But first, meet Huang and Zhang…

Huang and Zhang, two researchers from the University of Texas conducted an experiment designed to learn about how motivation changes during the pursuit of a goal. 

Specifically, they set out to explore how motivation to complete a task is affected by the number of means available at different stages of task completion.

Here’s how it went:

They designed the experiment around a coffee discount card to measure how many people joined the scheme. Joining the scheme was the stepping-stone to free coffee (the customer’s true goal) and therefore sign-ups a good measure of customer motivation for a discount.

The two variables they used were:

  1. The number of ‘stamps’ that were already on the discount card when presented to prospects (none vs. six free stamps), and…
  2. The number of ways (or ‘means’) that existed for people to earn a stamp (buying one specific drink vs. buying any one of three different drinks).

Early stage motivation

What they found was that people who received a card with no stamps but were told they could buy any one of three drinks to earn a stamp were 55% more likely to join the scheme compared to people who could only earn a stamp by purchasing one specific type of drink.

Early stage motivation

Late stage motivation

The next phase of the experiment considered the difference in motivation between ‘early and late stage’ goal pursuit and how this can be influenced. 

To learn about this effect they presented some of the participants with cards that had half of the stamps pre-filled.  

Here’s the part you probably wouldn’t have guessed…

In this case, people who received a card with half of the stamps already filled in but were told they could complete their card by purchasing one specific drink only were 34% more likely to join the scheme compared to people who were told they could buy any one of three drinks to earn the remaining stamps required! 

Late stage motivation 

What does this prove?

This shows that our motivation to complete a task and attain a goal depends on the number of means available to achieve it and the distance remaining to reach it.

At the start of an endeavour it is relatively unknown if a goal is attainable. How likely is it that I will ever collect enough stamps to receive my free coffee? In this phase (the deliberation phase) having multiple means of attainment (three drinks instead of one) increases motivation as the goal is perceived to be more attainable. 

Once attainment is perceived to be relatively assured we enter a new mental state: the ‘implemental phase’. In this phase we just want to reach the goal as quickly as possible. In this case having less means of attainment actually increases motivation.

Huang and Zhang, 2012:

Compared with multiple means, a single means provides a more straightforward roadmap for people to “race to the end,” making the goal seem more easily attainable, which in turn leads to greater motivation.

So how does this relate to the online world of task based conversion goals?

At the start of a process users usually harbour uncertainty over a number of issues:

  • Where am I?
  • Does this site stand a chance of meeting my needs?
  • Do I need this product or service?
  • Is this the right website for me to purchase from?
  • What is the downside?
  • What would be the impact of making the wrong choice? 

What users are sub-consciously trying to determine is ‘how likely is it that I will be able to attain my goal during this visit?’  

Huang & Zhang, 2011:

At these times, people actively seek information to confirm the attainability of the goal, and their motivation should depend primarily on their inferences on the goal’s attainability.

In this initial phase you should present users with multiple means for enabling task completion. This is likely to increase motivation as the perception of goal attainability is high.  

In this example from Amazon my motivation is likely to be increased by the perception of multiple means to achieve my goal (finding and purchasing a specific book):

  • Prominent site search facility. 
  • Clear navigation structure showing the breadth of choices available.
  • Multiple layers of targeted (and therefore more relevant) options based on my previous browsing history, social proof and other purchase behaviour.

Amazon early stage

Once users have selected a path to goal attainment you can increase motivation by removing alternative means

The second phase in your funnel involves the transactional stages associated with enabling task completion. This phase addresses the cognitive shift from deciding whether a goal is attainable to explaining how the goal should be attained:

  • What do you want from me?
  • What is the distance to goal attainment? 

In this phase of your conversion funnel you should design an experience that presents users with a linear pathway which can only be traversed via a single action at each stage.  

Remove ‘leaks’ (links that distract users and divert them away from the core task) and use design to increase the prominence of the primary conversion interface.  

In this example from Amazon you can see how the experience has changed once a path to goal attainment has been selected:

  • All navigation has been removed.
  • The logo no longer links to the homepage.
  • The only links on the page are the ones directly required to complete that stage in the funnel.
  • A progress tracker is displayed to communicate distance remaining to the goal. 

Amazon late stage

For more examples, read Paul Rouke’s post ‘Checkout best practices revisited’.  

Try testing the ‘Goal-Gradient Hypothesis’

The ‘Goal-Gradient Hypothesis’ states that we tend to expend more energy in achieving a goal the closer we get to it (Miller, 1944). In the online context proximity to the goal is often communicated with a progress tacker as shown above from Amazon. 

A good test idea is to test variations of your tracker that include differing numbers of stages.  This will teach you about how to influence conversion rate through the perception of goal distance in late stage goal pursuit.  

CAUTION: remember to precede this type of test with qualitative research to ensure that your users actually understand what to expect from the stage labels you provide.


You are able to influence the motivation people have to move through your conversion funnel simply by presenting them with more or less means during two key stages:

  1. Present multiple means during the first phase of your funnel to show people that goal attainment is possible from your website during this visit.
  2. Once people have selected a path to goal attainment present a linear funnel with a single means for task completion at each stage.

In an upcoming post I will explore the concept of ‘choice paralysis’ and the reasons why people react differently depending on the number of choices available.