Motivating Others: Why "It's Good for You" Doesn't Work

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September 29, 2006
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"What matters is what they do when the clicking stops." That was the central theme in the New Media Interaction Design courses I taught at UCLA Extension (Entertainment Studies dept). We all want to motivate our users (customers, learners, kids, employees, members, etc.), but motivate them for what? What do we hope they'll do when they stop clicking/listening/reading? More importantly, how do we make it happen?

Question 1: What do we want our users to do?

And no, we don't get to say, "know more." That's not an action. "Like us more" is not an action. Even my favorite, "kick ass" is not an action. How many people take a course in Design Patterns and then go right back to work and write the same clunky code, reinventing the flat tire? How many customers interact with a web app and then... just leave? How many people say they care deeply about a cause, but do nothing beyond bumper-sticker activism? How many people listen to a lecture on the dangers of smoking, but keep smoking?

There is nearly always an action (or set of actions) you're hoping users will take, and most of you already know what that is. But we also know that this sometimes involves a change in behavior, something that's extremely hard to do. So it's really the next question that matters more:

Question 2: How do we motivate them to do it?

That's where broccoli and optimism come in (I promise I'll get there in a moment).

We all know we can't simply slap motivation on another person. All we can do is design an experience to help them motivate themselves. If we get them to spend time on our web site, and they have a good experience, but then leave without doing anything--and never come back--does it really matter that they had a Good User Experience? Is a good experience an end in itself, or is it a means to something else? For much of what we design, what matters is what happens when the clicking stops (or for many web apps, just before the clicking stops).

So, we really have two levels of motivation... motivation to interact and motivation to do something as a result of that interaction. Motivation to interact is something we've talked about quite a bit here... things like the flow state, levels/superpowers, spiral experience design, painting a compelling picture with clear steps to getting there, blah blah blah. This post is about inspiring post-interaction action.

And it all comes back to broccoli. And optimism. The main points are:

1) Trying to motivate someone to action by telling them it's good for them doesn't... actually... work.There's way too much statistical evidence (not that any of us need more evidence than our own personal experience), that not only is "... because it's good for you" NOT motivating, even the extreme case of, "... because you will DIE if you don't..." often fails! Smoking, weight loss, lack of exercise, too much alcohol or drugs. We all know what is and isn't "good for us," yet too many of us still aren't motivated enough to DO something about it. So we must ask ourselves:

"If people don't aren't motivated to make changes even under the threat of death, what on earth will motivate them?" In a controversial but powerful article in Fast Company (from May 2005) called "Change or Die", there are some insights and examples. You need to read the whole thing for the full context, but this quote gives a strong hint:

"The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn't motivate -- at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?Kotter has hit on a crucial insight. "Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people's feelings," he says. "This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought."Unfortunately, that kind of emotional persuasion isn't taught in business schools, and it doesn't come naturally to the technocrats who run things -- the engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, accountants, and managers who pride themselves on disciplined, analytical thinking. There's compelling science behind the psychology of change -- it draws on discoveries from emerging fields such as cognitive science, linguistics, and neuroscience -- but its insights and techniques often seem paradoxical or irrational."

Or to put it another way, telling you to eat broccoli because it's good for you doesn't work because it doesn't invoke the right feelings.

And even the threat of death doesn't invoke the right feelings. (Not that fear isn't a powerful motivator, but it's not motivating in the ways we might think...)Which brings us back to, what does motivate?

Optimism. Hope.

In the Fast Company article, they talk about reframing / recasting the reasons why you should do something. Rather than using "it's good for you" or even the hard-to-believe-it-doesn't-work "you'll DIE if you DON'T," some health-related programs have much more success by emphasizing pleasure. From a doctor in the article: "joy is a more powerful motivator than fear."

Yes, this whole "duh" post is to reinforce the cliche: focus on the positive. (And if you're wondering why an article on making health changes is in a business magazine, you'll have to read the whole thing to see how they apply it to work behavior and culture as well, especially in the area of change.)

But what prompted me to dig out that old article was the most recent Fast Company article, Moving Pictures, about the Oscar-nominated entrepreneur Jeff Skoll, the man behind Participant Productions--"the first film company to be founded on a mission of social impact through storytelling." Skoll is also the guy who made Al Gore's new film, An Inconvenient Truth happen.

Skoll recognizes that simply "raising awareness" of issues is of little value unless people take action. From the article:

"For each project, Participant execs with nonprofit backgrounds reach out to public-sector partners, from the ACLU to the Sierra Club, for their opinions. If those partners don't think they can build an effective action campaign around the film, it's a no-go..."It can't be good-for-you spinach, or it's not going to work."

[I used broccoli instead of spinach because that whole recent Killer Spinach thing in the US wrecked the metaphor]

And here's the optimism part:"In the face of challenges ranging from global warming to threats to civil liberties, Skoll aims to inspire hope, then action. "Time and time again, you see this outpouring from people once they're made aware they can do something," he says. "That's the principle that drives this company."

And even if you're not trying to get someone to take action for social change or to save their life--something Meaningful with a capital "M"--remember that meaningful with a lowercase "m" matters too. If your software, book, or service helps me learn more, spend more time in flow, kick ass a bit more at work, or even just have fun playing a're bringing a bit more joy into my day. And THAT is meaningful to me.