Motivational Design: Make the Easy Choices the Good Choices

At Mad*Pow’s recent Financial Experience Design conference, I overheard a speaker say “people make easy choices, but not always good choices – like eating a chocolate croissant at a conference instead of going out to find fruit and yogurt.” She was referencing the challenge in motivational design.

It may sound insulting, but it’s also true. It’s a well known maxim in UX design that people don’t always do what they believe is best for them. For example, if you ask someone “would you go for a walk every day to improve your health?” they will say yes. But if you ask “how much did you exercise this week?” it’s often much less. They’re aware of the connection between exercise and health, but health is also not the only thing in their life. There are other priorities, and constraints that get in the way.

The problem – for many people – is that those constraints feel overwhelming. And so do our well meaning notifications. For example, an app that reminds you to run at 6:30am every morning is going to make you feel terrible when you need to sleep in – and worse as the days go by. It doesn’t motivate you.

But part of our work as UX practitioners is to help people make positive changes. How do we motivate people successfully?

Meet People Where They Are

Motivational design is tough. It’s not enough to say “good job!” We need to understand people’s motivations, and help them.

That said, it’s natural to idealize the future. That’s why you might think “if I had an app that reminded me to go to the gym every day, I would go.” (At least, I know I’m guilty of that assumption!)

I often think about how good marketing speaks to our ideals. A marketing strategy might recognize the interest in going to the gym is there, and the ideal self goes – if only they have a reminder. But effective motivational design needs to be based on reality, not ideals.

It’s our job to help people make easy choices. We want to make lives easier, so that people can focus on more important things. Why should they have to worry about finding the fruit and yogurt? If you want to help them make a healthy choice, put the fruit at the conference!

What does that look like in UX design?

Financial Savings at Any Age

The first time I met with a financial advisor, he showed me a diagram with two sides to it: on one side, the hypothetical employee started a 401k at age 21. On the other side, the hypothetical employee didn’t start the 401k until turning 25. We’ll call them Gallant and Goofus.

The diagram was meant to explain the benefits of compound interest. If Gallant puts in $20,000 over the course of 20 years, and Goofus puts in $40,000 over 40 years, according to the chart Gallant still had more in his 401k than Goofus!

I found the entire diagram disheartening. After all… I was 30 years old.

While I understood (abstractly) the purpose of the diagram, it didn’t help me plan for my retirement. I needed a personalized experience, with a diagram to show me the choices a 30yr old can make.

Healthcare for Chronic Conditions

I have the pleasure of working with a client who is dedicated to improving the quality of life for a patient population with chronic conditions. The joy here is that this population is often overlooked. May apps and websites recommend taking steps to “get better” or “get back to your regular life,” but for someone with a chronic condition such as rheumatoid arthritis or heart failure, what used to be “regular life” will never again be regular.

When I first began working with behavior change specialists, they reinforced to me the importance of acknowledging a patient’s struggles. I thought it sounded unnecessarily negative to say “your hands might hurt a lot this morning” – but our specialists explained to us that there’s a difference between negativity and realism. When we acknowledge “this might be difficult” or “you may be struggling,” it helps patients feel heard. Then we can work with them to make things better, and they’ll feel more motivated than if we pretended life was a dream.

Make the Easy Choices the Good Choices

When we aim for the ideal, we ignore the reality. We need to meet people where they are: and sometimes they’re older than 21 when they start investing in retirement, sometimes their chronic condition is painful and awful, and sometimes an alarm is not enough to make someone go to the gym.

Motivational design requires us to dig deeper: how can we make good choices into easy choices? We need to tell them how to invest in retirement at any age. And why they might want to move forward even when in pain. Or offer them second chances to get to the gym.

It’s not enough to give a push. We need to seek to understand.

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