Experience Design | Reward Systems

experiential learning, HCI, HCI/d, Human-Computer Interaction, interaction design, philosophy, Uncategorized, User experience, UX

Rewards may be constituents (but they are not key elements) of experience design.

Let’s say that experience has a beginning middle and end. In my mind, the reward is simply the end of an experience. It is not necessarily the reason why a person would return to experience an experience several times. In fact, many “rewarding” experiences have no “rewards” in what is perhaps the superficial sense of the word. Riding a roller coaster yields no badge. Nor should it. I earn no points for going to Starbucks. Unless I’m participating in Starbucks’ own rewards program…

So why is it that badges, points, leader boards, among other types of rewards, continue to proliferate in interaction and experience design?

Look at how many badges and points I've earned on Khan Academy! All while managing NOT to learn  in a deep way the core principles of mathematics..

I snapped the above photo of my dashboard on Khan Academy. I’ve acquired more than 300,000 energy points and an array of badges. In his TED talk, Sal Khan forecasts this facet of the site when he alludes to gamification as a strategic initiative. Don’t get me wrong. There’s likely papers aplenty supporting the thesis that rewards are effective incentives for animals to do things. If you’ve ever trained a dog, you know how well rewards work. And even if you haven’t you get the idea. It works like this: reward behavior as soon as possible after it happens, focus on rewards (as opposed to punishments), and be consistent in delivering rewards. I’m currently training a puppy

Marbles

…and you should see the change in expression when she doesn’t get a reward for her good behavior. She’s utterly befuddled. And she’s quite willing to perform the behavior again in order to get another savory treat. You might think it a crude analogy. But the same principle underlies badges, likes, favorites, retweets, grades, salaries, titles… I won’t pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of all of the examples of behaviorist rewards at play (at least) in the United States. We’re living in a reward culture. So asking why these things pervade our interaction and experience design could be construed as a naive question. Rewards are a systemic issue.

The problem lies in the observation that rewards are so pervasive in all aspects of our daily lives that we fail to recognize the degree to which rewards might actually devalue the things we do.

  • Rewards alienate us from the activities we perform to achieve them (this is a translation of something Ed Deci wrote in Why We Do What We Do, a great book)
  • Rewards produce gaps between people and their inherent motivation to do things… and inherent motivation is a more satisfying reason for doing than rewards

Speaking from experience, when I think about doing something for a salary or a grade my perspective on that thing changes. My motivation changes. It actually goes down. Doesn’t matter if the grade or the salary is important. I should write papers to get good grades. True. But I should be motivated to write papers because I’m interesting in finding answers to difficult questions. I should be motivated to write because writing will make me a better writer. I should be motivated to write in order to satisfy curiosity or to explore or to feel what it is to create. And I am skeptical as to whether any of these things could be or should be thought of as rewards in the same way as a badge, a point, a like, a grade, or whatever is a reward. They’re different.

The former come from within. The latter from without.

We all know what competence feels like. We know the experience of mastery. These are things that no one else can give us. No one else can “do” for us. I’ve heard the following chestnuts many times: Great job! Great questions! Fantastic presentation. Nice work. You were really good up there. Amazing writing. 

I’m arrogant enough to claim that (much of the time) I know when they’re right and when they’re not. After a presentation, I know if I’ve done well. The same is true of submitting a paper. I know if it’s a good one. And I suppose the key insight is that more often than not, the good ones are done out of a hard to articulate motivation that comes from within rather than from without. I worry not about the grades or accolades. Only about the act of doing whatever it is I’m doing with competence and mastery. So what does all of this thinking have to do with experience design?

There are things that people do for the sheer joy of doing them (e.g. free play, exploration, manipulation, learning, among many others… the list is particular and person-dependent). What is it about these things that make them inherently enjoyable? Where does inherent motivation reside? And is it possible to capture this essence and apply it in the service of something else? It is possible to make a whole host of activities that many people don’t have the inherent motivation to do conducive to the development of that (currently lacking) motivation? I think that the answer is Yes. And I think that we need to devote more energy into finding out how to achieve these ends…

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