When only Points-Badges-Leaderboards do not cut it to motivate your user

How you can use the ARCS motivation model to make your services more engaging

Image credit: Braden Collum

Long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away mr. Keller has developed a motivational theory to describe approaches to motivate students. In my opinion, this theory is relevant for other areas than just learning. Let’s have a look at what this ARCS is all about.

ARCS stands for:

  1. Attention. Before you motivate or trigger a person to do something, you have to catch their attention.
  2. Relevance. In order to get your user moving, the action that you want her to do should be relevant to her goals or desires.
  3. The user has to be confident in the service and that he can succeed in the task.
  4. Satisfaction. Users have to be proud and satisfied with what they achieved.

All these methods are applicable to different situations and for sure cannot (and should not) be used all together. They are, however, a very interesting bunch if topics and questions to use as a brainstorming method when working on motivating your user.

Let’s look at them one by one.


The cycle of motivating the user starts with grabbing her attention. Be it for a recurring habitual thing or something completely new. There are several methods to get there.

Image credit: Ewan Robertson


Ask their opinion, pose challenging questions, get to the user by asking them about something rather than shouting 'me, me, me’.


Show a contrast between items, for example, future and present state for a fitness app; poverty abroad and comfort of the user’s life for charity, etc.


Use a story, biography, statistics that are bound to be noticed. Apply something tangible and related to the real world.


You can imply a variety of methods to get to user, for example in a dieting app you could use notifications to pep talk the user before the meals, use recipes newsletter to motivate them on the longer run, and meetups to appeal to their social selves


Stand out or lighten a subject by using some humor. Be careful to not use too much though in order to avoid actually distracting the user from the topic.


Get the user involved. Want to get people aware of the water pollution? Show it, or, better, get them to interact with a model. Do you get people to adopt puppies easier by showing them photos, or by letting them play with them?


Grabbing attention succeeded, now it’s time to keep the user’s attention. How can you do it? There are several methods to get that rolling.

Image credit: Clem Onojeghuo

Need match

Use stories, reference, metaphors that your user can relate to.

Previous experience

This method is in a way related to the one above. Referring to memories, existing experience can give a sense of continuity, a feeling that this new information 'fits in’.

Perceived present worth

Explain to your audience what’s in it for them right now. A direct solution to current needs or problem s can keep people reading on.

Future worth

Alternatively, point out what the benefit is in the future. This is helpful when trying to convince people in doing something that might not be that pleasant right now. 'Preparing for a beach body' sounds way more convincing than 'Give up that cake today’.


Success stories, celebrity recommendations, testimonials by people your customers respect — this seems to work quite well. Make sure to choose relevant models, though. Steven Hawking may be awesome, but if he’s recommending a new design software … it may sound unconvincing.


This is actually that tipping point from 'I’m interested’ to 'I’ll do this’. This step ensures there is nothing in the way of performing the action, and that the user is confident it’s possible and will bring the expected result.

Image credit: Mariya Georgieva

Difficulty and self-confidence

When motivating your user to do something complex or involving multiple steps, make sure it is clear how to start and how to proceed. Start by providing a low-hanging fruit to the user and give them a sense of achievement. Then you can slowly proceed to more complex tasks. Sounds a lot like levels, which is mentioned in the title of this article. The idea is to introduce the 'Difficulty' method when it is relevant and actually helps to move on through the activity bit by bit. It can be actually annoying to be bombarded with 'you earned 100 points!’ while you are figuring out how to use a new email app.

Expectations, Requirements and feedback

Make it clear too the user what is expected of them and how to get there. Clarity on that will prevent disappointment and manage expectations on what is possible and if the user can get there.


A.k.a. the reward. This is a really tough one and you should wisely create balance between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Focusing too much on self-worth as a result can leave the user not triggered. Over-rewarding a simple behaviour can annoy some. Keep in mind the potential negative effect of too much extrinsic motivation:

More specifically, for every standard deviation increase in reward, intrinsic motivation for interesting tasks decreases by about 25%. When rewards are tangible and foreseeable (if subjects know in advance how much extra money they will receive) intrinsic motivation decreases by 36%. (Importantly, some have argued that for uninteresting tasks extrinsic rewards — like money — actually increase motivation. — see links for the full article
Image credit: Fabian Blanc


Deliver what matters — be it social recognition, points in the system, discount or a mug with your logo. A lot of people tend to think in terms of ‘What’s in it for me?’ and a small reward can do the trick. There are various things which motivate people, a great framework to explore those is Octalysis by Yu-Kai Chou. See more frameworks in Links.

Unexpected rewards

You know that feeling when you find money you did not realize was in the pocket of your coat? That’s more or less how unexpected rewards feel, only that the user develops extra sympathy to the product and not past self :)

Avoid negative

A reward may as well be in avoidance of the ‘punishment’ (not to be taken literally). Consider mentioning missing out on something (event, latest news, discounts) if this applies to your situation.


Motivating people to do something is a tough cookie, no wonder there are so many theories about it. ARCS is just one of many and its methods are not applicable to every single situation. However, it is an interesting framework to make use of when brainstorming and organizing your thoughts on how to motivate your users.

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