The ROI of Habit Formation Features in Apps

Posted on


the ROI of Habit Formation Features in Apps

The App Graveyard

On every mobile phone it exists: those apps that people never use, but which they don’t delete because they feel they should use again- one day. This is the app graveyard.  Created by people who downloaded  the product, signed in, and then dropped off the earth after a week, while still claiming to want what your app offers them.

The Value of Habit Formation

What’s the purpose of your app? The chances are, the solution to its’ ultimate purpose requires some degree of habit formation on the side of its users in order for the app to be able to deliver its promise.

Want to save money? You’ll need to create a budget and log expenses at least every week in order for YNAB or GoodBudget to be of any use to you.
Want to become a runner? You’ll need to train two to three times a week for 9 weeks on the Active.com’s Couch-to-5K plan.

Want better emotional resilience? Headspace, Calm and Pacifica can only be effective if you log in regularly to meditate and track your moods.

The most beautiful design and clever algorithms will go to waste if you can’t persuade your users to overcome their initial resistance and at least “show up” to your app on a regular basis.

What does not work

The defacto habit builder for every startup app I’ve seen seems to one of two things:

a. Push notification reminders

b. Email reminders.

I get that these are easy to implement, but they simply do not work beyond the ‘enthusiasm phase’.  The problem is not that users are forgetting to log in, but that they are actively avoiding logging in.

Why Resist Something You Want?

But why does someone who has identified a desire to – say- save money and who just downloaded (maybe even paid for or subscribed to) an app to achieve that purpose, stop logging in after a week?

Why do some people see the five minutes a day it takes to reconcile their spendings “too much”, when they probably spend three times that amount of time checking their social media accounts?

In order to understand the root causes of user drop-off, we need to understand how procrastination works. I’m going to keep this short because I want to get onto the “habit hacks”, but once you understand why these hacks are effective against procrastination, you can make your own new hacks- your own killer engagement feature.

The 2 Things you need to know about procrastinators

1. Procrastinators actively seek distraction. You can block facebook at work or via a browser extension at home, but they’ll probably spend more time near the coffee machine chatting, more time replying to email, or more time on cigarette breaks. The focus of their distraction is not the cause of their distraction.

2. Procrastinators come in three flavours:

a. Avoidant; these use distraction to avoid negative feelings, such as overwhelm or fear of failure. It’s more rewarding to swipe on tinder than send out job applications on monster.com, for example, although they both take the same amount of time.

b, Thrill Seeking: Some like the “thrill” of getting things done last minute. This may seem like a variation of prioritising social media approval over a meaningful life improvement, but it’s motivated by manufacturing an “epic win” out of thin air, rather than avoiding what they see as “crushing failure”.

c. Decision Avoidant. People in this category dislike making decisions because they fear making the wrong one. It’s easier for someone like this to live on takeout than to pick a diet out of all that conflicting diet advice out there, pick meals that correspond to that diet, and then attempt to make the meals and maybe still gain weight.

Now, I know you’re thinking: “Wow. I just don’t know if my team are equipped to talk people off the edge like this”, but the good news is that apps and SaaS:

1. Make the creating “epic wins” out of nothing easy and super attractive

2. Take a lot of decision-making away.

3. with smart messaging, you can even make users not see falling off the wagon as “failure”

Habit forming hacks

There are a lot of ways different apps attempt to solve the problem of procrastination or “pain avoidance” and in my opinion, developing a solid habit for people who are not organised naturally takes a combination of different approaches. Sometimes, you have to think outside of app features.

In-app habit forming features:

i. Make it easy to “win” and brag about it.

1. The social brag

You’re probably familiar with those facebook posts via Runkeeper, Endomundo and Strava. But how do apps without a braggable number (10K in thirty minutes? Oh my!) make it easy to “win” online?

MyFitnessPal broadcasts that you

a) logged in that day

b) are under your target calorie goal (if that’s the case)

Forest app likes to incentivise the habit of logging in and focusing as planting a tree, with the result of extended successful task completions a lush forest. Erratic logging in or task incompletions results in a patchy forest. This type of visual abstraction is helpful in cases where, unlike with running apps, a number either doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be shared for sensitivity reasons.

FocusNow takes this a step further, making the growing of fruit almost like playing Farmville, with multiplayers all exploiting their successes and gaining points collectively, incentivising them not to compete -as fitbit’s leaderboard does- but to supervise each other (i.e creating accountability). FocusNow works so well because it makes staying focused as appealing to avoidant type procrastinators as logging into facebook and getting likes, while also appealing to thrill seekers by making a “big win” out of something they should already be doing.

2. Creating Competition

What I’ve seen with fitbit’s leaderboard and other similar features is that competition works best if you have a chance of “winning”.  People who are perpetually at the bottom of their social leaderboard just think “this Fitbit stuff isn’t so great” and eventually drop off altogether.

3.  Setting Milestones and Microgoals

Fitbit attempted to correct this by breaking down their big step goal into something more achievable: from 10k steps a day into hourly step goals of 250- a “getting things done” hack that makes striving for the rest of the steps achievable. 

This brings up something important: habit forming isn’t the same as sensible goal setting or the ability to break down a goal into milestones. We need milestones to help us know that although we’re still away from our mark, we are progressing steadily towards it. A microgoal would be something like seeing circles in the calendar filled in as having logged in and completed a task that day.  Microgoals work best when combined with..

ii .. Intelligent Messaging

Going back to alerts: they could work if repeatedly swiping them away or archiving or deleting emails (as indicated by: “user has enabled alerts/email notification but hasn’t logged in over x time period” inside your metrics app) resulted in a different alert asking if the user would like to change their reminder time since the time they’ve picked isn’t working anymore. 

Appboy has a great write up on how Runkeepers positive and personalised messaging keeps it’s users from seeing a small blip in their training as a “failure”.

Out-of-app habit-forming features:

As I’ve said before in “The Quirky Truth About Churn“, software designers and product owners need to think outside of our apps functionality to help our users achieve their end objective. Here are some of the best I’ve seen used:

1. Stickers and NFC tags to remind users to log in. Jiffy uses everything from simple stickers inside of books or desks to remind their users to log in and track time. They also make NFC tags, which can be used to open apps when you pick up your car keys, go into your office, sit at your desk or walk into a meeting room, but I feel this kind of automation suffers from the same problem as timed daily alerts: if our schedule changes and that’s no longer where or when we do our finances, workouts, or blog writing, it simply becomes annoying.

2. Training Webinars: sometimes it’s about training people how to manage their thinking about their project (whether the ‘project’ in question is adopting a new dog, finding a tenant or new flat, or training for a marathon) in the first place and taking questions and answers, as well as reframing those “niche scenarios” that usually easily solvable. This is something YNAB does very well and which keeps people loyal to their product, because as people’s lives change (new baby, new house, change of job) they must be are able to adjust, and that requires a readjustment of thinking. In Getting Things Done, Dave Allen tells us “no tool, fancy notebook or app can fully automate in place of a solid methodology” and this is true. Look at YNAB teaching people “how to prioritise”.

3. Community: do you what killed Filofax in the 90’s? That no one remembered to ever use them, or when they did, they didn’t know how to plan with them beyond filling out their day calendar. This was before webinars were possible for most people to attend, but what’s caused Filofax’s resurgence now is that there are so many Facebook groups online and youtube videos with #planwithme as a hashtag where people help each other and get ideas from each other. In other words: community.

The next level of community is when fans organise events in the real world, like maybe host meet-ups, like Runkeeper’s global 5k runs, or YNABS meetups in Barcelona or HeadSpace fans meeting up in Munich or even a bunch of budgeting geeks meeting up for drinks and some productive support, the latter isn’t affiliated with any software or product, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be, or at least sponsored by one. The easiest community for a digital product to build is one that already exists.

Accountability:  Real life communities like the above create accountability and support, which is hugely motivational, but if real life community isn’t possible, some goal oriented websites allow you to auto-share progress with a few trusted people you know in your contact list, rather than broadcast to everyone via social media.

Others have an in-house motivation team as part of their offering, or assigning a new user to other new users (in Facebook groups or a private slack group) for accountability and weekly check-ins.

A Habit Formation Salad

In the same way a decent salad is more than simply leaves or a vegetable, successful apps use a mixture of the above methods depending on their user demographics, feedback and application aims to build regular habits in their users.

If you’re trying to work out what would work best for your target demographic with the budget and resources you have, drop me a message!



Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Stay in touch

Get more informal notes, summaries, and screenshots, on the business of making digital products and running a calm creative business by signing up to my newsletter