Motivating People To Use Your Product

As my ex-CTO Ben Fathi has said, “history is littered with the corpses of all the cool technology startups that have failed to gain traction with customers because they didn’t think through the business model”. A crucial part of the business is thinking through how you are going to motivate people to pay for the product you’re building, after you have built a world-class product.

This post does not delve into marketing or sales best-practices, but rather explores the idea that motivating people to use and pay for your product starts long before the product is actually built. I would argue that it should be integrated into the earliest phases of the product’s lifecycle that influence it’s core design and DNA. This is not about finding the right product-market fit, which you can read about in my previous post. This is more about going a step further and really understanding how to add attributes to the product’s design that would intrinsically motivate people to use it and pay for it.

A Note On “Self-Determination Theory”

Although most of the details about this can be found in Daniel Pink’s TED talk, the big take-away is a clear description of these three important factors that influence a person’s motivation to do something – mastery, autonomy, and purpose (or relatedness).


People feel motivated when they see an opportunity to master something, or be competitive. As experiments in the past have shown, after a certain limit, giving people monetary incentives to do work is only effective for mundane work. If the work is interesting and makes people feel like they are mastering something, there is a point after which more pay does not incentivize them.


The feeling of doing something out of one’s own intrinsic volitions is a second really important factor when it comes to their motivation to do that thing. This does not only refer to an action one takes for themselves. It could also be a person working for a company that they really believe in or for a cause they really believe in.


Lastly, people want to feel like what they’re doing “matters” to the other people in their surroundings. Feeling related to others around you or feeling like one’s actions are meaningful in the context of the “bigger picture” can be as big an influence on the motivation behind an action as mastery or autonomy can be.

Applying This To Motivating Users

The idea here is that users don’t need to be motivated. They motivate themselves. How can we build a product that they will be self-motivated to use? Let’s look at some exciting ways existing products and services have used this approach to motivating users.

Enterprise Software

Traditionally, a PM in the enterprise software industry would have to make herself wary of the fact that the user of the product would most probably not be the same as the entity or person that makes the decision to purchase the product. It is naturally a daunting task to design a product for someone who will never use it. But the times are changing. Developers and system administrators these days now have a say. Whether it is an internal messaging application, the virtualization platform (or cloud service) of choice, or even the video conferencing mechanism (go Zoom!) being used within the company – employees are increasingly becoming the ones who decide.

  • Mastery: VMware, Microsoft, Oracle and others offer certifications that users of their software can achieve. These certifications can later be used to express proficiency in the use of the respective software or category.
  • Autonomy: Slack is great example of an application that was built with autonomy in mind. It exposes interfaces for its users to program “bots” and automate other cool tasks. I have colleagues that have built some really awesome intelligent tools with the Slack API, that has allowed them to do a lot more than just use it as a messaging medium.
  • Purpose: Cultivating a thriving and enthusiastic eco-system is a great way to build this emotion. Digital Ocean is one among many companies that has a forum where people post how-to’s and talk about their experiences. Another way to target this emotion is to appeal to a greater cause. Enterprise companies can do this in a unique way since they “power” the workloads of several other industries. To say you are the ones powering the healthcare industry and saving lives, or to say your systems power SpaceX’s rockets – can really go a long way in terms of building the image of a product with “purpose”.

Social Networks

Whether your plan is to go the targeted advertisements route (Facebook, Instagram) or to sell your users a premium membership (LinkedIn Premium, Tinder Gold), “user engagement” is the name of the game. What do these companies do well that motivates their users to come back on a daily basis?

  • Mastery: The most iconic form of this is the “like” button. Facebook, LinkedIn, and the plethora of social network sites out there all have a like button. Users of the site publish pictures and articles, and get validation for their posts via the number of other people on the network that have “liked” it. This almost creates a sense of competition, since these likes can also be used to quantitatively represent the level of influence that a person or entity has. Social networking sites also have algorithms that try to show the most popular content first to people, so more likes also means a greater chance of viewership.
  • Autonomy: Every social networking site allows users to create a personal profile, where they can upload pictures and other content that is representative of who they are. This is customizable within the bounds of the platform and allows for originality. So although your profile is limited to that social networking platform, you still get to mold it into something that is reflective of you.
  • Purpose: Facebook has in the past made several attempts to associate itself with “the greater good”. Whether it is the provisions in its platform to help you report that you are safe during an earthquake, their timely image filters signifying support for a cause, or Mark Zuckerburg’s recent resolution to spend his time working on fixing the broader issues our society faces today – the company is making clear it intends to be more than just a networking platform. Besides this, it also gives users themselves a chance to promote pictures and articles that connect them with other people, communities, and causes. It has a platform for business promotions and group activities.

Health Improvement Apps

Bigger companies like Apple (I hear they’re now bringing health records straight to the iPhone!?) are also making their moves towards this opportunity. Let’s think about simple mobile apps that are aimed at helping you meet your health or fitness goals.

  • Mastery: You fundamentally compete with yourself, and with others. All of the data is made available to you. Health apps show you a point-in-time analysis of your health.
  • Autonomy: You set your own goals, and the app helps you reach them. The app may recommend a strategy to guide you through it. By continuously tracking your progress, it helps you make more informed improvements.
  • Purpose: These services inherently appeal to a sense of purpose. Positive progress in health is always perceived as a positive/good/cool thing. Also, since most people care about health (and many about fitness) you can relate to others that are in pursuit of similar objectives.

The List Goes On

The gaming industry uses leaderboards and competitions. The e-commerce industry creates “one off” opportunities to buy things at a discount. Credit card companies offer loyalty points and cash rewards. My wife’s credit card has a panda on it!

The message in this post is not limited to gamification, nor is it limited to the self-determination theory. It is about designing your product or feature with psychological factors of the user in mind.

TL;DR – People don’t need to be motivated to use your product, if you can help them motivate themselves to do so. This finds it’s roots in the design of the product itself. I’m eager to hear from you about other such examples from the real world today. If you’re interested to learn more, I would highly recommend listening to this podcast.

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