How Apps Can Lead to Long-Term Behavior Change
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How Apps Can Lead to Long-Term Behavior Change

Laura MacPherson October 4, 2018

Habit formation is hard. While it’s easy to get excited about starting a new habit, the challenge comes in making that habit stick. Gretchen Rubin, New York Times Bestselling author and speaker on how to find happiness through building positive habits, puts it well: “One of the big daily challenges of life is, ‘How do I get people—including myself—to do what I want?’”

It’s a challenge that the app industry has tried to tackle. Hundreds of self-improvement apps aim to help users build positive habits that will make life better. But many of these apps get deleted from users’ phones within a month or two of downloading them. In this post, we’ll look at how apps can lead to long-term behavior change — if you know how to build them with principles of behavioral psychology in mind.

Why Do Self-Improvement Apps Fail?

First, let’s consider why many self-improvement apps fail. Users optimistically download an app to help them build a particular habit, but they inevitably fall off the wagon. Why? Motivation slips. The key to keeping users engaged is motivation. People are wired differently, so what motivates one person may not motivate another. This is where most apps go astray — they offer only one type of motivation. Let’s explore several tactics you can use to keep motivation high, to keep all types of users engaged.

1. Deliver a Quick Win

Few things are more motivating than a quick win that allows you to experience the exhilaration of success. This exhilaration feels good, so you’re likely to move to the next step in the app to keep the good vibes rolling. Consider how you’ll quickly get users onboard, interacting with your app, and achieving a small success. Minimize the amount of time people need to invest to start using the app. The Daylio app immediately engages users by showing them how they can track their moods and see what actions or activities accompanied the feeling. When users record a mood and the associated activity, they’re prompted to view a report where they can track trends that will give them insights.

2. Help Users Build a Plan

Next, you’ll want to help users build a plan for how they’ll integrate using your app into their day. If users are setting aside time to interact with your app and they have a plan in mind, they’re a lot more likely to return to the app than if you leave it up to random memory. The 10% Happier app does a great job implementing this tactic. When a user sets up an account, the app asks users when they plan to meditate — in the morning, at mid-day, or in the evening. It then prompts users to set a notification alert to remind them to meditate at a particular time.

3. Offer Tangible Benefits

While the benefit of building a habit should be enough, in reality, the results users will achieve are simply too far in the future to make a current impact on behavior. You’ll need to deliver a series of tangible benefits that will lead users along the path until they’ve established the habit. These benefits often come in the form of gamification rewards. Gamification delivers tokens, badges, placement on leaderboards, and other perks at various intervals as users complete actions in the app. These rewards are most effective when they’re attached to social reinforcement or personal achievement. For example, the Todoist app uses Karma Points to motivate users to keep going with the app. As users collect points, they rise through status levels in the app. Users can also lose karma points if they fail to accomplish the tasks they set out for themselves. If a user has an innate spirit of competitiveness (like most of us do), he or she wants to keep the points stacking up and not lose points.

By using a variety of techniques, you can create multiple hooks that will keep users engaged with your app — and building positive habits to create long-term behavior change.

Want to learn more about how we integrate these tactics into app design or talk about your project idea? Get in touch.


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