So far with this series, I’ve posted analyses of the psychology powering the of Tinder and The League. This week, I’m doing something a little different. With this post, I’ll use informed ideas to add value to a minimalistic app. If you have other ideas or research that you think should be considered, I’d love to hear them!

Exploring existing literature on behavioral science gives you a huge advantage during the ideation process. More often than not, if you know what problems you’re trying to solve, researchers have already proven certain interventions and concepts to be capable of changing behavior. If you can connect the right behavioral science teachings to the right problems, you’ll have ideas biased towards success.

The Kindle app is sleek and simple. When you’re reading, you only see the book’s text with a few extra pieces of information. It’s built as a platform for you to read on. With behavioral science, I’ll explore what could help it encourage you to read.

This is an important distinction. It currently assumes that you own the app because you love to read and are intrinsically motivated to read the books you own. Behavioral science recognizes that reading is not always on your mind and that you might need a little help along the way.

How does reading on the Kindle app work?

After dinner, you decide to unwind with a good book and open up Kindle. On the bottom left corner of each page, you can choose between seeing your page number out of the total (160 of 360), the time it estimates you have left before finishing the book or the chapter, or no information about where you are. In the bottom right corner, it shows you what percent of the book you have completed.

There are two problems that I’m going to address in this post. The first is that, although I like that Kindle has a way to monitor your progress, I think it could be done better. The second is that the only reason I would read is because I decided in the moment to read. The app itself isn’t engaging.

Monitoring your progress

If you’re trying to achieve a goal, being able to see your progress is one of the best ways to do it. This gives you information about how far you’ve come, makes you feel accomplished, and tells you how much work you have left, which shapes your actions.

Even physical books do this. When you’re reading, you can see and feel the thickness of the book before and after your current page. You interpret that and act accordingly.

So how do we best interpret that information to motivate ourselves to read? We can do this by changing our frame of reference.

If we compare our current state to where we started, that’s called a to-date frame, and if we compare it to where we want to end up, that’s called a to-go frame. However, our sensitivity to progress goes down the further away we are from our reference point. If we’re using a to-date frame, reading 50 pages at the beginning of the book feels more significant to us than reading 50 pages when we’re already halfway through. Similarly, if we’re using a to-go frame and the book is 500 pages, only having 100 pages left is going to feel much more motivating than having 400 to go. This means that the ideal strategy would be to use a to-date frame for the first half, and a to-go frame for the second half. Experimental results actually show that people will naturally adopt this strategy as long as our attention isn’t called to a specific frame.

However, Kindle primarily calls your attention to how much progress you’ve made to-date. It does this by always showing you what percentage you’ve read of the book so far, and when it shows you a progress bar, the line is highlighted behind your current point. Though you can choose to see how many minutes you have left in the chapter/book, this is a frustrating feature that often feels inaccurate and encourages users to turn off their screens any time they get distracted. As a result, you’re more likely to use a to-date frame for the entire book and as you go you feel like you’re making less and less progress.

The simplest change would be to count up during the first half and down during the second. I propose doing this at all levels. In each chapter, it tells you how many pages you’ve read and then switches to how many you have left in the second half. Then I would change the progress bar graphics to make it feel like you’re reaching milestones. Have a circle for each chapter of the book, highlight the chapters you’ve read so far one color and the chapters you have left another. This doesn’t call attention to a specific frame so people will naturally adopt the ideal strategy. Additionally, having 8 highlighted chapter circles feels more concrete and easier to measure than having a progress bar behind you emphasized, an element of ownership and accomplishment.

Progress monitoring with to-date and to-go frames isn’t a silver bullet. At the middle of the book, people are far away from both the starting and end point, so something needs to be added to make the whole experience more engaging.

Giving you an extra reason to read

Everyday, you have a million things that you could be doing with your free time. You could scroll through Facebook, watch Netflix, talk to a friend, the possibilities are endless. Since the Kindle reading experience is focused on letting you read rather than encouraging you to read, the only reason that a person will open Kindle is if they’ve decided at the moment to use it. In order to make reading come to mind and be somebody’s first choice of things to do, it needs to be made more engaging. This is a dynamic app, not a static book. We can do that.

Enhancing and enabling intrinsic motivation is one of the best ways to create long-term behavior change. According to self-determination theory, our intrinsic motivation is based on three main drives for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence is about a need to improve our skills and knowledge. Autonomy describes wanting to personally identify with the task at hand and be in control of our own actions. Relatedness has to do with wanting to connect to others through our actions.

Though every person is, of course, unique and will likely weight the importance of each of these components differently, generally speaking, the more of these that you can align with the app, the more intrinsic motivation you can build for your users.

Perhaps when you’re reading a book, you could see how many other people are reading the same book, making you feel like you’re a part of a community. If a certain part of the book is confusing or thought provoking, you could post a question or discussion topic. Once you finish a chapter, you could see the questions that other people posted and post your own responses, connecting you even further to the community. Maybe if people like your answer, they could give it a smiley face. If you get enough smiley faces, you could earn certain ranks, like “Top commenter.” This would allow you to demonstrate your competence both to yourself and others while giving and receiving support, creating a sense of belonging in your community.

Relatedness is strongest when you’re connecting to similar others, so a “Book Club” feature could let you form a group with friends and family. In a smaller group than before, you could leave questions and comments for the other book club readers to see and respond to. Since you feel a strong connection to the other members of the group, you want to be able to see and reply to their questions, driving you to read more.

By linking reading to a social activity, such as engaging with community questions and talking with your friends who are reading the same book, reading becomes something exciting that you aren’t just doing for yourself.

Push notifications could let you know when other book club members post questions at parts that you’ve already read, driving you to answer them to show your competence and connect to others. You could of course be notified when someone answers your questions, which causes you to open Kindle out of curiosity. Additionally, you could be notified when others post questions within 50 pages of your current point, making you want to hurry up and get there so you can talk with your friend about it.

Push notifications are important because they cause us to think about the app and possibly open it. In the moments when we open the app, we draw connections between the situation we’re in and the app, and over time, some of those situations become triggers for thinking about and opening Kindle, ingraining it into our daily life.

For those that don’t want to read socially, autonomy and competence could be tied in by letting you set daily or weekly reading goals in terms of page numbers or time spent reading. Since you create your own goals, you feel as though you’re in control of your own behavior. When you complete your goals, you’re demonstrating your competence to yourself. If you aren’t consistently reaching your goals, the app could ask you if you would like to reduce the size of your goal a little to make it more doable and let you win. If it told you how many days or weeks in a row where you attain your goals, this adds in the power of the endowment effect and loss aversion, where we put in great effort to avoid losing what we own. Push notifications could then be added to say something to the tune of “You’ve kept up with your reading goals 6 days in a row! Would you like to keep the streak going?”


-Focusing exclusively on function assumes that users are much more motivated than they are.

-Understanding the nuance in theory can make a big difference in design decisions (e.g. progress monitoring is helpful vs. progress monitoring is done best in a certain way at certain stages)

-Intrinsic motivation is built on a combination of drives for autonomy, competence, and relating to others.

Have questions, feedback, ideas? Get in touch and let me know.

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