For the past couple of days, I have been reflecting upon some of my behaviors and habits I have developed over the past few years; ranging from actions as simple as taking a glass of water in the morning to long-term intensive goals such as the drive to lose weight. Some of these behaviors have now developed into habits while others merely ended as a failed resolution. I contemplated upon the circumstances these led to and the underlying for some of these actions.

The Role of Influence

I realized that the actual, imagined, or implied presence of other human beings around me had a dramatic influence on the way I acted or the choices I made. For instance, I worked harder at the gym when I had a trainer looking over my results. With a commitment contract, I felt more accountable, and hence put forth more effort because I didn’t want to let her down. Another example of behavior change is giving up on smoking. For the record, I don’t smoke, but let’s consider this for the sake of the example. One of the powerful determinants as to why people quit smoking is due to the social stigma related to secondhand smoke. So whenever you light a cigarette, your non-smoker friends give you these looks, silently judging you, and perhaps one would even say it out loud: “You know you are going to kill us with that smoke”. This is the reason why indirect pathways of changing behavior have proven to be more effective.

Key Drivers Behind Motivation

To understand this phenomenon, we need to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising of a five-tier model of human needs, illustrated as various levels in a pyramid. Maslow argues that people are motivated to satisfy their needs, and that once basic needs are met, they aspire for other complex needs. In order from lowest to highest, these needs include physiological, safety, social (love and belonging), esteem, and self-actualization. The third level of human needs i.e., social, corresponds to our interpersonal relationships and emotional needs. In essence, our need for interpersonal relationships such as friendship, intimacy, trust, acceptance and interaction with others motivates our behavior and decisions.

The way we see other people (and the way we think they see us) plays a significant role in various decisions we take. Similarly, opinions of others also impact our behavior and the actions we take. By associating valued emotions with achieving change and helping people adopt healthy social norms through motivation and peer pressure, we can influence their choices and behaviors.

What Does This Mean For  ?

Expanding this principle to digital product design, we find that it’s easier to motivate users to accomplish certain tasks if we build upon their existing network of friends and social circle for support. An example of this pattern is exercise tracking apps like Strava, RunKeeper and Nike Club. In all of these examples, a user shares their goal with friends via the application, and their support holds them accountable to keeping them on target.

Apps that use social motivation to drive habit formation

By using a behavioral approach to product design and understanding the psychology behind how people make decisions, we can help users take actions that lead to better designs. After all, social influence and peer pressure is what drives effective behavior change — not just data and insights!

Further Examples

Social Proof

People tend to guide their behavior by referencing the behavior of others. Social proof such as ratings, reviews, social presence, and testimonials are all such examples that drive this behavior. Note that this kind of social proof can have both a positive or a negative effect in decision making. An improper use of social proof — low ratings or negative reviews can trigger the opposite behavior of what you are trying to achieve, and therefore, should be used with caution.

Amazon uses ratings and reviews to show how other users found the product, validating its quality.

Ratings and reviews on Amazon (Image Source: Amazon)

Bandwagon Effect

By including the number of people who are benefiting from your product, potential users are likely to follow suit and jump on the bandwagon. This happens because of human tendency to conform to a popular belief and be like everyone else.

Slack emphasizes its popularity using the of its immense user base with statements like “Millions of happy customers”, further reinforced by displaying logos of familiar brands the product is being used at.

Power of numbers and familiar brands (Image Source: Slack)

Belonging and Likability

People are motivated when they feel they can relate to a group with shared interests and values. As a result of this bias, users feel more comfortable in their decisions around people who care about the same stuff or with similar goals.

One such example is from SchoolApply, which helps students from anywhere in the world connect with great educational programs and schools abroad. On their student testimonials page, they use a tiny, yet subtle detail–a country flag alongside the photo, indicating the ethnic origin of the reviewer. Potential new students find it more convincing when they find a student from their home country benefiting from the service.

Displaying country flags alongside profile photos (Image Source: SchoolApply)


Robert Cialdini, in his book, Influence, lists ‘Authority’ as one of the persuasion principles that drives user motivation. People tend to respect people of position and take influence by titles and respectful figures.

Using brand logos, such as the ones here on Asana reassures customers of the product’s credibility and makes them want to try it.

Power of influential brand (Image Source: Asana)

Social Comparison Theory

Social comparison theory by Festinger states that individuals evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others who share similar attributes (e.g., age, background, etc.). By using self-evaluation techniques and upward comparison, people can be motivated to enhance their abilities and perform better.

Examples include challenges and leaderboards, where a user’s progress is directly compared to that of other users. Wellness apps such as those promoting physical activity, encouraging money saving or energy saving are all such potential areas of opportunity where social comparison theory can positively influence behavioral change.

Apps that use social comparison theory to influence social behavior

Closing Thoughts

While these principles and techniques contribute to influencing user behavior and touch upon the psychological aspect of product design, we must consider the context and environment the product is being used, and therefore, this does not substitute actual user research. We must also take into account the ethical aspect of design, as to what the user wants from our products, not just what we want from them. Consider, first, if you are being honest in the use of these techniques to help users avoid decision paralysis, or coercing them to do something that you wouldn’t want to do yourself. For that, I would leave it up to you to decide.

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