Companies mapping out their digital strategy often tell me their goal is to be thought leaders. But after digging deep into the psychological drivers of interactions with websites and mobile apps, clearly the conversation needs to be about behavior, not thought leadership. The goal should not be for consumers to think about your product, but rather to integrate it into their daily habits. And as a result, drive retention. Let me explain.
I left the house the other morning, drove to the train station, hopped on the train, and only then could I not for the life of me remember if I’d locked the front door. After several frantic calls to my neighbors, I found that I had. Like many of you, I leave the house at the same time every day, as part of my daily routine. My routines are so frequently repeated that they’ve become unconscious — turning off lights, hanging the car keys on the key rack, feeding the cat, checking Facebook on my smartphone.
Checking Facebook? Yes, using a mobile app is the exact same type of psychological habit as most day-to-day household actions, such as locking the door as you leave the house. A Duke University study found that 45 percent of our everyday actions are the product of habit. Your challenge as an app creator is to make your solution part of that 45 percent.
Brains are happier when they don't think.
How does using a mobile app become as habitual as locking the front door? Let’s look at what happens to our brains when we form habits.
Your brain loves routine. Routine allows you to follow the same route to work every day while your brain does other things, like thinking about your work presentation. Routine frees up your brain’s resources for more complicated actions. This is why our brains reward us for routine and encourage us to create more routines. For example, after we turn on the light switch several times, and the light turns on, our brain learns that this is what it should expect. The next time we flip the switch, we are rewarded with a small burst of dopamine. After several similar repetitions, a new association is created, and this behavioral pattern is etched into our neural pathways — a new habit is formed.
This is how consumers develop habits. As we already know, habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape about 45 percent of our everyday choices.
And there is one thing that brains love even more than routine: positive surprises. Positive surprises deliver bursts of dopamine that are three to four times larger than those produced by habit-based rewards. Your team won the big game? You’ll get a dopamine burst. You got 500 likes for a blog post you wrote? You’ll get a dopamine burst.
So, when it comes to apps, we need to avoid abstract goals, like thought leadership, and aim for clearly defined actions. The conversation about your app needs to be about behavior that will increase user engagement. What do you want your customers to do? Check in with friends on your app? Open it twice a day, and take a specific action? Share content? Click? Read?
Our brains can only turn behavioral actions into routines. The simpler the action, the quicker your users can establish habits. The more clearly we can define the specific behavior we’re trying to initiate, the faster we can move on to the real questions that app creators should be asking themselves: How can we trigger users to engage via a desired behavior, and how can we transform that from a conscious action into a subconscious habit?
Trigger habit-forming behavior.
Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg suggested that you need three things for human behavior to occur: motivation, ability, and a trigger. Triggers are divided into two types: internal and external.
External triggers guide us toward what needs to be done next (for example, the Like button on Facebook or the play button on an embedded video). These are crucial to keep users working smoothly on your app, and should be thoroughly considered in user interface design. However, to truly connect your app with user needs and create associations that lead to habits, you need to intimately understand their internal triggers.
Internal triggers are the inner motivations that compel us to use an external trigger. In the context of apps, internal triggers are what drive us to use, and come back to, our favorite apps. We use Waze to establish a feeling of control in an uncertain environment — traffic or getting to a new destination. We turn to Facebook when we feel the need to connect with people. We play Candy Crush when we feel bored.
Whenever we act on these internal triggers, we get a dopamine reward, reinforcing our behavior. In all the above apps and many others, we receive the bonus of a pleasant surprise — a Facebook Messenger message, game rewards, or any other small surprises that result in the dopamine burst that strengthens the habit loop even further. You can find more information on internal/external cues in Nir Eyal’s book - Hooked.
How to make your app a habit.
Start by identifying one or two simple patterns of behavior connected to your app and designing cues and rewards around them. If the behavior patterns you choose are easy enough, and the rewards are on-target, this will motivate repetition. Behavioral repetitions trigger the creation of new associations, which evolve into habits.
So, while thought leadership is a lofty marketing goal, remember that it’s the last thing you want your users to engage with.