The right app rewards to boost motivation

Post 2 of 3: What apps can learn from insights rooted in behavioral economics, psychology, and gamification

Jeni Miles
Google Play Apps & Games


In the previous blog post, I introduced a three-step process to optimize for a specific desired behavior (focusing on the first two steps):

  • Step 1: Simplify the desired behavior. Encourage action from engaged, motivated users by reducing (and ideally removing) barriers that prevent it from happening.
  • Step 2: Trigger behavior from motivated users. The presence of triggers (prompts, cues, and CTAs) can drive action even when motivation levels might be low.
  • Step 3: Boost user motivation. Motivation is hard to influence but developers can inspire users to act with persuasive messaging or engaging game elements.

In this post, I’m going to explore what motivation is and the right ways to reward your users. When used effectively, gamification techniques can boost your users’ motivation to engage with your app.

What is motivation?

“People are like objects; they have a certain inertia that needs to be overcome for them to move” — Kevin Werbach, Dan Hunter

To be motivated to act is to have a reason for acting, quite literally ‘to be moved’. To explore two key forms of motivation, let’s look at some common app scenarios you might face:

Scenario 1: Let’s imagine you’ve experienced an increase in users inviting friends to your app, after offering existing users a monetary incentive. They’re driven to do so purely because of the resulting monetary credit. This is extrinsic motivation, where the outcome rather than the rewards of the behavior itself is what drives action.

Crucially, we can be extrinsically motivated to gain both intrinsic rewards (rewards earned from performing the act itself, for example, the internal satisfaction of looking like an early adopter in front of friends after sharing an app) or extrinsic rewards (a tangible reward earned as a result of the act, such as goods or money). I highly recommend reading this blog post explaining the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Scenario 2: Perhaps you have a small group of ‘power users’ who evangelize your app to their friends. This suggests they’re intrinsically motivated to spread the word — they derive satisfaction from doing so, without needing an additional incentive.

Much academic research on motivation supports the idea that sustained engagement with an activity is more likely when intrinsic motivation exists. In the third post in this series, I’ll share how app developers can influence user behavior for the long term by fostering intrinsic motivation.

Gamification and extrinsic motivation

In Gamification by Design, industry experts Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham defined gamification as “the process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”. The term gamification has become popular as a way to describe the use of game elements as extrinsic motivators. For tasks where users might lack the motivation to act, game elements can provide additional motivation to encourage engagement. Game elements can encourage action from users who might otherwise lack sufficient intrinsic motivation to commit to the goal of, for example, learning a new language or exercising regularly.

Let’s explore how points, leaderboards, and badges (when implemented correctly) boost motivation:

  • Points serve as indicators of achievement and progress. Points can reward users with status (if used to rank users against each other) or they can offer tangible rewards (for example, when converted to in-app currency or free items as part of a loyalty scheme).
  • Badges primarily serve to recognize a user’s accomplishments. Badge systems in many apps and games also help align users to shared goals while acting as virtual status symbols, distinguishing badge-holders from others.
  • Leaderboards indicate progress against others, framing app engagement as a competitive pursuit. Like badges, leaderboards can motivate users when they serve as visual indicators of status among other users.

Incentives and if-then rewards

Offering an extrinsic reward can powerfully drive a one-time behavior change.

Yu-kai Chou, a gamification consultant, suggests that “it is better to attract people into an experience using extrinsic rewards (gift cards, money, merchandise, discounts), then transition their interest through intrinsic rewards (recognition, status, access)”.

McDonald’s saw success with this approach, driving app installs by offering a complimentary sandwich as an incentive. The lure of a free sandwich effectively boosted the motivation of those who otherwise might not have downloaded the app.

These if-then rewards can also be applied to encourage app engagement. By running nationwide competitions, where schools can compete to win a 1 million yen prize, Japanese English-language learning app Mikan encourages students to focus their efforts on learning English. By fostering competition in this way, the students’ motivation to learn English is boosted as they’re driven to help their school reach the top rank.

Rewarding users the right way

Gabe Zichermann devised a hierarchy of rewards based on their relative power to drive engagement and retention, which is remembered easily with the acronym SAPS:


  • VIP perks that are easily demonstrated to other users.
  • Points, badges, and leaderboards that serve as status indicators.


  • Sale previews in advance of other users.
  • Unlocking access to exclusive content and features.
  • Being first to know about new updates and features.


  • Enhanced power to vote on or inform new features.
  • Moderator status or some other form of control over less engaged users.


  • Freebies.
  • Monetary rewards.

This SAPS hierarchy of rewards suggests that offering stuff is a costly approach and is less powerful at keeping users engaged. Instead, developers should look to cheaper rewards, such as affording users status, to reward users more meaningfully.

Unpredictable and uncertain rewards

As we’ve seen, many extrinsic rewards act as the metaphorical carrot to encourage action. However, when these are expected and known in advance, they quickly become unengaging.

Wendy Despain, author of 100 Principles of Game Design, explains that “If the player knows exactly what reward they are going to get for a specific action, it removes any surprise from the equation […] the experience leaves [the reward] feeling flat and unengaging”.

This helps to explain the popularity of monetization mechanics such as gacha (referenced in one of our recent blog posts authored by Moonlit Beshimov), where users acquire rare in-game items randomly by spending in-game currencies.

So, what happens when expected rewards have a small degree of uncertainty? Wish saw an increase in daily active users when they introduced the Deal Dash feature in their app. Deal Dash offers users a random, once-a-day extra discount on selected items. The users’ curiosity then encourages them to return and spin each day, because the reward is unknown.

Variable reward schedules ensure that the positive reinforcement of the reward is attained unpredictably, which boosts motivation for users to act. Take, for example, an app such as Tinder where users swipe an unpredictable number of times to secure the reward of a potential match. So, why does it encourage users to continue swiping?

Scott Hurff, former product manager and lead designer at Tinder, explains: “It’s the gambling-like reward, that dopamine rush of the “It’s a match” screen [… from] a variable reward that encourages continued swiping to experience this [rush] again.”

Unpredictable and uncertain rewards are one strategy for encouraging engagement. However, developers should be wary of rewards that might have the opposite effect. The overjustification effect suggests that offering extrinsic rewards for something users were already sufficiently motivated to do will decrease their intrinsic motivation.

If the theory holds true, users offered an incentive for doing something they already wanted to do will likely lose the intrinsic motivation that drove them to act in the first place.

Daniel Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, argues that if-then rewards can actually “do more harm than good. By neglecting the ingredients of genuine motivation — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — they limit what each of us can achieve.”

As we have seen, persuading users to act by offering rewards can be a powerful short-term tactic. However, apps can thrive long term by fostering intrinsic motivation. My third and final blog post will explore this approach and explain why successful games are the most motivational product of all.

What do you think?

Do you have questions or thoughts on motivating your audience to drive app engagement? Continue the discussion in the comments below or tweet using the hashtag #AskPlayDev and we’ll reply from @GooglePlayDev, where we regularly share news and tips on how to be successful on Google Play.



Jeni Miles
Google Play Apps & Games

Apps Growth Consultant @googleplay • Behavioural scientist • Interested in the intersection of tech, wellbeing and sustainability