To Motivate People, Don't Be an Information Vending Machine
I used to think that people weren't motivated to do things because they didn't know how to do them.
Behavior change isn't an information problem. It's a relationship problem.
After a few years of studying the science of people, I quit my Ph.D. in Psychology. I had learned all these grand theories and frameworks about why people do what they do. But I was itching to take that knowledge beyond a psychology lab. I knew I wanted to do something "practical" and "entrepreneurial," but I had no idea where to begin or what to focus on.
One morning, I was lying in bed casually scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. I learned Fitocracy was launching an online coaching service for users who were willing to pay for it. Fitocracy is a social network that turns exercise tracking into an online game to play with friends. They were also recruiting coaches to run these coaching groups.
Back in 2014, people thought Fitocracy was going to become "the Facebook of fitness." On a whim, I decided to apply as a coach. To my surprise, Fitocracy accepted my pitch on a group for "men who want to look better naked through better exercise and eating habits." Even more surprising, thirteen users signed up to receive coaching from me.
I was excited but nervous. Here was my chance to use my graduate school training. I was going to teach my clients how to science their way into changing their fitness behaviors.
Fast forward two weeks, I had annoyed most of them into ghosting me.
Here's what I learned…
Don't be an Information Vending Machine.
Graduate school taught me to believe that the only difference between an expert and a non-expert is information.
If people aren't doing the "right" things, it's because they don't have the "right" information. The "job" of experts is to change behavior by giving a person the correct information. An expert is a diagnoser who tells an uninformed person why they're fat—thereby removing their ignorance—and treatment proceeds based on the diagnosis.
Example: "You're fat. Eat less. Move more." Information delivered. Done!
Those of us making stuff to change human behavior — product managers, engineers, customer success managers, organizational change managers, health coaches, writers, political activists, startups, corporations and governments, all seem to be operating under this assumed principle.
We assume people are stuck because they are missing information. If experts give people information, then they'll change their behavior. Problem solved!
But have you ever dreaded stepping on a scale? Or avoided looking at your bank account balance? Maybe at times you've found to-do lists, email inboxes, and calendars to be suffocating. We've all felt this. We know what we have to do to improve our fitness, finances, or productivity. We just don't know how to motivate ourselves do it.
If people can Google it, then it's not an information problem. If people can put it in a calendar, then it's not a memory problem. Yet if people know how to search it and they know how to schedule it, but they still aren't doing it, then you're looking at a motivation problem.
The truth is, people are already motivated. The hard part is seeing what they genuinely care about.
Just be a great host.
As far as I can tell, human beings are the most social species in the universe. That's why I believe human motivation problems are, at their core, relationship problems. People are motivated when they are in relationships with others who can make them feel like they give a damn about them. They are passive in relationships with people who treat them with indifference.
User motivation problems are relationship problems. Whether you realize it or not, you have a relationship with your users and your product is the medium of it. Every place where people interact with your product is an opportunity to grow your relationship with them or to weaken it.
Building great features and design and technology are all wonderful, but it's the "user experience" — how well you make a great relationship with your users in every user interaction — that creates the most engaging products.
So don't ask, "How can I build features that motivate this user to change their behavior?"
Instead ask, "How can I build a better relationship with this user across every interaction so they can get what they already want?"
How to start becoming a great host.
At this point, it is part of startup gospel to talk to users. But I don't think most of us in startup land do it very well. We like to think we understand what outcomes users want, but we really don't. Because it's tough to do. Because we're afraid to be wrong in our assumptions about them.
Everyone building software products is currently obsessed with motivating users with rewards and habit loops. They are disciples of B.F. Skinner whether they know it or not. But when everyone is using the same strategy, it pays to think different. It is time we learn the work of Carl Rogers, who was a master at building authentic relationships with people to understand what they genuinely cared about. One of my favorite quotes by Rogers is from his book On Becoming a Person. It reads:
"If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear change. So as I say, it is not an easy thing to permit oneself to understand an individual."
If you want to become a great host, you need to build a deep understanding of your users. That starts by having human conversations with them about what it's like to be them. This means being willing to be wrong about the assumptions you make about them.
As Stewart Butterfield says, "this [approach] is simple. That doesn't mean getting results with it will be simple.” But it’s a North Star to guide you.
To motivate people, build better relationships with them. Be a great host, and communicate you give a damn about them by anticipating their actual needs.
Image credit: Office Space is a copyright of 20th Century Fox.