3 Reasons Achievement Badges Drive Behaviour Change Online

Phoebe Kent • 4 min read

More and more, companies are seeking creative ways to get customers engaged with their proposition, and critically, keep them coming back for more. In the world of UX, there is a growing trend of using collectible badges to reward users for their achievements, skills and commitment. These can include badges like ‘Scholar’ seen on Duolingo for when users have learnt 250 new words on a single course, or ‘Canyon’ on Fitbit for when users have climbed 400 floors in just one day. Beyond just being fun, these small milestones and rewards are highly effective at influencing behaviour. So, if you’re trying to change your users’ behaviour online, here are 3 reasons from a psychological perspective why you should start using achievement badges.

Positive Performance Feedback

The idea of reinforcement has been researched within the field of psychology since the 1800’s and has become a fundamental component of learning theory; the understanding of how behaviours are acquired. Skinner became a pioneer in this field, identifying the role of positive reinforcement in long-term behaviour change. Positive reinforcement is the presentation of an appealing stimulus in response to the desired behaviour (for example, when a teacher praises a student for getting a good mark on an exam). Essentially, when we are made to feel good for performing a specific behaviour, we are much more likely to repeat that behaviour.

Research has shown that healthcare workers are much more likely to engage in safe handwashing practices when they are given performance feedback. Knowing when they were doing well motivated significant behaviour change and compliance rates lasted well beyond the length of the study. Digital badges work as a form of performance feedback and positive reinforcement: when users achieve a small goal, they feel a strong sense of accomplishment and reward. This positive emotional experience will increase their motivation to continue performing that behaviour in order to experience it again.

girl-washes-her-hands-avoid-infection-with-virus-covid-19Goal Gradient Effect

Motivation can be a hard thing to master when difficult goals exist very far in the future. The perception of progress towards our goals can be hugely influential in our desire to proceed. The goal gradient effect is the psychological phenomenon whereby our commitment to achieving a goal significantly increases when we feel closer to completing it. For example, a study found that customers were much more likely to fill a loyalty card for a free car wash when they were given a card that required 10 purchases, but two of the spaces were already stamped, than when customers were given a card that required 8 purchases but had no pre-filled stamps. In both cases, customers had to pay for 8 car washes to redeem the reward, but those who were given the extra 2 stamps at the start, were almost twice as likely to redeem their reward. Customers felt a sense of progress towards their goal.

So, how do digital badges motivate users using the goal gradient effect? You may have noticed that apps employing digital badges tend to award badges very quickly, for example, for completing your user profile or using the app for the first time. This early sense of progress towards your goals gives you a sense of momentum and reduces the amount of perceived work. As such, you experience a heightened motivation to work harder and faster to use the app to achieve your goals.



Consistency Principle

Robert Cialdini, an expert on the principles of persuasion, lists the consistency principle as one of 7 key ways to guide human behaviour. The consistency principle is our natural preference to behave in a way that is consistent with things we have previously said or done. Part of this effect rests in social pressure, we don’t like to seem untrustworthy to others and therefore work hard to act consistently with our word. The other rests in our self-image, we like to see ourselves in a positive light, and if we behave in a way that is inconsistent with our values, beliefs and commitments, we experience inner tension.

The famous study Cialdini uses to explain the consistency principle is the Drive Safely campaign. Researchers found that most homeowners were (predictably) reluctant to place a large, ugly sign promoting the Drive Safely campaign on their front lawn. However, there was one group of homeowners that were 4 times more likely to agree - why was this? 10 days previously, this group had agreed to a slightly smaller request, to place a small Drive Safely card in their front window. Once they had agreed to support the Drive Safely campaign with a small card, it became much more difficult to say no to the large Drive Safely lawn sign as this would not be consistent with their previous behaviour. Digital badges work in much the same way, by showing users their past behaviour through the completion of small goals, they will feel much more motivated to continue using the app to remain consistent with their previous actions.




So if you’re looking to change behaviour online, whether that be to help customers save more, encourage employees to adopt a new process or motivate customers to explore more of your services, digital badges could be a highly beneficial strategy. Positive reinforcement, progress perception and behavioural consistency work together to create an effective behaviour change tool.

At Cowry, we combine the latest techniques and insights from design and behavioural science to help our clients create elegant, fluent UX designs that go with the grain of human decision-making to deliver exceptional customer and employee experiences. 



Armellino, D., Hussain, E., Schilling, M. E., Senicola, W., Eichorn, A., Dlugacz, Y., & Farber, B. F. (2012). Using high-technology to enforce low-technology safety measures: the use of third-party remote video auditing and real-time feedback in healthcare. Clinical infectious diseases, 54(1), 1-7.

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: the foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of personality and social psychology, 4(2), 195.

Hakulinen, L., Auvinen, T., & Korhonen, A. (2013, March). Empirical study on the effect of achievement badges in TRAKLA2 online learning environment. In 2013 Learning and teaching in computing and engineering (pp. 47-54). IEEE.

Nunes, J. C., & Dreze, X. (2006). The endowed progress effect: How artificial advancement increases effort. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(4), 504-512.


Want to find out more?

We’d love to chat to you about how to start applying behavioural science - book a slot below to catch up with Jez and find out more.

Book a meeting

Get in touch

We'd really like to stay connected.

Leave us a message to start a conversation: