The powerful behaviour trick of Google’s payment business.

On a daily busy day, my bank account had been credited multiple times. Wondering what that might be, I wished for luck! They were all small amounts that I had received from a lot of my close friends. When I enquired, they simply told me to send it back. I was like,- “WTF!! If all you want me to do is return it, why would you even send it to me in the first place?” and the one common answer that I got from all of them was scratch cards. And I’m sure that many of you might have been in my shoes, facing a similar situation.

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Now as a UX Designer, new ways to persuade users to use products or, in technical terms, ways to increase the user engagement of products always excite me. The trick is to make the user feel, behave or take action in a particular manner which benefits the business in short or long term.

Google Pay (formerly Tez) was launched on September 18, 2017, in India, at which time its main competition was-

  • Paytm, one of the first successful in mobile wallet and payments business on which payment feature was introduced in 2014
  • PhonePe, by Flipkart that was founded in 2015
  • BHIM, the government’s own payments app introduced in December 2016

While these were the leaders, many other apps were later made use of UPI feature and introduced to the market, such as Truecaller, Whatsapp, Mobikwik, Freecharge, Jio Money etc.

UPI Payment apps

In August 2017, the UPI transactions stood at 16M, and almost doubled in the next month: in September, it became 30M. This juggernaut then rolled onto 76M in October, more than double the previous. Currently, on November’18 it stays at a whopping 524.94M. So what do we make of this sudden spike in UPI usage? Well, when Google Pay first made an entrance into the payments scene in India, the concept of UPI (unified payments interface) had already taken root with BHIM. But if we go by statistics, it was Google’s entry into payments in September 2017 that really helped the UPI pick up the pace and compete with other non-UPI mobile wallets. And what was the key to this rapid-fire adoption of UPI by consumers? The answer lies in the idea that I started this piece with — scratch cards!

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Let me show you what I mean:

Rewards, obviously, are one of the most common tactics that one would employ to get other people to do stuff that they would not do in the normal course of events. As both producers and consumers, we use rewards and get rewarded on a daily basis. Common examples include-

  • winning a badge on achieving a certain level in a video game.
  • receiving gift cards on shopping beyond a certain amount on e-commerce sites.
  • recognition in terms of a monetary reward for having put in an exemplary shift in the last project at work.
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Given our daily interactions with rewards, humans have explored the science of rewards and the reactions it evokes in humans. Using this knowledge, we have developed frameworks to make rewards more targeted and improve their efficacy.

Let us explore the science behind rewards:

Designers are constantly trying to introduce new behaviours into users’ lives. BJ Fogg’s behaviour model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behaviour to occur: motivation, ability, and trigger (or prompt). I shall discuss these in detail a little later.

To understand the next study, we should have some knowledge of this chemical called Dopamine. It is like a chemical messenger in the brain, called neurotransmitter in technical parlance, and is responsible for sending signals from the central nervous system to the rest of the body. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out and search. It’s involved in the mechanisms of reward, motivation, memory, attention and at times, the regulation of body movements. Check out these cool facts about the effects of Dopamine:

  • When dopamine is released in large amounts, it creates feelings of pleasure and reward, which motivates you to repeat a specific behaviour.
  • In contrast, low levels of dopamine are linked to reduced motivation and decreased enthusiasm for things that would excite most people in the normal course of events.

In the 1950s, B.F. Skinner experimented on rats during his research on rewards. These experiments revolved around two key points — when to give them and how often to give them. He described these as reward “schedules” and wrote of the effects of using different schedules, in what we have come to commonly speak of as ‘reinforcement schedules’. For example, should you reward someone every time they do the behaviour you are looking for? Or just sometimes? A similar research had been explained in the next paragraph.

A really long time after Skinner’s experiments on rats, Robert Sapolsky, the famous American neuroendocrinologist and author, whose studies revolved predominantly around the action of dopamine in the brain, conducted a similar experiment on monkeys. He trained them to know when a light comes on, that is, a signal is given, they have to press a lever 10 times post which they would be given food. This technique of linking food or hunger (unconditioned stimulus) with light (a neutral stimulus) leads to a ‘conditioned stimulus’ and is called classical conditioning. In simpler words, dopamine gets released in the anticipation of food as soon as the light comes on. The monkeys pressing the lever is an action driven by the preliminary dopamine release, from the stimulus of the light signal, and is in anticipation of the food that they expect once the lever is pressed 10 times!

Dopamine is released more in the anticipation of a reward than on receiving the reward. — Tweet this

In the next experiment, when monkeys received food at 50% of the time after pressing the lever, the dopamine levels are as much as twice the previous experiment.

When they performed the experiments by providing food at a chance of 25% and 75% of the time, the dopamine release level was the same.

A further study of the graphs revealed the following in terms of the relationship between uncertainty associated with the reward and anticipation:

  • 100% — When the food was provided every time they press the lever, it was fairly predictable leading to the lowest levels of dopamine release. This meant almost no anticipation of the reward.
  • 25% or 75% — Similarly, when the food was provided either 25% or 75% of the time, the level of anticipation was low. This can be understood as out of 100 times if the food is provided 75% of the times, you would realise that you would receive the reward at least 75 times. 75 is a very large number and is pretty close to a full 100, leading to low levels of anticipation. In contrast, when the food is provided 25% of the times, you would realise that you would get the reward only 25% of the times and wouldn’t think the effort to be worth it as 25 is a small number in comparison with 100! Thus, both 75% and 25% both lead to low levels of anticipation.
  • 50% — Now the case of the food being given 50% of times is very interesting: the number 50 is neither too large nor too small for you to be able to approximate the level of uncertainty to either 100 (too large) or 0 (too small). Parallels to this situation can be drawn (at a very simplistic level) to a cliffhanger in a movie where the plot can move in either direction and yes — you are sitting there glued to your seats! At a 50% level of reward, the uncertainty is at a maximum to the highest level of anticipation possible in such a scenario.

Thus, from these graphs, we can infer that the unpredictability increases anticipation, which in turn can be linked to the increase in levels of release of dopamine.

Now after this rather interesting backdrop, I will return to the primary aim of this piece — to analyse and lay threadbare Google’s strategy of using scratch cards to popularise Google Pay. When we apply the Fogg Behavioural Model to Google Pay’s use case, we can observe the following :

  • Motivation — Anticipation of reward from the scratch cards (anywhere from INR 10 to INR 1,00,000!)
  • Ability — a reduction in the time and effort required to transact
  • Trigger — the actual transaction (buying or sending and receiving money)

At a really basic level, Google had managed to inject all three elements of Fogg’s behaviour model into their product!

I also found a resemblance between the Pavolsky’s Dopamine effect research and the concept of Google Pay scratch cards. This resemblance can be described in the following way:

  • 100% — If you are winning the money every time you receive a scratch card, the excitement in getting the scratch card and winning the amount will gradually fade. There’s no difference between their expectations and reality. And also obviously, it will be a loss to the business!
  • 25% — If the chance of winning money is very few times, the excitement, desire and in turn motivation will become less.
  • 50% — In this case, there is a high level of uncertainty which drives the motivation and excitement to perform the task. This forces us to rewire ourselves to carry out the specific action repeatedly. And as defined in Fogg’s ability element, it reduces both time and effort — so why wouldn’t we?
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When the app had been released, the chances of winning the money through scratch cards are at a level of 50–75% by making the release of dopamine level high. Studies have shown that experiences boost mid-brain dopamine release are habit-forming. So once a habit had been formed, that is we began to frequent Google Pay for our monetary transactions and Google had gained significant market share, the rewards were promptly reduced leading to this message that we have all now become accustomed to,- “Better luck next time”. But once Google started to tie up with many third-party businesses to gain a greater share of the payments space, they started to increase the probability of reward to drive customer behaviour when you perform a transaction with one of those.


So I hope that you all enjoyed my thoughts on the topic. Before I leave you, I shall sum up the main points of the article as the big takeaways-

  • Getting a user to behave in a specific manner is a function of the motivation for the action, his or her ability to perform the action and trigger to initiate the action
  • The reward mechanism of the brain is an action of the chemical called dopamine
  • Understanding the mechanism of release of dopamine is critical to getting humans to perform tasks repeatedly which are habit-forming
  • The release of dopamine is linked to anticipation of reward which is in turn linked to the uncertainty associated with the reward
  • Very high or very low levels of uncertainty reduce the anticipation of rewards and subsequently, the release of dopamine
  • The highest level of uncertainty of reward is associated with a 50% uncertainty in rewards, leading to the highest level of anticipation and dopamine release, thereby driving the human brain to seek more of such action

Thanks for reading! If you found this article helpful, send some 👏👏👏 to help others find it too! What type of other human behaviour have you observed around you? I would love to hear all about them in the responses.

I am thankful to my good friend Srikanta for editing this article in his busy schedule. I am indebted for the knowledge which I had received from Pavolsky, Susan Weinschenk, Nir Eyal, BJ Fogg and so many researchers.

For more UI/UX design that I’ve worked, please visit my Portfolio or Dribbble. If you want to contact me, feel free to visit my LinkedIn or just say hi at or message my FB Messenger Chatbot.