Hacking Motivation

We’re building a lot of digital ‘stuff’ at the moment and as I’ve mentioned in my last few posts, there are a lot of factors often overlooked in the conception and creation of the things we build. I’ve talked at length about Designing to overcome Fears & I’ve talked a bit about the different types of Problem Solving that help us evolve. But the third and possibly most important pillar of Design is ‘Motivation’.

You know that sense of drive that energizes our actions? Important goals can take a frustrating amount of time and effort to achieve. And the mere thought of such exertion can be enough to put someone off a particular task.

It’s often believed that motivation is a state that is strictly psychological, but it’s not, it’s also biochemical.

All the recent advances in neuroscience suggest that motivation ultimately boils down to competing signals in the brain and being motivated influences the outcome of this competition – Simply put, an audiences drive to do something arises from the brain’s calculations of what we can expect to get out of it (the pros) and at what cost (the cons).

The big D

Motivation is one of the most interesting behaviours for Human Centred Design to consider and account for. What inspires people to push forward? What invisible force keeps you accountable despite boredom and roadblocks? To trace the source of motivation, let’s begin in the brain where neurotransmitters spark chemical messages to keep us alert and on task. One specific neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in motivation is my favourite one – Dopamine.

I talked about Dopamine last year during my SXSW talk. It’s one of those hot topics.

Dopamine is forever linked to salacious stories of sex, drugs and wild partying in the popular press. It’s the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters if you like – SXSW14

Dopamine’s reputation for being a pleasure neurotransmitter is well-earned because it’s basically true. Dopamine IS the brain’s pleasure chemical. But assuming that’s all it does would be missing the complete story. Dopamine’s impact on the body is felt in many many different areas, including reward, memory, behavior and cognition, attention, sleep, mood, learning and finally motivation.

Dopamine’s chemical signal gets passed from one neuron to the next, interacting with various receptors inside the synapse between the two neurons. For motivation specifically, it matters which pathway dopamine takes. The mesolimbic pathway, which originates in the middle of the brain and branches to various places like the cerebral cortex, is the most important reward pathway in the brain. One of the mesolimbic’s stops is the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is critically involved in anticipating potential reward. Your brain recognizes that something important — good or bad — is about to happen, thus triggering the motivation to do something about it.

Dopamine actually performs its task before we obtain rewards and not after we reach a goal, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and motivate us to achieve or avoid something bad.

Behavioural neuroscientist John Salamone confirmed the link in an animal study on rats who were given the choice of one pile of food or another pile of food twice the size but behind a small fence. The rats with lowered levels of dopamine almost always took the easy way out, choosing the small pile instead of jumping the fence for greater reward.

In another study a team of Vanderbilt scientists put audiences through Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans which measure dopamine activity in different parts of the brain. They discovered that “go-getters”, (those willing to work harder for rewards) had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex — two areas known to impact motivation and reward. Whereas in “slackers” dopamine was more present in the anterior insula, an area of the brain that is involved in emotion and risk perception.

So it’s scientifically proven that if we can design ways of encouraging an audience to persevere and push forward in small incremental ways, we can do incredibly powerful things. However if our designed services stop short of pushing the audience over that threshold, then we may inadvertently have created the reverse effect.

“We don’t need no stinking badges

Rewards‘ have long been touted as a compelling incentive that drives people to dig deeper and return more. While this may make sense for repetitive tasks & linear problem solving, rewards don’t quite resonate when any kind of rudimentary cognitive skill is needed to complete the task – or non-linear problem solving.

In 1945 a cognitive performance test was published called the “candle problem,”. Subjects were given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a box of matches, and asked to fix the lit candle to the wall so that it will not drip wax onto the table below. The test evaluates problem-solving capabilities.

A few decades later, Princeton University’s Sam Glucksberg examined the power of rewards by asking different groups of people to solve the candle problem. To the first group, Glucksberg explained that his study’s purpose was to obtain the estimated time people needed to find an adequate solution for the problem. To the second group, he offered a cash incentive depending on how quickly one could come up with solutions. It took the latter group 3.5 minutes longer to solve the candle problem.

Glucksberg’s research found that incentives and rewards lead to worse performance because “the reward actually narrows your focus and restricts the possibility”.

Designing a ‘belief’ mechanism

Experiencing self-belief causes a surge of dopamine; so a positive self-image can be a really powerful motivator. Find a function, a piece of content or build in a mechanism that encourages an audience to find and identify their positives and when new positives are achieved. Make sure it allows them to form mental movies of themselves feeling motivated and achieving their goals.

Being told they are performing well releases dopamine too – so designing that system of feedback which continuously gives the audience a virtual thumbs up is a really important thing. It’s why I love the Push Notification feature on mobile phones – it’s the most incredible way of letting someone know, periodically, that they’re doing really well at something. Use and abuse it. In marketing terms it’s the new CRM.

Another good way of designing out functions that play to an audiences belief system is to recognise the different types of motivation that drive all the experiences we create. The following model attempts to show the 3 primary motivations and their interlocking principles.


Can motivation be hacked?

Most people will never feel very motivated to begin something. But the way that the brain works is that it will naturally start to produce dopamine as you begin to get things done.

Great things never came from comfort zones.

The brain actually gets fed from bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences, but not by rewards themselves. You create the dopamine environment, and the brain does the rest.

We also have far greater control over the signals in our head that we might imagine so by designing experiences that have smaller incremental goals and by breaking every indomitable task into a group of smaller goals, the dopamine will build up as the audience achieves through each tiny step towards the end and prolonged motivation will occur.

Start by picking out a tiny, easy part of the overall stack of tasks to start the audience with. This is absolutely crucial. Because dopamine bombs are dropped every time you achieve something, no matter how small it is and because the brain enjoys frequent positive feedback, letting it know things are progressing towards a final goal, encourages the dopamine flow even when it’s only a small step.

The dopamine boost you’ll get from that initial achievement will leave you feeling buzzed — and pave the way to you doing more.

By designing experiences that have a lot of small feedback loops, what we are doing is rewiring the brain to attach a dopamine response to all the little steps and not just the big ones.

Self-fulfilling needs

The other key to getting your audience to be motivated and to persevere with a task is to understand what motivates them in the first place – so why not start every new experience by asking them that very question and then acting on it.

People’s motivation can be anything from “I want to be financially secure” to “I want to send my son to the best school possible”. The secret to success is building trust by asking the questions that uncover that truth. This may seem easy enough, but the problem is we never actually ask that question. Furthermore, if someone does tell us their needs, we have an obligation to always be thinking about how we can help them achieve those goals, which is going to take an incredibly intelligent system to fulfil.

Mastery should be witnessed

When you can see progress in your effort, it further motivates you. Progress is the single most powerful motivator in meaningful work. Put quite simply, people want to see how far they’ve come.

When signs of that progress is missing, motivation quickly dwindles.

If there’s anything we can do to increase the flow of dopamine like reinforcing positive feedback through incremental progress, embrace it – tell people every day how close they are to achieving their goal or finishing their task. Along with this, we must also build in indications of how much effort is involved to complete a task or solve a problem.


Sometimes, the cure for low motivation may simply be old-school determination and perseverance, encouraging our audiences to stick with what they’re doing even when they may not want to. However, they’ll only do that if they have an idea of how long something is going to take and how much blood and sweat will be needed to get to it. So it’s back to my old principle of ‘Transparency’ and ‘openness’ again.

Motivation is the combination of desire, values, and beliefs. It’s those things that drive our audiences to take action and then see it through to a conclusion. These three motivating factors, and/or lack of them, are at the root of why people behave the way they do, so in the planning stages of your product or project, make sure you factor in a way of capturing and then acting on the knowledge you collect.

Ultimately when an audience is in control of their values, beliefs and desires, we can get the dopamine flowing and influence the motivations.

So just to conclude – In your design work, when you’re asking audiences to set-up goals make sure that you are considering and baking in the following rules to help make sure that you’re hacking motivation appropriately;

All tasks and goals should be:

  • Realistic: Goals should be based on their abilities and circumstances.
  • Possible: Don’t establish constraints that make the realistic, unrealistic.
  • Flexible: Help the audience anticipate bumps in the road and then help then to work around them.
  • Measurable: Give them a target in mind so they know when they have reached their goal.
  • Under your control: Set goals based on their values, interests, and desires. Target things where they can control the outcome.

Some great reading about Motivation;

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