Are you human? Or are you “user”? Username, user testing, user-centric, user experience, user persona, user interface: What have you come to picture when you hear the word “user”? An anonymous silhouette, a wide-eyed individual focused on their device? Maybe someone similar to yourself, within a certain demographic, with similar pain points or preferences?
But do you truly empathise with them as a fellow human being? Do you consider the neurological laws that drive them – their human nature? The word “human” naturally evokes a sense of empathy considerably deeper than the word “user”. As such, it could be a starting point to turning a revenue-driven business problem into a human-centred design problem.
Endless articles discuss how technology is impacting human behaviour. But how can human behaviour impact technology? Suppose we lean into motivation psychology, for example. We can build products designed to naturally and instinctively motivate humans to use them.
“Motivation psychology is a study of how biological, psychological, and environmental variables contribute to motivation.” Beata Souders, PsyD candidate
If you give a child sweets for doing their homework, they won’t look back and think their work was interesting or that maybe they learned something new or enjoyed applying a particular skill to do so. Instead, they’ll begin to associate homework with rewards and struggle to justify doing their homework in future without them. Then, when the sweets no longer satisfy them, they’ll quickly become demotivated.
This happens because of cognitive dissonance, a term describing “the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values or attitudes”. Kendra Cherry, MS
We can see that even if a product is interesting and engaging, using rewards as a sole motivator is risky. So how do we cultivate motivation instead?
We need instant feedback to help associate activities with achievements. For example, regular exercise may eventually lead to losing some weight, but there is a gap in time between a gym session and seeing the results. This is why improving our health is so difficult. The benefit of losing weight alone isn’t quite enough motivation because there’s no instant result from exercise.
The Polar Flow app, like many other fitness apps, rewards people for reaching their Daily Activity Goal with an instant celebratory update and status for the day. The instant feedback can massively improve motivation: although people don’t see any physical changes in their bodies that day, they can see a meaningful number representing the achievement of their goals.
However, missing a couple of days is inevitable and will lead them to feel bad for not achieving that daily goal. The danger is that once their motivation moves from the feel-good effect of doing exercise to the rush of achieving a daily activity goal, they’ll be more inclined to stop exercising, just like the children who grew tired of sweets. Humans easily lose sight of the bigger picture this way.
Loss aversion is another cognitive bias where humans psychologically perceive the hurt of losing twice as strongly as the satisfaction of gaining, and myopic loss aversion relates to our short-sighted nature. Consider someone trading shares, for example: seeing the share price daily will result in far more losses than seeing the share price every few months when it has levelled out.
The same might apply to someone’s fitness journey if they’re trying to lose weight. Factors such as water fluctuations and even the time of day can affect our precise body weight on a day-to-day basis. This could lead to unnecessary disappointment and demotivation, whereas a weekly or even monthly weigh-in is a far more accurate measure of progress.
So, though instant feedback is essential, constant or continuous feedback is also risky.
The Polar Flow app incorporates another component called Cardio Load Status, a more long-term progress measure of your overall cardio health and fitness, which curbs potential loss aversion. Even if a person misses multiple days of Daily Activity Goals, they’ll still maintain a positive Cardio Load Status, which serves as a backup motivator.
This is a multiple feedback loop strategy. Overlapping progress paths allow someone to miss one goal while another is still attainable or maintainable.
Extrinsic motivators such as rewards, praise, money or fame can become addictive, harmful to our health, or detrimental to achieving multiple goals.
Our intrinsic motivators – self-actualisation, esteem needs, and love and belonging (the three items at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs) – can keep us happily working towards our goals without damaging effects.
Presently, a simple journal app, keeps its audience naturally motivated to journal regularly by checking these four boxes.
At the time of writing, Presently has a 4.9 rating on Android Play Store and countless reviews stating improved motivation for journalling – and that’s without rewards or other extrinsic motivators.
The purpose of the app is heavy in meaning – to centre your day around positivity, reflect on joyful moments and celebrate the richness of your daily life. The visuals offer autonomy – the UI is customisable with more than 30 different themes and colour schemes. Other unique settings like your timeline entry length, date styles, and whether or not you want to see inspirational quotes, add to this.
The home screen creates a sense of mastery – it lists all entries chronologically, over time building a long list of gratitudes. This is highlighted with instant feedback on random (not constant) increments, eg 25 days of gratitude. Users can feel they’re accomplishing their desire to journal more often, without the dreaded loss aversion on days that they don’t. Journal entries are also shareable in a lovely social post format – introducing a simple sense of community.
These examples illustrate how motivation psychology may help product owners, designers and developers dig deeper than user personas and utilise human-centred design to build products inspired by human nature.
Imagine how other cognitive theories might help us build more persuasive, habit-forming products designed to promote human productivity in an enjoyable way.