Five Best Practices for Digital Badges for Behavior Change

It’s easy to come up with examples of digital badges that don’t work, or are simply too silly to be serious tools for engagement. It’s far more difficult to take the positive perspective and determine the features that can make a digital badge an effective tool for behavior change. My interest in badges originally stemmed from a critical place, both from seeing badly done versions as a user, and having clients ask for badges without a thoughtful supporting strategy. But working through that critique has brought me to the following set of recommendations for doing digital badges well.

1. Clearly define behavior goals and key milestones.

This may seem self-evident, but it’s sadly overlooked sometimes. Most of the time when you have a digital app or program, you also have goals for that program. Being explicit and specific about what those are as you design will help you to make sure that you’re choosing features that will help achieve your goals.

Some badges, like this one from JetBlue, don't seem to encourage any sort of meaningful behavior.
Some badges, like this one from JetBlue, don’t seem to encourage any sort of meaningful behavior.

For example, if your app’s goal is to help people lose weight, then you’ll want to map out how that happens. I’ll simplify here, but you’ll want to get people moving more often and with more intensity. You’ll want them choosing more nutritious foods and eating fewer calories. You might want them logging their weight or other data so that they can self-monitor and course correct if something’s not working. Less important for achieving that ultimate goal of weight loss? Frequency of logging into the app, social sharing, or checking in to specific locations. Offering your badges for the behaviors that correspond to the goals that matter will help you (and your users) actually reach those goals. The other stuff probably doesn’t need to be rewarded.

2. Use badges to encourage growth and progress.

For many people, behavior change takes time not just because of ingrained habits or the tenacity of our physical bodies, but also because they have to learn new information and skills. Think about when you were a child in school learning math. Before you could do long division, you learned the multiplication tables. Before that, you learned simple addition. These skills built off each other to lead you to a better understanding of math.

Behavior change often follows a similar path. To go back to the weight loss example, people who don’t understand much about nutrition may not be equipped to make food choices that will help them lose weight. They may need coaching to understand how to read food labels. They may need help learning how to shop for and cook balanced meals. They may need to be convinced that the food they eat matters.

In your design process, try to sequence out the steps people may need to take to get to their behavior change goal. Those steps are candidates to be rewarded with badges or other acknowledgements. What bread crumbs can you leave to guide people along those steps so that they have the right tools to change their behaviors?

Despite recent changes to their incentive structure, I still think Duolingo is the best example of a digital program that breaks goals into manageable chunks and sequences them to promote skill growth. I especially appreciate that users who are starting at a higher skill level can skip the lower branches of the sequence and start at the point that’s right for them. An analogous structure would work well for many health behaviors, I think.

The Duolingo skill tree sequences lessons so they build on one another toward a clearly defined goal state.
The Duolingo skill tree sequences lessons so they build on one another toward a clearly defined goal state.

3. Don’t try to over-reward.

Badges are virtually free to award, and people do like them, especially in their initial encounters with a digital program. It can be tempting to do your best digital Oprah: “YOU get a badge! And YOU get a badge! Badges for everyone!”

Animated gif of Oprah screaming
Digital badges: Only slightly better than bees.

Don’t do this.

There are probably more, but there are two big psychological reasons why more is not better when it comes to badges. The first is simply that people get fatigued. Consider that your digital app is competing with however many others a person uses, many of which are sending notifications and awarding badges. Even on its own, at some point, the barrage of badges becomes less meaningful. Scarcity confers greater value.

More critically, you don’t want to run into the undermining effect. The undermining effect is a neurological phenomenon whereby something that people do in order to get a reward becomes less intrinsically pleasurable to them. The result is that people stop being willing or interested in that behavior unless they know there’s a reward. In the long term, inducing the undermining effect will undercut your behavior change goals.

4. Make badges unpredictable (variable-ratio schedule) for simple tasks; set reliable expectations for higher effort tasks.

Some of the things that get rewarded in a digital intervention are easy to do (for example, checking in or logging simple data) while others are not (demonstrating results like pounds lost, or logging more complex data). If you are using digital badges, it’s a good strategy to award them for both types of behaviors, especially if you expect your users to accomplish the more difficult tasks only once in a long while.

Slot machines are a classic example of a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule (and evidence of its stickiness!)
Slot machines are a classic example of a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule (and evidence of its stickiness!)

Research has long shown that for simple behaviors like pulling the lever on a slot machine, a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement is the most “sticky.” This schedule of reinforcement provides rewards on an approximately but not exactly regular schedule. If you’re giving badges for check ins or other simple behaviors, using an irregular variable-ratio schedule is your best bet to engage people with them.

For more complicated behaviors, however, it makes more sense to set reliable expectations. People have to work hard to make some of these outcomes happen, and they don’t happen all that often. The promise of a digital badge for completing a specific set of steps can help clarify goals and sub-goals. And, since the behaviors needed to get the badge are complex, there’s less chance the badge will be valued enough to trigger the undermining effect.

5. Connect badges to other motivational sources.

I'm hopeful the academic badges, like these ones from CJEP expressing commitment to open science, will succeed because they reinforce core psychological values.
I’m hopeful the academic badges, like these ones from CJEP expressing commitment to open science, will succeed because they reinforce core psychological values.

Clearly, badges have little to no real value most of the time. But you can make them feel more valuable if you structure them as tools to accomplish other motivationally important tasks.

For example, take self-determination theory, which in general posits that supporting the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness will lead to more engaging experiences. Badges can facilitate all three of those needs.

So how can your badges help people express deeply held personal values (autonomy)? Demonstrate growth and learning, to themselves and others (competence)? Connect with other people who are either similar to themselves or offer complementary skillsets (relatedness)? Thinking through the functions badges can play in your app beyond simply being rewards can help them be more effective behavior change tools.

I am positive this is not a complete list of best practices. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts as well as examples of badges gone wrong and badges done well. If the industry is going to embrace this design feature, then we have an opportunity to use our behavior change chops to help them do it right.

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