We’re All Motivation Designers

Oct 4, 2017 · 8 min read

“I already know what I need to do. I just can’t make myself do it.”

Buried Treasure

Eat less. Move more. Put money aside every month for retirement. Practice the guitar. Learn a language. Do the taxes early. Make the bed. Write those thank you notes. Take the medications as prescribed. Do the physical therapy. Sign up for that Javascript class. Learn what the hell a “pivot table” is.

The world is full of the stuff we know we should do. That massive list of guilt inducing yet unappealing stuff in a modern life. Some of these things are complicated and fraught, like setting aside money for retirement. But others are simple and mundane, like taking pills. Yet according to the World Health Organization, people only take medication as prescribed 33–50% of the time. So even when everyone gets that “medicine doesn’t work unless you take it” and when the things we know we should do are as “easy as taking a pill”, we still manage to not do them 50–67% of the time.

We know how much easier things would be if we just did them. If we could just make ourselves want it enough. So we try to trick ourselves into being more motivated. We buy trackers, smart watches, apps, gym memberships, online classes, glorified shock collars, and engage in all manner of social blackmail to increase the consequences of failure. We collectively spend billions on hardware, software, and services that we think will make it easier. That will finally make us want to do the things we feel guilty for not already doing. To help us find that missing motivation.

Because when we think about the people we want to be, these “things we know we should be doing but aren’t” are the instructions on a treasure map. Step-by-step, guiding us to being better people, living lives better lived.

If we only wanted it enough.

If only we could make something that made us want it enough.

Motivating Technology

3.4 million years ago, proto-humans had a problem: getting all the meat off the bones of an animal is difficult to do with just fingernails and teeth. So a few of them in the Afar Region of Ethiopia smashed soft rocks on harder rocks and made the first tools designed to make their lives easier. And nothing has changed. All technology is the result of humans looking at a problem and thinking, “how can this be easier?”

All technology is designed. And all technology is designed to make life easier.

But what happens when the problem you’re trying to solve for is “wanting to do stuff?” What happens when the problem you’re trying to solve, or help other people solve, is motivation? How can you make something that makes people want to do something?

Nothing has changed — you design for motivation.

If “designing for motivation” seems weird to you, look around. You and everyone you know is already doing this. Every TED talk, every self-help book, every FitBit, gym membership, to-do list, phone notification, #fitspo post on instagram, and pill organizer with “MTuWThFSaSu” printed on it are products and content that we consume to make “wanting to do stuff” easier. People are already entrusting the makers of these products and content to solve this problem. To inspire us to want to change.

It’s just too bad that the people making these things usually don’t think about it that way.

The current state of Motivation Design is like watching those first Australopithecus afarensis in the Afar Region, desperate and hungry, lazily smashing rocks on other rocks right next the carcass of an animal, and not realizing how close they are to making their lives and the lives of everyone they know, a million times better.

And they’re so close! They’re identifying some of the right problems, doing some of the right things, and taking some of the right steps. Now if they only knew how to put them all together. And if they only knew how to think about the science of motivation in the right way to actually design the products and content we’re all desperate to use.

We clearly need motivating technology. Now we just need people to design it.

Designing for Motivation

From a scientific perspective, motivation is one of the most interesting and hotly-researched topics in psychology and neuroscience. Generally, motivation scientists define motivation as, “any internal process that energizes, directs, and sustains behavior” or most poetically by Roy Baumeister as, “wanting change.” Phenomenologically, we experience motivation as drive, or energy, directed at changing ourselves or our environment. It’s the internal process that points us at (or away from) something and says, “go!”.

Motivation is the personal experience of wanting to do something for reasons one believes to be valuable.

When we start to think about all that means and all that entails, it’s easy to see why scientists get excited about the possibilities. Richard Ryan and Ed Deci, who have been researching motivation and why people do what they do for 45 years, summarize why this topic is so important in their epic 2017 book, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness.

Although [motivation related] psychological phenomena can be described at various levels of analysis from micro-mechanisms to molar behaviors, it is at the psychological level that change can often be most readily leveraged. A boss, a parent, a teacher, or a clinician is not likely to influence behavior by directly manipulating another’s genes, brain tissue, or motor functioning. Instead, behavioral outcomes are most easily changed by appealing to the person’s motives, goals, and expectations or by altering the proximal features of social environments that give rise to them (pg. 7).

In short, motivation is so interesting because when we want to people do stuff, convincing them to do it is much easier than changing their genes or altering their brain chemistry.

Thinking about this from the perspective of people making products and content, this is even more obvious why motivation is so important. The goal of these designers is almost always to influence human behavior in some way. To “make people want to do stuff.” That “stuff” designers want to “make them want to do” can range from one-time actions like making a purchase, to influencing longer term behaviors like quitting smoking or better financial planning.

At Habitry, we call anyone who aims to change human behavior via the mechanism of “making them them want to do stuff,” a “Motivation Designer”. In the wild, Motivation Designers go by many different names. Here’s an incomplete list: UX designers, health coaches, writers, organizational change managers, political activists, startups, corporations, and governments. All these people are Motivation Designers because they all aim to create changes in human behavior via the mechanism of motivation — the psychological force that energizes behavior and gives meaning to human goals.

H/T to Dustin DiTomasso and Amy Bucher of mad*pow for inspiring this diagram

The tactics of these Motivation Designers use vary by occupation. UX designers might use badges and other gamification elements. Health coaches might use open-ended questions and reflective listening. Organizational change managers might use goal-setting to motivate employee, team, and organizational performance. Political activists make documentaries to inspire support for their movement. These are all examples of Motivation Designers doing the same fundamental thing — designing experiences that influence motivation. Designing experiences in an attempt to influence other people’s desires, wishes, and emotions to change their behaviors and help them achieve some valued outcome.

If you looked at that list of occupations and thought, “I’m none of those. I’m an engineer/CTO/technologist/CEO” then I would highly encourage you to think a little bigger, because you’re in the Motivation Design game, too.

If your problems involve human behavior, they are more than likely motivation problems. And if your plan to get people to do something is to “make them want to do it,” then you are definitely trying to influence motivation. Do it with words and it’s PR, marketing, coaching, or teaching. Do it with money, and it’s economics. Do it with both and it’s politics or management. Do it with love and it’s parenting. But it’s all doing the same thing: trying to make people want to do something they are currently unmotivated to do. If you’re trying to influence someone’s answer to the question, “do I want to do this enough to actually do it?” then the mechanism you’re trying to influence is human motivation and whether you knew it or not before you read this post, you are a Motivation Designer.

So look past the tactics. Look past the technology, the buzzwords like “gamification” or “incentivizing.” If you’re working on the conscious, psychological or social level, to influence whether people “want” to do something, you’re a Motivation Designer.

Our Motivation Behind this Series

Habitry will break down many common mistakes that we see people make when they try to influence human behavior with their products and content. We’ll introduce you to a new way of thinking about motivation. One that we’ve studied for years and used to help companies design successful products. But more importantly, this new mental model we’ll show you takes inspiration from 40 years of creative, methodical, and brilliant work by thousands of scientists from all over the world. These motivation researchers have developed a practical, empirical, predictive theory with hundreds of Randomized Control Trials, and tens of thousands of studies involving hundreds of thousands of participants. The theory is called Self-Determination Theory, and it is the most well-developed, contemporary scientific theory we have for understanding why people do what we do, and predicting what they will do in the future. You might have heard of some other theories and approaches, and we’ll also put those into context as well.

Largely, however, Habitry’s mission is simple: to help the most people help the most people. We believe that the more people know about Practical Motivation Science and the more designers create better motivating technology, then the fewer people there will be out there lamenting that they “know what to do” but just “can’t make themselves do it.”

Follow Habitry’s Practical Motivation Science on Medium to get regular updates on this series.


Written by


Practical Motivation Science for more effective products and content.

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.


Written by


Practical Motivation Science for more effective products and content.

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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