I love reward programs. You know those cards you get at the local café that offer a free coffee once you’ve purchased the requisite number of cups? Each time you purchase a coffee, you get a slot checked off and you’re one step closer to getting a freebie. For some cards, you get a slot stamped each time you make a purchase, while for others, you get a slot punched.

Examples of these appear below.

Card A – each purchase is tracked as a stamp (source)

Card A – each purchase is tracked as a stamp (source)

Card B – each purchase is tracked as a punch (source)

Because I’m curious about such things, I began to wonder to what extent these different methods might influence a
person’s level of motivation to achieve the required number of purchases. Could motivation levels be influenced by something as mundane as how the slots are marked off as people make their purchases? And if so, why would that make a difference?

To answer this question, let’s consider how each method influences and drives what people pay attention to. In Card A, is more attention drawn to how many cups have been consumed or to how many cups are left, in order to achieve a free cup? How about in Card B?

In each card, the slots containing the pictures of cups have greater visual ‘weight,’ thereby making these areas more salient and attracting attention. In Card A, then, the three cups that have been stamped become most salient, whereas in Card B, the seven cups that are yet to be consumed become most salient.

Man who's had way too much coffee, but is still sleepy at his desk

So, which version would be most motivating? Which one would have the greatest influence in getting people to buy more cups of coffee in order to earn the free cup? Well, as UX professionals are often known to say, ‘it depends.’ It depends on how much progress the coffee-lover has made – or not made – thus far. And, it also depends on the math people use to calculate their level of progress to date.

Perception and the power of design

In our example, it takes ten cups of coffee to get a free cup. Every cup purchased, then, represents an incremental step forward which equates to ten percent. (Ten times ten percent equals one hundred percent.) It’s easy to assume that this is how people judge their progress – in ‘absolute’ terms – where every step forward has equal weight or value.

But is this how people do the math? How do people judge their progress? What influences their perception of progress? Well, research shows that in situations like this, people are greatly influenced by the way in which information is delivered or displayed. And because they are influenced by this, the impact of each step forward is judged in relative, rather than absolute terms.

Progress towards a goal consists of two aspects:

Let’s say someone has made marginal progress towards the goal. Which would be more motivating – to compare the value of the next step against progress to date, or against the number of steps remaining? A person who has made two purchases, for example, sees a third purchase as more impactful when she focuses on the purchases already made (e.g. adding another purchase to the two existing ones may seem like 50% progress), rather than those remaining (e.g. which removes only 12.5% of the distance to achieving the remaining purchases required).

This is not to suggest that people actually ‘do the math’ by calculating all this out. But even visually, we can see that for a person just starting out, Card B makes it seem like there’s a lot of work ahead, since it visually emphasizes all the (many) steps that remain. At the beginning, then, a focus on accumulated progress drives more motivation than a focus on remaining progress.

But toward the end of goal pursuit, a focus on remaining progress seems more motivating. Whereas the purchase of the first coffee reduces the distance to the goal by only 10% (1 out of 10 items), purchase of the last item reduces the distance by a whopping 100% (1 out of 1 remaining items). Proximity to reaching the goal increases motivation because of the perceived (large) impact of those final steps.

bornholm / Shutterstock.com

bornholm / Shutterstock.com

In both cases, though, the power of the design comes from the fact that the impact of the next individual step seems more impactful when it is compared to a smaller number of actions. (e.g., either the small number of steps already taken, or the small number of steps that remain.) Because judgments of progress are relative to what kind of comparisons people are making, the design itself plays a critical role in what people pay attention to at any given point in the process.

Progress towards a goal

Although we’ve been focusing on the topic of reward programs specifically, it’s certainly worth considering design’s influence on goal progress more generally. For example, there are many domains where helping people understand their progress against a goal is important. What is the best way to display someone’s progress? And perhaps more importantly, how could the display be utilized to drive motivation and help people achieve their goals?

Often, progress is shown in some sort of timeline or progress bar which depicts where the person is in the overall scheme of things. Similar to what we’ve seen in the reward card design, the display of a bar like this can either visually highlight one’s progress to date, or alternatively, the remaining steps required, as shown below.

Progress so far meter

Example A – Bars that highlight progress so far (source)

Example B - Bars that highlight steps remaining (source)

Example B – Bars that highlight steps remaining (source)

The progress bar could also depict progress in a more ‘neutral’ way – such that it doesn’t highlight either area – but simply shows where you are:

When these different displays were tested, a research study found that results were consistent with the visual display of the reward card design. Both example A and B were more motivating than the neutral version. Example A was more motivating when people were at the start of the process, while example B was more motivating as they neared the end of the process.

Even though each design provides the same information, each one has a different effect on perception and judgment. This means that, indeed, there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ design. Every design has an effect, even the ‘neutral’ version of the progress bar referenced above. The effect of that design, of course, is that it does nothing to influence or drive motivation. And that in itself is a significant effect!

The challenge of ‘getting started’

Likely, your mind is abuzz with how you might apply the information from this article to your business challenges. But maybe you’re wondering about how to motivate people to simply ‘get started.’ Psychologically, it’s hard to get started on something, especially when goal completion requires a number of steps. Think, for example, of the last time you made a pact with yourself to lose weight, save money, or get organized. Wasn’t it hard to even get started?

What can be done to help people? Well, how about getting started for them by offering a card with the first couple of slots already marked off? With that, their actual first step carries a lot more impact because they’re already on their way. The power of providing a head start is that it provides an illusion of progress – the illusion that the task is underway and is merely incomplete, rather than not yet begun.

Man taking a first step into the crosswalk

You can do this, of course, without changing the actual number of steps required to achieve the goal. For example, if it takes six coffee purchases to get a free cup, then design the reward card with eight slots, two of which are already checked off. It’s just a matter of ‘framing.’ The design of a card like that will surely be more motivating than a card with six slots and none checked off.

Conclusion

Hopefully by now you’re seeing that design has significant power to drive perception, motivation, and behavior. It’s tempting to assume that design is just fluff – just decorative frosting on the cake. But design is powerful, especially when you realize there’s no such thing as a neutral design. Every design has an effect.

The question is, how is your design influencing and driving customer behavior and business results? And, is it driving your business in the way you think it is, or want it to?

Comments
  • ♪ Joel Tan ♫

    I like this! Learnt this from Susan Weinschenk’s book of 100 things every designer needs to know about people. Really great idea to help people kick off their progress first! Great in-depth article btw! (:

    • Thanks Joel! Yep, it’s so interesting how, once you get an eye for UX opportunities, it seeps into all aspects of life – digital and physical =)

  • Sreekanth Unnithan

    Nice article, Colleen. I like the all the points you mentioned in the post. The design and navigation are an important factor to improve the user experience. Nicely explains the users perception and their behavior on different things and designs. Thank you for the article.