The words "habit-forming device" aren't exactly encouraging. In fact, it probably makes you think of something punishing, thanks to Pavlov's bell. But two women engineers have something different in mind: They've developed a more effective--and gentler--way to help people pick up new habits.

The device is called MOTI, and its co-creators, Kayla Matheus and Laura Day, are launching a Kickstarter campaign Tuesday to raise $50,000 within the next 30 days to bring MOTI to life for consumers.

MOTI consists of two parts--an app and a small robotic device that you can place on your desk or in your home. The device encourages people to stick to their habits by giving you positive feedback when you complete your desired tasks, or giving you an extra nudge when you don't, in the form of sounds and lights.

Say that you want to make it your goal to drink eight glasses of water a day. First, you would download the MOTI app, take a personality test to determine what kind of motivation you respond to best (hope, guilt, or fear), and then enter into the app what time of day you plan to drink each of your eight glasses of water. When you successfully drink each glass of water at the correct time, you press the button that's at the center of MOTI, and the device lights up and gives off a happy noise. If you don't drink your glass of water at the correct time, the device might make a sad noise and turn blue (if you're motivated by guilt), or make an angry noise and turn red (if you're motivated by fear).

Matheus and Day met while at an event for women in robotics hardware. Matheus is a former product designer for SC Johnson, while Day is a former robotics engineer in the U.S. Navy. They bonded over a discussion on some of the shortcomings of smart devices. Currently, many smart devices on the market, like Amazon's Echo or Nest, are designed to make a person's life more efficient, but they're not designed to improve behavior. Matheus and Day both had experience in engineering as well as human-centered design, so they thought they could design a device that could do just that.

Matheus began working on MOTI--and researching the process of habit formation--after she was accepted into Google's 30 Weeks program in the fall of 2014. She first developed an interest in habit formation after tearing her ACL back in high school. She was given various physical therapy exercises to complete at home, but struggled to find the motivation to complete them on a regular basis.

"As someone who did well in school, did well in her career--it was like, 'Why can't I do this very simple thing?'" Matheus says.

She based her research on Charles Duhigg's theory of habit formation, which states that a habit consists of three things: a reminder, a routine, and a reward. She wanted to first identify the reminder, routine, and reward that worked best for a large group of people, and then figure out how to design a device based off of those three principles.

Matheus had a test group try out a variety of common habit-forming methods. Trying to quit or start something cold turkey didn't work well, because then people weren't giving themselves a reward to complete the task. Using an app to send push notifications that would remind you to complete a certain task didn't work either, because people would glance at the push notifications, put their phones back down, and then forget about it.

Instead, the habit-forming device that worked best was one that Matheus haphazardly slapped together, and turned out to be the first prototype for MOTI. It consisted of a koala bear toy, a button, and a speaker system that Matheus programmed to give off sounds when a person pressed the button.

There are several reasons why Matheus and Day say that this system works well. First of all, people need a physical, tangible reminder in order to remember to complete the task. Second, the process needs to be "delightful." Matheus says "there needs to be something outside of yourself that is telling you 'good job.'" Finally, the process needs to be easy to integrate into your everyday routine. That's why Matheus and Day designed MOTI so that you have to use the app only to set it up or change the way that it sends you reminders--it ensures that you don't have to reach for something throughout the day.

"With say, a wearable, you have to remember to charge it, and then you have to remember to put it on your wrist. Now, you have two other habits that you have to form in addition to the habit that you actually want to form," Matheus says.

Another key component of MOTI is that it is "semi-anthropomorphic"--that is, it has human characteristics, but it doesn't look exactly like human. When Matheus was using her koala bear prototype, one of the things she noticed is that the testers were more likely to nickname it or refer to it using human pronouns than any other device she tested.

Working with a number of other MOTI prototypes helped Matheus and Day figure out that the only feature they needed to establish an emotional connection with the user was a faceplate, which is the button that's located in the center of the MOTI device. Many of the beta testers say that the faceplate reminded them of either an eye or a face. Since both of those are physical features that humans use to give off emotional expressions, this faceplate helps position MOTI as a social device to users--but not one that they associated with past experiences or emotions.

"We had an early one that had a nose and little ears, that kind of looked like a pig," Matheus says. "So they would look at it and think 'pig,' not think 'drink water,' or 'go for a run,'" Matheus says.

Finally, Matheus and Day say that MOTI has an edge over other habit-forming devices because it will adjust its behavior depending on what is going on in your life. The MOTI app will link to your calendar, so that if you're on vacation or traveling for work, the device will shut off. You can also turn it off if, say, you're sick and don't want any reminders that day, by holding down the button for three seconds.

The device will retail for $99, though Kickstarter backers can snag one for $79 and $89, depending on how early they donate to the project. While ultimately the goal of MOTI's Kickstarter campaign is to raise money to bring MOTI into the world, Matheus and Day also hope to use the feedback they get from backers to add more settings to MOTI, and figure out what other sounds or colors appeal to people.

"There's this whole principle of variation that we really want to develop," Matheus says.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated where Kayla Matheus worked prior to starting MOTI. Matheus was previously a product designer at SC Johnson.

Published on: Sep 13, 2016