How to Even Motivation Science

Practical tips to integrate Self-Determination Theory into your existing product workflows

Steven M. Ledbetter
Practical Motivation Science
8 min readSep 5, 2018

Recently, Habitry was approached to design a mental-health chatbot. The company is quite new and didn’t have a pre-existing design process that we were slotting into, so they basically asked us, “how do we even Motivation Science?” from scratch. This was a fun problem to think about and we thought they might be a useful example for others out there looking to work Practical Motivation Science into your products and services.

Since we mostly work with start ups, you’ll find a lot of references to Lean and Agile, but the principles (and the Mantras) will apply to any methodology.

Three Mantras

As Jennifer LaGuardia writes in her indispensable Self-Determination Theory in Practice: How to Create An Optimally Supportive Health Care Environment, supporting Basic Psychological Needs (BPN) is not a checklist; it’s a mind set.

That means BPN support is an approach, not a algorithm. Like Agile, Lean, or Open-Source. And like anyone who’s worked in dysfunctional Agile or Lean startups can tell you, just because you’re having 15 minutes stand-up meetings or A/B testing your MVP doesn’t mean you’re not fooling yourself as you go through the motions. The culture has to adopt the philosophy and the processes have to embody that commitment.

As James Murphy reminds us, “Just because you’re hungry doesn’t mean that you’re Lean.”

The good news is that in our experience, supporting Basic Psychological Needs comes pretty naturally to people when they have a constant, gentle reminder (and permission to make mistakes). So no matter what the workflow will eventually be, we think a great place to start is by doing the same thing Thomas Alva Edison did in his factories: signage.

Print out mantras that will help you remember what supporting the Basic Psychological Needs of your customers looks and feels like. Ask yourself if you and your team are embodying those mantras in your processes and reflect on those mantras when you’re stuck and trying to make decisions that impact or influence customer behavior. Here’s my personal favorites; feel free to steal them:

Be a Good Host. Do I have an unconditional positive regard for this person? How can I demonstrate that I respect them as a human being, regardless of the decisions they make? Do they know I like them?

Be Clear. Am I meeting this person where they are at instead of where I wish they were? How can I make a structure that helps them understand their journey better? Does this person know they can get better at the skills they need to meet their goals?

Be Interested. Am I genuinely curious about this person’s life, problems, goals, and motives? How can I demonstrate to them that I am interested in helping them become a better version of themselves? Does this person know I give a damn?

In many of my presentations, I often just have the audience chant “Be a good host. Be clear. Be interested” over and over. It’s not all you need to do, but if it’s all you did, you’re most of the way there.

And besides, paper is cheap.

Learning What to Build, but Faster

One of most important aspects of making a product or a feature is deciding what to build. Or more pertinent, what not to build. And injecting a little Practical Motivation Science into the customer development (a.k.a “product discovery” or “UX research”) is a great shield to protect you from wasting a lot of time and money building the wrong things.

In Lean methodology, a useful place for Motivation Science is in discovering your Value Proposition. In the excellent Value Proposition Design, Alexander Osterwalderk recommends thinking about value creation as the moment when the “gain creators” and “pain relievers” in the product or features you’re planning match the “pains” that customers have and “gains” that customers want when they are “doing a job” (which is Lean Speak for “human behavior”). This concept maps almost perfectly to the way that Self-Determination Theory researches human behavior.


According to SDT, we engage in activities more often, more fully, and with more ownership, passion, and creativity when an activity supports our Basic Psychological Needs. And we are more likely to quit or avoid activities that thwart or neglect our Basic Psychological Needs. And 45 years of SDT research has given us better questions to ask and the words to listen for if we want to learn what supports or thwarts Basic Psychological Needs. In fact, if you find an activity that people are frustrated by, I can all-but-guarantee that the activity is frustrating one or more of their Basic Psychological Needs.

Let me demonstrate.

In San Francisco pre-UBER you probably remember thinking or hearing, “hailing a cab in San Francisco makes me feel stupid, isolated, and like I have no control over the situation.”

  • Stupid = competence-thwarting
  • Isolated = relatedness-thwarting
  • No Control = autonomy-thwarting

So when you’re interviewing customers about potential “jobs to be done” (remember, thats just Lean Speak for human behavior) and what the pain points are, listen for words that correspond to the thwarting and supporting of Basic Psychological Needs. Here’s a short list:

Words that mean Autonomy-Thwarting: controlled, futile, useless, pointless, manipulated, meaningless.

Words that mean Competence-Thwarting: stupid, inept, impotent, confusing, unclear, overwhelming, chaotic.

Words that mean Relatedness-Thwarting: isolating, lonely, betrayal, shameful, guilty, unliked, unloved.

If you come across these words, then a simple tactic can be to ask them what features about their current solution (or your prototype) make them feel the opposite of these words. Features that support their needs and result in words like these:

Words that mean Autonomy-Supporting: autonomous, in control, empowered, purposeful, meaningful, powerful.

Words that mean Competence-Supporting: capable, informed, clear, structured, confident, useful, organized, masterful.

Words that mean Relatedness-Supporting: supported, belong, understood, proud, liked, loved, with people who get me.

Motivation Science—especially Self-Determination Theory—helps takes something vague like “value creation” and gives it structure. And anything that helps you learn what to make faster is going to save you time, money, and heartache.

With Motivation Science, you can think about “value creation” as identifying a human activity that is thwarting your customers’ Basic Psychological Needs, then making a product that is more need-supporting than the alternatives in the marketplace.

Of course, with more time and money this type of research can also be done more rigorously. Habitry does qualitative customer development research, but the goal here was to give you an idea of how quickly a better framework for understanding human motivation can impact any customer development process.

Journey Maps that Reveal Customer Motives

Journey Maps are one of the easiest places to insert some Motivation Science thinking at almost no cost. When informed by qualitative research (or at the bare minimum a few phone interviews), they can be a reliable way to visualize what customers are doing and when.

But often missing from these visual aids is information on why the customer might be doing what they’re doing and the impact these experiences have on their Motivation Quality. Adding a place for “need-supporting / thwarting” during customer interactions can be a valuable step in discovering and communicating those motives and impacts to the rest of your team. those motives and impacts. And if you’re doing customer development interviews, it can be as simple as writing some of those need-supporting / thwarting words that you heard in the interview on the corresponding interaction on the journey map.

And once you can actually see how frequently you are influencing your customers’ Basic Psychological Needs, it’s hard not to keep it at the front of your mind in the design phase.

N.B.: Inspired by Jen Briselli’s workshop on Interactive Journey Mapping, we have recently been making web-based interactive journey maps for our clients. We’ve found that by separating out our research data into JSON files, we can quickly make differently-themed maps that highlight different aspects of the customer’s experience. And by making it interactive, our clients can see where the opportunities are and dig more deeply into the interviews or research that inform our recommendation. We like this approach a lot, so expect a longer article just on how Habitry does Motivation Science journey maps in the future.

Metrics for “Why” and “How” not just “A/B”

According to Eric Reis, “the only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.” And to do that, one needs Actionable Metrics. And Motivation Science is here for the rescue.

In a nutshell Self-Determination Theory says:

If you support someone’s Basic Psychological Needs when doing an activity (like using your product), then Motivation Quality will improve over time and people will engage more of their psychological interest (a.k.a. energy, creativity, time, and identity) in that activity.

Many companies measure things like how much and how frequently people use their product. Many do cohort analyses and measure lifetime-value. But by measuring BPN support and Motivation Quality, you get leading indicators of all those things as well as insight into what kind of features you might want to build and why those classic performance metrics might be changing with new feature releases.

Let’s take a classic split test. You make two versions of a leaderboard with slightly different features. Leaderboard A results in more customers sharing app invites than your current baseline, Leaderboard B results in fewer customers sharing app invites than your current baseline. You could say, “great, use Leaderboard A.”

But all you’ve learned is Leaderboard A > Leaderboard B. You have no idea why it worked, or why Leaderboard B seemed to turn people off. You still haven’t shed any light into the black box of user engagement for your product. As Brian Rothberg, VP of Growth at Eventbrite likes to say, “If you don’t know why you’re growing you are just one step away from slowing down.”

So open the black box. Measure Basic Psychological Need support to know which needs your feature thwarted or supported and get a much better idea of what problems you should try to solve next. Learning faster than anyone else means learning why and how your product is solving problems, not just that one release “worked better” than another.

Measuring BPN and Motivation Quality takes developing the right questions to ask and when, but 45 years of Self-Determination Theory research has many examples of how to do this, and obviously Habitry can help with that, too.


Motivation Science is new to a lot of people in Product Design world, but it’s not new. For centuries, brilliant researchers have taken it upon themselves to explore the mysteries of “why we do what we do” and since 1972, thousands of them have produced work under Self-Determination Theory that is both useful and proven.

According to The Lean Startup, “a startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

Startups have enough uncertainties to worry about. By incorporating a little Motivation Science into Product Design, “what do our customers need” doesn’t have to be one of them.

About Habitry

Habitry helps companies and designers make their products and services more effective with Practical Motivation Science. We consult on metrics, strategy, and education for improving engagement, retention, and customer success.

Feel free to get in touch at



Steven M. Ledbetter
Practical Motivation Science

A.K.A "Coach Stevo." VP of Product Engagement at Supernatural. Motivation Science Nerd.