Chances are you are familiar with the Pokémon Go summer hype that has hit most of the world, the major hotspots being the East and West coasts of the US, South America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Apart from an entertaining game to play (or better yet, watch), its success also provides valuable insights for instructional design. With this post, we’ll cover five things we can take away from the Pokémon Go phenomenon:

1. Engaging by Means of Gamification Works

Above all else, Pokémon Go is a game, and a very engaging one at that. At a park in the North Beach district of San Francisco, I’ve seen many groups of people walking together, stopping every now and then, eyes solely focused on their phones. At some point I was sure they were taking a picture of me, walking up to me with their arms stretched out, like stiff zombies in a picture-taking contest. It turns out they did not mistake me for a famous celebrity, but they “saw” a rare Pokémon at the exact spot I was enjoying my book.

A game that has so many people out and about, walking miles a day, just to get ‘leveled up’, can be called a very engaging game. What makes this game so attractive? It is a combination of the introduction of augmented reality to a mobile game, answering to the urge to collect things (”Gotta catch ‘em all”), and having levels which people can pass.

These elements of gamification can lend themselves to making learning experiences more engaging as well. Having an actual environment, whether it be a simulation or a role-play, in which to practice certain learned skills will generate more interest than reading through content describing how to perform certain tasks. By introducing the Pokémon layer to the environment, and seeing game elements as a layover on reality, the action takes place involving the physical surroundings of the player rather than being in a confined space. Additionally, practices like earning points, rewards, or medals as you progress through a course motivate people to stay on track. A good example of this is how language learning app Duolingo rewards with gems as you progress, and dependent on how well you do, your strength level for a skill goes up. Furthermore, just like Pokémon can escape from their container ‘balls’ over time, if you haven’t practiced for some time, this level goes back down again, thereby requiring you to be active to maintain status quo. Creating a learning process making use of these gamified elements makes the experience more engaging and encourages learners to keep on learning.

2. Meet Your Learners Where They Are – On Their Phones

Meeting your learners where they are is key to getting them to participate in what you have to offer. Pokémon Go’s mobile approach caters to making a switch from a situation in which many big games were previously designed for game computers, to developing for phones. And the phone is where the mind is.

The benefit of developing any kind of experience for mobile technology is that it is available anytime and anywhere, rather than having to be in a certain place, with certain people, at a certain time. It is here where mobile learning experiences have a huge benefit compared to the standard hours-long in-person training. By making use of the ease with which your learners handle their mobile technologies, you can have them meet the learning content where they already spend their time. Not only will this lower the barrier to fit eLearning into daily tasks, it will also make it easier to access content anywhere, from any device, and at any time.

3. Spur Adoption by Starting with Learners Prior Knowledge

The largest group of people playing Pokémon Go is composed of those who witnessed the first episodes of Pokémon and spent their time collecting Pokémon cards and battling others. It should come as no surprise that this generation was super excited to get back into the Pokémon mindset when they found out that an easily accessible enhanced-reality version of the game.

Connecting this to course design is not difficult: linking the material to previously built up knowledge and prior experiences enhances adoption, both in learning and gaming. By appealing to the familiar, learners are more likely to feel that the learning objective is achievable, and the easier the start, the more people will be willing to embark on the journey.

4. Enthusiasm Fades if you don’t Continue to Engage

Unfortunately, not everything in the garden of Pokémon Go is rosy. Though updates introducing more and more features were to be pushed out regularly, it was not enough to keep up the initial enthusiasm, as the Google Trends graph below shows:

Reported reasons for the waning enthusiasm includes the lack or slow introduction of features that were expected (based on the television episodes), and a lack of communication about broken or withdrawn features.

One takeaway for designing learning experiences is to make sure you keep your learners engaged to make them come back and keep on learning. An example of doing this is to diversify your approaches to different parts of the learning cycle, such as different materials or different types of assignments. It is also important to set expectations as well as possible to prevent disappointment or confusion that might demotivate your learners over the course of time.

5. Make Sure not to Overburden Your Learners

Like a regular muscle, it is important to train the muscle of discipline to get into a learning habit. However, muscles can be overburdened. This seems to be what happened with Pokémon Go. For many, the app turned out to be too demanding in terms of time and physical effort. This is not a game you can play for half an hour to relax – it requires going out and about–and if you want to get ahead, the requirements are even higher.

It is here where a large part of the downfall lies: the effort required to keep up with the game and other players’ scores was too much after a while–it is just a game after all. It would be like trying to get people to go to the gym for 3 hours a day–it might work initially, but then life gets in the way. This can also be seen from the graph: as decline of enthusiasm kicks in, peaks are observed in the weekends, when people have some free time on their hands. The takeaway for instructional design is to make sure you don’t overburden your learners. Make an assessment of what kind of time and effort would be reasonable, and design your course to match that. Eager learners might be happy to do more and utilize additional resources, but keeping your main content focused will give an indication of what is most important, and give learners the feeling that the learning experience will be manageable.

We’re not so different after all

Designers of entertainment and learning experiences can benefit from the same techniques, but also face the same challenges. As you see, analyzing the phenomenon of Pokémon Go provides insights for adoption and engagement that can readily be translated to the field of learning experience design.