Funstration: How I Frustrate Customers for a Living

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on December 21, 2022

Editor's Note:

Author Steve Bocska is CEO PUG Interactive. Steve is a member of the faculty at The Loyalty Academy and the creator of Loyalty Academy Course 206, “Advanced Customer Engagement & Gamification: Techniques, Tools and Tips”. In the course, Steve presents a thorough analysis of gamification concepts and much more. Steve has written extensively on gamification for marketers and you can find some of his recent work published on The Wise Marketer here:

Gamification Strategy: Traps, Trials, and Pitfalls

The Definitive Explanation of Gamification for Marketing

Funstration: How I Frustrate Customers for a Living

Raise your hand if you think customer frustration is a bad thing. Well, what if I told you that wasn’t necessarily true? We’ve all heard it said that too much of a good thing can be bad for you. But could small doses of bad things, like frustration, actually provide positive benefits? And if so, is there a way to harness that frustration to actually strengthen the relationship between a customer and a brand?

Whether you’re finally getting into the loyalty game with a shiny, brand new loyalty points program or looking to breathe new life into a program that’s been running for decades, you want to embrace the idea that properly managed frustration can actually play a healthy role in keeping your customer community active, engaged and satisfied. It’s a design concept I call “funstration” and it comes from my many years as a video game designer where my sole purpose was to craft frustration into games that created highly satisfying and engaging experiences enjoyed by tens of millions of players around the world.

There is a mistaken presumption among brand executives that any form of customer frustration is negative and should be avoided at all cost. And yet entire industries--like sports, gambling, and video games--are built upon the idea that managed customer frustration is not only useful but even downright necessary to provide an optimal customer experience. To be clear, a relentless, never-ending campaign of frustration is not a winning strategy. Regardless of the context, nobody in their right minds would stick around where the only guaranteed outcome was losing with no chance of success. There has to at least be a faint glimmer of hope that a desirable outcome is possible, preferably delivered in a way that is fun and satisfying.

“Funstration” is the intersection of this.

Lotteries are perfect examples to quickly illustrate this. The odds of winning a jackpot are stacked against lottery players in comical proportions. It should never come as a surprise when you don’t win the mega millions. And if this binary outcome was the only possibility (ie. loser or jackpot winner), lotteries would almost certainly not hold the public’s attention for very long. But lotteries offer other outcomes, specifically those that either provide a lesser payoff (“2 numbers. Hey, I won $10!”) or even just a small enticing reminder that you got at least something right (“Well, at least I got 1 number. If I get 2 next time, I’ll win ten bucks!”). Tempering frustration with these little glimmers of “success”, even when the odds are stacked horribly against you, is one of the ways lotteries keep players coming back again and again.

Video game designers are experts at leveraging this concept and pushing players’ frustration tolerance to the limit, only to then give them a suitable payoff before the customer walks away forever. If you do this at just the perfect time, the result is intense satisfaction, joy, and dare I say, even lasting loyalty. This notion of looping punishment-payoff-satisfaction (repeat) is not generally found in the marketer or loyalty manager’s mindset. It feels too risky and counterintuitive to be seen as the cause of any customer discomfort or displeasure. Yet to a game designer, frustration can be designed, managed, and released in a way that is not only enjoyable, but that people will even pay you to experience. You’ll see evidence of this phenomenon in video game chat forums around the world. What initially comes across as anger, fury, and unrecoverable player frustration is nothing more than a temporary bump in the road for gamers who, once they finally succeed in their game goals, demonstrate a fanaticism and loyalty rivaling anything found elsewhere in the consumer world.

Examples of funstration can be found within a “gamified” customer loyalty or engagement program, particularly in the distinction between plain old humdrum virtual “badges” and collectible digital goods. At a glance, badges and virtual goods might appear to be identical. But a screenshot does not reflect how different they actually are.

Badges are merely a cosmetic token or icon recognizing past actions. They provide no interactivity nor opportunities to become frustrated. Collectible digital goods, on the other hand, have inherent frustration potential because they generally exist within an economy whereby some items are scarce while other are more common or even abundant. This model is ripe for manufacturing delayed gratification, as you come back again and again to “hunt” for the rare virtual items needed to complete your collection. It’s frustrating. But it’s also somehow fun.

In other words, funstration.

Sometimes the rules of the game can help create notional scarcity and value. And sometimes the exact opposite happens. Here in Dallas, a TollTag program awards you “points” for using toll highways. These points are used under a fairly standard loyalty model, offering benefits and perks which are meant to promote greater use of the toll highways. However, TollTag recently launched a digital scratch-and-win promotion, presumably in an attempt to get customers to burn-off their points and reduce their balances. On my first login, I was pleasantly surprised to see I had 10 scratch ticket plays accumulated, ready to go. The application even allowed me to play all 10 of my credits right away. So I plowed through all 10 plays in about 90 seconds, earning some bonus points and a few other treats along the way. But then at the end, after running out of plays, the system prompted me to buy another play in exchange for a thousand TollTag points.

Herein lies the problem: I was just given an unrestrained run of ten consecutive plays in under two minutes, thereby cheapening my perceived value of a “play”. No frustration whatsoever. And as such, a thousand points suddenly felt like a lot to spend just to buy one more chance with a scratch ticket. So I closed my browser and haven’t gone back.

As a game designer, I never give you something just because you want it. I’ll hold it back and purposely cause you frustration by making that thing difficult to obtain. Less desirable things will be easier to get. I may even give you as much of these common things as you want because I know that the more you encounter them, the more you’ll likely covet that which is scarce. As long as I give you the “payoff” you’re seeking before you abandon the challenge, delaying your gratification will make you value the prize that much more, creating a feeling of “funstration” once you finally get it.

There can also be an addictive aspect to delaying a payoff through a human behavior pattern called “escalation of commitment” or “commitment bias.” The longer someone stands at a bus stop in the rain waiting for an increasingly late bus (while vacant taxis go whizzing by), the more likely they are to continue waiting. People remain committed to a decision or course of action using the rapidly accumulating sunk cost as a reason to justify their decision. And when that bus finally comes around the corner, “it was worth it, I saved 12 bucks” will be their rationalization. This same mechanism keeps people hunting for rare or scale virtual goods beyond reasonable limits -- or even just irrationally pulling that slot machine handle one more time.

The context of the frustration is also important. Let’s continue with the loyalty points example. Customers who hoard points are a big problem these days, especially for CFOs wrestling with how to account for this growing liability on their financial statements. Many brands have resorted to slapping expiry limits on their points as a “solution” to the problem. This is simply harmful frustration, one that will damage the brand-customer relationship because it lacks any safety-valve for a satisfying outcome.

Avoid these heavy-handed tactics at all costs, instead offering customers fun and interesting ways (ie. fun gamified programs, contests, and challenges) where they can spend their currency and reduce their points balances without incurring a high fulfillment cost to the brand.

Another superior solution for engaging customers can be found in the language learning app Duolingo. It has a “funstrating” mechanic to encourage players to upgrade to paid subscriptions. In free mode, you can only commit a certain number of errors before you are halted for the day. You then have to wait until tomorrow to resume your learning. This brings some daily drama into the experience and simultaneously boosts the perceived value of the paid subscription.

We also have a similar “funstration” system in one of our flagship projects, a fun gamified loyalty program for global gift retailer Miniso. In MinisoLove, we trickle out two daily plays of a digital instant win “claw game” to the customer. Here, we create purposeful frustration by requiring players to wait 24 hours for their next chance to play. Because of this wait, they perceive a much higher value of each play opportunity. By the time they are a week or ten days into playing, they are very eager for their next chance to play and are more inclined to “pay” (in this case, converting loyalty points into gameplay credits) to bypass the mandatory 24 hour wait period for another chance.

Even within the larger MinisoLove experience, we introduce many additional micro-funstration opportunities purely designed to amplify delight and engagement. One of them is the mystery digital box they can purchase with loyalty points that just has a question mark “?” on it. What’s inside? We’re not telling you. But it could be something good. Or perhaps not. Is that frustrating? Somewhat. But it’s also fun, just like not being able to open that big present under the tree until Christmas morning. Funstration.

There are even examples of funstration already hidden within the typical modern customer journey. Case in point, consider a clunky (but all too typical) user points-earning flow for a retailer’s loyalty program. The frustration painted here may seem inevitable and unavoidable with no apparent payoff, but there is more going on here than you might imagine. It goes something like this:

I decide to buy something in-store. I walk to the cash. I pay, get my receipt, take out my phone and open the brand’s app. I scan a QR code on the receipt. Points are added to my account. Done.

With all these steps, you would think the friction would accumulate and eventually backlash against the retailer. And the payoff of earning points is inherently fun because, in a make-believe way, you feel like you’re getting a little bit richer every time your balance goes up. Take this concept a bit further with cute cosmetic payoffs, like little fireworks animations and sound effects and you’ll be surprised by how quickly the user overlooks any friction and remembers only the payoff. And like magic, what might have been considered tedious now becomes enjoyable and satisfying. People will happily endure a short burst of busy work to get even a superficial adrenaline buzz as a reward.

In game design, we call this “grinding” -- where the player performs mundane, repetitive actions for the sheer pleasure of seeing small, incremental progress for their efforts in the process. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi covered this phenomenon at some length in his landmark book Flow, describing how humans are biologically wired to find pleasure in these engagement loops.

Of course, there are burgeoning untapped opportunities for expanded customer engagement in this scenario. The customer already has their phone out and your app open. It is useful to pause a moment here to consider what more you can do now to build goodwill and deepen the customer-brand relationship--or even create a new pattern of behavior.

Give them a mini-game. Message them to the marketplace to spend their points. Unlock a new quest or challenge. Provide an instant win opportunity. Or introduce a decision with a harsh consequence and apply some time pressure. And remember that even if they “lose” by making the wrong choice or running out of time, being temporarily frustrated is an important tool in the engagement designer’s toolbox.