Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. These popular apps are part of my daily life (and yours, too, I bet). But I use Wunderlist, Google Maps, and Pocket just as much. Products that infiltrate our daily routine aren’t just beautiful or addictive—many are also functional.
So how do such vastly different apps find their way into our lives? They use tools and techniques from psychology and behavioral economics, like the 3-part habit loop (cue-action-reward), to get us hooked.
The first step in building a habit loop, as noted in part 2 of this series, is to identify a good cue for your product. This can be a naturally occurring trigger (like a feeling of loneliness) or a fabricated one (like wondering if anybody’s retweeted you yet).
Once you’ve picked a cue that will speak to your users, it’s time to close the loop by identifying a core behavior and a reward that’s meaningful to your users.
First comes cue, then comes action
Pop quiz: You have your user’s undivided attention and willingness to do 1 thing. What do you ask them to do?
Before you say it—it’s not logging into your site or clicking a button. Those actions are just stepping stones to the action that actually drives revenue or long-term loyalty. Instead, focus on something bigger. Something that ties into your value proposition.
Why? It all comes down to motivation.
Creating a durable habit requires identifying an intrinsic motivator. For example, if you decide to start running 5 times a week, you need a reason. Is it because you want to lower your cholesterol? Master the 6-minute mile? Look better in a swimsuit? Whatever your reason, it’s the goal that gets you in those running shoes each morning.
You need to understand why people use your product. What’s their end goal? Ask them to perform an action that will help them reach that goal, and you’ll be one step closer to creating an authentic, durable habit.
A good action is also easy
“A behavior happens when a trigger coincides with both the motivation to take action and the ability to do so.”
Just because you’re willing to do something doesn’t mean you can do it. Imagine you get an email asking you to schedule more Buffer posts, but you’re in the middle of a meeting. Or, you want to add an item to your shopping cart from a mobile device but can’t remember your login. Constraints can be physical, mental, or environmental.
Enabling users means making sure it’s “easy” to act. To do that, you need to map out all steps it takes.
Let’s use tooth brushing as an example. If we map out all the steps from the trigger (waking up with film on your teeth) to the completed action (a sparkling grill), you’ll see where things might break down.
- Walk to bathroom
- Find toothpaste
- Remove cap
- Find toothbrush
- Squeeze out toothpaste
- Brush for 2 minutes
Once you map out all the steps required, figure out which ones can create difficulty, and how you can make them easier.
In the toothpaste example, you might ease finding the toothbrush by making it neon orange or glow in the dark. You might make squeezing out the toothpaste faster or more efficient. And to keep people brushing for the 2 minutes, you could make your paste tastier, put a timer in the brush’s handle, etc.
For a digital product, you might: make it easier to log in or reset a password. You could store credit card info or make file uploading faster.
Making your habitual action easier can also protect your habit loop from competition. If 2 new companies are working on a similar behavior, but you’ve made it faster and easier, you win.
Beyond badges: what makes a good reward
Getting a user to complete an action once isn’t too hard. Getting them to do it again and again—that’s the hard part.
So, how do you drive repeat behavior? With a satisfying reward. After all, it’s the reward that makes a habit worth remembering and performing in the future.
It’s also the hardest stage to get right.
Most people think of rewards as points, badges, and advancing progress bars. But that’s not quite right. A badge isn’t a reward—it’s a delivery mechanism. The actual reward is the feeling the badge gives the user: you’re smarter than most people, you’ve mastered a task, you’re making progress towards a goal. Remember:
“People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.“
So before you define the reward, decide what users should feel. Then figure out how to deliver that feeling.
The best rewards make sense for your value proposition. A social network rewards users with feelings of acceptance, appreciation, and attention. Games deliver a sense of mastery and achievement. And, professional tools help you feel more organized and/or effective.
The value of variable rewards
As psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered over 50 years ago, the most effective rewards aren’t always consistent.
One day, while Skinner was studying the impact of reinforcement, he found that his feeder had broken and was no longer giving his mice a food pellet when they pressed the lever. You might think the mice would give up. But, no! The rate of response actually went up.
There and then, Skinner realized that it’s not just the reward that drives behavior. The anticipation of reward can be just as effective, even when it won’t always come.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, describes 3 types of variable rewards you can test. They are:
1. Rewards of the tribe
These rewards deliver validation and reinforce self-esteem through others’ responses. Every time someone retweets you, you’re getting a reward from your tribe—i.e., social network.
2. Rewards of the hunt
These rewards deliver the joy of discovery and the excitement of the unexpected. Think of Tinder. You can’t help but wonder how interesting or attractive the next person might be. Wanelo and Pinterest also deliver on our need to hunt and gather.
3. Rewards of the self
These rewards provide personal gratification through novelty and mastery. The ding Wunderlist emits after you complete an item delivers a feeling of success, control, and completion.
Variable rewards aren’t the solution for every habit loop. Imagine if Google only gave you a good answer once out of every 3 searches. Would you keep using it?
When to introduce a new habit
As with most things in life, timing is critical. The right action and reward delivered at the wrong time won’t stick.
When you choose your timing, consider 2 things:
- At what point will users be most receptive to the habit?
- At what point in your product flow should you introduce the habit?
Major life changes are an excellent time to introduce a new habit or alter an existing one. Think about the last time you started a new job. You had to form a bunch of new habits, right? The same goes for things like moving, having a baby, or getting divorced—all of these events break up normal cues and patterns and leave people more malleable to outside influence.
Target has done an excellent job of identifying life events like this and using them to create loyal customers. First, they analyzed historical data on purchases by women who later signed up for Target baby registries. From that, their statisticians identified a set of products that indicated the likelihood of pregnancy and even an estimated due date.
Then, they’d send potentially pregnant women coupons, hoping to create the habit of shopping for their child at Target. They were so effective at identifying expecting women that they accidently tipped off a father that his high-school daughter was pregnant. Whoops!
As Target shows, you don’t have to create new habits in all of your users. Instead, consider focusing on a subset of your user base when the timing is right. Companies like Angie’s List or HomeAdvisor, which serve homeowners, can use internal and external data sources to determine when a user is about to move and focus on that audience first to establish reliance on their products.
Next, you’ll want to consider when your product flow should kick off the habit. You’ll be tempted to introduce it early—and the science suggests you’re right.
Researchers at the University College of London found that it’s not just practice that makes perfect—the key is early practice. The earlier you ask a user to repeat an action, the more likely it is to become a habit.
However, you might want a new user to complete the onboarding experience or a few core actions before introducing a new habit.
For example, if the user needs to complete an action—such as adding content or filling out a profile—in order to experience the full value of a product, you need to show them that value before trying to instill a habit.
Take OKCupid or Match. These sites need you to be searching out matches and responding to incoming ones. But you can’t do that effectively without a profile. So, the ideal time to introduce the habit sequence is after a basic profile is established.
Getting into the habit
Creating a habit that sticks is no easy task. It takes a solid understanding of user motivation, existing habits, and situational constraints. It takes time to clear the path and identify the most compelling reward. However, getting it right will lead you to the Holy Grail of product design—unprompted user engagement. Enjoy the quest.
Dina is the Director of Product Strategy at Prolific Interactive, a mobile-focused product agency serving brands such as Sephora, American Express, 23andMe, Gap Inc. and HBO. With more than 10 years experience building and growing startup and enterprise products, Dina helps companies create experiences that strategically balance business goals and user needs. She frequently speaks and writes about how to use consumer psychology to better understand user habits and serves on the leadership team of mBolden in San Francisco.