
  • If so, how can the system adapt the challenge to their level of skill? If you want users to engage for longer, the challenge must escalate.


In interactive experiences, the person we’re engaging isn’t a passive observer – they’re an actor. Like any actor, players need good direction.

Instead of a script or stage, games direct players by limiting the actions they can do, while clearly indicating those they can. In good games it’s rarely ambiguous what you should do next (unless resolving this ambiguity is itself a part of the game challenge). Every good game has a clear goal for the player at all times, and also a clear method of achieving that goal. Players should never be asking themselves what they need to do to win.

In Tetris, for example, blocks are falling from the sky. If they reach the top, you lose. The game becomes all about stacking them as neatly as possible.

The same principle applies to interactive experiences in general.

Buzzfeed made great use of direction in their wildly popular “Wikpedia names your band” game. Buzzfeed wanted to poke some fun at pretentious hipster-rock band names and album covers. They could have simply asked readers to submit their ideas for parody album cover images. They would surely have received a couple dozen images, from committed readers who also had an interest in hipster rock and graphic design skills. But Buzzfeed went broader than this. To get maximum participation, they created a simple three-step game to help people create a parody album cover image.

This is great direction. The way to “win” is very clearly spelled out. Follow the instructions, and you know you’ll get a unique and (ironically) whimsical album cover image that you can share with your friends.

That’s why thousands of people jumped on the experience, resulting in thousands of shares and uploads of users’ own band name album covers. It got Buzzfeed great exposure. The same can be done for a brand.

So how can you adapt this principle to your own interactive experience? When designing it, ask yourself:

  • What is the experience encouraging users to do? How is it making this clear?
  • Is there an obvious “win” state? How is it made clear?
  • How can the media surrounding the interactivity – the visual design, video cues, sound design, etc. – help the user understand what to do next?


Part of what makes video games attractive is their transparency and clarity. It’s always obvious how well you’re doing. You have a health meter, a power-up meter, a stash of gold coins, dragon souls or a kill/death ratio. Whatever the metric is, good video games are always displaying it to you, so you can modulate your behavior relative to it. People love clear, quick feedback. Interactive communications experiences can take advantage of this principle by giving it to them. For example, Britain’s Real Class System, an interactive journalism experience I designed for the BBC before joining Edelman, asks people a few questions and gives them feedback on their position in Britain’s socioeconomic system.

Generally, if the feedback tells the user something about themselves, it’s twice as engaging.

So how can you adapt this principle to your own interactive experience? When designing it, ask yourself:

  • When the user does something, how does the system respond to their actions?
  • Can we structure the experience so user actions are more quantifiable?
  • Is feedback displayed dynamically – i.e. can the user see their feedback change as they interact?
  • What can we do to make the feedback “juicier” – more clear, more visible, more eye-catching?

Bringing it together

Challenge, direction and feedback are the essential components of good interactivity. There are plenty of other lessons communicators can learn from video games – these principles are just the beginning. When they’re implemented well, they can create communications experiences that players will enjoy, seek out and share.

A version of this post originally appeared on

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