Motivation and need in experience design

21 October, 2013     / / /

The shape of experiences are defined by the time and spaces they occupy, and even Doctor Who knows that moving through time and space requires energy. But real people don’t have two hearts and a TARDIS to push them forward through the space and time of the experiences we design. Real people are either pushed or pulled through experiences by other forces. Information architecture needs to get to grips with these forces and start using motivation and need in experience design.

Push me, pull you

I’ve written before about motivation being hugely important to the way I design experiences. Without motivation, designed experience lack soul and direction. And I think that experiences continue only for as long as they are motivated. This observation led me to thinking about two different type of motivating forces – extrinsic and intrinsic motivation – the push and pull of experience design.

Extrinsic motivation pushes experiences forward and exists externally from the experience. Designing experiences isn’t rocket science. But these experiences remind me of rocket propulsion because some external factor sets a user off on a course. These are usually task-based experiences. They allow the user to bring a whole set of context to the experience, including motivation.

With this sort of experience the ‘user’ knows what they need to do and they have a compelling reason for doing it. The motivation for completing this sort of task stands apart from the experience itself. If someone needs to complete a task, you can make it easier or more difficult, but most of the time the energy required to complete the task has been provided by someone or something else. All you need to do is ensure that the barriers to completion cannot exceed this ‘external motivation’.

Other experiences are different, they have intrinsic motivation, and sometimes need it. These experiences have motivation at their core. To succeed they need to provide and sustain ‘energy’, and when they’re successful these experiences continue to pull you forward. Rather than rocket propulsion the forces here are more like a carrot used to motivate a truculent ass.

Maybe it’s true that some experiences will proceed (and often succeed) thanks to extrinsic motivation, things external to the experience that initiate and push it forward. But we miss a trick when we don’t try to bake intrinsic motivation and need into the products and experiences we’re designing.

A means to an end

I think it’s probably because I’m an information architect, but thinking about motivation makes me think about boxes and arrows. Motivation is one of the possible connections between the boxes. As a designer I think it’s easy to be arrogant, lazy or misguided and blindly assume an experience will flow, without asking why one box will lead a user to another. In the case of extrinsic motivation this might be the case, but it might not. It’s much too easy to design a system made up of parts that connect technologically, but not motivationally. Without considering motivation, you can’t guarantee there will be enough ‘energy in the system’ to get a user from one page or stage to another. Even with an extrinsically motivated experience, the energy that initiates the experience will dissipate as it progresses. Unless your design is optimised to be ‘energetic’ you can’t assume the experience will be successful.

An arrow from A to B with the question 'why' between.

Staying motivated keeps a smile on my face.

I think too many designs are optimised with only extrinsic motivation in mind. Information architecture in particular has been designed to reduce drag, to lower barriers to completion. But this doesn’t add to the intrinsic motivation baked into our products. Too often we rely on the user pushing themselves through our products. Information architecture, as the connective tissue that binds products and experiences together should be doing more to add to the ‘pull’ part of the products we design. IA shouldn’t just reduce drag, it should help to propel users forwards.

Again maybe it’s because I’m an information architect, but I think that the optimisation of design for extrinsically motivated experiences might owe something to a taxonomic mindset. It’s only a theory, but information architecture has been focused on defining and describing. We’ve specialised in the ‘what’. I think now that we’ve got greater access to tools like linked data, and web technologies have grown up a bit, information architecture can start to build a layer of ‘why’ on top of the ‘what’.

I’ve got a well worn metaphor that talks about how information architecture driven using a taxonomic mindset can result in sites that resemble of series of ladders. They arrange content at varying heights, but they offer limited visibility of the system as a whole. Thinking about it, this metaphor stretches nicely to thinking about motivation. We’ve optimised for journeys with a single trajectory that sees users pushed forward towards a limited range of goals. But what if we can arrange our information architecture to support multiple paths, with the IA providing motivation that pulls the user forward towards a sequence of self-selected goals?

The story of need…

If we’re just a little more ambitious we can transform the taxonomic thinking into a fundamentally richer variety of information architecture. Stories are taxonomic. Cause leads to effect. They’re linear. They reduce the range of potential futures to a single resolution. But you know this isn’t the whole story. Every single story has a rich set of connectivity

A lot of the time life can be a little bewildering. The experiences that we design are no exception. I think we all make sense of the world by constructing stories. We connect cause to effect, attach some meaning and place this into evolving narratives. And stories aren’t just a tool of post-rationalisation that we use to reflect and understand the past, as we proceed in experiences we also tend to make sense of them using this sort of thinking.

Bernard Cribbins might be the reason I love stories so much...

Bernard Cribbins might be the reason I love stories so much…

We’re hardwired to think in stories, and most of the time stories are about conflict and need. Think of any story and you can identify the gap between the state of affairs at the beginning and how things are at the end. Stories focus us on the presentation and resolution of conflict – in this sense, stories break down into the same task-based chunks that typify extrinsically motivated experience.

I started this post drawing a distinction between the two types of motivation that move experiences forward. I wanted to stress difference. But now I’ve done that it seems increasingly important to stress the value of combining the two types of motivation, using them to tell the user the story of their need.

Some experiences are always going to be a means to an end. A great deal of the experiences that information architects have crafted have traditionally been this sort of thing. It’s fair to say that most people use technology not for what it is, but for what it does. IAs have worked hard to get people to their goal as painlessly as possible. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be ambitious, and try to make these experiences pleasurable in their own right. For the third time, maybe it’s because I’m an information architect (and stories are important to us), but I feel like thinking in terms of stories might help us.

We need to design experiences that have a clarity that enables the user to tell themselves the story of their experience as it evolves. We need to provide the push and pull factors that signpost how a user can connect causes to effects, keeping their motion forward in the experience motivated. We need to construct information architecture that helps to tell the user the story of their need. It’s no longer enough to focus on optimising for one type of motivation. We need to understand the needs that our experiences can address. We need to help users identify their need. We need to motivate users.

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