Motivating Humans

An Introduction to Self-Determination Theory and its Practical Applications

Nov 14, 2017 · 32 min read

By Omar Ganai & Steven M. Ledbetter of Habitry

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Imagine you have a niece in second grade. She’s awesome, super-bright, but even though she loves to read, she’s falling a little behind her class. You want to help her, so you decide to motivate her to read more.

Now imagine you have a Roomba. It’s an awesome, super-cool Roomba, but it’s not learning how to clean hardwood floors. You want to help it, so you decide to download a new hardwood floors program.

Are you motivating the Roomba in the same way that you would motivate your niece?

No, of course not. You can’t “motivate” a Roomba. A non-living thing can’t be “motivated.” It’s right there in the definition of the word: “motivate” comes to English from the Latin adjective motivus, which means “internally moved” or “stirred.” So it’s probably no surprise that Motivation Science is the study of what moves people to act. That internal force that “energizes and gives direction” to human behavior (Ryan and Deci, 2017; pg. 13).

You can move a rock by kicking it, but is the rock “motivated?” Not really; it’s just kicked. So it’s a pretty safe bet to say that only living things like your niece can “be motivated.”

So what does it mean to “motivate” another human being? How can we affect their behavior when we have no direct access to that internal stuff in their heads? Throughout history, people have had ideas about how motivation works (see We’re All Motivation Designers), and this is the question at the center of Practical Motivation Science, and in the heart of Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT is a 45 year-old practical and predictive theory with an evidence base consisting of hundreds of randomized control trials, tens of thousands of studies, and hundreds of thousands of participants. SDT begins by making the assumption that living organisms like humans are different from inanimate objects. And when you start with the radical stance that people and Roombas are different, it changes the way you think about motivating human beings.

“SDT is an organismic perspective, approaching psychological growth, integrity, and wellness as a life science.” (Ryan & Deci, 2017; pg. 4).

A major difference between organisms and objects is that organisms need things from their environments in order to thrive. “Living things have needs that, when fulfilled, sustain and fortify their persistence and thriving” (Ryan & Deci, 2017; pg. 80).

An appleseed comes with potential to grow into an apple tree. That tendency to grow can either be supported or thwarted by the environment based on what it provides that seed. Provide the appleseed with quality soil, water, and sunlight, and the seed starts maturing. Or a gardener can accidentally add too much salt to the water and soil. Or prevent the apple tree from absorbing sunlight for a while by moving it into a garage. This would stunt the tree’s growth (and probably mean that person was a bad gardener).

Humans also come into this world with potential, but we’re more complex than an apple tree. We can make choices. We can be purposeful, open, curious, benevolent, and rise to an occasion. Yet we can also be passive, self-centered, defensive, irresponsible, and malevolent. “An intriguing question then is which mechanisms elicit either the ‘best or the ‘beast’ in each of us” (Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013, pg. 263).

When you take a “living organisms” stance toward human beings, the questions you ask about motivation change. Instead of asking how to coerce people toward “the right behaviors”, you start thinking about what supports living well.

One of the (many) really interesting ideas in Self-Determination Theory is that researchers have uncovered what that “underlying mechanism” that encourages the “best” or the “beast” in each of us is. Because as we’ll show, that underlying principle is very similar to our apple tree example. And it all has to do with nutrients… but not the kind you eat.

We know from biology that humans, apple trees, and every other organism has physiological needs — oxygen, water, and nutrients from food — and that, as organisms, we must satisfy these needs to be in good physical health. When our physiological needs aren’t met, we suffer. If you don’t get enough Vitamin C, you get scurvy.

But humans need more than just food, water, and oxygen from our environment. Homo Sapiens evolved as cooperating groups of tool-wielding hunter-gathers with big, squishy brains in our heads. So we’re social. Hell, we’re hypersocial. And those squishy brains in our heads got that big in order to cope with this hypersocial nature. Our interdependence with one another has shaped our bodies, our minds, and the entire world around us. We’re not just a brain attached to a body, and the environment that shapes us is not just our physical environment; it’s our social environment, too. We’re all somebody in a society. We root ourselves in relationships. We co-create families, friendships, romantic relationships, workplaces, organizations, neighborhoods, and nations. We depend upon other people, living and dead. We need parental-figures to raise us. We need friends so we can learn how to play with others. We belong to traditions and cultures built from the labor and creativity of millions of ancestors. And we live in a world of amazing science and technology that are the fruits of processes and knowledge passed on by generations of scientists and engineers.

Because of this interdependence and deep-rootedness in social relationships, our well-being depends on more than just food, water, and oxygen. Self-Determination Theory says humans have have psychological needs to satisfy, too. SDT defines these as psychological “nutrients that are essential for growth, integrity, and well-being” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, pg. 10). We get these needs from the relationships that make up our social environment. And these relationships can vary in how they support the satisfaction of our Basic Psychological Needs, and how well they improve or reduce the quality of our motivation. If these relationships support our Basic Psychological Needs, we feel motivated to learn and grow. We thrive! If they don’t, we get the psychological equivalent of scurvy.

Scientifically, Self-Determination Theory is making a strong, risky, and testable claim. It says Basic Psychological Needs are universal human requirements. Like our physiological needs, when our Basic Psychological Needs are fulfilled, we get better. We feel motivated, interested, and strive against the vicissitudes of life. When our Basic Psychological Needs are deprived, we get worse. We stop caring; we don’t develop our talents; and it becomes harder for us to overcome challenges in our environment. A Basic Psychological Need is a need. It’s not a bonus. It’s not extra. It’s not a goal or desire (some popular books about SDT get this basic fact about Basic Psychological Needs wrong). A Basic Psychological Need is a need the way that Vitamin C, water, and oxygen are needs. And an environment can either satisfy or frustrate those needs.

Additionally, Self-Determination Theory says the benefit or harm that comes from the satisfaction or frustration of these needs will occur regardless of whether people explicitly value the needs, and regardless of whether a culture values these needs. One study confirmed this in countries as diverse as Belgium, China, USA, and Peru (Chen et al. 2015, see References). We benefit when our Basic Psychological Needs are satisfied, and we’re harmed when they’re frustrated. Even if we don’t consciously know this or desire them! It’s just like you need Vitamin C. You might not know what Vitamin C is, and you might not like oranges. But it doesn’t matter; if you go long enough without Vitamin C, you’ll get scurvy.

The Nutrients of Motivation

Self-Determination Theory has identified three Basic Psychological Needs (so far): competence, relatedness, and most important, autonomy. We need to experience regular doses of these needs to take initiative, to be proactive, to willingly adopt social norms and duties, to flourish into the best persons we can be, and to do what life seems to demand of us. The reason they are called “basic” is because they are elemental. There may be other experiences and feelings that are important to thriving — like mastery, pride, and faith — but SDT says that our perception of these other feelings are most likely the result of competence, relatedness, and autonomy being met. Think of them like taste buds on your tongue: taste buds can only detect 5 tastes — salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. But food comes in an unimaginably broad palate of flavors as a result of the interplay and combination of those 5 tastes with the sense of smell. “Basic” doesn’t mean “only;” it means “the basic elements.”

So let’s look how it feels when we receive these psychological elements and when we don’t.

Competence is the feeling you get after attaining a difficult goal. You feel effective; that you can do things well. When your competence is consistently supported, you develop a sense of mastery. The opposite of competence is feeling ineffective or impotent. You feel insecure about your abilities. You feel disappointed about your performances. When your competence is consistently frustrated — like when there is a mismatch between your abilities and what you’re trying to accomplish — you might end up feeling like a failure. Like you’ll never be able to get what you want. Martin Seligman calls this “learned helplessness.”

Relatedness is the feeling you get when the people you care about also care about you. You feel liked. You feel understood. Like you can be yourself around people who “get” you. When your relatedness is consistently supported, you develop a sense of belonging. The opposite of relatedness is feeling isolated or rejected. When the important people in your life act cold and indifferent toward you, your sense of relatedness is frustrated, and you might even feel betrayed.

Finally, there’s autonomy; 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. To stand by them. This is the feeling you get when you “give a damn” about something; 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 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 People Stop Giving a Damn

“What makes life dreary is the want of motive.” — George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (1876), Book VIII, Chapter LXV.

In the 1970s, the prevailing dogma in Motivation Science was B.F. Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism. Skinner believed human behavior was shaped solely by consequences to behavior, and this dogma had scientists and laypeople alike believing that human beings are only motivated by rewards or punishments, by sticks and carrots. According to Radical Behaviorism, people never do things for their own sake and that deep down in our programming, we are only doing things to get pleasure or avoid pain. With this as dogma, a behavior change designer was simply to figure out the right rewards and punishments that would motivate their employees, customers, and users. Like adding programming to a Roomba.

You might have been (or still might be) on the receiving end of some of these motivational tactics. And already, you might be thinking about how dehumanizing it feels to be treated like you only care about carrots and sticks. B.F. Skinner popularized this worldview after rejecting the internal thoughts of the human mind as “irrelevant”. “There is no place in the scientific position for a self as a true originator or initiator of action” (Skinner, 1974; p. 225). This led to a series of poor scientific assumptions. Choosing to ignore what was happening in our big, squishy brains meant that Skinner had to base his conclusions about animal behavior solely on observed behavioral outcomes of experiments. Since it’s easier and faster to observe animals in controlled environments, this meant the bulk of Radical Behaviorism involved training semi-starved rats and pigeons to press levers for pellets of food, or to avoid electrical shocks in an “Operant Conditioning Chamber” a.k.a the Skinner Box. So it’s not surprising that Skinner thought that humans do stuff for the same reason that a trained rat or a Roomba does stuff — we’re programmed too, he concluded.

The public loved this idea because yeah, we’ll admit it’s really tricky and annoying to try and figure out what’s going on in people’s heads. So it’s not surprising that parents, managers, politicians, and school administrators ate Radical Behaviorism up with a spoon (and tech companies still do despite the 45 years of research that’s shown Skinner’s “reinforcements” have terrible consequences). How influential is Skinner? A June 2002 survey done by the American Psychological Association listed Skinner as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century.

But even in the 1970s, scientists were scratching their heads. Simply ignoring the mind seemed destined to result in a limited model of why people do what they do. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in 1971:

Suppose that an engineer is presented with a device whose functioning he does not understand, and suppose that through experiment he can obtain information about input-output relations of this device. He would not hesitate, if rational, to construct a theory of the internal states of the device and to test it against further evidence. … By objecting, a priori, to this research strategy, Skinner merely condemns his strange variety of “behavioral science” to continued ineptitude (Chomsky, 1971).

Also, unlike rats, humans are free-range. We can leave the box.

Motivation Scientists needed to learn more about what was going on in that big, squishy mystery between our ears, but to do that they needed to show the flaws in Radical Behaviorism. And in the same year Chomsky was calling Skinner out, a young Ed Deci thought he had proof of a glaring flaw in Skinner’s assumptions.

Powerful and Delicate

Deci had the thought, “it feels different when I get paid to do something versus when I’m just doing it for fun.” These motivations feel like different things. The dogma that all you have to do to get someone to care about something is reward them for it just didn’t jive with Deci’s personal experience.

So Deci started doing experiments to study intrinsically motivated behaviors, a phenomenon that Radical Behaviorism had willfully ignored. A behavior is intrinsically motivated when it is simply so interesting and enjoyable that the act of doing it is the reward. They require no carrots or sticks. The classic example is children playing in a playground. You don’t need to convince a child to play in a playground. You don’t need to pay them. A playground simply affords opportunities for the child to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The child “can’t help” but be motivated to play.

But what would happen if you paid a child to play? Or rewarded someone for something they already enjoy doing? According to Radical Behaviorism, the positive effect of rewards would be cumulative. They should do more of the behavior every time you give them rewards for doing it.

In his 1971 study, Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation, Deci did just that. And when he gave participants money to work on a puzzle they already found enjoyable, they worked on it longer… once. Then the time they spent with the puzzle dropped off a cliff. Meanwhile, the people who weren’t paid kept working on the puzzle. And they came back to work on it. And each time they came back, they worked on it longer! Deci had discovered that giving someone a reward for an activity they enjoy reduces their intrinsic motivation to keep engaging with that activity. After an initial bump, people will spend less time on an activity they enjoy after you reward them for doing it, and they will be less intrinsically motivated to do it in the future.

Think about that for a second. According to Radical Behaviorism, economics 101, and every book on management written since Frederick Taylor, rewards are supposed to make people want to spend more time on an activity. Our natural intuition is that when you want to motivate someone, you give them something. You “add” motivation by “adding” a reward or a punishment. Like programming a Roomba. But 45 years ago, Ed Deci demonstrated that motivation is more complicated and delicate than that.

According to subsequent experiments done by SDT researchers, when you receive a reward for a behavior you already like doing, it teaches you to devalue the behavior in favor of valuing the reward. Your perception of what “causes” you to engage in a behavior shifts… from your “self”, to something “out there.” From inside-out to outside-in. In more academic language, receiving a reward shifts your perceived locus of causality from internal to external. Over time, a behavior that you wanted to do for its own sake becomes a behavior that you do in order to get a reward. Eventually you give less of a damn about it because you don’t really feel responsible for that behavior. It’s not really “you” doing it, so why bother?

In subsequent decades, the original finding that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation has been replicated, expanded, and formalized under Cognitive Evaluation Theory, one of the six mini-theories that fall under the Self-Determination Theory umbrella. But even after 45 years of replication and development, the fact that rewards don’t always motivate people is still blowing minds.

Additionally — according to SDT experiments — it’s not just rewards that can undermine intrinsic motivation. Any experience that changes our perception of why we engage in an intrinsically motivated behavior can undermine our intrinsic motivation. It includes things like performance evaluations, deadlines, surveillance, feedback, competition, motivational memes, the books you read, any kind of media. However, by themselves these “experiences” do not automatically undermine intrinsic motivation. What matters is the social context in which people experience those rewards, deadlines, feedback, etc. and if they perceive those experiences supporting or frustrating their Basic Psychological Needs. Said another way, it all depends on what we perceive as the intent of the Motivation Designer. Are they trying to control my behavior and get me to behave or perform in a prescribed way and without my buy in? If so, my intrinsic motivation is likely to be undermined. Also, screw them.

Remember your niece who loves reading, but is falling a little behind? Being a good aunt or uncle you want her to read more, so you try to think of some ways to “motivate” her. Thanks to the pervasive influence of B.F. Skinner and Radical Behaviorism, you come up with the idea of giving her $2 for every book she reads. But what would Deci and SDT’s experiments predict?

Your niece might read the next book faster, but not because she wants to read the book; now she wants the cash. So now she won’t be learning the value of reading. Instead, she’ll be learning to value reading books as a way to get money. Soon she might start cutting corners to get that next $2. Maybe she only reads every other page. Maybe she starts looking up plot summaries on the internet and stops reading the actual books altogether.

Eventually your niece (and you) will start to notice she’s stopped reading for enjoyment or stimulation and now just reads to get the money. So you maybe you increase the amount to $5 per book, but you start having to make more rules. Put more controls in place like pop quizzes and smelling the books to see if they have that glue smell that only new books have. This makes her feel more pressured to perform, but by now she really doesn’t give a damn about the reading and she feels policed by you, which isn’t a good feeling either.

Later in the school year, your niece might get into a class she is actually excited about. There will be reading assignments, but now she associates reading with feeling controlled and apathetic. “Gross,” she thinks. But she wants to do well, so she falls back on the only thing she knows to motivate her to read: she starts trying to pressure herself into it. She tells herself that if she doesn’t do the stupid dumb reading that it’s proof she’s an idiot. She’s really not as smart as people think she is. She tells herself she’s only really worthy of people’s respect when she’s forcing herself to do stuff she hates. But she just doesn’t give a damn about reading anymore. And now she feels helpless to change it.

This story plays out in schools and ball fields everywhere. Stevo’s parents paid him to swing at baseballs when all he wanted to be doing was reading Ender’s Game. As soon as they stopped paying him, he stopped playing sports (until he found one with only sticks and no balls). Omar’s parents took a more Pakistani approach; they removed rewards. They’d turn off the internet, randomly, to get him to do his homework. He still uses the internet.

The use of motivational tactics like bribing, fining, and nudging to get kids to value reading more is like adding salt water to an apple tree to get the tree to sprout fruit. You might think you’re watering it…but you’re stunting its growth.

This does not mean that all rewards, punishments, and nudges necessarily lead to bad outcomes. Since the effects depend on the context, rewards are very complex, and delving into the details would deserve an another entire article (or book chapter). For now we want to make the point that using rewards is not an easy or universally useful tactic for boosting intrinsic motivation. Just because it looks like water doesn’t mean you want to pour it on your apple tree.

The Special Role of Autonomy

“If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be.” — Viktor Frankl

Twenty years after Edward Deci studied the effects of intrinsic motivation, his student and later co-founder of Self-Determination Theory, Richard Ryan, started studying extrinsically motivated behaviors. Like Ed Deci, Richard Ryan wanted to examine feelings of motivation. Up until this point (circa 1989), most work in Motivation Science had focused on the intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation dichotomy. The two types of motivation were pitted against each other. Intrinsic motivation was good, extrinsic motivation was bad. But Richard Ryan thought that dichotomy was too simple. So he began examining the different ways in which people can relate to extrinsically motivated behaviors (Ryan & Connell, 1989). Sometimes, we take responsibility for obligations, chores, and work. We even find them deeply meaningful. Other times, we might do them to avoid guilt, or out of a sense of resentment.

And let’s be real: Life is not all fun and games. Our examples so far have focused on growing motivation that’s already there. Your hypothetical niece already found reading enjoyable. But what about children who could not care less about reading? How could we kindle a new passion for them? To get them to start caring about reading, something that we know is going to be good for them and society?

As we grow up, life demands more of us, and we have to do things that aren’t inherently fun or interesting to do. Even two-year-olds have to start doing things that are extrinsically motivated. These are the things we do in order to get outcomes we want. Teenagers go to school and get good grades to start down the career path that they want. They don’t want to do homework, but they want a fulfilling career. As grown ups, our lives are filled with these extrinsic motivations. We need to mow the lawn. Exercise regularly. File the TPS report. Don’t eat too much frosted shame cake. Drink way too much Żubrówka to protect your social status amongst your Polish friends. All these behaviors are usually not intrinsically satisfying. Not in the same way playing a videogame, or eating an amazing meal is. But this is life. And luckily, SDT has investigated the process by which we learn to give a damn about things that aren’t fun. And it revolves around the most important and most misunderstood Basic Psychological Need: autonomy.

Habitry has been teaching companies how to make their products and services more engaging with the practical application of Self-Determination Theory for 4 years, and by far the most challenging concept to explain has been the Basic Psychological Need for autonomy. But don’t worry — we’re in good company. According to Richard Ryan, it’s been the hardest concept for everyone in Motivation Science to wrap their head around for the last 40 years.

The major problem is that people use the word autonomy in everyday language to mean several things.

  1. Autonomy can be a belief about human nature and the nature of the universe; when we say “people have autonomy” we usually mean that as “free will.”
  2. Then there’s autonomy as a skill: SDT researchers have shown that it’s impossible to know what you want if you don’t pay attention to what is interesting to you, and that takes practice and mindful awareness.
  3. Finally there’s autonomy as a motivational experience, which is the way we’ve been talking about autonomy in this article. It’s the need to experience oneself as having initiative and interest in our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It’s the feeling that you’re acting with agency and volition. Said another way, it’s the need to feel our behavior is “internally caused” by our self acting upon the external world, rather than the other way around.

A key point to understand here is that the word internal — when used in the phrase “internally caused” — refers to a person’s concept of self, not the person. You can perform an act but not feel autonomous in doing it. If someone put a gun to your head and made you polka, you might be the one performing the polka, but it wouldn’t feel like a self-endorsed polka situation.

Understood in this way, autonomy becomes a matter of degrees, not a dichotomy. Behavior can be more or less autonomous as we perceive it to be more or less self-endorsed. So autonomy is a spectrum, not an on-and-off switch.

Any extrinsically motivated behavior can be accompanied by a sense of autonomy, or by a sense of coercion. As a final example, imagine being approached by a colleague at work:

Them: “Hey [your name], so…potentially awkward favor — I’m running late to my next meeting — can you do me a huge solid and please grab me some coffee so I can start functioning like a human? I don’t wanna crash and burn during the meeting, ha ha. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Now imagine the same colleague asking you to get you a cup of coffee this way:

Them: “Hey you. Coffee, large, 6 sugars. Don’t fuck this up for me.”

That sense of boiling rage you feel right now? That’s the difference between feeling autonomous and feeling coerced. It’s the difference between a request based on an opportunity versus one based on a demand.

And the challenge for the Motivation Designer is think about design as a series of polite communications, not commands.

A Different Way to Motivate

“The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.” — J.J. Gibson (1979, p. 127)

As we said, the most common approach to motivation design is to “add stuff.” To add bribes, fines, nudges, features, and notifications. This approach makes sense if you think of human beings as objects that are missing a feature. To change an object, you manipulate it. You add features to it. Like adding sprinkles to a cupcake. Or a new plugin to a Roomba. By this logic, to motivate someone, you need to “add” motivation.

The Self-Determination Theory approach is different. It requires looking at people as living organisms that have evolved capacities to feel motivated. You bring out motivation from within them, rather than adding motivation to them from the outside. The Self-Determination Theory approach teaches us that if we want people to feel more motivated, we need to create situations that afford regular opportunities for them to feel autonomy, competence, relatedness. And that “feeling motivated” should be thought of as the outcome of a series of experiences and interactions, not a thing you add like a feature.

It’s like the apple tree. An apple seed comes with the potential inside it to grow into a tree that sprouts apples. You can’t make a tree that’s not ready spontaneously sprout fruit. Sure, you could tie some apples to it to make it look like it is, but that isn’t really an apple tree bearing fruit. You’ve bypassed the apple tree’s natural capacity to grow fruit and now you’re just going to have to keep adding new apples if you want it to keep looking like it’s working.

Affording Autonomy

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” — Einstein

When most people encounter a product, feature, or service, their intrinsic motivation to engage with it is going to be low. Most things aren’t fun for fun’s sake. For example, we don’t download an app because, “OMG I LOVE APPS!” Instead, we engage with technology to get something out of using it. And we put up with the learning curve and all the necessary interactions to make our lives better in some way. The challenge of the Motivation Designer is to support people’s Basic Psychological Needs for long enough that when they reflect on using the product, the people using it come to understand that this product is supporting their needs and their vision of being a better person.

Put another way, the user needs to internalize those extrinsic motivations. And as we’ve mentioned, a secret ingredient to that process — called organismic integration — is autonomy. And it starts with asking yourself the right question and conceptualizing the problem in a more useful way than thinking about reprogramming a Roomba:

According to SDT, asking, “How do I motivate people?” is the wrong place to start.

Instead, Self-Determination Theory has us ask, “How can I create the conditions that afford this person the opportunities to learn how to motivate themselves?”

If you’re a designer, there might be something very familiar about that concept. It’s actually the same way that “human-centered” designers have been approaching physical designs since Don Norman published The Design of Everyday Things. His 1988 book (originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things) was based on the work of psychologist and philosopher of mind J.J. Gibson, who introduced an entire generation to the concept of affordances.

An affordance is a relationship between a person and their environment that enables a behavior. Like any relationship, an affordance won’t make sense if you think of the unique parts separately. You have to think of the parts as coupled together because their complementarity is what affords behavior. For example, the coupling between your hand and a door handle affords the action of opening a door. There needs to be a door handle, and your hand needs to grasp it, to open a door. If there’s no door handle or you aren’t there to grasp it, there’s no opening the door. When you design a door you’re not “making” people open it. You’re not “dooring” someone. You’re creating an opportunity that communicates a potentially beneficial behavior. But it’ still an opportunity; not a demand. For the behavior to be afforded, people need to notice you signaling it, understand it, and self-endorse it.

This idea was revolutionary in the design field because it got designers thinking past “making things” and thinking about “making things for humans to use.”

So instead of thinking of a door handle as a thing you add to a door so can people open the door, you have to think through the experience of how a person engages with the door handle. How do they discover it? How do they know what it does? And how will they know they used it right? This places the autonomy of the interaction on the human using the product. And helps prevent terrible doors.

And affordances don’t just enable physical actions. They foster thoughts and feelings too. Norman’s 2005 book Emotional Design draws on the work of cognitive scientist Antonio Damasio to explain why a well-designed door handle might subconsciously afford feeling autonomous and competent. Whereas a badly designed door handle affords feeling like an idiot when we don’t know whether to push or pull.

So everything a designer makes, writes, says, or renders for people using their product are not in a vacuum. These design features are the “conditions” that people using the product are looking to in order to determine if they should “give a damn” about using this product. And conceptualizing them as an affordance — a “coming together” of technology and the human being using the technology — is a handy way to stop thinking of those features as “additions” and to start putting autonomy in the hands of the user.

In Habitry’s work with clients for example, we are often asked “should we add points or badges?” Classically, designers often think of these as additions: “if we add points, we’ll add motivation.” But thinking of them as affordances changes things. It lets you think about the experience as a relationship and lets you ask better questions. So instead of, “do points work?” You start asking, “what will the relationship between the points and the person seeing the points be like? How will people discover the points? How will they know what the points do? Will they know why we added points? How will they know they are ‘getting points’ in the ‘right way?’”

The Designer’s Deputy

“Good design is…an act of communication between the designer and the user.” — Don Norman

As design moves from simple physical objects to complex, interlinked experiences like software, the interactions and amount of time we spend reflecting on how the product makes us feel skyrocket. We might spend a moment with a door handle, but we spend hours on our phones engaging in thousands of affordances. Picturing the UX Journey Map of that is enough to make a Motivation Designer panic!

Luckily, there’s a trick.

In The Semiotic Engineering of Human-Computer Interaction (2005) — Clarisse Sieckenius de Souza’s breathtakingly thorough examination of symbolic language in software design — de Souza reminds us that, “the system must speak for the designer” (pg. 90). This is because people are not stupid: we all know that technology is designed by other people. And we experience technology via a mediated relationship that de Souza calls, “the Designer’s Deputya communicating agent that can tell the designer’s message” to the user.

Around 70,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to use language and ever since, we’ve been trying to motivate each other using language in the context of interdependent relationships. Humans make everything about the social — even technology — because so much of our mental software and hardware developed to parse things as “good” or “bad” for us in social contexts. We use products, fall in love with products, or hate products because we are in a relationship with them. Because like everything else in our lives, we are trying to see if it will meet our Basic Psychological Needs or thwart them.

Using the Designer’s Deputy concept makes designing for motivation way easier to grok. It means thinking of your product as a series of conversations with the people using them rather than like programming a Roomba.

When people use your product — your deputy — what is your deputy currently telling them? What are they trying to tell your deputy? If you could be there yourself, what would you tell them? What would you want them to hear? How would you want them to feel? And what can your deputy say and do to communicate those intentions in a language that the person using your product will understand?

The reality is, the people using your products are already thinking this way. Think about it: when software doesn’t behave in a way that you expect, what do you say? Something like, “what does this thing want me to do?” But software can’t want anything. We just anthropomorphize products as a shorthand for trying to figure out, “what does this designer want me to do?” We’re all trying to figure out if a product’s designers are going to help us feel capable, liked, and in control, or if they’re ignoring our needs. And if we think they are, we’ll ditch that product faster than a shitty first date.

Human beings need to know why we should give a damn about doing stuff. And we are looking for products to tell us what their designers want us give a damn about and why. How autonomous, competent, or related we feel using a product depends upon how well the Designer’s Deputy is communicating in a way that we can understand. The buttons, features, emails, push notifications, and every other interaction on the UX Journey Map are just signals that people using products are trying to divine meaning in. To see if they are affordances that satisfy our needs or thwart them. These signals and what we think they mean in the context we’re using them are inextricably linked — like the handle and the hand that join together to open a door.

And while a good design process is always hard work, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as just giving people the space to make up their own mind.

Case Study

Pivot: A Smoking Cessation Program That “Doesn’t Start with Quit”

Carrot has developed a smoking cessation platform called Pivot. Adopting a Self-Determination Theory perspective, Pivot has been designed to help all smokers — not just those who want to quit.

This is a really big deal because most smoking cessation studies and products filter out people who are not ready to quit. Self-Determination Theory is one of the few approaches to behavior change that outlines ways to help everyone make the right choices for themselves, including people who don’t want to change yet.

As we elucidated so far, most approaches to human behavior change conceptualize motivation quantitatively — that it is something that people have, or don’t. Under such approaches, you add motivation to people to make behavior change happen.

“In Pivot, our approach is ‘We don’t start with quit’, which creates a welcoming environment for all smokers” says Dr. Heather Patrick, who is Vice President of Behavioral Science at Carrot and also an academic who has published some of the best papers on SDT-based behavior change. Their approach aims to support self-motivation by affording smokers opportunities to experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness on their journey to quit smoking.

There are three parts to the Pivot system.

1. Mobile app. The Pivot app starts with a self-guided exploration phase to assess and support participants’ own awareness and interest in moving forward. Autonomy ftw! Contrast this with traditional smoking cessation programs that lose out on an opportunity to help participants build self-motivation needed for long-term success, by forcing their step one to be setting a quit date or creating a quit plan.

2. A mobile breath sensor. By providing participants with a mobile breath sensor, Pivot let’s people see how their smoking behavior is related to how much carbon monoxide is in their breath, in real-time. The self-insight gained here is another way to support autonomy.

3. Personal coaching with a human. Participants receive support and feedback from coaches trained in smoking cessation so that they can find motivation and build confidence and skills to make the decision to quit, in an autonomy supportive way. If they come ready to quit, participants can start building a quit plan immediately. That’s another example of autonomy support, because it’s tailored to what users want.

Let’s look into the specifics of how Pivot has been designed to support autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

A User’s Journey through Pivot

As a design strategy, Pivot supports people’s Basic Psychological Needs, by:

  1. Providing opportunities to explore their reasons for and against change and allowing people to choose from a menu of effective options for change when they’re ready (autonomy).
  2. Supporting people in cultivating the necessary skills for quitting smoking and encouraging experimentation and iteration with selected strategies (competence).
  3. Conveying empathy for the challenges inherent in tackling difficult behavior change and offering support during setbacks (relatedness).

There are six phases to the Pivot program

1. Explore (nine days). During their first week, participants take samples with the Pivot Breath Sensor, log cigarettes, get to know their coach and complete daily activities to understand their smoking patterns (autonomy) and explore how smoking affects their lives (autonomy). This stage is designed for anyone who smokes (autonomy), to raise awareness and interest (autonomy) in moving forward.

2. Build (one to 28 days). This stage is tailored to the user and is variable in length, depending on the user’s readiness to quit (autonomy). For those interested in quitting, Build helps develop skills and a quit plan to improve their chance of success (competence). For those who are not ready, Build provides up to four weeks of coaching, motivation, confidence, and skill-building activities to support active interest in quitting (competence).

3. Mobilize (one week). Mobilize helps participants who have decided to quit complete preparations (competence). Here, they work with their health coach to finalize each item on their quit plan (such as acquiring medications, arranging support or preparing a craving kit).

4. Quit (one week). Participants make their quit attempt and endeavor to stay quit during the full week. For support, participants follow the strategies they laid out on their quit plan, with support and encouragement from the Pivot app and their personal coach (competence and relatedness).

5. Secure (11 weeks). With continued coaching support, lessons, and practice, Pivot’s newly smokefree users learn to cope with the challenges that come in the first few months after quitting (competence). Slips and relapses are managed by the participant and coach with a supportive voice, knowing that quitting is a journey over time, not a specific event (relatedness).

6. Sustain (40 weeks). Focus shifts to maintenance. Up until a year after their quit date, users continue to build skills and confidence and receive personal coaching designed to prevent relapse so they can remain smoke-free (autonomy, competence, and relatedness).

Carrot has clearly taken a holistic, need-supportive approach to designing Pivot. They designed the product as a series of interactions with a human being. And they have definitely thought of Pivot as the Designer’s Deputy. The result is not something that “adds” but in fact, something that takes away the pressure to quit immediately. By designing for their needs instead of trying to reprogram their users like faulty Roombas, Carrot has made a product that creates an environment where the human beings using it can feel supported instead of coerced. And one where the people using the product can learn to give a damn about themselves, because the designers have so clearly communicated they give a damn about the people using their product.

Just Be a Great Host

“The role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests.” ― Charles Ormond Eames, Most Influential Designer — with his wife, Ray — of the 20th Century

The first job Stevo had when he got to San Francisco was selling furniture for Design Within Reach. He didn’t know anything about mid-century modern design. Or furniture. But when he walked into work every day, overhead in giant type was Charles Eames’s answers to 29 questions posed to him by the curator of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais de Louvre. She wanted to know “What is Design?” And every time he passed under it, Stevo read Mme. L. Amic’s final question to Mr. Eames:

Q: What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of Design and for its propagation?

A: A recognition of need.

Many human problems are solvable. Yet the solutions depend upon the people using them to endorse those solutions willingly, enthusiastically, and organically. And the adoption of a product depends on how well our relationship with that product supports our Basic Psychological Needs. We have to learn to give a damn about any product. But all too often designers fail to recognize those needs and think that building a solution should be all it takes.

Smoking cessation programs work and help people stay alive longer. But it takes supporting people’s Basic Psychological Needs so they actually want to use them. That is the lesson of SDT and was the guiding idea behind Pivot. Communicate you care. And as Charles Eames said, be a great host.

You too might have a great product that works. You just might be struggling to get people to use it for long enough, or in the right way. So how will you communicate that you care? How will you be a great host?

A great host is someone genuinely interested in the experience of the people they’re hosting. It’s an iterative process of learning more about your guests and catering to their needs, especially their Basic Psychological Needs. Being a great host is a process of showing people what “being better” looks like, then slowly finding out how to support the needs of the people who want to make that journey with tools that support them along the way.

And no, the process is not sexy. It’s learning and teaching. It’s being so interested in the experience of other people that they become interested in their own experience. That they become self-determined to be the better people they hoped they could be, and that they hoped you believed they could be.

When you work this way; when you communicate instead of demand; when you think about making relationships instead of “adding features”; you’ll find it also supports your own needs. Because people actually do want to give a damn about your solution — and will — if they feel like you’ve seen a better version of them than they knew was possible. The fruit of that relationship is where their motivation will come from. You can’t reprogram them because Motivation Science is not a Computer Science, it’s a Life Science. But you can be a great host because now you know what they need.

Practical Motivation Science

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


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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