The five key user motivators

Getting users to do what you want starts with reminding them what they want

Far too many interfaces are designed around the assumption that people want to be using them.

It's an easy mistake to make. If you're designing, say, an ecommerce site, it would be natural to assume your users have an internal drive to find a product they want, add it to their cart, and check out. If they didn't want to buy things, after all, why would they even be there?

However, shopping cart abandonment rates consistently hover around 69%, meaning more than two thirds of people who already have a product in their cart don't purchase it. (And those are just the people who actually make it to the cart in the first place. The statistics for pre-cart abandonment are gut-wrenching for anyone who works in ecommerce.)

The truth every UX designer eventually needs to wrap their head around is that people don't want to be using their interface. They'd rather be doing something else. They don't want to "add to cart and checkout." They want to have the product and be enjoying it already. Your interface is actually the obstacle between them and the thing they want.

Humans are almost always short-term thinkers. It's a little disturbing how easily we forget the big picture of what we want and instead let ourselves get distracted by pretty much anything else that grabs our attention.

This is why designing for "ease of use" just isn't enough. It's a good starting place, for sure, but simply making an interface more user-friendly isn't enough to get the results you want.

If you want users to stick around, to complete tasks, and to keep coming back, you have to keep them motivated enough to power through the obstacles toward their goals—and yes, unfortunately, even your beautiful and easy-to-use interface counts as an obstacle.

Keep in mind, though, that you don't need to create new motivations for your users. People are already motivated. You just have to remind them of the motivations they already have. If you can tap into the things they're already trying to accomplish, you can fit your solution into their existing lives instead of trying to convince them to carve out a new space for it (which almost never happens).

The five key user motivators

There are many models of human motivation out there, including Maslow's hierarchy of needs, McClelland's human motivation theory, Alderfer's ERG theory, Deci & Ryan's self-determination theory, Herzberg's two-factor theory, etc. They all do a good job of simplifying and explaining various elements of what makes people do what they do.

However, for the purposes of user experience design, I've found over the years that certain key user motivations seem to come up more frequently than others, and eventually I got them down to a list of five:

  • Security
  • Pleasure
  • Affiliation
  • Aspiration
  • Identity

By focusing on specific sppeals to these key motivators, you can help your users remember why they're using your solution in the first place, which will help them work through the various minor obstacles in a more cheerul and determined way.

User motivator: Security

The key motivator of Security is all the need for safety, stability, and control. It's about feeling like everything's going to be okay, and that you don't have to worry. Let's look at some examples of the Security motivator in action.

ADT

ADT is a pretty obvious example of using the Security motivator.

Solar City

Solar City helps you "get control," which is ultimately what the Security motivator is all about.

Career Builder

Career Builder not only helps you find the job, but they emphasize that they can do it "right now." If you've ever found yourself suddenly looking for a new job, you understand how comforting the idea of getting a job quickly can be.

WhatsApp provides a notifcation that the communication is now secured with end-to-end encryption.

Kayak provides a graph and confidence calculation, helping you feel secure about buying tickets.

Simple's online banking app calls your balance after pending transactions your "Safe-to-Spend" number.

Square

Square helps you "Start selling today" and "Take care of your business anywhere," both of which provide a sense of Security to small business owners.

Harvest

Harvest uses Security phrases implying that wasted time (which terrifies business owners) will be replaced by productivity if you use their software.

Before asking you to register, phone security app Lookout takes you on an emotional journey.

After making you freak out a little, they swoop in with the reassuring language that everything's okay.

Then, and only then, do they ask you to provide location permissions for their app.

User motivator: Pleasure

The pleasure motivator can be about simple physical and sensual pleasures, but also mental pleasures like happiness, fun, and excitement.

Chocolate manufacturers are notorious for playing up the sensual pleasures of their product (and who can blame them?)

Square appeals to your Pleasure motivator by promising that selling (a painful task for any business owner) will be "simple."

Betty Crocker proves you don't need copywriting to do all the work. Photos that imply pleasure can work just as well.

Just to make sure you don't miss the point, though, Betty Crocker provides emotionally evocative language for every recipe.

Disneyland activates your Pleasure motivator with magical promises such as "Feel the Force like never before"

Spotify uses a lot of Pleasure-evoking language throughout their experience, with phrases like "Great playlists for your afternoon."

Their station names tend to focus on the Pleasure motivator as well, using keywords like "chillout," "food," "relax," etc.

Tumblr invites you to explore "mind-blowing stuff," which implies there's a certain amount of mental adventure in store.

Burger King, like many food brands, tickles your pleasure indicator with carefully-crafted photography. (I know these would be terrible and I still want them.)

User motivator: Affiliation

The Affiliation motivator is about the human need to connect in friendships, families, romantic relationships, and communities. It's about the need to belong, to be liked, and to have other people in your life.

Obviously, dating apps like Tinder all appeal strongly to the Affiliation motivator.

Airbnb doesn't talk about renting a place to stay for the night, but rather about Affilation-oriented goals like "Join a community."

They imply that using their service will make you part of the tightly-knit tribe of locals.

When you stay at an Airbnb, they imply, you're not just an outsider anymore. Instead of being a visiting tourist, it's like you belong.

Airbnb continues this Affiliation-oriented language throughout their marketing materials. They shift the conversation so it's no longer about providing lodging accomodations, but rather about feeling like you belong to a tribe.

LinkedIn plays up the Affiliation motivator by clarifying that updates are from your connections and using phrases like "wants to connect with you."

Medium promotes the content on their site by talking not about how intelligent or fascinating it is, but that it's "worth talking about."

Lyft takes a non-verbal approach to the Affiliation motivator, implying that people who use their services have cool-looking friends.

UnderArmour appeals to our Affiliation motivators with language like "We are runners" and "We fight" (while showing a group of people running together).

Waze motivates users with Affiliation by helping them see that they're "Outsmarting traffic, together."

Twitter encourages engagement through the Affiliation motivator by implying that you'll like certain new people based on the people you already know.

Venmo puts an Affiliation spin on online payments by turning each payment into a public social activity.

Zillow knows that talking about real estate properties can only keep you so interested, so instead they focus on the "Find your way home" concept. After all, you're a lot more likely to be willing to spend time in the noble pursuit of establishing a home than you are in the process of simply looking for a house you can afford.

User motivator: Aspiration

The Aspiration motivator is about self-improvement in physical, mental, spiritual, or other ways. This can take the form of a desire to become better than one's current or past self, a desire to become better than others, or sometimes simply a desire to be perceived as better.

Lowe's "Never stop improving" is a quintessential example of appealing to the Aspiration motivator.

DuoLingo turns the Aspiration motivator into a game. You earn imaginary "lingots" for studying, which then makes you aspire to earn more.

The app also includes a variety of other Aspirational devices to keep users motivated, including XP, streaks, and daily goals.

They also give you progress reports that help you want to keep moving forward. (I mean, seriously, who wants to only be 4% fluent in a language?)

Emirates is the airline that makes you feel like you're an important, successful person who has "arrived."

The Fitbit app promises things we all aspire to, like "Sleep better"

"Manage weight" (a big aspiration for many people)

"Eat better"

And "Get active."

The app also encourages you to participate in some "friendly competition," which appeals to the "be better than others" flavor of the Aspiration motivator.

The app also includes a lot of Aspiration-related challenges, like "Take more steps than friends" and "Do everything you can to reach your daily step goal."

Coursera isn't just for people who want to learn things; it's for people who want to take the best courses in the world. Note the prestigious logos included to reinforce the Aspiration motivator.

Where their competitor CareerBuilder appeals to the Security motivator by talking about finding jobs, Monster appeals to the Aspiration motivator by talking about how you can "Get Found." The implication is that if you use Monster, you're so good that employers will come looking for you rather than the other way around. (This is the vanity side of the Aspiration motivator.)

User motivator: Identity

The Identity motivator is about what makes you you. It's the need to be unique, to offer something to the world that someone else doesn't. It's about the struggle to matter, to to be relevant, to count for something in a world with billions of other people.

Uber's "Your day belongs to you" is an interesting double-play to the two audiences they're reaching out to: passengers and drivers. For passengers, the idea is that you can quickly and easily get where you need to go, reclaiming your time and freedom. The phrase could also appeal to the Identity motivator for potential Uber drivers who are tired of working for someone else and want to do their own thing on their own schedule.

BBC appeals to the Identity motivator to promote the idea of creating your own personal newsfeed, based around the topics you choose.

Like the BBC, Medium strongly appeals to the Identity motivator with language like "Make Medium yours," "more of the things you want," and "Follow your interests."

Tumblr invokes the Identity motivator by offering to let you "Be who you want."

Upwork asks "Where will great work take you?" and suggests that you "work with someone perfect for your team," appealing to your sense uniqueness and relevance.

VolunteerMatch heavily uses the Identity motivator to encourage users to take action, with language like "good people," "a cause that lights you up," "a nonprofit that needs you," "What do you care about?" and "I care about...."

Putting it all together

The five key user motivators (Security, Pleasure, Affiliation, Aspiration, and Identity) can be used in a variety of ways throughout almost any interface. Through careful word choice, image selection, etc., you can remind your users of the motivations they already have, and increase their momentum and desire to keep engaging with the experience you've designed for them. The idea behind this isn't that you're trying to emotionally manipulate you're users. Instead, you're trying to remind them of the things that they want deep down, which will help them stay motivated and focused on moving forward instead of getting distracted by whatever else happens to float through their head in the middle of that experience.

It's an important design technique that can significantly affect user behavior overall, keeping your users engaged and active. You're not designing for robots, after all. Human beings are emotional creatures. And beyond that, it would be presumptuous to assume that people will use your interface "just because." In reality, people do things to help them achieve one or more of a handful of underlying motivators that are common in cultures around the world. And if it's fundamental to humanity, you can bet it's fundamental to UX and user-centered design.

James Archer

About James Archer

James Archer is a respected author, speaker, and consultant on the subjects of user experience design, customer experience design, design thinking, marketing, and branding. He has worked on projects for clients like Microsoft, Walmart, Motorola, and Yahoo, and projects he's worked on have appeared in U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Businessweek, Entrepreneur, New York Times, AdAge, NPR, and others. Learn more about James