A review of Designing for Motivation, Engagement and Wellbeing in Digital Experience

A couple of months ago, while looking for strategies to design Self-Determination Theory (SDT) supporting apps, I came across this article. The title was quite captivating because it fits right into my research spot: “Designing for Motivation, Engagement and Wellbeing in Digital Experience.” In this article, the authors, Dorian Peters, Rafael A. Calvo, and Richard M. Ryan, present a model (METUX) which gives us —HCI researchers— a psychological research-grounded framework so that we can create actionable insights in relation to how technology designs support or undermine the SDT Basic Psychological Needs. This is important because research in psychology, especially on the SDT, demonstrates that motivation and wellbeing exist when the Basic Psychological Needs are satisfied.

Before diving into the METUX (Motivation, Engagement and Thriving in User Experience) model, we need to acknowledge that Self-Determination Theory states that we —human beings— have three basic psychological needs and that the environments in which we develop aid or hinder the satisfaction of these needs. The theory also suggests that in need supportive environments, we will be motivated and with increased wellbeing. 

These basic psychological needs are: 

  • Autonomy: the need for human beings to feel our actions come from ourselves and not external elements. These actions should be aligned with what we believe in and what we want to achieve. 
  • Competence: the need for human beings to feel effective in the activities we perform.
  • Relatedness: the need to feel important and connected to other humans who perform the same activity.

Now, let’s have a look at METUX. Authors postulate that it is useful to think about how technology influences wellbeing in six experience spheres:

  1. adoption of the technology
  2. interacting with the technology through its interface
  3. engaging with the tasks that technology suggests
  4. the experience of the technology-supported behavior
  5. the experience of technology in the user’s life
  6. how technology can affect societies’ wellbeing.

Having clarity on these spheres is fundamental as satisfying basic psychological needs in one sphere can harm or frustrate the satisfaction of needs in other spheres. For example, the interface of a calendar app might give a satisfying user experience. Still, it might not make the individual act accordingly to what is planned on the calendar when they see it is crowded with activities (harming the behavior sphere). The following image (Fig. 1) shows a representation of the METUX model diagram. 

Sphere of Experience within which technology.
Fig 1. Sphere of Experience within which technology can influence wellbeing. Taken from the original article.


Let’s look at an example to understand how a wearable fitness device fits into the METUX model:

  • Adoption: The person purchases the device.
  • Interface: Refers to the controls, buttons, navigation, information displayed, and aesthetics of the device.
  • Tasks: Refers to step tracking, heart-rate monitoring.
  • Behavior: Refers to the act of exercising.
  • Life: Refers to the general increase in wellbeing thanks to the engagement in regular exercise.
  • Society: Refers to the increased wellbeing of society thanks to the increase in the exercise of a population.

Additionally to describing the model and providing examples, the authors presented 5 instruments (questionnaires) to measure the users’ experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness within the METUX spheres. If you are interested, here is the appendix with the instruments they included in their article.

The METUX model reminds us that when designing technology for individuals, we need to consider the technology in itself and the different environments it affects. METUX reminds us that human beings do not live in isolated environments and that these environments affect how individuals perceive and use technology. The model calls for us to design in a holistic fashion if we are interested in creating technology that motivates people and leads them to reach wellbeing. 

I feel it would have been interesting to see a guide on how we —HCI researchers— can design technology considering all the METUX spheres. Something like a bottom-up approach in which the article guides researchers on designing an interface or a task so that it supports the basic psychological needs. Instead, the authors provide examples in a top-down approach by taking a fitness device, illness support app and online learning course and breaking down their components to map them to each of the METUX spheres. Also, it would have been great to have more information on how to interpret the scores obtained from the measurement instruments they provided.

Overall, I believe this is a good article for UX researchers or practitioners starting to dive into SDT-based technology. If you are more knowledgeable on the subject, you will probably end with a bitter-sweet sensation of how you can actually Design for Motivation, Engagement and Wellbeing.

Author: Gabriela Villalobos-Zúñiga

Reference: Peters, D, Calvo, RA, Ryan, RM (2018) “Designing for Motivation, Engagement and Wellbeing in Digital Experience” Frontiers in Psychology – Human Media Interaction.  Vol 9. pp 797. (DOI)

About Gabriela Villalobos-Zúñiga

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