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You know the signs of an addictive app: an unwillingness to put your device down, an overwhelming urge to “just check it one more time,” actually dreaming or daydreaming about using it.

Think Twitter, Pokemon Go, even Amazon.

The fact is, most of these were intentionally created to be habit-forming. Called behavior design, the intentional use of psychology within the computer science field has yielded some of the most popular–and addictive–apps and games.


According to entrepreneur, educator and author Nir Eyal, “Through consecutive hook cycles, successful products reach their ultimate goal of unprompted user engagement, bringing users back repeatedly without costly advertising or aggressive messaging.” His “Hooked” model of behavior design consists of 4 key points:

  • Trigger: Internal (boredom, loneliness) and external (notification, email)
  • Action: Accomplishing something with the app is a limited number of taps away
  • Variable Reward: Satisfy their need and leave them wanting more
  • Investment: Create an environment where users can take specific actions to invest in a better and more personalized experience

Here are 8 actionable steps you can take based on Eyal’s model to successfully create a habit forming app. They’ve all been used by our mobile experts to help guide particular tactics during design and development. And which our mobile app startup clients continue to use as they market and strategize the evolution of their apps.


Tactic #1 Push Notifications

Having a smart push notification strategy is a great way to create those external triggers that persuade users to take a specific action. There are two key elements behind every successful notification: An intriguing and actionable trigger, and perfect timing. The best habit-forming apps offer compelling copy through external triggers (push notifications) timed to line up with our internal triggers (boredom).

For example, Lyft’s manually scheduled notifications alerts users of holiday promotions, limited time discounts and 5-star ratings. These push alerts drive re-engagement because they’re tailored to the user, have a witty CTA and pop-up at just the right time.


Tactic #2 Email Drip Campaigns

Email drip campaigns enable automated touches between your brand and your users outside of the app. This strategy keeps your brand top-of-mind and lets you deliver valuable content resulting in a delighted “customer” or user. Here are some best practices for drip campaigns:

  • Identify which segment of your users should receive which campaigns.
  • Create original content or curate interesting and applicable content from around the web.
  • Monitor results and iterate to to make your campaigns even more effective.
  • Use automation tools like Mailchimp, Marketo, etc. to scale your efforts up

If you’re looking for a real-life example, try signing up for Quadjobs and check out their email marketing.


Tactic #3: Fresh In-App Content

Create relevant, new content in your app that users actually want to see. OpenTable features “New & Hot” restaurants. Retailers like Amazon feature daily deals and recommended products on their home screen. Tinder always has potential new matches. Having fresh content available every time users open your app encourages them to check back more often to see what’s new.



Tactic #4: Simplify Dominant User Flows

Identify the most common user flows and make sure they’re as streamlined as possible. Literally count the taps it requires to complete the action. No one wants to open an app and get stuck in a series of pop-ups and unnecessary steps. Two common examples of user flows that you would want to simplify are new user onboarding and push notifications:

Onboarding Improvements: Instead of requiring that new users create an account first (resulting in lots of time and taps), see if you can push the ‘sign-up barrier’ further back in the experience to give that user a chance to explore and interact with your app right away. Creating too much friction in the onboarding process can cause people to abandon your app before they even begin using it.

Push Notification Improvements: If a user engages with a push notification make sure it takes them where they expect to go. For example, if your app triggers a push notification when a user receives a comment on their post, that notification shouldn’t send them to the newsfeed where they’ll need to search for the post. Instead send them directly to the post and comment in question. From there, leaving a reply comment should only require another tap or two.

Tactic #5: Invest in Quality Visual Design

You wouldn’t stay in a brick and mortar store if it was freezing, foul-smelling and noisy. The same holds true for mobile apps. Outdated graphics, ugly typography, clashing or garish colors are all immediate turn-offs. In today’s ultra-competitive and crowded marketplace, people expect modern, relevant and clean UI.


Tactic #6: Gamification

Even if you’re not in the gaming category, strategically incorporating gamification is one of the fastest ways to engage, reward, and retain users. Badges are a easy way to recognize users’ accomplishments, incentivize certain actions, and drive re-engagement. Many fitness apps will offer badges for the number of days in a row users log meals, how many days they weigh-in, etc. And the more badges users earn, the more they want.

Social competition, such as leaderboards, is another way to add gamification to a non-gaming app and is also used widely in the fitness app category. For example, FitBit hosts weekly “step challenges” encouraging users and their friends to see who can get the most steps. As users check in repeatedly to see who’s in the lead, habits are being is formed.

Tactic #7: Financial Reward for Desired User Behavior

Financial rewards are one of the most powerful incentives available to developers since they have real-world value. The downside is that they’re also usually the most expensive to implement and maintain. The cost can, however, be worth it, especially for startups that need to capture significant market share in a short amount of time.

Startups may offer their users a “referral fee” for any friends and family they get to sign-up for the app. The referral fee can be cash, a gift card or an offer of free services through the app (like free Lyft rides if you refer a friend). These types of referral systems require more complex design and coding work up front but effectively incentivizes word-of-mouth. Warning: Make sure to thoroughly crunch the numbers before hand to ensure you can recoup the investment.


Tactic #8: Customizable Experiences

Every time users spend time customizing settings, adding content, exploring features, etc., they become more invested in the product. And the more invested they are, the more likely they are to use your app again and again.

Offer a variety of settings that allows the user to tailor the experience to their own preferences. When applicable allow them to write reviews, edit profiles, and invite friends. All of these steps get a user more immersed in your app making the barrier to exit that much higher. Instead of “an app” it becomes “my app.” Plus, giving people the option to customize features to their liking makes for a better user experience anyway.

These small investments add up over time and can be leveraged to make the trigger more engaging, the action easier, and the reward more exciting. By analyzing the data you have on your users, you can make better recommendations, prioritize better content at the top of a newsfeed, and more.


Tactic #9: Data-Driven Optimization

We like to say that launch is just the beginning, and, as such, it is absolutely essential for long-term app health to leverage user data in optimizing your mobile product. For example, you can use Google Analytics’ Behavior Flow to really understand how your users are using your app.

Explore the places where users are leaving the app and see what changes can be made to those particular screens or the particular flow to keep them engaged. You can also segment your audience to only look at data for your power users (i.e users who frequent the app at least 2x per week). Do they use your app differently than new users? If so, how can you encourage new users to adopt similar usage patterns?

Although it doesn’t fit neatly under any of Eyal’s behavior design categories, making a habit of tracking and analyzing your app’s data so you can optimize over time is the very best way to keep your app addictive and create brand champions.

About the Author:

Drew Johnson, is Co-Founder & Co-CEO of App Partner, a Brooklyn-based mobile agency. He oversees the company’s business development efforts while strategically building it’s culture and vision. To date, App Partner has developed more than 200 mobile applications which have generated tens of millions of downloads.

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