Architecture & DesignDesign for the Mind: Focusing on the Trigger to Promote User Behavior

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By Victor S. Yocco

This article is excerpted from Design for the Mind

How can you design your product so that it presents an opportunity for users to engage in a behavior at the right moment? Motivation, Ability, and Trigger is a simple principle, perhaps too simple for academia, which makes it perfect for us. According to Motivation, Ability and Trigger, behavior happens when a person:

  • is motivated
  • has the ability to engage in the behavior
  • is effectively presented with a trigger that will cause the behavior

These three elements must align at the right moment for the intended behavior to occur. Ideally, an individual is highly motivated and has the ability to easily engage in the behavior the moment you present them with a trigger. Motivation, Ability and Trigger is based on Fogg’s Behavioral Model (see Additional Resources), which describes how to use technology to be influence behavior.

This article will focus on defining and providing relevant examples of triggers, or calls to action as we commonly referred to them.

What Are Triggers?

Triggers tell a person to do something. Without triggers, a person would not be aware of or able to engage in a behavior. Triggers must be presented once motivation and ability have reached high enough levels for the person to engage in a behavior. For example, Google offers a free trial of their Cloud Platform (figure 1). They allow users to build ability and motivation to use their product over the course of the free trial. Once the trial ends they will present the trigger—the option to purchase the product.

Figure 1: Google Cloud Platform presents users with the trigger to “Start your free trial.” When the trial ends, they will present the trigger to purchase access to the product.

Fogg identifies three types of triggers for a behavior:

  1. Facilitator: A facilitator assists a person engage in a behavior. The tool tips we encounter when completing online forms is an example of a facilitator.
  2. Signal: Signals are a less assertive type of trigger. Signals can apply to each of our senses. For example, the Ding! sound of an incoming instant message lets the user know they won’t be wasting time if they check for a new message in the near future.
  3. Spark: A spark provides a boost to a person’s motivation. An email with a limited time discount or early access to a product is a spark.

Triggers also often include call to action buttons. Triggers play a critical role in determining when, or even if, behaviors might occur.

Design for Triggers

Triggers are effective when motivation and ability have reached critical mass. with “Calls to action.” Let’s review examples of the three types of triggers identified by the principle of technology and behavior:


The user should be in a position to begin proficient use once encountering the facilitator. NBC Sports provides users an overlay (see Figure 2) that shows users where critical functions are placed and how to use them.

Figure 2: NBC Sports Network facilitates an easy and fun way to learn the location and functionality of key features available to online viewers.


There are limitless potential signals. Our job is to learn which ones are more effective in specific contexts and around specific behaviors. Signals are audible, visual, or other sense related cues that tell a person to do something. A call to action button presented within a product description is an example of a signal; let users learn about the product, then give them the signal to make the purchase.

Figure 3: Amazon presents users with a signal to purchase the product on each product’s page.


Sparks are good for stimulating brief and simple behaviors. You can send alerts, tweets, status updates, and notifications directly to users’ devices.

Figure 4: Retweeting a coupon code is a simple behavior sparked the Tweet’s call to action on a user’s mobile device.

Users need to be aware of the trigger, understand that the trigger will result in engaging in the desired behavior, and be above the threshold of motivation and ability in order to activate the trigger and engage in the behavior.

The value of patience: When the heck can I give users the trigger?

We are an impatient bunch: we want to convert our potential users into power users overnight. We want our trial version customers to purchase pro accounts in less than a week.

The principle of Motivation, Ability and Trigger gives us insight into the importance of well-placed triggers. Often, you will have multiple opportunities to present users with triggers. Your team will benefit if you base the presentation of these triggers on behavioral data from users and the timing is in line with high levels of motivation and ability.

Special Delivery! Beacon Technology

Beacon technology provides an example of how the future might look for mobile design. Beacons are meant to trigger a behavior at the exact time a user is most motivated and able; while they are standing in a store looking at a product. Real-time, geographically based triggers provide an exciting opportunity to influence user behavior. Users can expect to set a reminder based on location and not time (e.g. remind me to buy a new wig next time I’m within 500 feet of a wig shop). Users will view these reminders as respectful of their time and resources, allowing designs that include them to outperform their competition.

Figure 5: A diagram from TapTarget explaining the functionality of beacon technology in retail settings


  • Motivation, Ability, and Trigger are the three key components to determining a users’ behavior.
  • Motivation and ability must reach a specific threshold for the trigger to elicit the desired behavior.
  • Facilitator, signal, and spark are three types of commonly used triggers.
  • Facilitator triggers assist users completing a task, e.g. contextual help on a form.
  • Signal triggers are calls to action that apply to users’ senses, e.g. an add to cart icon.
  • Spark triggers provide a quick boost to a users motivation, e.g. a 24 hour-only sale! icon.
  • Mobile and wearable technology provide good opportunities to send users triggers while engaging in specific behaviors.

Additional Resources

Fogg, B. J. (2009, April). A behavior model for persuasive design. In Proceedings of the 4th international Conference on Persuasive Technology (p. 40). ACM.

Fogg, B. J., & Hreha, J. (2010). Behavior wizard: a method for matching target behaviors with solutions. In Persuasive technology (pp. 117-131). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.


Focusing on the Trigger to Promote User Behavior

By Victor S. Yocco

This article is excerpted from Design for the Mind by Manning Publications

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