5 Techniques to Nudge User Behavior and Increase App Adoption

I have tried tons of productivity and fitness tracking apps. For fitness, Nike+ Running, RunKeeper, Daily Burn, etc. For habits, Coach.me, Everest, Productive, etc. For tasks, Todoist, Wunderlist, Asana, etc. Why have I neglected the majority of these, while a few stick around and continue to improve my life?

The average person uses between 26-27 apps per month, but they spend the majority of time in only five of those apps. Those five apps probably don’t have the most beautiful graphics or the toughest security. You probably can’t even tell the difference between their competitors from either a visual or features perspective. The apps that are used the most are the ones that are able to capitalize on changing user behaviors. They are the apps that use subtle design elements and techniques under the hood to nudge a user to behave a certain way or to form a habit over time.


Apps That Nudge Checklist

David Cargill highlighted several apps and services that use emotional cues, timely nudges, and psychological tricks to help users change their ways during his session at SXSW 2015, Nudges for Good: Apps That Make People Better. He gave practical techniques that designers can use to enhance their apps, which I have used as a starting point for the list below.

1. Fit into my life… or I’ll forget you

In order for an app to fit into someone’s life, it must provide as little external friction as possible. It must be easy to find and access, and it must integrate seamlessly into their lives. The primary reason I continue to use Evernote is because it’s on virtually every platform.  I can rely on my notes and thoughts to follow me everywhere.

While it might be easier to deploy a mobile website instead of an app, you’re adding extra steps in the process for a customer discovering and accessing your product. Ensure you are designing with your users in mind and not just your resource efforts.

An app must use as much context as possible to understand the user’s environment at each moment.  I love apps that monitor my behavior and personalize my notifications accordingly while I loathe apps that just sprinkle random alerts throughout the day.  A notification to go for a run at 2:00 AM is definitely going to be a lot less effective than one that is sent at 5:00 PM when a person is getting off of work.

2. Don’t make it all about me… or I’ll get bored

I’ve definitely become more introverted over the years. I love hanging out with friends, but I also have no problem enjoying activities and adventures on my own (having my dog with me helps). However, that behavior doesn’t translate to app usage.  Not only are we naturally social beings, but bringing in social elements enables user-generated content and triggers social proof. If a single user is the only one generating content inside of an app, then there is no element of surprise or much reason to open the app unless they want to add data.

When we see what other people are doing, be that in our community or friend group, it motivates us to make certain decisions or understand how we should behave. For example, leaderboards in games and fitness apps not only give us something to strive towards but also remind us that there are others at our level. It becomes an acceptable and desired behavior in our subconscious mind.

3. Get the relationship right… or I’ll drop you

You must know the role your app plays in your user’s  life.  A great example of this is the relationship Siri and Alexa create with their users. Siri has a humorous personality — quite often she’ll respond with snarky remarks or ask for more information about a request. This works great because Siri is designed to be your personal assistant that’s always in your pocket. Alexa, on the other hand, has more of a straight-forward personality. Her responses are often shorter, and she’s more comfortable taking a guess instead of asking for additional information to fulfill a request. This is ideal given Alexa is designed to control your home and must be respectful to the activities that are going on around her, such as family members having conversations or watching tv.

You need to carefully analyze what your usage metrics and goals are. Make sure you aren’t measuring how long users stay in your app unless it’s the primary goal.  There are hundreds of apps on my phone, and I don’t have any interest in opening them all constantly throughout the day.  A good example is Alfred, a personal butler service. They aim for you to never open the app unless you want to change a setting while Alfred continuously works in the background of your life to make it better.

4. Don’t overwhelm me… or I’ll ignore you

Notifying me way too much is an easy way to get your app deleted or, at the very least, have me turn off notifications. Sending more notifications to a non-responsive user isn’t going to get them to spontaneously take action. You might try switching up the message or notifying periodically at different time intervals, but keep in mind they may have seen the notification and are holding off on acting for a variety of reasons.

Another roadblock is when apps build up a neverending laundry list of tasks you have to catch up on. When your inbox reaches hundreds or thounsads of unread emails, you’re probably more likely to start ignoring older emails because you know you’ll never get to them all. On some of my finance apps, there are tons of statements or issues that I haven’t addressed yet. This gives me anxiety and forces me to procrastinate opening them because I know it’ll take a large chunk of time to fix everything. It’s the same with setting any goal; there must be a short-term tactical action plan that the user can follow.

5. Provide actionable value… or I’ll neglect you

There are many apps that exist to capture and present data to us nowadays. All wearables come with some sort of accompanying app, most of which are required to get it set up and running. However, most of these apps just provide charts and graphs of data without creating insights for the user.

My dog has a Whistle pet tracker that he wears. I love ensuring he hits his goal daily and checking in on his activity when I’m out of town. However, the app leaves much to be desired because it mostly just presents raw data. Should he be getting more or less activity based on his breed? How is he doing compared to similar dogs? There are many questions left unanswered that I would gladly open the app more often to find out.

Make a Difference in Your Users’ Lives

Not only can these techniques be used to increase user adoption and nudge certain behaviors, they can be leveraged to positively impact people’s lives. Instead of just building another app that a few people might use, you can build something that’ll really make the world a better place.  To recap:

  • Make sure your app fits into a person’s life
  • Bring in social features that don’t leave the user feeling alone
  • Know the role your app plays in a users life
  • Stop overwhelming users
  • Provide meaning through abstraction

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