Motivation matters: The importance of intrinsic motivation in behavioral change app design

Designing a mobile app to help create lasting changes in behavior is a difficult challenge. New research suggests that a measure of motivation – the Intrinsic Motivation Index score (IMI) – could play an important role in any solution.

One increasingly popular use of mobile apps is to help people change behavior. Whether it is improving health and well-being, boosting performance at work, encouraging more responsible behavior as a citizen, or endeavoring to live a more sustainable life, for example, there is likely to be an app for it.

The impetus for change may stem from the individual, as part of their personal development, or from organizations seeking to influence people’s behavior. Even some nations, such as China with its social credit system, have experimented with app driven behavioral change on a national scale.

Either way, as anyone who has used this kind of an app will appreciate, while short-term gains are more easily attainable, changing long-term behavior is often much more difficult. People may be motivated enough to adopt a particular behavior for a limited period, but have trouble keeping up that behavior over the longer term.

Nevertheless, this does not prevent app developers from assembling multidisciplinary teams and expending significant sums of money in their attempts to improve the efficacy of these apps. Not least because of the potential commercial opportunities and rewards on offer if they are successful.

Despite their efforts, however, the perfect design remains elusive. For example, behavior oriented apps frequently incorporate a wide-ranging of features such as reward systems and other elements intended to motivate individuals to change. These motivational features are often highly visible as part of an app’s marketing materials, but evidence to support their efficacy in terms of lasting behavioral change is unproven.

A step in the right direction

Mauro Cherubini (HEC Lausanne-UNIL, Department of Information Systems) and his research colleagues Gabriela Villalobos-Zuñiga (HEC Lausanne-UNIL, Department of Information Systems), Marc-Olivier Boldi (HEC Lausanne-UNIL, Department of Operations) and Riccardo Bonazzi (HES-SO Wallis), set out to investigate the effectiveness of some motivational features commonly used in apps. Specifically they looked at the impact of monetary rewards and motivational statements on the physical activity levels (in terms of target daily steps taken) of a group of some 200 people. The 10 month study period was divided into three stages before, during and after the application of an intervention.

The authors speculated that the success of any mobile app motivational features would be linked to certain behavioral science theories relating to motivation. In particular, Self-Determination Theory and the idea that long lasting behavioral change is more likely when an intervention addresses three basic human needs: autonomy; competence; and relatedness.

Theoretically there is a link between motivation, self-determination, and sustained behavioral change. The motivation to do something can be either extrinsic or intrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated, you undertake an activity because you find it inherently interesting or enjoyable. If you are extrinsically motivated, you pursue that activity for other reasons. You might go running because you like to run and it makes you feel good (intrinsic motivation), or because you want to lose weight (extrinsic motivation).

The greater the intrinsic motivation, the more likely an individual is to engage in a behavior over the long-term. Equally, according to Self-Determination Theory, the degree of autonomy or control perceived by an individual, that is associated with any motivational intervention, could well have an impact on motivation, and therefore on behavioral change. This suggests that people are more likely to keep going running if they freely choose to run, rather than if they feel the need to go for an external reason, or are told or even encouraged to go.

And this is what Cherubini and his research colleagues’ study showed. Participants, divided up into four groups, received different interventions. Two groups were targeted with rewards: a small daily fixed reward for achieving 10,000 steps (FIX group); or a ticket for a weekly prize draw each time the daily 10,000 steps target was achieved (LOT group). A third group (POW) received randomly selected motivational messages, such as “Your friends will notice the changes if you exercise more” and “Walking cuts the effects of obesity-promoting genes by half”, prior to their daily activities. While a fourth control group were not the target of an intervention.

Key to the study, participants completed a simple questionnaire to assess their level of intrinsic motivation (Intrinsic Motivation Index score) before, during and after the intervention.

Intrinsic motivation matters

The study findings were highly instructive for anyone involved in designing behavioral change software. The most significant indicator of the desired behavioral change was the IMI score. The higher the IMI score, the more steps taken. Interventions disrupted the positive correlation between IMI scores and behavioral outcomes. In the case of the study they did so in a negative way. On average, the introduction of rewards and motivational statements led to a decrease in physical activity rather than improving performance in a sustained way.

However, this does not mean that these types of interventions could not contribute positively to behavior change. Just that they did not in this instance. In fact the evidence from the study suggests that a more tailored approach to similar interventions may be more successful. Within the FIX group individuals with lower initial IMI scores did show improvements in physical activity levels relative to individuals with higher IMI scores.

For a person with a low initial IMI score it is easy to imagine how the prospects of a monetary reward, even if small, might outweigh any adverse effect from perceptions of a lack of autonomy. Whereas, individuals already highly motivated to exercise might easily perceive a small monetary reward as an unnecessary, almost insulting, inducement that impinged on their autonomy. These attitudes were confirmed by interviews with some of the study participants.

The main message, however, is that motivation matters. Moreover, the type and level of motivation matters most. When designing an effective behavioral change app, it is the impact of any intervention on IMI that is significant.

App designers seeking to promote lasting behavioral change should focus on IMI scores. They can do this, for example, when designing, piloting and beta testing apps, through the cost-effective mechanism of providing simple questionnaires for participants. Then, having obtained IMI scores, monitoring participants to ensure that those scores do not decline during or after any intervention. It might even be possible to build IMI scoring into apps so that participants can monitor their own performance.

It is worth mentioning that Cherubini believes behavioral change apps should be designed to be used over a limited period of time, to encourage greater intrinsic motivation, rather than creating dependency on an app. However, app designers may have other ideas. Especially as Cherubini’s findings are not only likely to be applicable to a broad range of physical activities, but possibly, given the broad relevance of Self-Determination Theory, to many other aspects of human behavior as well.

Related research paper: Cherubini, M., Villalobos-Zuñiga, G., Boldi, M-O. & Bonazzi, R. (2020). The Unexpected Downside of Paying or Sending Messages to People to Make Them Walk: Comparing Tangible Rewards and Motivational Messages to Improve Physical Activity. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 27, 2, Article 8.

Featured image by Alexey Boldin |