Increasing User Retention in Gyms thanks to the Octalysis Framework

If you are familiar with Gamification and the Octalysis Framework, you have probably come to a habit of applying it in your daily life to analyse games you play, or apps you use.  (If you are NOT familiar with the Octalysis Framework, I will be speaking gibberish to you in this whole article, but you can catch up on the concept right here).

At the Octalysis Group, we have built up a track record of applying Octalysis to ensure high ROI engaging products for our clients, but did you know you can use our framework to analyse any experience? Even your interpersonal relationships or your hobbies! (Why you like cooking; Why you adopted a dog…) To prove my point, let me tell you why I got into bouldering and why I stuck with it. It is my personal story, but it has some valuable insights for everybody: What draws customers to a product or an experience? What helps create long term habits? How can gyms and health centres influence and strengthen customer motivation through Behavioural Design? Find out below!



Bouldering is a sport much like rock-climbing, except it happens on shorter walls (usually below 5 meters high) and without the need for belaying nor security harnesses. The terminology is also slightly different: instead of climbing “routes” as in traditional rock-climbing, boulderers climb short “problems” (because who doesn’t love problems as a hobby, right?).


Discovery Phase: What Motivates Users to Try Something Out?

You might be interested in bouldering for various reasons. I personally found out about bouldering when looking for a source of physical activity to take better care of my body and health (CD4 Ownership, CD8 Avoidance). I had already practiced rock-climbing before so I looked for rock-climbing gyms in Paris but could only find private clubs, in which signing up was extremely difficult (anti CD6 Scarcity). On top of that headache, I also have an ever-changing schedule, which would make finding a climbing partner to belay me difficult.

By looking thoroughly, I found two bouldering gyms. I could sign-up anytime within a few minutes (CD2 Accomplishment) — buying entrances either by the unit or by 10, or by subscribing to one of many available plans (CD3 Empowerment), with student prices and happy hour options (CD4 Ownership, CD6 Scarcity). Bouldering also requires less equipment than traditional rock-climbing, as you only need rock-climbing shoes, which you can rent in most gyms (CD2 Development). Finally, the opening hours are vast, and no climbing partner is needed, which would allow me to easily plan my sessions according to my schedule (CD2 Accomplishment).

So I grabbed comfy clothes and set off to the gym closest to my place!


Overall, Core Drive 2 Development and Accomplishment was the decisive factor that led me to try bouldering: everything was easy and smooth. By proposing entrances by the unit (or even free trial sessions) and allowing customers to rent otherwise expensive material, gyms like mine make it easier for new customers to climb the first step of the ladder and try out their facilities.


Onboarding Phase: Learning the Ropes.

Every new climber to the gym is welcomed by an employee who explains all safety rules in the climbing area as well as the 3 basic rules of bouldering (CD2 Accomplishment: Tutorial):

  • Start a problem by placing your hands and feet on the holds marked by a sticker.
  • Climb using only holds of the problem’s colour.
  • Complete a problem by holding the top hold with both hands for 3 seconds.

My gym doesn’t use the official grading system (AKA the Fontainebleau system, in Europe) for problem difficulty. Instead, there is a simple colour code: Yellow problems are the easiest, then green, blue, red and black increase in difficulty until you reach the hardest level: purple. This simplified system is easy to understand and is great for onboarding (CD2 Accomplishment).

After that speech, you go to the climbing area where you can start to climb easy (yellow) problems. After a few tries, you manage to complete your first problem: FIRST MAJOR WIN STATE!!  (CD2 Accomplishment). If you find that even the easiest problems are too hard, you are free to “cheat”. Many people will start problems improperly, or use holds of the wrong colour when they are stuck in their progression, or will call it a day if they manage to poke the top hold. These easy ways to transgress the rules allow rookies to feel their share of accomplishment from the very beginning of the experience and to regulate their level of challenge later on (CD2 Accomplishment and CD3 Empowerment).

As you go around the mats and wait for your turn to climb, you see others climbing and catch a glimpse of the community and positive mood that surrounds bouldering, as you cross many smiling faces and exchange encouraging cheers (CD5 Social Influence).

After this trial session, you are free to decide if you want to continue the activity, and possibly sign up for a plan or buy a pack of entries. This investment acts as a commitment to come back: it makes you feel ownership (Core Drive 4) towards this experience and thus increases its perceived value. Moreover, not coming back after purchasing a plan would feel like wasting money, you are thus caught in a “Sunk Cost Prison” (Core Drive 8 Loss and Avoidance).


In the onboarding experience, Core Drive 2 Development and Accomplishment is again a very strong motivation factor: new climbers feel smart and in control, with a fast access to their first win states. We can also note a shift towards intrinsic White Hat motivation as new climbers immediately get to enjoy the contact with other climbers (CD5 Social Influence) and are empowered to choose how they climb very early on (CD3 Empowerment). Early feelings of accomplishment are essential to any experience. By using a simplified difficulty system and providing a face-to-face speech to every newcomer, my gym ensures that their customers feel confident and smart from the very beginning. They also cultivate positive interactions between customers by hiring friendly staff and providing living spaces within the gym (bar, restaurant, couches and TV) that make it feel homey.


Scaffolding Phase: Building Habits.

After climbing a few times, you will start to recognise familiar faces in the gym and start conversations with other climbers to ask for advice (CD5 Social Influence). You will begin to feel part of this niche community (CD1 Meaning) and fully embrace the positive energy, openness and friendliness of the atmosphere (CD5 Social Influence).

Levelling up

Thanks to “cheating” possibilities stated above, you will be able to progress at your own rhythm throughout problem difficulties without getting frustrated or bored, staying in Csíkszentmihályi’s “Flow channel” (CD2 Accomplishment). The colour coding of problems increases the feeling of “levelling-up” when completing a problem of a colour you could not manage in the past (CD2 Accomplishment).

In addition to climbing harder and harder boulders, you will learn to develop your own style according to your level of fitness, flexibility and equilibrium, but also to your personality: favouring dynamic or static moves, choosing holds and ways to grip them… you will soon discover that there is a multitude of ways to climb even the most difficult problems (CD3 Empowerment). As the noun “problem” supposes, bouldering involves a lot of strategy and creativity, and not purely physical fitness.

Create urgency through Black Hat motivation

To guarantee variety, most bouldering gyms update their problems on a regular basis: Every few days a wall in the gym is completely rearranged to display new problems, meaning that no problem is available for more than a few weeks. As you build a habit of climbing on a regular basis, you will get used to the rotation of boulder problems, which will give you feelings of urgency (Core Drives 6, 7 and 8) to come back more often, making you less likely to skip sessions:

  • “I only have so much time to train on this challenging problem before they change it.” (CD6 Scarcity)
  • “Which wall did they change since my last session? What are the new challenges?” (CD7 Unpredictability)
  • “If I don’t go back this week I might not have time to master this problem that I’ve been working hard on.” (CD8 Avoidance)

Moreover, as you get fitter and more experienced, you will be pushed to climb regularly by the fear of losing your technical progress and physical fitness (CD8 Avoidance).


Overall, the Scaffolding experience is fairly balanced: There is a growing emphasis on intrinsic Core Drives (Cores Drives 3, 5 and 7) and White Hat Core Drives (Core Drives 1, 2 and 3), which means users feel good and in control, and are engaged long term. However, to guarantee feelings of urgency and avoid procrastination, Black Hat Core Drives (Core Drives 6, 7 and 8) are not completely left out by my gym, by ensuring the regular rotation of routes.


Endgame Phase: Retaining Veteran Users.

The Scaffolding phase in bouldering – as in any sports – is pretty long, as it takes a long time to master perfectly. When climbers do reach their top level, though, very few will drop out. Several core drives will still be triggered, keeping them deeply engaged.

First of all, there is a strong fear of losing hard-acquired skills (CD8 Avoidance) or to not use expensive technical material (CD4 Ownership).

Then, by this time, many of your close friends are likely to be climbers and you might have habits of training together or take frequent holidays to climb outdoors together, which will pressure you into continuing bouldering (CD5 Social Influence). You may be scared of losing these relationships by quitting bouldering (CD8 Avoidance).

Finally, climbers will find ever-harder challenges to set for themselves, be it within the gym or outside of it:

  • They can take part in competitions (CD2 Development and CD5 Social Influence): Bouldering competitions are widely spread and consists of solving a bouldering problem in a given time, without receiving any clues on how to climb it.
  • Climbers can set goals of climbing famously hard boulders or routes in the outdoors. Some of them train for months to achieve a specific problem (CD2 Development and CD6 Scarcity). Some might even have the goal of pioneering a wall that nobody has been able to climb before (CD1 Meaning).
  • Even when staying indoors, climbers will use never-ending creativity to create silly challenges with other climbers. These challenges might include climbing a boulder without their feet or without using certain holds, making really hard jumps between two distant holds, or climbing with one hand in their back (CD2 Development, CD3 Empowerment and CD5 Social Influence).

Overall, the endgame experience in bouldering stays extremely motivating. It actually is the phase where motivation is the strongest as well as the most balanced between Intrinsic / Extrinsic motivations and White Hat / Black Hat. Core Drive 5 Social Influence has taken the lead and is extremely strong, followed by Core Drives 2 Accomplishment, 3 Empowerment, and 8 Avoidance.


In conclusion, the experience that I described in this article is strongly influenced by the gym I go to. Indeed, this specific gym’s choices and policies influence several motivation factors:

  • The varied pricing system, wide opening hours, and material renting are all actions that strive to remove barriers for customers (CD2 Accomplishment) and help them make the first step.
  • Choosing a colour system over the Fontainebleau system increases Core Drive 2 Development and Accomplishment, and is particularly powerful both in onboarding (easy to understand) and scaffolding (highlights the sense of progression).
  • The frequent rotation pattern reinforces Black Hat Core Drives (Core Drive 6 Scarcity and Impatience, Core Drive 7 Unpredictability and Curiosity and Core Drive 8 Loss and Avoidance) that would otherwise be quite weak. This helps users create consistent habits of exercising by creating urgency to come back.
  • The ambient friendliness (Core Drive 5 Social Influence and Relatedness) is greatly increased by the gym’s staff and setup, which comprises of a bar, a restaurant and lounging areas, making it a perfect hangout spot before or after climbing sessions.

To further increase engagement in the Scaffolding and End-game phases, bouldering gyms can organise regular competitions or challenges to give a rhythm to the community, create gathering opportunities (CD 5 Social influence) and offer major Win-States to their customers (CD2 Accomplishment). Another good feature would be to let plan-holders invite outsider friends to climb with them for free. This would increase social proof and relatedness (CD5) in Discovery and Onboarding (for the invited friend) as well as in the Scaffolding or Endgame phase (for users acting as ambassadors/mentors). It would also remove a barrier to entry for the invited friend (CD2 Accomplishment) and make them feel lucky to benefit from this deal (CD6 Scarcity, CD5 Social Influence).


The implementation of features based on behavioural science and motivational psychology can go a long way in terms of user engagement. I hope this article can inspire gyms and health centres to use gamification and behavioural design to boost their clients’ experience, increasing motivation and creating sustainable exercising habits. 

If you want to know more about how the Octalysis Group can help you create engaging experiences for your customers and achieve high ROI, contact us at



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