Product Design analysis of Yelp

Octalysis is a Gamification framework. I use it to analyze products or services and to design for human motivation throughout a system (Human-Focused Design). You can learn more about Octalysis here.

In this post, I’ll conduct a Level 1 Analysis of Yelp.

Note: I will reference the 8 Core Drives throughout this post. You can use the below as a reference guide:


Above is the first screen when I open the app.

You’ll immediately notice the Desired Action: Invite Friends to give and get $5. This Desired Action is wisely utilizing CD4 + CD5 to get me to click.

There are an additional 2 calls to action that are less prominent:

  1. Order Pickup or Delivery: utilizes CD7 by using the word “NEW” to make me curious enough to click
  2. Activity: utilizes CD2 + CD7 by making me want to clean my inbox and getting me curious about what new updates I have

Let’s follow the main Desired Action by clicking on the “Invite Friends” button.

Yelp has created their own referral program (which has proven to work for many companies. Just check out the growth of Uber and Lyft which utilize a very similar tactic).

Idea to improve: after I invite a friend, Yelp could utilize CD2 + CD4 by displaying a list of pending and successful invites. In this way, I am driven by CD2 to complete all my pending invites and driven by CD4 to see how much money I can accumulate: “You have earned $20 so far!”

Check out how Betterment utilizes CD2 + CD4 in their referral program below:

As you can see from the image above, I can see information about the invites I sent:

  • Funded: invite was successful
  • Signed Up: invite signed up but did not yet fund their account (I can ping these people as they’re highly likely to complete the Desired Action of funding their account)
  • Invited: I can easily 1-click resend an invitation to these people

Let’s take a look at the message Yelp uses to encourage WOM invites

Yelp makes it very easy to invite my friends by pre-filling a message to my friends.

Idea to improve: Yelp could use a strong combination of CD5 and Black Hat techniques to improve invite conversions by modifying the copy to: “I just gave you $5 off your first delivery or pickup order on Yelp, good until Friday (1/13). Use it by Friday and I get $5 too.”

  • CD5: by utilizing CD5, the user feels like “we’re in this together”
  • Black Hat creates urgency:
    • CD6: giving a time limit creates a sense of urgency
    • CD8: people don’t want to lose money they’ve earned

Next let’s click on the “Activity” tab, which is a Sub CTA (sub call to action).

I feel that at the moment, Yelp has an identity crisis: is it a functional app to find the best restaurant right now, or is it a social app to share restaurants, tips, and pictures with friends?

Idea to improve: if a business objective is to improve the social aspects of Yelp, then I feel it’s important to experiment with changing the default home screen to a social feed.

Check out Venmo’s home screen below:

Venmo could have taken an approach similar to Yelp and made the default home screen very function focused: do you want to send or receive money?

But instead, Venmo took a risk and made the home screen a feed of transactions. This utilized CD3 + CD5 in a very clever way:

  • CD3: I want to write clever descriptions for each transaction
  • CD5: Wow, so many people are using Venmo. It must be a very useful app

Let’s take a look at my 10 notifications.

Wow, I haven’t checked my friend invites in over a year!

I use Yelp almost on a daily basis, so I’m definitely an active user; however, I’m left wondering: why should I have friends on Yelp?

Idea to improve: check out how much food there is on Instagram:

I have never uploaded a picture of food on Yelp, but I do it all the time on Instagram. Why is that?

  • CD2: I want to gain more followers and improve my stats
  • CD3: I want to get feedback for my pictures in the form of “Likes”; I want to show off my picture-taking abilities and where I’ve been around the world
  • CD4: I want a place to store all of my adventure and travel photos
  • CD5: my friends are following me on Instagram

I took the above picture at our favorite ice cream shop in Tokyo: Japanese Ice Ouca. If you take a look at the screenshot on the right, you’ll see that I’m not the only one taking these pictures: there have been over a thousand photos posted at the location.

How does this compare to the Yelp page for Japanese Ice Ouca?

Yelp is doing quite well in Japan. Japanese Ice Ouca has 25 reviews and over 100 photos on Yelp. Of course, compared to the 1,000 of photos on Instagram, Yelp could be doing a lot better.

Some immediate takeaways and questions:

  1. What percentage of Yelp users actively upload photos, write tips, and write reviews?
  2. What percentage of all photos, tips, and reviews are made by Yelp Elite?
    • I assume the 80/20 rule applies here: 20% of the users upload 80% of the content (and I would bet the percentages are more dramatic: 90/10)
  3. There is a big opportunity for Yelp to dramatically increase their pictures and reviews

Let’s end this analysis with the main functionality of Yelp: the search and discovery of restaurants.

The search and discovery functionality is definitely where Yelp shines.

  • CD2: I feel smart because I can immediately see the important information I need to make a decision about where to eat: is this place good (reviews)?; how far is it?; how expensive is it?
  • CD7: what new restaurants will I discover today?

Preliminary Octalysis Score

Yelp is definitely a robust app. This post has already hit 1,000+ words and I haven’t even gone into detailed analysis of check-ins, reviews, Yelp Elite, bookmarks, delivery, reservations, or even addressed that Yelp is a place to review and discover all types of businesses, not just restaurants.

With that in mind, it’s important to note that Octalysis Level 1 is meant to be a high-level analysis to quickly see a snapshot of the motivations driving user behavior:

  • CD1: As a user, I want to help the world discover the best food
    • How to improve: is there a way for Yelp to tell users: “You have helped 23 people discover delicious food!” In this way, a user really feels like they’re making a positive impact and their contributions make a difference.
      • Actually, after digging a bit more in the app (this is a very robust app) I discovered a section that gives me stats for “views of your reviews”, “views of your photos”, “views of your profile”. To improve, the wording can be changed to make me feel like I’m making a difference.
  • CD2:
    • As a user, I can use Yelp to make wise decisions about where I want to eat
    • As a user, I can improve my stats
      • How to improve: my stats are hidden on Yelp. On Instagram, I can get to my stats in 1 click (by clicking on the “profile” icon); in contrast, it takes me 2 clicks to get to my profile on Yelp.
  • CD3: As a user, I can add my reviews, tips, and pictures to get feedback in the form of comments and likes
  • CD4: As a user, the more I use Yelp to improve my stats and store my reviews and photos, the more likely I am to continue using Yelp
  • CD5: As a user, I want to know what my friends recommend
    • How to improve: I feel CD5 has a lot of room for improvement. Although there are clearly plenty of hardcore Yelp users, there are many casual users that aren’t uploading photos, leaving reviews, or connecting with friends.
  • CD6: As a user, I want to join the exclusive Yelp Elite community
    • How to improve: I had to Google “How to become a Yelp Elite” in order to figure out how to do it–there is no easy way on the app to apply or figure out if I qualify. There is an opportunity to utilize CD2 + CD6 to create a feedback mechanism where users see their progress towards becoming a Yelp Elite.
  • CD7: As a user, I want to discover new places to eat
  • CD8: I can’t quite Yelp because I would lose all of my photos and reviews

Final conclusions and recommendations for Yelp

First and foremost, Yelp is an incredibly robust app; this can be a double-edged sword:

  • It’s positive because a user doesn’t have to download a new app to use new features; everything is accessible when it is consolidated within 1 app
  • It’s negative because it can be difficult to discover new features or the user experience can become convoluted with too many Desired Actions (and too many buried Desired Actions)

Can Yelp take a page out of Facebook and build multiple apps that focus on a specific objective?

Check out all of the apps Facebook has:

  1. Facebook
  2. Messenger
  3. Facebook Pages Manager
  4. Moments
  5. Facebook Groups
  6. and 12 others

Check out all of the apps Yelp has:

  1. Yelp
  2. Eat24
  3. Yelp for Business Owners
  4. Eat24 for Restaurant Owners
  5. and 2 others

Further customer development and data analysis is required to make a decision on what types of apps to test.


If you’re interested in learning more about Octalysis, then join us at the 21-day Gamification Course. See you there!

Published by

Jun Loayza

Jun Loayza is the Chief Growth Officer at Bunny Inc. In his startup experience, he has sold 2 technology companies and raised $1M in angel funding. Jun lives in San Francisco, CA with his wife Kim.