UX Case Study: How did Wordle take over the World?

Let’s break down from a UX standpoint what makes Wordle successful, and what we can learn from it when creating better user experiences when building our products or services. This article is part two of a 2-part series to unpack Wordle using UX principles. To read part 1, head over here to find out why UX matters to game design.

UI/UX Design
Wong Wing Lum

1) Gameplay built on community, journey tracking and scarcity

The power of shared experiences

Sharing does a little more than just caring. Collective experiences play a role in amplifying an individual’s encounter with a product or service, and in turn, contributes to a more delightful and meaningful overall user experience. Whether it’s intentional or not, Wordle’s social element has contributed to its exponential success.

According to research published in Psychological Science, the intensity of perceiving how good or bad an experience is heightened when it's shared with another person (even if we don’t know them!). This means that whenever we experience something delightful with someone else, we feel extra pleasure because the experience is shared, and vice versa.

Wordle’s creator Josh Wardle has created the ultimate social experience through Wordle. From his personal recount in an interview with The New York Times, he had first introduced it to his relatives, and then to the world in October 2021. And after two months, the number of players increased from 90 to 300,000. Today, it’s believed to have over 2 million players globally.

Wordle meme simpsons
Accurate depiction of this moment

No matter who or where you are, you find yourselves part of the same journey in the game. Everyone gets the same six tries to guess the same unique word, released at the same time every day around midnight GMT (Greenwich Mean Time).

Though its mass-market appeal may have won the hearts of millions across the globe, it has still found its way into our most intimate platforms from personal social media feeds or private chat messages. This has built bridges between a more personal pool of friends and family to connect over a simple game.

Wordle results sharing in group chats
It's almost a daily ritual now in my social group

In our increasingly connected yet disconnected world, shared experiences form the backbone of a community that we long for. Humans are inherently social beings that crave a sense of connection and belonging. Wordle reminds us that despite our differences and the noise in our uncertain world today, we can all find common joy in connecting through a simple game.

Loyalty building by celebrating journeys and milestones

Though it has been recently made known that Wordle was recently bought over by The New York Times, we can still learn a thing or two from how it managed to build its cult following from its initial conceptualisation.

Wordle makes a fascinating case study on why it always pays off to put users front and centre. And it’s fascinating because it’s quite unheard of that a game so popular does not want anything from me!

Despite the overwhelming traffic and digital footprint collected from millions of users streaming into the site, there were no push notifications or advertisements that disrupted the game experience at any point. Josh’s refusal to monetise the platform meant that there was no hidden agenda in the gameplay. What you see is what you get: a free, fun activity for all to enjoy with no strings attached.

Wordle statistics screenshot
Haven't experienced my first-attempt stroke of genius yet!

The only data tracking his site employed was given fully back to its users by employing journey analytics. Data personalisation gives value to its users in the form of progress reports, reinforces loyalty and keep recurrent users coming back for more.

Similar to how Spotify conceptualised its Unwrapped series, Wordle’s cache track its players’ progression with the game. At the end of each turn, players get a glimpse of their track record thus far through a simple statistics dashboard outlining the following data:

  • Number of times played
  • % wins
  • Current and Longest Streak
  • Guess Distribution

Players can recognise how they have gotten better at the word-guessing game over time, helping players visualise their growth in improvements to their accuracy.

Scarcity keeps you wanting more

We live in times of great abundance and instant gratification when it comes to consumption. Complex algorithms program apps in such a way that it is constantly vying for our attention, as it’s our time and mind space that becomes monetised by advertisers.

In the case of “Freemium” games, game designers manipulate behavioural psychology to load the brain reward centres with dopamine, hijacking our primal tendencies to stimulate our craving for more. This makes us more susceptible to making in-game purchases to fulfil our desire to keep playing. That’s how game companies earn a quick buck from you.  

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No, not for Wordle.

Wordle meme
I'm always guessing H A T C H first (just because heh)

I'm always guessing H A T C H first (just because heh)

The concept of deliberate scarcity seems like a counterintuitive tactic to what our minds are used to. And it’s exactly what Wordle was built on to make us hooked. Sounds like some high-level reverse psychology? Players only get six tries at guessing a 5-letter word per day. Once their attempts are up, a countdown is set till the next day for which a new unique word is released.

Josh spoke in an interview with BBC Radio 4:

“I am a bit suspicious of mobile apps that demand your attention and send you push notifications to get more of your attention. I like the idea of doing the opposite of that – what about a game that deliberately doesn’t want much of your attention?”

Josh actually employed one of the most fundamental core principles in User Experience: Scarcity. The one game a day play Wordle employs is referred to as Quantity-limited Scarcity. This psychological bias tricks us into placing a higher value on what we consider to be rare or limited in quantity. This in turn leaves us wanting more.

Usability vs Accessibility

Before we proceed with the next section, it’s important to understand the difference between usability and accessibility.

Usability is a measure of how easy a system is to use, while accessibility has an added element on top of usability that ensures people of all walks of life, regardless of technological or physical abilities, can access a product or service.

2. Usability (UX)

Simplicity in its DNA

In UX, the Law of Prägnanz, or also called the Law of Simplicity, states that the simpler the design of a product is, the more users are inclined to use it and the easier it is to communicate its value to them. Wordle may not have the most avant-garde User Interface (UI) Design, but its no-frills delivery has its upsides in making the platform more approachable for anyone to attempt the game.

The biggest appeal of Wordle is how simple it is. This extends to both the game mechanics and the user interface (UI) of the game browser.

Wordle instructions
How to play Wordle is summarised in less than a page

Wordle navigation bar
3-buttons only for its navigation bar

When you first visit the website, players are prompted by a popout that outlines simple instructions on the rules of the gameplay. This list is easily navigable upon exit via the navigation bar (navbar). There are only three elements in the navbar: Instructions, Statistics and Settings. The icons used to label each component are universally used, hence it is clear, intuitively understood and easy to follow.

Wordle Interface
Wordle's Interface

The minimalistic user interface also reinforces how the game should be played. Hick’s Law states that the time taken to make a decision increases with the number and complexity of choice. Using a non-scrollable keyboard and a 6 by 5 grid of empty black boxes, it intuitively signals to users that they have to interact with the keyboard provided by the browser to key in letters.

Wordle’s offers immediate value to its users with no room for distraction, giving prompt cues to signal the sequence of steps that are easy to follow in order to complete the game.

Good interaction design through a feedback system

Interaction Design (IxD) is a subset of User Experience (UX). It’s defined as the connection between how users and technology communicate with each other. The goal of IxD is to provide users with concise information so that they can efficiently accomplish their goals.

Wordle employs 3 great uses of feedback in interaction design through the following means:

Wordle answer interaction design
Letter cards flip individually to reveal the right answer

1. In Wordle, players get 6 attempts at a 5-letter word. Within less than 0.1 seconds of submission, the interface acknowledges and responds by revealing the answer for the letter cards one at a time. The cards are colour coded in green, yellow and grey to signal whether the position of the letters are correct, wrong, or not found in the word, respectively.

Wordle error interaction design
The letter cards nudges when there is an error

2. The Wordle interface also anticipates and mitigates errors by delivering an error messaging and gently nudging the letter cards in two scenarios: when users failed to fill up the correct number of five letters required in their submissions, or when the word they have keyed in does not exist.

Wordle keyboard
Colour-coded keyboard help users think less and eliminate alphabets

3. Users are vulnerable to mistakes when they are asked to repeat steps as they might have forgotten their previous decisions made. Wordle reduces the cognitive load by progressively colour-coding their inbuilt keyboard based on their answers. This helps users eliminate or shortlist the letters they have already keyed in. Removing memory burdens helps them to focus on successfully completing the game within 6 attempts.

Eliciting positive emotional responses through colour psychology

Colours can shape how users think and feel towards a product. Wordle’s use of green and yellow colour to give feedback on the letter input mimics that of traffic lights.

Green is tied to success and optimism, signifying that the input item is correct and complete. Yellow communicates a transient warning that signals to users that the letter placement has a non-critical error, and they are in fact on the right track to completing the task.

Josh’s decision to use grey instead of red to signal the wrong letter input can be seen as a strategic choice.

In a study published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers found that red can have a negative effect on performance. Red is an intense colour that can elicit strong reactions in people, usually negatively associated with danger and warning. Grey, on the other hand, can have more varied associations depending on its context. Possibly in Wordle, grey’s association with sorrow and sadness is used to convey error as it paints a pessimistic picture.

Choosing a more neutral colour choice in error communication for the game helps to build towards a pleasant overall user experience. This ensures that the game does not unintentionally shame its players and make them feel demotivated to complete the game.

3. Accessibility

Low barrier of entry to join the Wordle Community

Wordle is not an application from the Google Playstore, Apple Store or Microsoft Store. Like many the online games that saw their heyday during the peak of the pandemic (think Drawful, Skribbl.io etc), Wordle is hosted on a simple web browser.

In doing so, Josh opened up the game to individuals regardless of their operating system (OS). This has increased accessibility to the game to accommodate to users from the mass market, who can access the game even with a basic level of digital proficiency.

Wordle could not have done it without Word(le) of Mouth

Perhaps one of the most crucial components that contributed to Wordle’s skyrocket success was its accidental viral marketing. Wordle has brilliantly programmed its social sharing in an intriguing, yet spoiler-free manner. The share button generates a simple message comprising of green, yellow and black squares. This features a snapshot of players’ results for the day, where they can show off their word-guessing prowess to their online communities without giving anything away.

For us in Singapore, it started from a series of unexplained coloured boxes on our social feeds that piqued our interest. What was this secret code that everyone seems to be getting on? Why am I not part of it? Wordle really rides on FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to reel us in.  

Wordle meme
Another day, another Wordle meme

The game has since gotten so much fame that even our Prime Minister got in on it.

The ultimate UX lesson from Wordle: Usability will always triumph over a purely aesthetic design.

Wordle was designed as daily series of small, achievable accomplishments that don’t take up too much of your time. You get six attempts to guess one 5-letter word every day - nothing more, nothing less.

There’s nothing over the top about how it’s designed, yet it has captured the hearts of millions across the globe, including myself & Li Ying. It’s truly fascinating how something so simple could be a beacon of joy for so many around the world. This goes on to underscore that it’s more important to focus on function first before form.

As we cross the two-year mark since the pandemic, we are still grappling with country shutdowns and lockdowns as new coronavirus variants continue to surface. Though we’re not sure how the big purchase from The New York Times will change this, we hope that Wordle continues to allow us to take a couple of minutes to temporarily escape from our realities.

The simplicity and security of Wordle create a much-needed comforting rhythm to our lives.  

This article is part two of a 2-part series to unpack Wordle using UX principles. To read part 1, head over here to find out why UX matters to game design.