Why Habits Are So Hard for App Designers to Nail Down

temp paper coverI’m excited… more than a little… to share an academic paper I just read (and re-read.) It includes some required lessons for all app designers, but especially those who happen to be in the productivity space.

Published by the University College of London’s Interaction Centre, it’s entitled “Beyond Self-Tracking and Reminders – Designing Smartphone Apps That Support Habit Formation.” Included in the study is a survey of 115 habit formation apps that promise to help users make permanent behavior changes. Unfortunately, the results reveal a rude surprise… only a tiny handful (3%) have features which are supported by research-based findings.

As a developer of an app, program or device you may not be focused on helping people change habits directly. However, the long-term success of your project may rest entirely on your ability to make your product sticky: irresistible to users who include its use as one of their regular habits. In this context, a habit is defined as an activity undertaken with little motivation or conscious thought that takes place in response to a cue or trigger event. Furthermore, it’s one that responds to positive reinforcement… but only moderately, according to this study.

The authors go a bit further in the section at the end titled “Design Guidelines for Habit Formation Apps.” They add that triggers and cues are not equivalent to electronic reminders based on the clock. The former are based on events that take place in the real world, such as a meal-time. They don’t require the presence of technology.

Therefore, as a designer, if you want your users to use your app at the start of the day, you are better off in the long-term by tying it into an activity they already do (e.g. breakfast) rather than a timed reminder (e.g. an email at 8:00 AM.)

That’s not to say that the email reminder won’t work at all. It does… in the short-term. However, developers who rely on timed reminders are likely to see them interfere with the development of long-term habits. That’s bad news.

It’s far better to teach users to set “implementation intentions”: actions based on selected trigger events, such as “I will use app X right after breakfast.” It doesn’t hurt to add in a reminder email around the same time, but it should not prompt the user to “Use app X.” Instead, it should remind them of their implementation intention: “Remember to use app X right after breakfast.” In this context, the email reminder is only an aid, not a substitute.

Furthermore, habit building based on electronic reminders requires the presence of a device which is producing visual, audible or haptic notifications. If it happens to be located in the other room,the notification can be missed altogether.

Also, most people receive a tsunami of notifications which causes them to ignore them all. It’s a problem we are tackling at 2Time Labs here and here.

The researchers also note that many app developers are fond of encouraging users to track “streaks” designed along the lines of the “Seinfeld Strategy.” This tactic involves keeping track of how many days a single activity is continued without an interruption. The study shows that 77% of the habit formation apps included task tracking to encourage streaks, but point out that this technique isn’t effective for creating long-term habits.

These are subtle points, but if you are designer or developer, you can use them to direct your attention toward strategies that are proven to work. Bottom line – they can make the difference between an app that goes viral versus another one of the many which languish in the Apple or Android app stores.

If you find value from this kind of insight, take a moment to join my mailing list for Productivity Developers by visiting http://www.2time-sys.com/application-designers/. There’s more content available and under development that may be helpful to you as a time-based productivity app designer.