What motivates people to develop good habits?

The ability to understand human habits is a powerful tool in the world of design — not only in the discovery phase, but throughout the product or service lifecycle.

In this article, I’ll explore what motivates people to form new, positive habits. And to help you understand your own customers’ motivations, I’ve included a Trello template — on the house.

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Do you know why you just opened Instagram while your friend was talking to you? Probably not. Habits are so deeply ingrained that we often don’t realise we have them.

Our habits have become important to companies — especially ones that are trying to sell us products. Information about our behaviour enables these companies to target us at specific times, both online and offline. Scarily enough, companies can even find out if you’re pregnant by tracking your behaviour.

Many of us begin each year by deciding to become a better person. We make new year’s resolutions to change habits we know we need to break — or to create new ones that we know will do us good. But really changing our behaviour is hard work: a 2007 study revealed that only 12% of people stuck to their new year’s resolutions.

Of course, we can all aim to develop a new, positive habit in pretty much any part of our life. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I’ll exercise 10 minutes more every day.
  • I’ll eat more fruit and vegetables.
  • I’m going to save 10% more of my salary each month.
  • I’m going to write a to-do list every morning from now on.

These are all very attainable goals. But even so, we usually give up on them around mid-February. Why is it that most of us fail to stick to a new habit beyond a few weeks?

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” — Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Understanding motivation

Motivation is one of the key qualities that we need to form new habits. It’s motivation that starts the entire process and spurs us into action.

We choose to form new habits because we believe they will have positive outcomes. But the motivation behind changing our behaviour can be positive or negative.

According to BJ Fogg, Behavioural Scientist and founder of the Behavioural Design Lab at Stanford University, there are three core motivators. Much like a coin, each of these core motivators has two sides:

  • Sensation: pleasure/pain
  • Anticipation: hope/fear
  • Belonging: acceptance/rejection.

Overcoming the present bias

More often than not, we lose sight of our long-term goals in favour of instant gratification. What we want now might conflict with our future goals. A classic example: you think, “I really want that piece of cake” — despite your desire to lose weight. This is down to the “present bias”, which encourages us to prioritise short-term payoffs ahead of longer-term goals.

How often have you felt guilty after eating that piece of cake? If you succumb to the present bias, you can undo the progress you’ve made towards reaching a goal in a moment (or a few bites). Decisions focused on short-term rewards can stop us from being who we want to be .

Couple BJ Fogg’s core motivators with the present bias and we see that things that take time are viewed as negative. In our short-sightedness, we forget it’s these long-term goals that yield the greatest satisfaction. We prefer to accept smaller payoffs now over larger payoffs later on. This is down to another cognitive bias called “hyperbolic discounting”.

The effect of hyperbolic discounting is illustrated in this classic experiment looking at short-term and long-term rewards. Imagine you’re given two choices:

  • You can have £100 today or £120 in a week. Which would you choose
  • Now, imagine the same question but the timescale changes. A year from now you can have £100 or in a year and a week, you get £120.

Did your choice remain the same? I doubt it. (Lakshmi Mani has written a really nice article on hyperbolic discounting.)

Let’s look at this another way. How familiar does this sound?

“I should go for a run… but I’d rather go out to dinner with my friends.”

Put this in terms of BJ Fogg’s core motivators: you anticipate that running will make you fitter (the hope motivator), but the sensation of going to a restaurant with friends is fun (sparking the pleasure motivator). One motivator outweighs the other, one takes less effort to complete, and one offers a quicker payoff. So the easiest habit or behaviour wins, and you go to meet your friends at the restaurant.

When we create products and services, we should make it as easy as possible for customers to achieve their long-term goals. So the question becomes, “How can we intervene at the point of temptation to stop our customers from abandoning their long-term aspirations in favour of short-term rewards?”

Intrinsic or Extrinsic?

We’ve spoken about the different types of motivation, but where do they come from? Rather than ask how much motivation someone has, you could ask why they have this motivation in the first place?

Originally defined in their paper “Self-Determination Theory” in 1985 and mentioned again in 2000, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci describe intrinsic and extrinsic motivation like this:

Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence.

Extrinsic motivation is a construct that pertains whenever an activity is done in order to attain some separable outcome.

As an example, someone can decide to become a doctor [MOU9] because they want to help others; but another person may choose the job because it pays well.

In other words, is the person doing an activity for its inherent pleasure, or to get something else out of it?

A lot of companies assume customers come to them because they feel that the product or service brings them value. But in some cases, people follow social biases and pressures to use certain products because they think that doing so will make them look like a better person. You often see this with new parents who buy a certain product or brand because they want to seen as good parents.

Quick look: How Moneybox helps gets people started with investing

Not many people learn about managing money because they find it interesting. They do it to reach other goals, such as buying their first house or going on holiday.

Moneybox is a company that understands this. Its products focus on helping people manage their money and save to meet long-term goals.

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Moneybox’s clever round-up feature enables people to round up purchases to the nearest pound, and automatically put the change into a savings account.

It’s a great way to help people begin saving. Customers start with a small action (investing their spare change), and as their money builds up over time, their motivation grows alongside it. Customers begin to realise what saving money can help them achieve.

This is called the Goal Gradient Effect — our efforts increase as we move closer towards our aim.

How do we apply this to our work?

Earlier I mentioned the need to think about customer motivations in the discovery phase and throughout the product or service lifecycle. Essentially, that means thinking about what encourages customers to start using your products— then monitoring those motivations and habits as they evolve.

During discovery

Problems often creep in at the discovery phase — the beginning of the journey to launch a new product, service or feature. That’s because many design teams are so busy filling in spreadsheets with user stories, that they forget to focus on what motivates the people they’re designing or building for. The key lesson here? Before you do anything else, make sure the whole team understands how the new offering will impact the life of the person using it.

If you’re pushed for time, try this IDEO exercise for framing a design problem. It’s easy to tweak this exercise to understand more about customers’ motivations (using a toolkit like Nuggets helps massively). During the “context and constraints” part of the exercise, dive into the customer’s mind and try to identify their motivations and psychological drivers.

For one recent discovery workshop, I put together a Trello board (an online collaboration tool that people use to organise their projects), which includes an alternative framing exercise. Feel free to use it and tailor the format to suit your needs.

Once you discover what motivates your customer base, start to design around it. Is it a negative motivation that you can turn into a positive? Or can you increase the positive motivation to help your customer achieve their long-term goal?

During the lifecycle

As products and services become more established, they begin to evolve and adapt — either as a natural part of their lifecycle, or because their creators identify a new opportunity. When this happens, it’s important not to lose sight of the human factor. Make sure you understand how the customer’s behaviour and motivations have evolved as a result of using your product or service. What will your offering enable them to do, now that their original problem has been solved?

A good way to understand — or even predict — motivations is by using the “system of progress” found in Alan Klement’s book, When Coffee and Kale Compete. “It will help you find out what customers want, why what they want changes, the relationship between customer motivation and the solutions they choose, and how demand is generated.”

The system of progress has four stages, each describing a different aspect of the customer journey:

  1. Realises a struggle
  2. Searching for a solution
  3. Using the solution against the struggle
  4. Achieving a better life
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If the customer does achieve a better life because their problem has been solved, their new life comes with its own struggles and motivations. It’s down to the design team to understand and adapt as things change.

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The process repeats itself as more needs are satisfied and more motivations and challenges become apparent. As this happens, you must continue to show how your product or service can further help your customer.

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The system of progress allows you to predict what may happen next in the customer’s lifecycle. For example, if a customer buys a car, they will need car insurance. Once the car is insured and they can drive around, they may want to buy a sat nav…and so on.

Whether it’s during discovery or later in the product or service lifecycle, companies often lose sight of what motivates customers. It’s always worth ensuring that your offering stays aligned to your customers’ needs and motivations, however they change along the way.

Give it a try for your product or service. What is your customer trying to achieve? What’s motivating them? How can you help? The answers might not be what you expected.

Written by

Senior UX Designer at PwC UK, where I design for Humans, not users. Creating experiences that consider how we really interact with the world around us.

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