It’s not too hard to understand why motivation matters so much when it comes to driving adoption and engagement with your product. After all, we humans are by nature resistant to change. And we need sufficient motivation to overcome that resistance in order to commit -- and then continue to recommit -- to breaking our usual routine. 

Elsewhere we’ve discussed the three crucial psychological factors that must be present in order to encourage and sustain a behavioral change: first and foremost, you need motivation to perform an action, then the ability to perform an action, and finally a trigger to initiate the action. And this triad must be in play in order for any desired change in behavior to be successful and sustainable. That applies to your new workout regime, healthy diet, hobby .. and yes, engagement with your product.

With that in mind, maybe by now you’re thinking that a great way to boost and sustain your users’ necessary motivation would be through reinforcements and rewards. And … you’re kind of right. It’s true that an already-motivated user is most receptive to techniques that will  foster engagement and avid usage. But if your goal is to foster long-term engagement, then you must understand the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and proceed accordingly with targeted reinforcements and rewards.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Very simply put, intrinsic motivation is intrinsically tied to a given behavior or activity. On the flip side, extrinsic motivation is, as you’d expect, extrinsic -- or external -- to the behavior or activity. To break that down a bit further, that means that those who are intrinsically motivated will engage in a behavior that is inherently valuable to them. In other words, the activity itself is its own reward. Those who are extrinsically motivated seek more tangible rewards. According to a post about motivation on the Lithium blog, there are four main characteristics of intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy: People have the feeling that they are in control of how and to what level they want to engage in an activity. In short: “I did this.”
  • Mastery: This relates to competence or the progress people are able to make. In short, they perceive that they can get better at the activity and accomplish their goals
  • Relatedness: People can relate to others who are also doing the activity, and in so doing create a sense of their own unique identity as it relates to the activity
  • Purpose: People recognize the importance and meaning of the activity; in short, they perceive value

These characteristics are very relevant to adoption-driven product design, which we’ll discuss in more detail later on.

Extrinsic motivation, by contrast, is fueled by considerations that are not an inherent part of the activity. Gamification theory -- the theory of how to optimize apps to keep people engaged (and often hooked) -- is all about reward-fueled motivation, but it generally focuses on purely extrinsic motivators to keep people interested. The four main types of rewards that speak to extrinsic motivation are those that involve status (achieving a high level in a game, for example), access (to exclusive rewards or privileges), power (being granted decision making power that others don’t have), and “stuff” (tangible rewards, money, etc).

And while these external rewards can keep users interested for awhile, the trouble is, if you’re going for long-term behavior change, rewards that speak purely to extrinsic motivation aren’t that effective. All that “stuff” can’t really sustain interest forever, and before you know it the user will be on to the next thing. Essentially, giving your users what amounts to gold stars won’t foster intrinsic motivation, and in turn keep them engaged throughout the adoption cycle.

That said, extrinsic motivators can be a good first step, as long as there's value beyond that initial reward. The occasional carrot in the form of a free delivery credit from a service like Instacart might play to your extrinsic motivation enough to jump on that money saving reward, for instance. And if your experience is consistently great, you might start to notice (and love) all that extra time you have on your hands now that you aren't spending it shopping. And then your intrinsic motivation to take advantage of the delivery service — and enjoy that free time —  will grow organically because of the value you've enjoyed.  But if your delivery is wrong or late every time, the fact that it's free won't be enough to sustain your motivation to use it — and you'll move on.

Rewards that drive intrinsic motivation reinforce a feeling that originates from the task or behavior itself -- something that’s done for the satisfaction of having accomplished something. Now, you may be wondering how on earth you can provide rewards in your product that speak to this kind of motivation. Well, keep in mind that you aren’t giving your users gamification style “stuff.” What you should be doing is fostering and feeding intrinsic motivation by reminding them of all the internal (i.e., non-stuff) value they’re deriving by using your product. Do it right, and you’ll help your users feel good about themselves and their accomplishments — and by association, your product.

And speaking of good feelings ... let’s talk about dopamine.

Good Vibrations

Very simply put, dopamine is a gift your brain makes just for you. It gives you a little chemical boost when you do rewarding things. In a work context, you might get a jolt of dopamine when you do non-work activities like check your Facebook or Instagram. Now that sounds like bad news if you’re trying to keep people motivated to stay in your app. How are you supposed to fight the brain’s natural desire to reward itself by -- let’s be blunt -- slacking off at work?

It’s not as difficult as you think, if you understand how to hack the brain’s dopamine. No, it isn’t mind control, and it’s not insidious -- it’s science!

According to an article in Lifehacker:

The brain can be trained to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. You create the dopamine environment, and the brain does the rest. One way to achieve this is by setting incremental goals, according to neurologist Judy Willis. In essence, what you are doing is rewiring the brain to attach a dopamine response to the task you want as a reward. Allow yourself to experience frequent positive feedback as you progress through a series of goals. Dopamine will flow as a result of your brain's positive reinforcement every time you complete a step and meet a challenge.

Remember those progress markers we told you about? They’re those user-defined successes, or “yay” moments, that happen in succession as users interact with your product and accomplish their goals. And neurologically, they're just like those incremental goals the neurologist describes. So it follows that you could help foster your users’ intrinsic motivation by reinforcing those incremental “yay” moments with a targeted use of reinforcements and rewards. In other words, you can create a dopamine response through incremental positive feedback that's tied to successes.

Fostering Intrinsic Motivation Through Adoption-Driven Design

As we’ve established, fostering intrinsic motivation -- an internal drive and desire for accomplishment as its own reward -- is more effective and sustainable than extrinsic motivation, which only focuses on external rewards that will eventually lose their novelty. And motivated users are generally the most open to techniques that will push them towards engagement and avid use.

To be effective, reinforcements and rewards that boost and sustain intrinsic motivation -- and provide that little zing of dopamine -- must be tied to value and the progress (“yay” moments) users are making in achieving their goals.

Remember the four characteristics of intrinsic motivation we discussed earlier? They can serve as a guide to help you keep your users intrinsically motivated through adoption-driven design:

  • Increase your users’ sense of mastery by showing them the skills they’ve gained and progress they’ve made as a result of using your product. Microcopy can be a  great tool: “You’ve increased your speed at X task by 52% in the last two weeks. Great job!” Data visualization can help users see the value they've derived at a glance. We talk about it in more detail here.
  • Help your users increase their sense of autonomy. Reinforce that innate sense of pride that they are responsible for their accomplishments-- with a little help from your product, of course. Friction should be removed, but they shouldn’t feel as if you did all the work for them. Use microcopy and data visualization to highlight their part in their own success.
  • Help create a strong sense of identity that’s tied to your product. Reinforce your users' new, positive, get-it-done work persona that your product has helped them achieve through microcopy: "Thanks to your hard work accomplishing X, Y, and Z, you've become a ninja-level sales rep!"
  • Show them the value of the future benefits they will enjoy as they increase mastery. As you emphasize future benefits, employ hot triggers -- ones that allow for immediate action -- to take them to the next steps in their progress and push them towards avid usage.

These types of rewards and reinforcements should happen early and often. You should be able to reinforce some newfound mastery, autonomy, sense of identity, and/or value as early as onboarding. Then continue to foster intrinsic motivation through adoption-driven design as they hit each progress marker. These techniques help create a positive loop that continually drives the user’s rate of progress, intrinsic motivation, engagement, and avid usage.