The Rise of Motivational Technologies

By Anna Ho, Senior Strategist

“Persuasive technologies”, a term coined by Stanford researcher, BJ Fogg, is used to broadly describe interactive technologies designed to shape user behavior through persuasive tactics or social responses. That adaptive website designed to help make shopping easier or mobile app designed to help you learn a new skill through game design principles, are all examples of persuasive technologies and their growing prevalence in everyday life.

The work of Fogg and other researchers exploring the impact and design of persuasive technologies have been influential in our modern day understanding of how technology can shape human behavior. For example, behavior, according to Fogg’s model, is a function of a person’s motivation, ability, and trigger, an external or internal factor that prompts the target behavior.

This understanding of the factors that influence behavior are no longer limited to behavior experts and designers. Increasingly, with the advancement of smart technologies, consumers have become savvier about what technology can do, and more specifically, what technology can do for them.

As Accenture found in their 2017 Digital Consumer Survey, digital consumers worldwide are more ready to utilize adaptive technologies, including AI-driven tools, that use personal data for hyper-personalized services like health assistance or trip planning.

This increasing readiness for smart products and services that empower consumers to achieve specific goals marks the advent of a new era in technology, something I characterize as the the rise of motivational technologies.


What are motivational technologies?

Motivational technologies, more explicitly than persuasive technologies, are a form of interactive technology designed to appeal to a user’s intrinsic motivations, empowering them to achieve a desired habit or outcome. Moreover, motivational technologies are holistically designed to activate lasting behavior change, not just shape behavior at a specific point of interaction.

It’s the smart fitness band that motivates you to keep up your fitness streak. It’s the connected toothbrush that helps you build better oral healthcare habits. It’s the personal finance app that helps you be smarter with your money.


How do you make your technology motivational?

Motivational technologies leverage the intrinsic motivations of users and help them achieve their desired outcomes. The key to uncovering your customers’ motivations is a human-centered approach to design, such as Smashing’s Motivational UX™ framework.

A human-centered approach to design like that of Motivational UX™ ensures that instead of immediately focusing on what your product can do, your team is asking, what does the user want to gain from our product or service?


An example: making mindful breathing more motivational.

A piece of persuasive technology that I use every day and am quite fond of is my Apple Watch. Admittedly though, I mostly use it to keep tabs on incoming messages, news alerts, and calendar events. I affectionately refer to it as my glorified pager.

Apple has been very successful at getting me to incessantly swipe at notifications and glance at my watch screen. Helping me to stay active, motivated, and connected, however, not so much.

This, to me, is where persuasive technologies like the Apple Watch fall short. The promise and potential to improve my behavior for the better is there, but the smart wearble fails to make a lasting impact. Part of the problem is that while the features of the watch speak to my inherent desire to be healthier and more productive, the actual experience of using these apps are not as impactful.

Based on my experience, there are a number of opportunities to make Apple Watch apps more motivational. One place I would start is Apple’s Breathe app, an app that I love but rarely use. Breathe, one of the new features of watchOS3, is designed to help me be more mindful throughout the day, guiding me through a series of deep breathing exercises. By default, the app will prompt me to start a breathing session every five hours; this timing can be adjusted through the Apple Watch app on my iPhone.


What do I love about the Breathe app?

The animation, a pulsating blossom, elegantly shrinks and grows, guiding me to take slow, measured breaths. Each cue to inhale is underscored by a gentle buzz to my wrist.  I find the dual reinforcement of the animation and haptics very effective in helping me focus on my breathing.

Why do I rarely use the app? 

Since the start of this year, I’ve only logged two mindful breathing sessions with the app. This is disappointing because I genuinely enjoy these mindful breathing sessions and am a firm believer in the power of mindfulness.

Then, why don’t I use this app more often?

In theory, all the key factors that prime me to use the app are in place. I am motivated; I have the ability; the app routinely “triggers” a session every five hours.

The problem is, though Apple designers crafted an engaging guided breathing experience, the app presumes I have a desired routine (e.g., practice a mindful breathing exercise every 5 hours), when really, my desire is to integrate mindful breathing into my existing routine.

Apple’s Breath app is an example of smart, persuasive technology that would benefit from a more comprehensive user-centered approach like Motivational UX™, one that effectively integrates my intrinsic desire to be more mindful and more importantly, why.

So, how would I make a smart app like Breathe more motivational? I’d begin with these two key Motivational UX™ principles.



I want a product that works for me. | The problem with the app is that whenever I get a reminder to Breathe, I’m usually in a meeting or in the middle of something and reflexively dismiss the reminder. It would be great if the app were more context aware. For example, using my calendar as a guide, how about a reminder to Breathe in-between scheduled meetings or even better, when the watch detects that my BPM (when sedentary) is higher than average? Scheduled breath reminders may work for someone aiming to build a very specific routine, however, time for me is not a relevant trigger. I want to be reminded to be mindful when I’m in the throes of a busy day, when I’m less likely to be mindful and be attuned to the present. My goal is not to be mindful at the same time every day. It’s simply to be more mindful every day.


Challenge & Reward.

I want to master a skill. | I’ve practiced mindful breathing even before I started using the Breathe app. However, I do not do this consistently, and that is why I look to the app to help me integrate the mindful exercise into my day. I can check how many “mindful minutes” I’ve logged through Apple’s Health app. The problem is I have to open up a separate app to see this information. The Breathe app itself does  little to motivate me to track and increase my mindful breathing sessions beyond an optional weekly summary on my watch, which I of course, habitually ignore.

The issue is that while I may be intrinsically motivated to practice mindful breathing exercises more regularly, I require more extrinsic motivators, perhaps in the form of a weekly challenge, that give me a clear goal to work towards.


Meaningful technology is motivational.

As persuasive technology products designed to influence user behavior continue to flood the market, consumers, overwhelmed with options, will increasingly look to smart, motivational technologies that overtly speak to their intrinsic goals and demonstrate a track record for helping users achieve long-term behavior change.

The ability for technology to augment human behavior is no longer a question for consumers. Consumers, more and more, look to technology to help them change for the better. Meaningful and lasting change, however, can only come from an understanding of what drives users and what they want to achieve.

The digital landscape is ripe for innovations in motivational technologies. Will your digital product or service be one of them?


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