Tuesday, May 23, 2006
design for motivation
Differences in user motivation are vastly under-emphasized in design research, as I realized last year when I tried, unsuccessfully, to learn to wear contact lenses at age 43. Millions of other people successfully learn to wear contacts, while I found contacts a ridiculously difficult product to use. To the extent people talk about differences in motivation to learn to use new products, it is typically done through the un-insightful language of marketing, talking about early adopters and laggards. People are "segmented" along a mythical bell curve, but we never know why they end up where they are placed.
It may seem strange to suggest that user motivation is mysterious. Major corporations spend billions of research dollars trying to unlock the secrets of what makes us want to use a product. There are plenty of solid insights on why we buy products, but we still don't really understand our relationship to products, the reasons why we choose use or not use them after purchase.
What is missing in grand approaches that confidently promise to "design compelling user experiences" is consideration of the real the differences in peoples' adoption of and adaptation to a design. The "compelling experiences" approach places the design in the role of hypnotist: an expected behavior is induced automatically and predictably by the suggestion (the design.) But we know that even with the simple behaviors commanded by the hypnotists, only a minority are susceptible to the suggestion.
Psychologists agree there are two basic types of motivation: intrinsic, and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation relates to doing an activity for itself (no reward is offered, the activity is inherently enjoyable to the person), while extrinsic motivation relates to goals beyond those inherent in an activity, where rewards are offered as an inducement. Psychologists acknowledge that extrinsic rewards are very powerful motivations for inducing a short term behavior. But for people chasing extrinsic rewards, "compliance" worsens over the longer term when compared with intrinsically motivated individuals. Extrinsic rewards can become demotivating, offering decreasing psychic payoff over time, and also can become a distraction to doing the central task (people focus more on getting the reward than on the task itself.)
A classic intrinsically motivating activity is rock climbing. You scale up a rock, you scale down a rock, and you have nothing to show for it, unless cut hands count. Why do people bother, one might ask? And how to make make money selling to rock climbers?
Significantly, when designers look to make something more motivating, they often look to add extrinsic rewards. We can see this in gaming, where the reward is reaching a new level. Gamers often treat what level they have reached as a bragging right. The accomplishment is getting the external validation of a new level. Gamers can even try to cheat the computer with insiders' shortcuts in order to progress faster. Once the treadmill of level advancement stops, interest in game may be over.
Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is more about enlargement of activities through self-directed choice. The role of the designer in facilitating the user's ability realize a richer, self-directed experience is that much more subtle, and the results less automatic. An example of such self-direction is what Kathy Sierra calls "superpowers": letting users do things they couldn't do before. There is a reward, but it essentially the activity itself. We are assuming users really want to do these things for their own sake, rather than to boast about having the superpower. We see how once exotic software capabilities loose their cool status once everyone can use them. Exclusivity is not an intrinsic motivator, even if makes people feel they are superpowerful. But other tools, like wikis, are truly empowering, and making them simpler and more widely accessible is part of making them more rewarding.
Intrinsic motivation is an important concept because it challenges the assumption that everyone will be interested in doing something, if only given the proper inducements. In an informal and highly motivating presentation to a UPA gathering in here Wellington yesterday, Kathy Sierra talked about the role challenge plays in motivation. Drawing on Csikszentmihalyi's flow concept, the balancing of challenge and capabilities, Kathy spoke about how much she enjoys Sudoku. There are Sudoku puzzles for all levels of ability. One can master one level, and move to the next. But it doesn't follow that everyone loves a challenge. I'm left cold by logic puzzles (reminds me too much of school) even though I can do some and am challenged by many of them. My intrinsic motivation for doing logic puzzles isn't there.
Even intrinsic motivation isn't a single value. We can have stronger or weaker intrinsic motivation, or even, quite commonly, conflicted motivation. Few pursuits are absent of trade-offs, and we often are torn by these, even if sometimes we aren't even consciously aware of what other desires undermine our commitment to a goal we are thinking about.
The table below is an attempt to estimate the effects design can have on various states of intrinsic motivation. In general the possibility that design will deflate our motivation is stronger than its potential to supercharge our motivation. As an example, an old wooden tennis racket might frustrate a novice tennis player, who might do well with a newer design that has a light carbon fiber frame and a bigger racket head. The wooden racket is demotivating, but the new racket is motivating only so far as it facilitates a feeling of minimal competence. But I don't think the improved design is causing more people to become interested in learning to play tennis, even if it is sightly easier today than it was a generation ago.
Many factors involved in a user's intrinsic motivation lie outside the scope of a design, especially where user goals are more diffuse and involve personally constructed meanings. The technique of laddering, successively asking "why?" in response to personal to statements about goals, can reveal that the correspondence between user tasks and broader life goals is rather tangled. A product may contribute to a one goal, but is often not sufficient in itself to achieving that goal. At the same time, the product might even detract from other goals, by consuming time, money or emotional energy. With things so complex, it is small wonder that designers focus on the external rewards of a design -- promising popularity or prestige.