I work in digital health, and have a subspecialty in mental health, and specifically around substance abuse.

So for me, it's really vital to understand motivation, and how to get users to make very difficult changes in their lives. And I want to share with you the knowledge that I've gained through doing that, to apply it more broadly to all products.

My intention is for you to walk away with some more tools to evaluate feature ideas that may come up on your team and get a better intuitive sense of which things are likely to lead to long term sustained retention and long term behaviour change from a part of your users.

Motivation: where does it come from?

One of the reasons that this is so important is because our cultural intuitions about motivation are pretty off. The way our society is structured has given us some ideas about how people are motivated, which end up not actually bearing out in the research and what we see in the real world. So both in schooling and also in our careers, things are set up to be very extrinsically motivating, which means we're given a goal that we work towards. And the goal is something that we need very badly versus making systems where enjoying the process is the important part. And that's a more intrinsically motivating way to think about things.

Because our society is set up with that more extrinsic focus, we sort of start to believe that is human nature, that humans must be most motivated by extrinsic rewards, because that's what we see around us. Especially those of us who have been very successful in school or in our careers, doubly think that because we can think of examples in our own lives, where it's like, oh, I had that extrinsic reward and then that's how we managed to do this thing. So that has trained our intuition in a way that is inaccurate. That makes us worse at evaluating feature ideas, and their ability to create the effects that we want.

So I want to help you rethink how motivation works, so that your product can work for the majority of users rather than a small subset. The key to understanding that is this difference between extrinsic incentives and intrinsic incentives.

As we're thinking about how things are currently set up in society, one really great example of something that we all did, and probably all worked for us that was very extrinsic, was being given pizza for reading 40 books. Because we all had that experience, we definitely read those books and got that pizza. That taught us that this extrinsic reward structure must work. There's a lot of examples like that in our society, that have trained us to have that expectation.

Pizza as a reward for reading books

Extrinsic vs intrinsic

But the interesting thing is, think about who thrives within that extrinsic structure. And the people who thrive within that extrinsic structure are people who are very good at figuring out why that task is meaningful to them, and what the intrinsic reward is for them.

I think most of us are fairly good at that. If we think about our jobs, we have our job and our career, because we need money for all of the things in life like housing, food, health care, that's important to us. If we didn't have a job, we wouldn't have those things that we really need. So that is inherently extrinsic, inherently coercive, and we have this job because we need that to survive. But we have found jobs and careers that we find very interesting, and that are intrinsically motivating to us.

So every day when we show up to work, we're not thinking about, oh, I need the amount of money that one day of work gets me and that's why I'm showing up today. We're showing up because we're really bought into the project. We really love lots of aspects of our job, even if it's stressful, even if there's things we don't like about it, we're very committed to our careers and take a lot of joy out of the things that we do every day. That's why we're showing up every day, we're not really showing up for that pay-check.

Making better products

So we have all figured out our own intrinsic reason to be at this job. That's why we can enjoy it. That's why we feel pretty motivated in our job. But we don't want to make our users do all of that work. That's a really important aspect, we could just hold out for users who are really good at doing that work. That's going to be a small fraction of the population. But we generally want to affect as many people as possible. That's why we want to do that work for them. How do we make our products intrinsically motivating to our users so that we're hitting more people?

One other reason that our intuitions are a little off on this is because of the gamification movement that came around in the early teens. We were told that gamification is the way to increase user retention engagement, and it's a panacea to solve all problems. And it does work in specific places. When I'm talking about classic gamification, I'm talking about things like having points, badges, rewards, those types of features that people sort of tacked on to their product at that time. A lot of fitness apps were like that, if you ever used a fitness app around 2012, you would have experienced this.

This can work really well for people who are already doing a task and want to really optimise their performance. Someone who is walking 5000 steps a day and wants to really get those 10,000 steps in there, just help them push. Push them a little bit to something that they're already feeling fairly comfortable about, and they're already doing, and just optimise that performance for them.

So it can be helpful for that group of people. But again, that's a smaller group of people. And for me, in my career, it's much more interesting to understand what gets people off the couch and walking around the block that first time. How do you get people who are not identified as being good at that thing, interested and engaged in it for the first time? That's where I've focused my career.

Changing user mindsets

The one thing that's useful for all of us to do is to think about an example in our minds of a behaviour that we want to change in our lives. So think about something that you've thought for a long time that you should do that you're not doing. And this isn't something like going from doing 5k to doing a marathon. Assuming those are different things, I have no idea because I do not run. But those things that you haven't engaged with at all. For me, it would be stopping eating sugar. Sugar is something that I rely on a lot in my life. It's very important to me. So stopping eating sugar is, for me, one of them. Exercising more could be one, using cloth towels instead of paper towels, all those kinds of things. So just have that in your mind of what your 'should' is.

When we as an industry have thought about how to get people to do things, the thing that we've been very good at understanding and developing is friction reduction. When we think about people doing an activity, we think about the amount of friction it takes to do the activity, the amount of motivation it takes and if there is less friction than there is motivation, then someone will do it. But we've only focused as an industry on half of that problem; reducing friction.

What I want us to move towards as an industry is now focusing on increasing motivation. The other half of that piece. How do we increase motivation? With my sugar example, I can reduce the friction by making sure there's no cookies in my house. That's how I can reduce the friction. But I can still walk to the store if I want them badly enough. So we need to get that last piece. Friction reduction can be part of the way there and now I want to skip the rest of the way there through increasing the motivation as well.

It’s a great question, how then do you increase motivation? Because that is not something we spent a lot of time as an industry on. One of the theories that I like to look at when thinking about this is the theory of planned behaviour. This is a theory that explains why people choose to engage in a behaviour that's different than what they're doing currently.

Theory of planned behaviour

There's three pieces of the theory of planned behaviour. If you have all of these pieces, the theory is that then you engage in the behaviour. Those pieces are; your personal attitude towards a behaviour needs to be positive. Do you think it's a good thing to do? The second one is; do you think your friends and neighbours think it's a good thing to do? Do you think that they're doing it, or are you going to be a weirdo for doing this thing? There's this social normative aspect of the behaviour. The third thing is your belief in your own ability to accomplish this behaviour. So how much self confidence do you have on this behaviour, how much self efficacy you have around this behaviour?

When I see people doing campaigns to change people's behaviours, what I often see is people giving more information to people. Now, think about your behaviour and think about whether there's any more information I could give you to convince you that this behaviour is a good idea. For me, sugar, I know it's a bad idea, I am very worried about how sugar increases my risk for all of these horrifying diseases that people get in their later years. I am pretty sold on the fact that eating sugar is very bad for me, there's no more information I need on that. I'm even pretty convinced that a lot of people I know are keto and also on this bandwagon of trying to lower sugar.

Extra large American Cola is full of sugar

So those are the two things that you could affect in an informational campaign. You could let me know that this behaviour is good. You can let me know that everyone around me thinks this is good. But that still hasn't changed my behaviour. I'm still doing this. And that's really interesting. Nothing you could tell me is going to change this at all.

So what is missing? What's missing is that self efficacy piece. Do I believe I am the type of person who can do this? Do I have confidence that I can do this with my willpower, all of these things? So then, for us as product people, the next question is, well how do you build self efficacy? One of the main pieces in building self efficacy, is giving people permission to fail. Because one of the things about self efficacy is that we have a lot of beliefs about ourselves that are confronted when we try and make a behaviour change.

If we think about getting a raise, you really are tying that raise to your performance. So if I don't get that raise, it means I am bad at my job, my boss doesn't like me, people don't appreciate me, it means all of these things about me as a person. So failing to get that raise is not an option, regardless of even the monetary value of the raise but because it so closely reflects on my value, that's going to make failing not an option.

Turning failure into a process

So we have to create a system where failing becomes interesting data, rather than a horrible failure, or rather than something is going to be punished or rather than something that's going to reflect on my ego and who I think I am as a person. This is why games are really interesting. Because games have created a system that would be completely boring if you were 100% successful at them. If the first time you played a game you played it perfectly all the way through, I guarantee you're not going to play the next game in that series, right? That would be so boring.

That's because there's nothing to learn, because games are all about failing, and learning from your failure, and being able to apply that learning to the next time. And this is because games make that failing, interesting. Failing in a game is an interesting piece of data. And you can then learn from that and try something else differently.

So it doesn't reflect on your ability to play a game if you don't do it perfectly all the way through, because that's just not an expectation you have in a game system. And the thing that really helps support that is that feedback, and how to make that failure interesting to people. Rather than making that failure feel bad to people. It's one of the reasons that games have moved away from this idea of perma-death, which is if you fail at a level, you have to start the whole game over again. Because people were finding that too gruelling, and not very interesting and overly punitive. So even games have had to learn how to work on making failure more and more interesting for people.

Creating good feedback systems

The best book for all of you to read is called Glued to Games by Scott Rigby. He goes into a lot of detail on how to build really robust feedback systems. And it doesn't matter whether or not you're making games, whether or not you intend to gamify your product, really understanding how to design a good feedback system.

I'm going to go over it very briefly but his whole book is about this and goes in a lot of detail. Super recommend checking that out. So Scott Rigby uses self determination theory as a basis for understanding feedback. And he suggests that for your users to be maximally interested in the feedback, there are three different areas that you give them feedback around.

One, is you're giving them feedback on their competency. Competencies are what we would normally think about as feedback, sort of how well you're doing. How much time did you take? How many points did you get? All of that is competency feedback, that's a pretty straightforward thing we think about when we think about feedback.

The second one is autonomy. And this one's a little trickier to understand. So autonomy feedback is, how much of an effect do I have over the system? How much do my actions change the world around me? So a really great real life example of amazing autonomy feedback, is pushing over a box of cereal and spilling it all over the place. That is super fun, because you get a lot of feedback around how your small action created a big meaningful result. That's why that type of thing has an element to it, that's very compelling.

Then the third one is relatedness. This is about how connected you feel to other people. As an industry, we pretty much have this down. Because we know that a great hack for retention in our products is just making it social. Just throw in some social stuff and that's going to just improve the experience dramatically for people. And that's because one element of that feedback system is how close I feel to other people and how I feel like I'm connecting to other people.

Facebook and Instagram arcade

Gamification and motivation

So those are the three areas that you really want to make sure you're getting robust feedback in. I'm going to give an example of a product that we don't think about traditionally as gamified but that has applied to these underlying principles to why games are effective into their product. Posting on Facebook is the example I'm going to use.

So I make a post on Facebook, I throw it out there. Then I get likes. Likes are a great metric to tell me how well I'm connecting with my audience, whether my audience is a professional audience, or whether it's my friends and family, whichever one of those I care about. I get feedback on whether or not they liked it, how well I'm doing at connecting with them through that like button. It's very quantitative, measurable. Then I can try out different things and see which things get more likes. That's how I can learn to better connect with the people I care about.

Another aspect of posting is that autonomy feedback. So I have created this tiny little post that is like a little window into my world. I have thrown it onto Facebook,  hundreds of people see it in their newsfeed. I have done a little action, and it's really affected the system. That's amazing that I can be a content creator. That any little idea I have, can get seen by hundreds of people. That's really compelling.

The third aspect of posting on Facebook is their relatedness. This relatedness primarily is coming in the comments, because that's a much more qualitative feeling of being connected to people. I get to know more about how they're responding and why.

So that's a system within Facebook, that is very compelling. If we took a minute and decided to redesign Facebook, from scratch, using the more coercive mechanisms, and the more extrinsic mechanisms of the classic gamification movement. Let's see, as a product manager at Facebook, I'm like okay, the thing that we've noticed is people are most successful in our system if we have them post three times a day, so we really want people to post three times a day. So we're gonna give them 10 points every time they post, and I'm gonna give them streaks for any day that they post three times or above, we're gonna have a dashboard and they’re going to see all that.

If we think through what that experience would feel like, those points are meaningless, they're not connected to anything we care about. I can't get better at something, I can just do it more. So I'm not getting anything interesting out of knowing that I got points for it. And the streaks, once I break my streak, that's gonna feel awful. It's like, okay, I did this, I was really invested in this and then I lost it. That's one reason that people often rage quit, is that feeling of loss when they've really invested in something, and the only thing that they got out of it has disappeared.

Gamify your products correctly for the best user experience

So we can see that if we just apply that sort of traditional gamified system, that extrinsic system, that's not going to be as compelling and we're probably not going to be using Facebook for as long as we do nowadays. So I want you to think about that when you're thinking about your products. Are you creating the intrinsic reason? Are you making it interesting for people to be in the system? Are they learning anything? Can they be getting better at something? Or are you just trying to reward them for doing the behaviours you want or trying to coerce them another way?

So those are really the things to be thinking about. How do you make something intrinsically motivating for your users so that they really love your products and stick with them for a long time?

This article is adapted from a session with Heather Browning at the first Product-Led Festival