Social rewards make fitness wearables more motivating to use

This article summarizes a CHI 2020 paper authored by Herman Saksono, Carmen Castaneda-Sceppa, Jessica Hoffman, Magy Seif El-Nasr, Vivien Morris, and Andrea G. Parker. At the end of the article, we shared the video presentation.

Rewarding app users with opportunities for social interactions might be the key to make users stay with their fitness wearables. This finding from our study sheds some optimism amid the growing concern that people are abandoning their fitness wearables.

In 2019, we evaluated a smartphone app called Storywell with a goal to promote family fitness. One key design element in Storywell app is what we call social rewards gamification —rewards that initiate social interactions, satisfy the need for social connectedness, and thus heighten the intrinsic motivation to use a system.

Why focusing on families? Physical activity behavior develops at a young age, so interventions for families is broader in impact because the interventions help the caregivers to be active, and the caregivers help their children to be active. Physical activity is also a difficult-to-attain behavior that benefits from social connectedness. Decades of health research shows that support from family and friends helps people to be more active, both for adults and kids.

This is how social rewards in Storywell works. Families with young children will receive storybook chapters when both the caregiver and the child completed their fitness goals. There are also questions for caregivers and the child to record their answers verbally. At the end of the chapter there will be a cliffhanger, and to continue reading the family must meet another fitness goal. The goal is, the feeling of relatedness while reading the storybook chapter will motivate families to continue meeting their goals and unlock the next chapters.

Screenshots of the Storywell app.
Screenshots of the Storywell app.

The idea of social rewards came from our Spaceship Launch exergame study which was guided by Self-Determination Theory, a theory of human motivation from psychology. This theory said that people gained intrinsic motivation from three sources: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is the feeling of doing something of your own volition. Competence is the feeling of being able to complete a task. Relatedness is the feeling of social connectedness to others or caring for them. Sometimes relatedness is called belongingness.

Of course, gamification is not new. Using game design elements in a non-gaming context has been used for years — including virtual rewards gamification such as trophies, badges, ribbons. But, most virtual rewards are only used to make fitness tracking users felt more competent. In fact, one study found that virtual rewards as lame, unnecessary, and gimmicky. Indeed, the feeling of competence can help people to be intrinsically motivated but designing only for giving the feeling of competence does not fully leverage the other sources of intrinsic motivation such as relatedness.

We did a preliminary evaluation of the first prototype of Storywell in 2019 with 18 families in Northeast U.S. city. We prioritized the study for families of low-socioeconomic status neighborhoods because decades of marginalization often led these families to a higher risk of obesity. Such a higher risk frequently comes from the cost of sports programs, burdensome jobs, and limited public sports facilities.

By working closely with 18 caregivers and 18 children who used Storywell for three months, we were able to glean deep insights about their experience with the app. This is indeed the goal of qualitative interviews: to get an in-depth understanding of how people experience technology.

What we found was, yes, caregivers enjoyed using the Storywell app and getting the social rewards. For instance, one mother of five (39) said that the storybook chapters feel like a treat. “You get to spend time with your daughter. So, you’re able to do something together,” said the mother.

But we also found something more motivating. It’s from the questions inside the storybook chapters. Caregivers enjoyed being able to discover something new about their children. A mother of three (33) said that seeing her daughter trying to get her steps to unlock the chapters was joyful because it shows that her daughter is very interested in reading. She said, “It brought a lot of joy to me to watch my daughter’s eyes, her overall excitement in order to get a book.

It is no surprise that learning and education are caregivers’ main aspirations for their children. Such desire is more common among low-income racial and ethnic minority caregivers. And here’s what we highlight in our study, for the caregivers, social rewards were satisfying from another dimension of relatedness: the feeling of caring for their loved ones. Namely, by supporting their kids' education.

Supporting children’s education is one of the key aspirations of many caregivers of low-socioeconomic status neighborhoods in our study. For example, in our 2018 study, one mother (54) said that her daughter’s education is very important because she wanted to see her daughter get a good job and live in a safer neighborhood. “It’s crazy out here, people killing other people over stupid shit, you know what I’m saying?” said the mother.

In short, our study demonstrated that social rewards are intrinsically motivating because it touches on two important facets of relatedness. One is the need to engage in social interactions with our loved ones. The other is, we desire to care for our loved ones, supporting their life and their wellbeing.

The latter, as shown by our study, satisfies our complex desires and relationships with the people we care about. With that in mind, to support the motivation to use wearable fitness trackers (and health apps generally), it’s very important to include designs that met people’s intrinsic desires in which simple gamification cannot do.

View the video presentation on YouTube and get the full paper at the ACM Digital Library. Storywell for Android is an open-source project, we invite you to contribute to the source code and the stories.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number #1618406. This study was made possible through generous engagement from the participating families and community organizations, including Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, Smart from the Start, and Raising a Reader Massachusetts. We would like to thank Amanda Carreiro and Arushi Singh for contributing to the story and the illustration development as well as our colleagues at the Wellness Technology Lab for their tremendous support.

I’m a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. My research focuses on digital health equity. Website: hermansaksono.com