How to Design Motivating Push Notifications

Habitry
Habitry
Jan 25, 2018 · 24 min read

by Omar Ganai and Steven M. Ledbetter

Imagine you’ve recently been to the doctor. You stepped on the scale and she told you that your health is in jeopardy. Now it’s official; you need to lose weight. You can’t afford a coach or a dietitian — plus you’re still pretty embarrassed that things have gotten this bad — but you still need help. So you download an app to help you count calories. You follow the instructions from the app and after two weeks, you’re happy with how easy counting calories has been. Then 2 weeks into this journey, the following notification lights up your phone screen:

This was not a made up story. This is an actual screenshot and the actual reaction of an actual MyFitnessPal user just before they deleted the app. But it could have been any push notification from any app. So how do accidentally demotivating push notifications happen? And how can we design them to be more motivating?

Push without being Pushy

When they first came out, app developers rejoiced at the prospects of engaging their users outside of the app, anytime they wanted to. But we were left with a noisy, random, and border-line abusive user experience where notifications have become a tactic to steal our attention rather than enhance our lives. The fact that notifications are an unsustainable “hack” is becoming increasingly clear.

Mr. Belsky chalks this up to a tragedy of the commons, but we disagree with that assessment. We think the real reason people hate push notifications is much simpler to explain:

Most push notifications are pushy.

So why are push notifications perceived as pushy…and how can we make them motivating instead?

What Push Notifications Are

  1. what you’re designing
  2. how it works
  3. and who it’s for.

Interestingly none of the articles we read talked about any of that. And none of them defined what push notifications…are. Push notifications have become so ubiquitous that we all just assume we’re using the same mental model. Which we might let slide…if 71% of people weren’t uninstalling apps because the push notifications sucked so much. Clearly something has gone wrong between what engineers thought push notifications were for, and what people want from them. So let’s start with a helpful model for how to think about push notifications.

A push notification is a text message from an app.

If that seems rudimentary or like, “no duh” then why are so many push notifications so damn rude? Look back at that push notification from MyFitnessPal and imagine it was a text from a guy named Jim that you met two weeks ago.

Seems pretty pushy, right? We have no doubt that the designers at MyFitnessPal were trying to be “relevant, timely, and contextual,” but if you don’t stop to think about the basics — like what the hell a text message even is — then great design advice can miss the mark. So before you push a notification out to the people using your app, here’s a simple gut check:

Ask yourself, “would I send this to someone I care about?”

If the answer is, “sure!” then you’re probably not about to accidentally demotivate someone.

If the answer is “well…”, maybe keep reading.

What Push Notifications Say

  1. Information
  2. Tasks

Now, there’s lots of different ways to deliver information and tasks. And there’s lots of different kinds of information and tasks. But it’s helpful to remember that (almost) all push notification content can be summarized as, “here’s something you should know,” or “here’s something you should do” or a combination of both (“here’s something you should do based on this thing you should know”). That’s the push notification designer’s palette. You can certainly paint a pleasant and delightful experience with this palette, but it’s important to remember the kind of conversations that people are expecting to have with their apps.

So let’s look at what it takes to make truly motivating push notifications by diving into the psychology of what people experience when they get one.

How People Experience Push Notifications

So when we sit down to design features that “motivate” users, this is important to keep in mind: they’re already motivated. It’s just really delicate at first and easy to thwart (Milyavskaya & Nadolny, 2016). More on why that is in a bit.

Now think about what happens when you get a push notification from an app: Your phone buzzes and lights up. Regardless of whether you want to or not, your attention goes to the phone because a variable reward schedule of buzzes and beeps have trained your subconscious to move your thoughts to your phone since there might be a reward in the form of Basic Psychological Need support. You probably look at it without even really thinking. The notification then pushes the other information on your lockscreen aside and tells you either “here’s something you should know,” or “here’s something you should do.” And in a brief moment of conscious reflection, you decide if the hijacking of your attention was worth it.

Wendy Wood and David Neal call this moment of reflection “The Habit-Goal Interface.” It’s the only time when our subconscious habits—the actions we take that we don’t have to think about—and our goal-directed behaviors—the actions that we think about, plan, and execute consciously—intersect (Wood & Neal, 2007). In these one or two seconds we decide if a habit and our goals are aligned. It’s also when we do the math about if our goals are worth the feelings of coercion. If we endorse the habit (and the intention of the designers who are reinforcing it), then it’s good because we feel autonomous. If we feel controlled, we resent it even if we think it’s something we should do.

So people already want to endorse and fall in love with our products and content; that’s why they signed up in the first place; they just want to do it on their own terms. Push notifications are a tool that can help support users needs. Or they can easily make it feel like we’re trying to control them; like a slot machine that only pays out guilt and shame.

Luckily, with Motivation Science we can understand more about what goes into that moment in the Habit-Goal Interface, and how we can design better for it.

The Psychology of Why Users Quit

The Self-Determination Theory Motivation Continuum

As you see, some types of motivation feel more “self-determined” — like their our own idea — and some feel less self-determined — like other people are making us do it. And it’s pretty obvious that “I open push notifications because it’s fun,” feels way more voluntary than, “I open push notifications because the app makes me.” The variable that creates these six different motivation types more or less self-determined is perceived autonomy. Autonomy is the feeling you get when you act with a sense of choice, initiative, volition, and meaning. It’s the need to experience our actions as our own. This is the feeling you get when you “give a damn” about something and when you feel like what you’re doing matters. The opposite of autonomy is feeling coerced or manipulated. Like you’re being forced to do stuff that you personally don’t give a damn about. When life feels like a dull routine, when you feel pushed and nudged from all directions, when you feel like what you want doesn’t matter, then your sense of autonomy has been frustrated.

How self-determined it feels to use an app is the difference between wanting to use an app and having to use an app. And the longer we need or expect people to use an app, the more this perception matters. That’s right, motivation doesn’t just vary by amount. It also varies in quality. And from 40 years of Self-Determination Theory research we know that — over time — the differences in the reasons why people are doing something — motivation quality — is the most important factor for how well people do it, as well as how much.

More self-determined reasons are what make motivation more resilient.

It’s important to note that individual differences in “motivation profiles” — the mix of “whys” — will be huge across populations and contexts (Lindwall et al 2017; and the only way to really see the motivation profiles of your users is to measure it, something Habitry can help with), but in general it’s pretty safe to assume that when people are just starting a new behavior, app, idea, or skill, the “whys” they most often cite are non-self-determined, which means lower motivation quality.

Which makes sense if you think about it. We could be talking about any app, but let’s stick with MyFitnessPal for the sake of simplicity. So take a second and imagine how someone downloading MyFitnessPal might feel.

You’re probably sick of where you currently are — Point A — and where you want to go — Point B — can’t come fast enough. You might feel pressured to change by people or society at large. Your doctor might have told you that you need to lose 15 pounds. Or you might want to make your ex jealous. And you definitely want to get away from Point A (reality) and get to Point B (utopia) as fast as possible, but you really don’t know how long it’s going to take, which makes you feel even less in control of the process.

These are all examples of “external” and “introjected” motivations, lower quality when compared to “identified,” “integrated,” and “intrinsic” motivations because they make us feel controlled or coerced. In the short run, this might not matter too much. You’ll see lots of engagement and usage. But in 2–3 weeks, the difference in people’s “whys” will start to impact their persistence as things start to get hard or results don’t come as fast as people want them to. They’re more likely to interpret setbacks as personal shortcomings. They blame themselves for the lack of progress when MyFitnessPal asks them to report their body weight. They see this whole “fitness thing” like a waste of time. Without the resilience of more self-determined reasons, we try less hard and we quit sooner.

And the moment we’re most likely to make those assessments is at the Habit-Goal Interface…like when we get a push notification. And the easiest way to get a feeling of autonomy back after it’s been taken away is to quit doing the thing that’s making us feel icky. So we delete the app that makes us feel controlled and then move on with our day.

That’s why it’s helpful to think of this lower quality motivation that people have when they start out as delicate or fragile. It’s not that it’s “less” — in fact there may be a whole lot of it; guilt is a powerful feeling — it just that it’s fragile because it’s not fully endorsed, yet. The reasons for change haven’t been integrated into our sense of self. That takes time and the right conditions.

Of course, delicate motivation might not matter if you only need people to use your product for one or two weeks. But if you want people to use your product for longer, or you want people to actually love your product and tell their friends about it, motivation quality (and creating the proper conditions for it to develop) will matter more and more. And for a product that helps people lose weight — like MyFitnessPal — the journey from Point A to Point B might take years.

Think of it like a road trip: If the journey is short, it doesn’t matter what car you pick. You can make it from London to Essex in a 3-wheeled Robin Reliant. As long as you don’t expect much, have any passengers, or turn frequently, the 3-wheeled Robin will probably get you there without rolling over and killing you too often. But if you absolutely need to get you and your family from Point A to Point B, you want a Toyota Hilux.

So how long do you need people to use your product? Is it less than 2 weeks? Then you can pretty much stop reading Practical Motivation Science. Is it more than two weeks? Then you’ll probably want to learn more about what can you do to support the integration of higher quality, self-determined motivation.

The Psychology of Why Users Commit

Well, we’ll save you the time A/B testing “open our app! It’s fun!” Because telling people how to feel is a surefire way to make them feel coerced and take away their sense of autonomy. Do you like it when people tell you to do things because “it’ll be fun!” or “it’ll make you a better person!?” Of course not, because telling people how to think is not autonomy-supportive at all. It’s pushy.

People don’t commit and truly engage with something because they are told to. We engage with something when it lets us explore who we could be if we mastered it. High motivation quality is not a thing we can give to people, it’s a result of supporting their Basic Psychological Needs, especially for autonomy.

As Kathy Sierra says in Badass: Making Users Awesome:

They don’t say they like the product because they like the product.

They say they like the product because they like themselves.

Let’s be real: people don’t care about apps. They care about learning what they need to learn and doing what they need to do in order to live a better, more meaningful life. An app is a tool that teaches them how to get there. And in order to better motivate people we have to think past the tool to the person who we’re asking to wield it and what we want to help them learn.

Here’s a helpful reminder of what that process looks like:

You’re Obi-Wan Kenobi, your app is a lightsaber, and they’re Luke Skywalker. A lightsaber alone is not gong to defeat the Empire. And while a lightsaber is a tool that Jedi use, just turning on a lightsaber doesn’t make you a Jedi. When Obi-Wan hands Luke his father’s lightsaber he doesn’t say, “congrats! You’re a Jedi!” He says, “This was your father’s lightsaber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. It’s not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.”

“Neat! A laser sword!”

OK Seriously? That’s freaking motivating. And sure, when Luke first gets the lightsaber from Obi-Wan, Luke is probably thinking, “neat, a laser sword!” (novelty being most fragile of all motives). But notice that Obi-Wan doesn’t try to convince Luke to become a Jedi and defeat the Empire by talking about all the cool things lightsabers do. He doesn’t try to bribe or nudge Luke into going to lightsaber practice. He connects the tool to an identity (Jedi Knight) and an integration with a higher purpose (saving a princess, connecting to his unknown father). He also implies personality traits that Luke could have by choosing to master this tool (elegance, civilized) versus another tool (clumsy, random). Most importantly, Obi-Wan connects Luke’s struggle to learn the ways of the Force with a long history (the Jedi) and a shared mission (defeating the Empire). Obi-Wan does not tell Luke how to feel. He supports Luke as Luke finds his own more resilient, self-determined motives. Because when Luke eventually learns that Darth Vader is a giant, scary cyborg with James Earl Jones’ voice who Force Chokes people who piss him off, Luke is probably gonna need more reasons to stay and fight than “neat, a laser sword!”

“Eeep.”

Likewise, when we design push notifications, our job is not to push people into engaging with our product. It’s to guide people along the journey of learning their own self-determined reasons for using the app and help them become more resilient to setbacks and disappointment. To move past, “I’m using this app because I feel like I have to” and start feeling like “I’m using this app to get personally important outcomes” or “I’m using this app because it’s an expression of who I am.” Self-Determination Theory calls this process of learning and endorsing new motivates, “integration.” And while integrating new behaviors and tools into your personal identity is not fast or easy, the conditions that make that process possible have been well established by research. And Jedi Masters.

What Integration Looks Like

When you support the satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, people will start to find using your app motivating for more self-determined reasons. They’ll start to integrate those motives and as they do they’ll actually start to integrate your product into their sense of self. They’ll find using the app as exciting and important as you do. They’ll be proactive about getting better. They’ll tell all their friends and family about it. And using your app will become an expression of who they are, because it will be helping them live the better life they wanted.

What does integration look like? It looks like doing somethings because it’s part of who we are. It looks like dealing with setbacks (like glitches and bugs in new feature releases) as part of the journey. It looks like not giving up when things get hard because the thought of quitting has become foreign to us. It’s looking a white ghost dude in a cloak who shoots laser beams from his fingers right in the eye and saying, “I am a Jedi like my father before me.” In short, integration looks like mastery.

Come at me, white ghost dude.

8 Guidelines for Motivating Push Notifications

“How will this message make them feel?”

If the answer is “empowered, competent, and that we like them,” you’re probably supporting their BPN with your push notification.

If the answer even the slightest bit, “controlled, coerced, confused, or like we don’t understand them,” maybe don’t send it.

Oh, and if you’d like a deeper dive into what we mean by ”autonomy, competence, and relatedness”, check out our article Motivating Humans.

1. Everything is Optional

Notification(s):

“Studies have shown tracking your weight daily leads to more consistent and permanent weight loss. Would you like to receive occasional reminders to track your scale weight?”

Limit(s):

Too many choices, especially for beginners, can be overwhelming and counterintuitively make people feel less autonomous because they don’t know what to do. So make sure that you’re teaching them how to make the best choice for them with your copy and not just showing them a screen with a bunch of toggle switches on it.

Reference(s):

Katz, I., & Assor, A. (2007). When choice motivates and when it does not. Educational Psychology Review, 19, 429–443.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory — Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. 370 Seventh Avenue, Suite 1200, New York, NY 10001: The Guilford Press.

2. Request, don’t demand

“Would you mind getting me a cup of coffee?” feels a lot nicer than, “Get me a cup of coffee” because the former example implies autonomy, the latter does not. It’s also more motivating in the long-run.

Notification(s):

“You mentioned you wanted to reduce your bodyweight. One thing you might want to experiment with is tracking your scale weight.”

Limit(s):

Just like with friendships, the more rapport you have, the more direct you can be. But it’s usually better to err on the side of politeness.

Reference(s):

Deci, E.L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B.C. and Leone, D.R. (1994). Facilitating internalization: the self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62, 119–142.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Lens, W., Sheldon, K. M., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Motivating learning, performance, and persistence: The synergistic role of intrinsic goals and autonomy support. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 246–260.

3. Acknowledge and normalize ambivalent and negative emotions

Notification(s):

“Because studies have shown that tracking scale weight helps you keep weight off, sometimes we might remind you to update your weight in the app. We understand if this is scary and it’s totally OK to ignore these reminders if that’s not something you want to do.”

“Hey [Name], would you like to update your scale weight today? Totally cool to skip if you don’t feel like it today.”

“Whether you feel ‘yeah!’ or ‘meh’ about it, tracking scale weight has been shown to promote weight loss.”

Limit(s): This rule won’t work if you tell them how they should feel. Note we didn’t say “you will definitely get annoyed”. We simply suggested it’s possible. We gave them space to decide how they feel. Telling the user how they will feel is subtly coercive. So it pays to use tentative language or provide a field of options.

Reference(s):

Deci, E.L., Eghrari, H., Patrick, B.C. and Leone, D.R. (1994). Facilitating internalization: the self-determination theory perspective. Journal of Personality, 62, 119–142.

Reeve, J. (2015). Giving and summoning autonomy support in hierarchical relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9, 406–418.

4. Offer empathetic rationales

Notification(s):

“Hey [Name], last time we spoke you mentioned you wanted to track your body weight, this week. Here’s your friendly reminder!”

Limit(s): A limit of this technique is that you actually have to do the hard work of helping users figure out what the hell they actually want. They might not know what they want, or they might change their mind. But it is still on us as app designers to facilitate that process and to check in regularly to make sure they still want it. For example, most people’s goals change as they lose weight. They might start out wanting to lose 50lbs, but after losing 10lbs realize a new goal of wanting to more easily play with their grand kids. This is not a bug, this is a feature of the integration process. Changing to more internal, self-determined reasons means you’ve done your job! So don’t assume goals on Day 1 will be the same as goals on Day 50.

Reference(s):

Steingut, R. R., Patall, E. A., & Trimble, S. S. (2017). The effect of rationale provision on motivation and performance outcomes: A meta-analysis. Motivation Science, 3, 19–50.

5. Clarify what realistic progress looks like.

Notification(s):

“Hey [Name], people like you tend keep weight off in the long-run when they aim for about 0.5 to 1.0 pound of weight loss every week.”

Limit(s): The user might not believe or want to acknowledge what is realistic for them. And that’s OK; learning about reality is a part of mastery. So make sure that you’re giving them clear feedback about the process of mastery as often as possible and in all kinds of varied ways (see next example).

Reference(s):

Hancox, J. E., Quested, E., Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., & Ntoumanis, N. (2017). The effects of training group exercise class instructors to adopt a motivationally adaptive communication style. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 3, 190–203.

6. Give useful feedback about the process

Notification(s):

“Hey [Name], you’ve successfully logged 3 meals in a row!”

“You’ve eaten green things at every meal this weekend!”

“We noticed you’ve been eating smaller desserts!”

“Interested in learning some tricks for prepping meals?”

Limit(s): It’s better to understate positive feedback a little bit than to over do it. Avoid being Pollyanna. Also, always make sure you’re giving feedback on their effort, not feedback about things they can’t control. “You’ve come up with clever ways to prep meals” is better than, “you’re smart.”

Reference(s):

Fransen, K., Boen, F., Vansteenkiste, M., Mertens, N., & Vande Broek, G. (2017). The Power of Competence Support: The Impact of Coaches and Athlete Leaders on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. Online first publication.

Jang, H., Reeve, J., & Deci, E. L. (2010). Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 588–600.

7. Demonstrate compassion

Notification(s):

“Hey [Name], it seems like you didn’t have a chance to log your last meal. No worries! If you log your next one, we’ll let you keep your 3 day streak going! ;-)”

Limit(s): You actually have to pay attention to what their experience is like. If you guess wrong, they might feel betrayed.

Reference(s):

Assor, A., Roth, G., & Deci, E. L. (2004). The emotional costs of parents’ conditional regard: A self-determination theory analysis. Journal of Personality, 72, 47–88.

8. Give an unexpected and personal compliment

Notification(s):

“We’ve been working together for 3 weeks now. We’ve really enjoyed our time together so far and here’s some things we’ve noticed…”

Limit(s): If you overdo this, it can become expected, which will feel controlling. Also, try to make this as personal as possible. If you can give the same compliment to all your users, it’s probably not personal.

Reference(s):

Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: a review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 774–795.

About Habitry

Feel free to get in touch at hello@habitry.com.

References Cited

Practical Motivation Science

Articles, tips, research, reports, thought experiments, and…

Practical Motivation Science

Articles, tips, research, reports, thought experiments, and wild speculation about applying behavior change science to the practical problems facing product managers, designers, and anyone making stuff for health care, consumer financial products, pharma, insurance, or education.

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Practical Motivation Science

Articles, tips, research, reports, thought experiments, and wild speculation about applying behavior change science to the practical problems facing product managers, designers, and anyone making stuff for health care, consumer financial products, pharma, insurance, or education.

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