The psychology of motivation and engaging user experience

As product designers and user experience professionals, how do we truly create

“Games” are more than just a good time.  Games sparks creativity, motivate us to engage in our surroundings, learn new things, and help us overlook the difficulties along the path to accomplishing a goal.  The need to play is an innate human desire.  We want to play, we want to compete and win.

Your Brain + Dopamine = Motivation

Sweet, sweet dopamine!

“In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine systems, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior.(1)”

It’s almost too simple, our bodies release dopamine when we experience pleasure.  The chemical helps us regulate behavior and figure out how to get more of a good thing.  What’s even more interesting?  Once we experience pleasure and a surge of dopamine, our brains can experience the pleasure in anticipation of an experience! From a survival perspective, this helps humans recognize and anticipate that something good is nearby.

Our brains use this magical chemical as a motivator.  The more goals you achieve, challenges you win, relationships you build, the more dopamine splashes you get and it’s easier for your brain to begin forming habits.

Implications for creating engaging and “sticky” user experiences

Using game mechanics, game elements, and letting users achieve small goals, good product designers can create experiences that utilize this dopamine driven motivation to walk target personas through determined “happy paths” in the experience.  By stringing together small goals and understanding human motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic), you can create more engaging experiences for your users and increase the overall “stickiness factor” of your products.

Notice how I mentioned you need basic understanding of where motivation originates.  Scientific America sheds some more like on some key aspects of motivation:

  • Autonomy: “Whether you pursue an activity for its own sake or because external forces compel you, psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan of the University of Rochester argue that you gain motivation when you feel in charge. In evaluations of students, athletes and employees, the researchers have found that the perception of autonomy predicts the energy with which individuals pursue a goal.” (2)
  • Value: You are more likely to be motivated if you actually care about or value the subject.  If you think a goal or achievement is of worth, then you are much more likely to achieve it.
  • Competence: The more familiar you get with something, the more you will probably want to continue doing it.  Also, the more you attribute something to hardwork vs. innate ability the more likely you are to keep trying to master it.  “Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has shown that competence comes from recognizing the basis of accomplishment. In numerous studies, she has found that those who credit innate talents rather than hard work give up more easily when facing a novel challenge because they assume it exceeds their ability. Believing that effort fosters excellence can inspire you to keep learning.”

Pulling everything together with games

  • Games
    • “A game is a closed, formal system that engages players in a structured conflict, and resolves in an unequal outcome.” – Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain and Steven Hoffman
    • A game is a series of meaningful choices.” -Sid Meier
    • “A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.” – Jesse Schell
    • Games must have “voluntariness”
      • Games are voluntarily overcoming unnecessary obstacles.
      • Users have to think the choices are meaningful.
      • You cannot be forced to play if it’s a game.
    • Games involve learning and problem solving, if not, they are just play.  At some level there has to be a challenge.  Games have structure and objectives.
    • Games balance of structure and exploration.  Too much of one and game isn’t fun because choices are too limited and too much of another the game has no purpose, they are just wandering around.
    • Games can help separate the work someone does from the work they think they are doing.

To tie all the points set out in this article together, I’d like to give an example of practical product design.  First, I have underlined a few key points throughout the article:

  • our brains can experience the pleasure in anticipation of an experience
  • stringing together small goals
  • understanding human motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic)
  • you need basic understanding of where motivation originates (autonomy, value, competence)
  • those who credit innate talents rather than hard work give up more easily when facing a novel challenge
  • A game is a series of meaningful choices
  • Games have structure and objectives
  • Games can help separate the work someone does from the work they think they are doing

You can quickly see a pattern arise that, as a product designer, can help you begin shaping a targeted user experience.  For example, lets say we are doing research on how to make a health and fitness website software product increase user engagement as well as genuinely help users improve their health and change their lives.  The research would point us towards creating an experience that included the following:

  • Product aspects and assumptions:
    • users wants to make a change in their lives (Value)
    • provide freedom in selecting their goals and exploring the experience (Autonomy)
    • help users easily understand the experience. (Competence)
    • display every day peoples before/after examples and stories to help users feel they are capable of mastering the experience or achieving their goal and it’s not just “genetics” (Competence)
    • after the desires of the user are captured, set out a series of small goals broken into longer term objectives.
    • provide a point/coin/achievement/leaderboard system that establishes a structure and implications for progression and help them measure the work/workouts they are doing from what they think they are doing

From research and organization of these thoughts you can quickly see how the skeleton of an experience are forming.  To fully develop this structure you would want to establish specific personas and goals of users visiting the site.  But once you have the skeleton, you are simply adding pieces to the puzzle.

The big picture

If you want to be a rockstar product designer working with a client or inside a company you don’t stop at just building one user experience.  You should be cognizant of how the systems you are building can be applied across all the aspects of the product ecosystem within your company.  If there is an e-commerce aspect to your company, you should be thinking of how you can use these motivational principles and games to tie in loyalty programs and increase customer retention and overall revenue growth. Example: allow users to earn coins AND points as they achieve goals or take actions.  This way, users don’t just stick around for the simple reputation motivation or encouragement of a community but users are actually provided something of value and are more likely to spend in your site than others because they have something of monetary value tied to their account.

All that being said, hopefully I’ve motivated you to really think of psychology and it’s implications the next time you dive into creating engaging user experiences.  It really can make all the difference in creating engaging experiences that are sticky, enjoyable, and increase customer retention.  I look forward to your comments below!

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dopamine

(2) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/three-critical-elements-sustain-motivation/

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