How To Engage Users with Variable Rewards
Designing the User Experience
Designers and user experience professionals are becoming increasingly aware that emotion plays a key role in how users enjoy and use technology. But another system can be leveraged to encourage and retention: models of human reinforcement.
Much of what we do is motivated by receiving a reward in one form or another. We tell jokes (the action) to make people laugh (the reward). We mop our floors (the action) to get a clean floor (the reward). This pairing of action-and-reward is essential to establish behaviors and habits. But once a basic behavior is established, people are actually more likely to to continue that behavior when the reward comes randomly instead of every time. This is called a variable rewards schedule (I know, it's a sexy name). Many technology products ultimately become habit-forming because they leverage a variable rewards schedule. (Learn more about variable rewards in product design here.)
Can't stop checking your email? Or scrolling through Facebook? Variable rewards may be be to blame. If you're the creator of a technology product, how can you use this knowledge to make more habit-forming products?
When to Use Variable Rewards in Product Design
Want to reward good behavior? Common sense might tell us to do so consistently. It turns out, it's a little more complicated than that. When should product owners implement variable rewards?
What are you optimizing for?
Sometimes, giving users mixed content is actually a better strategy than giving them the best content. If your goal is to have someone engage with your product frequently and for longer periods of time, you should give users a mixture of more and less interesting content. This is true for many social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. If you want more of the good stuff, you'll just have to keep scrolling. It's true for games, like Candy Crush, that want to keep you playing (so that you'll ultimately pay to do so). Variable rewards in content quality are great for keeping customers interacting with your product for longer.
Solving a Problem
Some products don't measure success by how long users stay engaged with their product. In fact, there are many products that try to solve a problem for the user by saving them time or eliminating nuisance steps. In those cases, they likely optimize for having users spending less time interacting with a product. Take a Google Search, for example. Unlike Facebook, which has a mix of interesting and uninteresting content, Google pretty much puts the most relevant information right at the top of your search results. Google's goal is not to get you to spend as much time as possible viewing their search results; it's to get you the answer you need as fast as possible. Can you imagine if you had to spend 30 minutes scrolling through results to find what you were looking for? Google understands this and puts the best stuff first.
Back to Facebook. Imagine for a moment that Facebook employed that strategy: all of the best, most interesting stuff appears first. Now ask yourself, how far do you scroll? You probably love the first bit of content, but then rapidly discover when "you're out" of interesting stuff. A news feed that gets less and less interesting? Pass.
How to Engage Your Users with Variable Rewards
Variable rewards can be an effective method of keeping your users invested in your product. Here are a few strategies I employ to utilize variable rewards.
Identify moments of surprise
You should be paying attention in your user interviews and usability studies to see when users are surprised. Remember, the brain's reward systems are highly responsive to the unexpected. Once you've identified a moment of surprise, brainstorm how to expand on it. Are there other places you could include a similar experience? Are there different variations of it? Could you make it more surprising?
Make sure the reward is actually rewarding
We've talked a lot about variable rewards here, but it's important to note that the reward should actually be rewarding (and not just variable). I like finding interesting content on Facebook, so I'm motivated to keep looking for more of it. But what if I didn't find the content interesting? Chances are, I wouldn't hunt for more. Similarly, if a new app tries to reward its users with variable "karma points" for contributing to the community, they might have little success. Who cares if I have karma points? Why are they good? Do other people know about them? Getting 5 karma points on my first use of the app and 2 points on the second use may not be motivating, even though the "reward" varies.
Consider what to vary
The above examples focused a lot on variable content quality, an example easily found on social media. But there are other components of a digital experience that can be rewarding, and those can be varied as well. For instance, Hot or Not, in it's original, circa-2003 version, capitalized on our fundamental need to belong. Back then, Hot or Not simply let users rate how hot someone was on an arbitrary scale from 1 to 10. This girl? I think she's a 5. This guy? He's a 6. Importantly, though, Hot or Not would highlight how much your ratings varied from social norms: how others rated someone. It was super interesting to see how your ratings of a person compared to how others rated them.
Typically, my ratings might agree with that of the crowd. But when I rate a guy a 5 and the crowd rates him a 9? That's a surprise. When I rate a girl as an 8, and the crowd settles on a 4? What's even happening?! We are intrinsically motivated to perceive ourselves as similar to others, so varying this reward is highly effective. Within a few ratings, users began to compulsively rate more and more photos, in part to see whether their ratings were "normal." Thus, here the creators of Hot or Not were varying how similar we are to other people, a fundamental human need.
The success of your product relies on a host of factors. By creating an awesome product that fits your users' needs you can establish early engagement. When you deploy variable rewards strategically, you can turn short-term users into highly-engaged, long term ones.