As humans we thrive on challenges. We crave them. There is an inbuilt belief in our DNA that with work and risk comes reward. That is why we seek out challenges, games and work in an attempt to satisfy that desire for risk and reward.
From this perspective a website performs one of two roles. Understanding which category your site falls into will dramatically change the way you approach it.
Creating artificial challenges
The first category of website is those that exist to artificially create challenges and create risk/reward scenarios. These sites are typically entertainment sites designed to create artificial challenges to fill the hole that is left in our very safe, modern world. These are sites that fulfil a similar role to watching action films, going on roller coaster rides or playing xbox games.
Sites like these offer gaming components such as badges (rewards) that can be earnt (work) once certain tasks (challenges) are completed. They include everything from blatant game sites to forums or social networking sites.
If you own a site that falls into this category your priority is not to make your site usable, but to make it challenging, engaging and to contain elements of risk.
Overcoming real world challenges
The second type of site is one that exists to aid the user in completing a real world challenge. Most content heavy, traditional websites fall into this category. These are sites that show a user how to purchase a product, enhance their knowledge on a subject or complete a task.
On such sites the emphasis has to be firmly on the real world task (challenge), not on the site itself. The site should be invisible. The rewards these sites provide are in the real world. They are not about providing artificial rewards (like a badge or ranking).
They should also feed that feeling of accomplishment at overcoming the real world challenge. It is not enough for these sites to be usable or even invisible. They need to empower the user, making him feel like the victor who has triumphed. It should make the challenge feel easy.
Where the task is easy but mundane our sites have the opportunity to motivate users by increasing the risk and reward. Whether this is by making the experience more enjoyable (as in the case of a service like Mailchimp) or by gamifying it (such as in the case of Epic Win).
My point here is that we need to feed our users natural desire to work, win and be rewarded. To do this we need to know what role our site plays. Is it to create artificial challenges or enable the completion of real world challenges.
Which type of site is yours and what can you do to make it better fulfil its role?