Motivational UX™ : Art Meets Science

By Brian Marr, Chief Strategy Officer
Let’s get engaged!

No, I don’t mean that kind of engaged. This is the much less exciting version. That is, unless you are into neuroscience, psychology or video games – if you are, you probably know that things are just beginning to get interesting in digital. If you don’t love those things… well, you may want to at least accept them as a way of life in the future, in the same way I’ve learned to accept statistics and calculus as an aspect of my job.

We spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing engagement and fun at Smashing Ideas. This isn’t because we can’t get over our history in game design, it’s because we know the businesses we work with think about it every day, too. That may not be entirely accurate. There is a good chance they only talk about the first one – engagement. But the truth is, when you find yourself spending more time with something, being loyal for a reason you can’t explain, or simply finding a reason to repeat the experience, your brain’s response to “fun” is what provides that motivating boost to continue. We believe that harnessing human motivation is the key to creating engagement and shaping behavior in every digital experience we create.

Motivational UX™ : the art of marketing and communications married with the science of behavior and cognitive motivation.

The past 20 years have included rapid change for the fields of technology and communications. It seems like each year, or possibly each day, we have new resources and capabilities at our fingertips. From 1-to-1 marketing to social media and gamification, the fields of technology, science and creativity have been increasingly interwoven in smart ways that allow us to engage with more people.

Motivational UX™, which we believe is the most advanced way of thinking about information and communication design to date, is the use of theories and models found in behavioral psychology, education design (where the name came from, actually), behavioral economics and game design to create higher levels of engagement, increase loyalty, and shape customer behavior toward a desired outcome. I’m fairly sure that no one at our company will claim to be a psychologist or scientist, but we’ve been applying these principles for about 18 years and are very familiar with the scientific method in the way we approach our work.

We are at a point in the industry where we have the ability to gather more information than ever about the people using our products. When planned and used correctly, we can do some very meaningful things with the information to shape behavior, encourage a next step or create the twinge of desire that forms habit or engagement. It all comes down to understanding intended outcomes, the needs and motivations of our target audiences and a bit of research and testing to optimize the idea and solution.

The concept as a whole is nothing new. You have most likely been participating in this practice for years, via some of the world’s most popular brands. Did you know that they have been quietly and methodically urging you towards increased loyalty, engagement and, ultimately, point of sale? Let’s use Expedia as an example.

If I wanted to book a hotel room, I used to just go to and just make the purchase. Now I can choose from other Expedia owned properties, including, and others like KAYAK or Booking Buddy. On my phone I can pull from a number of options including Hotel Tonight, or even AirBnB. And in a competitive market like travel, I’m likely to go for best price first, best user experience second. So how does Expedia handle this to retain their edge?

Let’s say we were going to New York, and wanted to stay in the Presidential Suite at the St. Regis (we’re spending imaginary money, so let’s go big!). Expedia lets me know that 7 other people are looking at the hotel right now, in a nice big yellow box placed where my eyes exit the screen. As humans, we are naturally inclined to avoid loss, so the use of scarcity motivates me to take action and not lose the room. By confirming the booking, I reinforced the primal need for self-sufficiency, while simultaneously sidestepping the scarcity factor.

So how do you determine where these opportunities to trigger engagement happen to be? We have spent a lot of time working on, and refining, the methodology we use to solve these engagement problems. The first step is always understanding your target audiences’ thoughts, needs and motivations. If you don’t know what they need, and you don’t know what works to intrinsically and extrinsically motivate them, it’s tough to create something that will keep them engaged. One of the ways we get to this through a group exercise called Experience Mapping, which also unearths some of the other areas of your business where you might find future opportunity. Through this shared understanding, we’re able to identify the specific areas we need to focus on to improve customer engagement.

The majority of businesses have always wanted to find ways to create long time customers, brand advocates and loyal fans. We’re just reaching a point where the tools at our disposal are beginning to give us the depth of knowledge we need to do this well, and the science fueling the approach has been taken out of the labs and been put into the hands of people who are using it in increasingly interesting and successful ways.

Hopefully this provides you with the motivation to investigate your own company’s engagement and consider the opportunities for using Motivational UX™.

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