How can digital badges serve as a source of motivation? One way is by supporting core underlying psychological needs. Three such needs identified in self-determination theory are autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Experiences that support these needs have been shown to be more engaging and energizing for users. Fortunately given their prevalence, digital badges are capable of supporting all three of these particular needs. Here’s how.
Usually we talk about autonomy as the ability to make meaningful choices for oneself. Part of that is expressing values that are personally dear. Digital badges can help people do that when they stand for causes or accomplishments that telegraph values. For example, the NOAA Planet Stewards program lets users pursue sustainability quests related to the weather, marine life, climate, oceans or coasts, or freshwater. Displaying these badges online suggests that a person identifies strongly with sustainable behaviors.
Digital badges can support relatedness, or the need to feel connected and part of something larger than oneself, when they help people identify and reach out to others. Perhaps you’re looking to talk to someone with a particular expertise, and see someone with a digital badge related to that. Or maybe you want to find people who have something in common with you. When badges provide the rationale to reach out to others, they can support relatedness. One example of such a badge comes from the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton had an app for supporters that included badges like the one below that could be posted across social media platforms. This visual and public display of support could, among other functions, help supporters connect and engage with one another.
In my view, competence is the psychological need most readily supported by digital badges. After all, in theory, badges are awarded to mark an accomplishment and demonstrate growth, which is central to the idea of competence support. I say in theory because often times the badges don’t successfully align with meaningful steps toward a goal. When done well, a competence supportive badge might look like this one from Duolingo, designed for display on LinkedIn, which offers a “validated” testimony to a person’s language skills.
Whatever behaviors your digital badges are intended to support, a good way to make them more engaging is to try to hook them into these core psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence.