Tara DeAngelis
Experience Designer / Art Director

The Gamification of Appreciation

Social Experience Experiment to Corporate Employee Experience Project to Worldwide Application

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I was inspired by the Random Acts of Kindness & Pay-it-Forward Movements that were starting between 2006-2012, and I was young enough to believe that I could save the world.

This is how I applied the Design Thinking Process to the social experiment which became a digital product.


It would be bad UX practice to assume that people working for wages barely above the minimum, while being regularly blamed, berated, and raged at were not thrilled with their jobs. But we are going to do bad UX here and make that assumption and get to the why (all wages aside).

I personally had done a lot of customer-facing work by that point in life and the part that felt the worst for me was feeling dehumanized by customers.

I asked a few friends how they felt about their retail jobs, and their chief complaint was that they felt unappreciated by their managers.

So, I hypothesized that one of the main factors in retail workers' job dissatisfaction outside of my friend-bubble was that they too, were feeling unappreciated by either their customers, their colleagues, or both.


Going Guerilla
Informal On-Site Interviews

I found ten customer-facing workers and asked them the following questions, then asked them to rate their experiences on a scale.

  • What is your job title?

  • What is your level of job satisfaction?

  • What is your level of satisfaction with customer interaction?

  • How much do you feel customers appreciate you?

  • How much do you feel customers view you as a human being?

  • If customers were nicer to you, how much more would you enjoy your job?

  • (If yes to above) If a customer was to tell you something they appreciated about their interaction with you, how would it make you feel?

  • If a customer were to offer you an appreciation how specific would you like them to be?

  • How much do you feel like you want to make a positive difference in the world?

    • Scale: Extremely Uncomfortable / Comfortable

    • Scale: Apathetic / Energized

    • Scale: Sad / Happy

    • Scale: Disliking Job More / Liking Job More

    • Scale: Unappreciated / Appreciated

    • Scale: Less Excited About Life / More Excited About Life

Making Sense of the Data...

Service Workers Interviewed
Scored below 6 for job satisfaction
Felt customers did not appreciate them
Said they would be happier with their job if customers were more appreciative of them
Said they did not feel customers viewed them as a human being.
Said they would enjoy their job more.
Said they would feel more appreciated by customers if they conveyed appreciation.
Preferred the appreciation sharing be specific.
Said receiving an appreciation would make them feel more excited about life.
Said they would feel happy upon a customer sharing appreciation.
Said if a customer was to tell them something they appreciated about their interaction together they would feel slightly uncomfortable.
Said the sharing of appreciation would make them extremely uncomfortable.
Said receiving appreciation would make them feel more energetic and that they wanted to make a positive difference in the world.

Based on the surveys (and common sense) my hypothesis seemed accurate so it was time to define what the problem actually was.

The Gamification of  Appreciation

Created Persona and Problem Statement

Persona: Keely Ann Bradburn is a Target Customer Service Representative. She wanted to go to college but her parents are sick and she can't afford it and has to care for them. Target is the best job opportunity for her based on her location and she is not happy about it inside. She is depressed about life, demanding entitled customers make it worse. She doesn't have many options and secretly wishes she could make a difference in the world although she wouldn't admit it on the outside. She does best when told what to do and has never thought about acting outside established cultural norms.

This avatar was created as a visual for this portfolio. I didn't know what a UX persona was in 2009. But based on the interviews I did, Keely Ann Bradburn is the average of them.


Workers need to feel appreciated by customers so they can enjoy their low-paying jobs more and feel more excited about life and optimistic that they can make a positive difference in someone else's life.


How might I...

  • Help people see their gifts?

  • Create a happy couple of minutes in a stranger's life?

  • Create a spark that creates more sparks?

  • What about an exponential wave of sparks that extends to the whole town, country, world?

  • Encourage people to break out of their comfort zones and experience the hit of bliss that comes from facing small fears of low consequence?

  • Tell a stranger something I appreciate about them without making them or myself feel uncomfortable or awkward?

  • Wake people up?

  • Improve the way they think and live?

  • Inspire action?

  • Start a revolution?

Solution: Tokens of Appreciation!
Early Prototype

First Prototype

The first tokens were made of cardboard paper. I wrote the words "token of appreciation on them" and gave them to a few customer service reps.


I felt like simply encouraging people to "pay it forward" felt too controlling and dogmatic. It made me feel awkward to tell people what they should do rather than just show appreciation. I decided that a simple suggestion written on the back of the token that would be seen upon investigation, after all the good feelings started in the person, would be the best time for them to see what to do next and be of the most influence.

The Gamification of  Appreciation

Tokens of Appreciation

First of all, by the time I got around to taking a photo of the first tokens, it had been in my wallet for a long time. So it got pretty dirty. Spoiler Alert: solutions for this come in phase two, but just pretend you don't know that yet.

I found some watercolor paper (it's all I had on hand) created a fun colorful design on the front (not shown) and wrote on the back. I wanted to keep the language fun and mainstream enough to not deter people.

I went on to finish the rest of the 20 colorful tokens. They had colorful front faces so they would feel personal and special enough to encourage action, I began to distribute them.

This was challenging because I had to make a conscious effort to change the way that I did life. I didn't realize how narrow my tunnel vision of being so goal-oriented was blinding me from life itself. It was a pretty self-absorbed way of being, and it was scary to do things differently. I had to enter situations with a strong intention to open my eyes, ears and heart to the present moment to watch for acts of kindness or nice personality traits. I had to really wait for a genuine appreciation to arise within myself, because I knew that if I faked it, they would feel it and this experiment (and genuine desire to help) would not work.

I gave them to service workers I encountered during my daily errands like the bus-driver, the grocery store cashier, the grocery store floor-guy, the bank teller, etc. An example of some of the appreciations I shared were "I really appreciate your smile, it gave me a little flash of happiness to see your smile", or "I am really appreciating the bright colors of your unique earrings, it makes me feel inspired to start making my own jewelry, In fact, I am going to go to JoAnne's right after I get out of here and get some materials"... then, I would push the token across the counter, say here is a token of appreciation for that. They would pick it up, look at it, smile even bigger and say something like, "Oh my gosh! I love this!". Then, I would smile at them, pretend I was some kind of mystical being, and walk away.

Observation #1: Not only did it make other people light up, I also had a mind-blowingly satisfactory day giving out these tokens. People lit-up. People genuinely smiled, people genuinely said thank you, and some said they were excited to pay-it-forward.

Observation #2: The tokens got dirty in my wallet and the colors rubbed off. The next versions needed to be constructed differently if they were going to last long enough to make a difference.

Observation #3: This sapped ALOT of energy out of me planting all these little tokens. I was glad to have done it, but knew it was not really sustainable to do this more than once for the average willing person. I lost motivation to continue this experiment until......


I was working in-house at a digital products production company and noticed company morale seemed really low. To make sure it wasn't just in my head, I did ten employee interviews.

On a scale from 1-10, 80% rated their job satisfaction at below 50%.

Contributing factors included:

  • Not interested in the content they were selling 30%

  • Amount of work and demand 90%

  • Lack of clear process and continual process changes 100%

  • Felt unappreciated by colleagues 80%

  • Felt unappreciated by management 70%

  • Felt unappreciated by leadership 90%

  • Felt that others did not see their true strengths and qualities 80%

Was it time to bring the tokens back? How would I know that my intention was successful?

This time I would be able to monitor the success by measuring employee happiness, the number of others I saw get a token of appreciation, and how long it would take before a token would make its way all the way back to me.

The Gamification of  Appreciation


Version 2.0 features:

-Smaller and could fit in your coin wallet.


-Optimized for mass production

-Made a pleasant clinking noise while jingled with other coins.

-Glittered, because magic.

I am aware that this is becoming ridiculously long, so, to make a long story a few words longer, they worked.

People got happier at work, the energy of joy was palpable, and I witnessed at least 4 exchanges of tokens between those other than myself. Even though I never got one back, I saw many others get one back, so that felt good.

The Gamification and Digitization of the Experience

How might I (I should say we because I need a team) create a digital experience of tokens of appreciation that does not take away from the face-to-face interaction that is necessary to stimulate a particular flavor of joy that includes oxytocin? How might I use gamification principles to enhance the speed and reward for the spread of appreciation in an authentic way? How might we make the experience more personal so that people don't use it just for the points? Is there a way to air-drop the tokens for users that don't have the app downloaded? There are many questions, and many right answers. But here is the general idea in a storyboard...

First Iteration

After sketching the first round of wireframes (they are lost in the abyss) prototyping began for desktop and mobile. It was a brand exploration + screen design. More refinement would be needed.

Next Steps

User flow, wireframe screens, prototype, test, implement findings, prototype, test and (maybe) design high fidelity.