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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.

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)

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