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3 min read

How Wordle's genius game design helped it go viral

Game design psychology keeps Wordle players coming back for more, according to a UX and cognitive psychology expert.

The Wordle interface over a gradient background.

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If time is measured by digital trends and pop culture eras–Animal Crossing, Cottagecore TikTok, Tiger King et al.–then, as one Twitter user wrote, “Wordle is the sourdough starter of Omicron.”

The simple web-based puzzle game, developed by software engineer Josh Wardle, gives players six attempts to guess a five-letter word once a day. It’s ad-free, doesn’t require an app to download, and people LOVE it. The Guardian reports that the game went from just 90 daily players in November to 300,000 at the beginning of January, to 2 million by the beginning of February. It’s become so popular that the New York Times just purchased it for an undisclosed sum in “the low-seven figures," and it’s spawned a variety of spinoff versions, like Taylordle, the Wordle for Taylor Swift fans.

So what is it about Wordle that sets it apart from all the other online games out there? The key is in the simplicity of its design. Since Wardle built it originally just for his partner to play, “the initial design ignored a lot of the growth-hacking features that are virtually expected of games in the current era,” the Times reports of Wordle’s meteoric rise to fame and of its romantic origin story. There are no push notifications telling you to return throughout the day to play more; no freemium features that are unlocked through paid subscriptions.

Wordle’s user interface consists of a sparse black background and minimalist grid of squares. It intentionally lacks the typical flashing banner ads or paywall pop-ups that we’re used to encountering online, and that’s a big part of its appeal. Danielle Green, an instructor in the Division of Behavioral & Organizational Sciences at Claremont Graduate University, says the success of the game could be attributed to the psychology behind Wordle’s UX and UI. “From a cognitive perspective, puzzle games are always riding that line between fun and frustrating,” Green says. “Having a simple UI with a low barrier to entry and a shallow learning curve means that your brain gets to spend its effort on the task at hand; which is the actual game, rather than figuring out the UI. People have really responded to this approachability,” she explains.

A screenshot of a completed Wordle interface below a pop-up window that indicates the user's score and statistics.
Screenshot: New York Times.

Green says there are also several motivation-related elements built into the user experience. The game’s use of colored tiles—indicating when the letter is correct and/or in the correct position—creates clear feedback loops of encouragement, and the daily nature of the game, along with its “winning streak” stats, keep people coming back for more. But because it only releases one word a day, it doesn’t produce the same compulsive game play that the Candy Crushes and Angry Birds of the past elicited in users. And the fact that it only demands a few moments of your day that engages your mind and intellect makes it a guilt-free screen time activity according to Green.

The game’s use of colored tiles creates feedback loops of encouragement, and the daily nature of the game, along with its “winning streak” stats, keep people coming back for more.

Beyond the simplicity of the UI, Green says that the secret sauce to Wordle’s popularity is the social aspect and the shareability of the game. Because each day’s puzzle is the same word for everyone, it has inspired friendly competition among users who share their results in a spoiler-free way by posting cryptic green, yellow, and black wordless grids of their strategy for others to view. (Time will tell if that continues after Wordle's recent purchase by the New York Times.) “Making it the same word for everyone was a stroke of genius,” Green says. “Bringing people together, especially during a time when a lot of people have fewer community engagements, allows us to connect more with each other digitally through this playful shared experience.”

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