More than an app: How to drive positive habits through effective mobile app design

Published: 02/07/2020
Author: Vidatec

Vidatec explores the theory and strategy behind apps which incite a change in behaviour

Most organisations want their customers to use their products or services as often as possible. How can they incite this? They can produce something those customers need over and over again. They can produce something so good those customers want it over and over again. And they can create something which becomes more than a product – it becomes a consumer habit.

Nir Eyal, the lecturer and author behind Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has been harnessed by many businesses in order to perfect their experience and ensure regular engagement from users. Many of us are instinctively aware of the results of these techniques – the desire to keep returning to Instagram, or Twitter, or YouTube, or a news website – to keep scrolling, keep clicking.

When it comes to social media sites, negative implications can be associated with this habit-forming process. But what if the app user actively wants a particular app to become a habit? What if the app is trying to support them in improving their health or wellbeing?

Consider apps like Couch to 5K, the Public Health England mobile app, which supports users in being able to run 5km non-stop after nine weeks. Here, users want the app to be as engaging and effective as possible – they want it to entice them to scroll and click again and nudge them when they don’t – they want it to become a habit.

The key to delivering this is the design. Let’s look at this in more detail.

Identifying the positive trigger

Nir Eyal has developed what he calls the HOOK canvas to explain how habit-forming products work. This consists of a four-stage feedback loop, whereby an initial trigger encourages an action from the user, which results in a reward which is both fulfilling yet also leaves the user wanting more because they have invested – making their return to the product more likely.

As such, for app developers and businesses wishing to create a habit-forming product, the starting point has to be the trigger or triggers for the end user. This means understanding both external and internal triggers. As Eyal explains, external triggers are relatively straightforward – they are the design features like notifications, buttons and arrows which encourage the user to undertake core actions within the app. Most digital designers and developers are well-versed in these.

But internal triggers are often neglected – these are the reasons for engagement sitting underneath those top-level actions. Internal triggers relate to the app users’ fundamental desires and goals – things like wanting to get fitter, or healthier, or lose weight, or stop smoking. Internal triggers are emotional and deep-seated, and as such, apps which speak to those are far more habit-forming.

When those internal triggers relate to positive life objectives and wishes of the end user, they can be enormously impactful. If designers and developers can build their apps with the content, functionality and overall user experience driving towards that internal trigger, then a win-win situation can be the result; the app is well-used, and the user achieves their goals.

In practice, this might involve asking users to set a goal and timeline within the app from the beginning, and then sending them regular motivational messages and alerts. It might involve fun metaphors or comparisons to enable the user to better visualise the impact of a particular action, like exercise-tracking apps which present users with an entertaining calorific equivalent of those they have just burned off. It might even involve users working up to tangible rewards, such as discounts on other products.

Rewarding and investment

Beyond those initial triggers, any habit-forming app also needs to pay careful attention to the reward and investment mechanisms which follow on from action in that HOOK canvas. What rewards does the user get which encourage them to act again?

There are a range of different ways in which this can work. Gamification – perhaps through the creation of different levels which can be unlocked through particular actions, or through scoring mechanisms whereby the user is encouraged to try and beat themselves – or other users – can work well. But rewards alone aren’t enough. The design should actively get users to invest in it, knowing that it will result in a future reward – motivating them to engage further. Mobile applications can be a hugely effective way of influencing positive behaviour. They can offer users an engaging and supportive ‘check-in’ process, a point of advice and support and ultimately guide them through the gaining of a new habit. However, to achieve this – for an app to be ‘more than an app’ – a considered approach to design and development is required. Users’ fundamental goals and desires need to be understood from the outset, and built into every aspect of the app’s layout, content and user journey.