Posts by: obto

Habit and Behavior Engineering Toolbox: Near Misses

It’s time to add another tool to the habit and engineering toolbox. The tool we’ll be adding this time is: near misses.

So what are near misses? They are exactly what they sound like. It’s getting close to achieving a reward, placing your portal just an inch off to the right in Portal or getting two 7′s and one cherry at a slot machine. Now you may be wondering how this could help build habits and behaviors.

Near misses sound like they would be frustrating and stop you from playing a game or going another round at the slot machine. But in fact, the opposite is true. In general, when encountered with a near miss, people are likely to try just one more time at beating the level or going another round at the slot machine. Plus, if you’ve ever played the slots or videogames you already know what I’m talking about.

Even though near misses are easy to understand, it may not be easy to think how to utilize this great tool. So I’m going to give you three things you’ll want to keep in mind when using this tool along with some examples so you can get some ideas of your own:

Things to keep in mind:

  1. The user/player has to get close enough to getting the desired result, so instead of it feeling like a loss, it feels like a “mini win.”
  2. They cannot be abused. People are smart and will realize their near misses don’t end up “paying out.” It’s just like the boy who cried wolf.
  3. Even though they can be used alone, IMO, near misses are better when used in tandem with other behavior and habit tools.


Dropbox’s affiliate system:


Dropbox’s referall program is a win-win for both users in the referral process. If you sign up through a referral link, not only does the referrer get an extra 250MB of space, so do you (shameless referral link)!

But that’s not the only reason its been so successful. Whenever you refer someone to use Dropbox, Dropbox lets you their progress, from sign-up through installation of the Dropbox application. Because of this, whenever you see one of the people you invited is just one step away (a near miss), you’ll probably have an urge to give them a phone call or an email to get them to complete the process. Both of you just got more filespace and Dropbox scored yet another potential customer.

McDonald’s Monopoly Game


You probably already know what this is, but for those who don’t, every year McDonald’s puts on a Monopoly event where you get Monopoly properties in the form of stickers when you buy their fries, drinks, etc… Now since I don’t have any actual data this is just speculation, but it seems McDonald’s engineers the chances of you getting certain Monopoly pieces so almost everyone who plays the game achieves a near miss.

You’ll find yourself getting Boardwalk with your first order of fries, and Atlantic Avenue and Marvin Gardens the next time you visit… but you most likely won’t ever get the all important last piece. But the guys at McDonald’s are quite smart and avoid the “boy who cried wolf” with all those near misses (see #2 above in the things to keep in mind). So while you may never get the last property (e.g., Park Place or Ventnor Avenue), you’ll get mini consolation prizes like a free large drink or fries. Which will just get you to come back and try your luck once again!

Nike Soccer: My Time Is Now (Link)

Nike Soccer

This is a great example of near misses being used in conjunction with another behavior and habit tool. In this interactive video, Nike beautifully gamified (a.k.a. used the gamification tool) their video to draw the attention of the user and make it engaging. So where is the near miss in this? When you get to the end of the video you’ll see a little illustration showing you how many tunnels you discovered. By showing the user how close they were to discovering all the tunnels it increases the chance the viewer will watch the video, out of their own volition, once again. Perhaps even sharing it with a friend this time.

These are just a handful of examples where near misses are being used to create or change habits and behaviors. So get out there and start using this amazing tool.


  1. Near misses are when a user gets close enough to a goal that instead of it feeling like a loss, it feels like a “mini win.”
  2. They can’t be abused and are almost always more effective when used in tandem with other behavior and habit tools.
  3. From companies like Dropbox and McDonalds to online applications and YouTube videos, near misses are in use everywhere you look.

P.S. If you happen to come across or know of any other great examples where this tool is used, please let me know and I’d love to add it to the list :)

The Current State Of Gamification

Gamification is and has been gaining popularity for a while now. And while I’m excited about that, there are 3 major problems that need to be brought to light. But to properly discuss these problems, we need to first agree upon the definition of gamification. The definition I will use is the following:

Gamification is the use of game attributes to drive game-like player behavior in a non-game context. This definition has three components:

1. “The use of game attributes,” which includes game mechanics/dynamics, game design principles, gaming psychology, player journey, game play scripts and storytelling, and/or any other aspects of games

2. “To drive game-like player behavior,” such as engagement, interaction, addiction, competition, collaboration, awareness, learning, and/or any other observed player behavior during game play

3. “In a non-game context,” which can be anything other than a game (e.g. education, work, health and fitness, community participation, civic engagement, volunteerism, etc.)

Michael Wu, Lithium

Now that that’s settled, on to problem #1.

Problem One: What you’re using isn’t gamification. It’s pointsification!

One of the reasons gamification has been growing in popularity with the masses, is because it’s pitched as something simple to add in to almost any existing product or framework, promising great results with little to no effort. And to the majority, gamification or “gamifying” something is just adding points, badges, etc., to an existing product or framework.

In fact, that’s how Gabe Zichermann, one of the big advocates of gamification sees it:

Gamification can be thought of as using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective. It’s easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer programs, Nike Running/Nike+, or Foursquare) that feel immediately game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place. [source]

Herein is where the problem lies: simply adding badges, leaderboards, etc., is not “gamifying” something. It’s “pointsifying” something. And it is very important to draw a line here, because pointsification and gamification are two different tools for building habits and behaviors.

In fact, this problem is so wide-spread that I challenge you to find an example where someone who added “gamification” didn’t just make a point distribution system (a.k.a. pointsification).

Now don’t get me wrong, I think when gamification is done right it’s an amazing thing. Just check out two of my favorite examples:


Nike Soccer interactive ad:

As you’ll see in each case, by using gamification the experience becomes more fun and interactive. It’s more engaging!

Problem Two: You can’t add this stuff after you’re done “baking your cake.” It’s not icing!

Pilsbury Funfetti Frosting

Another reason why gamifcation is so popular, is because people think of it as Pillsbury frosting: Create your application and then layer on the frosting to make it taste and look better. Recycle all those old applications and add the same frosting to them too. Why not?

It would be great if this were the case… but what’s so interesting about building habits and behaviors is for each one you want to change or create, the approach is very different. There is no formula for building a habit. And because of this, the “tools” for building them (e.g., gamification) are key ingredients that need to be added to the mix! You can’t add flour to a cake after you take it out of the oven. So let’s move on to my last point:

Problem Three: Stop focusing on gamification and choose the right tool for the job! Building habits and behaviors is what’s important.

At the end of the day, gamification and pointsification are just tools in a toolbox to help you build habits and behaviors. They are NOT Swiss Army knives. In fact, they can be quite dangerous tools if not used properly!

Let’s say gamification is a screwdriver. If you had a bolt that needed to be tightened, you’d want to use a wrench since it’d be the best tool for the job. Using your screwdriver would be the wrong choice, and in fact, could make matters worse. But, if you have a screw that needs to be tightened… well that screwdriver will do a great job.

What I’m trying to say is, instead of just using gamification anywhere and everywhere, first think about what habits and behaviors you want to build. THEN select the right tool for the job. If the tool happens to be gamification, then by all means please use it.


  1. Gamification is not just adding badges and leaderboards to your products. That’s pointsificaton!
  2. Tools for building habits and behaviors like gamification and pointsificatoin are not Pillsbury frosting. You can’t just layer them on after your product is done. They are a key ingredient that needs to be baked with the rest of your ingredients.
  3. Focus on building habits and behaviors, and pick the right tool for the job. Gamification is not always the right tool.
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