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The Habit Loop: Key to Building Habit-Forming App Experiences
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Dhruv Pandya
Dhruv Pandya
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The Habit Loop: Key to Building Habit-Forming App Experiences

Our daily habits become the root of all our actions throughout the day. These habits – going for a shower, making coffee, or going for a walk in the morning become our daily routine. 

These habits subconsciously train our minds to set a routine for accomplishing specific goals. 

According to a study by Duke University, 45% of our everyday actions result from our habits. This clearly shows that habits are powerful forces. Habits also play a crucial role in our interactions with web and mobile app experiences. 

Brands have become more adept at identifying and using habit forces while interacting with their customers.

As a product manager, your objective is to penetrate the product into that 45% of daily actions, developing a habit-forming product experience. This is where the concept of a habit loop comes into play.

But how do habit loops help product managers craft great app experiences? What is the best way to turn your app into a habit-driven experience? 

These queries regarding habit loops, along with some examples, are covered in this blog. Let’s walk you through it.

What is a habit loop?

In Charles Duhigg’s famous book Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business, he explains how product managers can use the power of the subconscious to form new user habits that stick. 

According to his theory, there are three main components to forming a habit – A Cue, a Routine, and a Reward – together, they form your habit loop.

When an action is initially triggered by a goal and nurtured by a reward, it gives birth to a new routine and establishes a habit loop.

For example, you always lock the door (Routine) when you leave for the office (Trigger). Initially, in your head, you create a goal for this action, like securing your house against theft (Reward).  

However, over time, your brain registers this activity as a new behavior. ‘Locking the door’ occurs to you naturally without having to think about the end goal (securing the house). Repeating the activity to induce a new habit is called the habit loop.

The three central components of the habit loop model

To understand each of these components, we will look at them by taking an example of a language learning app.

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1. The Cue

A cue or trigger commands the brain to act. The cue gets your user acquainted with the product and its features. 

The cue can be of two types- external habit triggers (social media ads, emails, push notifications) and internal habit triggers (in-app messages and nudges). These triggers compel users to take action. 

In this case, when a user opens the language learning app, they are reminded of either a lesson they started and didn’t finish or a new insight related to the language of their choice.

2. The Routine

Routine is an action performed in response to the cue or trigger.

Continuing with the previous example, the user on the language learning app sets up a routine when they respond to the trigger. 

In response to the trigger, they continue taking up a lesson they didn’t finish previously.

3. The Reward

The return received upon performing a routine is the reward. The reward is the glue that makes users stick and repeat the routine in the future. These rewards can be in the form of gratification, attention, or an experience.

For a user on a language learning app, the reward can be unlocking a new chapter or a new feature that helps them continue the learning journey and receive more training on the language of their choice.

How do habit loops create compelling app/web experiences for users?

Creating a habit-forming app experience can be broken down into four small steps:

Walk in your user’s shoes

The best way to understand users’ pain points is by being one. Start by emulating your user’s journey on the app. Take a walkthrough, starting from getting a cue to receiving the reward. It gives you a clear idea of the design of the user journey on the app.

Note the limitations in the user journey like lengthy walkthroughs, inadequate nudges, or the complexity of a step to reach a reward. 

A nudge is a gentle poke to steer users to take the desired action. You can deploy these nudges easily on the app. Testing them among particular user journeys will help you better understand the nudge’s effect.

You can create and test several user journeys. Depending on the data you receive from these user journeys, you can try to make your process more seamless and adaptable.

Nurture the trigger

Before sending the trigger, you must ensure that the user has enough motivation and ability to take action.

These motivations must be related to what the user wants to achieve. It can be in the form of curiosity to learn a new skill, hope to seek pleasure or get entertained, etc.

By identifying and nurturing users’ intentions, you can engage them without making them think a lot or search a lot for their specific needs. 

Once the users have sufficient motivation, you can send out the trigger, which is more probable to be clicked.

For example: If you show a keen interest in sports and two of your friends on Instagram follow a particular sportsperson, you will get a nudge to follow that particular sportsperson. Your interest also influences the motivation to follow a person on Instagram in sports.

Design a new routine

Observe how the user responds to a particular routine and alter it by creating a new one.

To design a new routine, identify the trigger and reward associated with the old routine and seamlessly replace it with the new routine.

Ensure that the cue and the reward are similar to avoid frustrating users with the change in routine.

For example: Facebook introduced a new layout that flushed out the classic layout ingrained in the user’s system, which ended up annoying their users.

Here the trigger stayed the same, but the reward was alien, frustrating users. The new design on Facebook is a nightmare for the users. 

What Facebook missed here was the link between the rewards from the old routines and new routines. The new reward was not something realized by the user, which led to an unpleasant experience.

Experiment with variable rewards

User attention is subject to the constant novelty that makes their journey exciting. Adding a variable boosts user action, elevating dopamine and hooks them to stay on your app.

There are three types of variable rewards –

The reward of the tribe – appreciation from social communities – likes, comments, and shares on Facebook or Instagram videos.

The reward of the hunt – a sense of achievement when you have cracked a complicated deal or found a hilarious tweet.

The reward of the self is when you accomplish something for yourself, like doing a physical activity for 30 minutes or trying your hands on a new dish for dinner.

Depending on your app’s agenda, produce a reward most likely to spark user interest.

Instagram uses a mix of both the reward of the tribe and the self by creating a platform where they showcase their skills and receive appreciation in return through likes, shares, and comments.

However, just like a coin has two sides, rewards can be positive or negative. A positive reward will reinforce the desire to repeat the action until it becomes a habit. 

But if the reward is negative, the user will likely abandon or uninstall the app, breaking off the habit loop you created.

So, ensure that the rewards are always positive and considerate to your user needs, making your app more preferable to the competitors.

Popular habit loop examples

According to Nir Eyal, author of
Hooked: How to build habit-forming products,

“Habits are impulses to do behaviors with little to no conscious thought.”


There are two types of impulses that influence our actions. One is called the conscious impulse, and the other is called the subconscious impulse. 

At the same time, a conscious impulse helps us take conscious initiatives like communicating with people, expressing a thought, or making other intellectual decisions. 

Subconscious impulse holds more control over involuntary thoughts or actions beyond the perimeter of our conscious mind, like – feelings, memories, attitudes, beliefs, gut instincts, etc.

Nir Eyal uses a fun way called “The Toothbrush Test.” When looking at the potential of an app, Eyal tries to find out if the product, like a toothbrush, is something the users would use once or twice a day.

Here are two popular brands that are likely to be used by users quite often during their day.

Instagram – The fear of missing out

The act of capturing images has been habit-forming for many years. It stems from the fear of losing out on a critical moment in our lives. 

Instagram’s strategy is to offer filters to make those pictures look more appealing and sharable, making it a reward for the user.

This was the initial use case for Instagram. But over the past few years, it has become one of the biggest social media platforms. 

So now, the internal triggers like boredom, seeking connection, and fear of missing out (FOMO) come into play.

The fear of missing out is one of the biggest triggers for Instagram users. This psychological itch is only reduced by opening the Instagram app every other minute and scrolling through.

Spotify – Refreshed playlists every week

Spotify’s product strategy and features also have much to do with the habit loop.

A few years ago, Spotify launched a feature called Discover Weekly. Discover Weekly creates a perfect habit loop. 

The routine is listening to a new, refreshed playlist every week. The reward is the release of good hormones from the new music and the social currency of sharing it with others. The cue, or trigger, here is just the fact that it’s the start of a new week. 

Loss prevention is said to be one of the biggest motivators for humans. So on Sunday, another habit loop is triggered. Users log on to save tracks from Discover Weekly to prevent losing out on newly discovered music.

This creates the perfect habit loop for Spotify users.

*Habit-forming brands are also customer-centric apps. Intentionally customer-centric brands are also more likely to become habit-forming with their customers.

Turn your app into a habit driven-experience

From sipping your morning coffee to commuting to work to going to bed, people are addicted to their mobile devices. Out of which 88% of the mobile time is spent on apps.

While this sounds quite encouraging to product managers, the results are not astonishing. 

Building a good app is not enough. To create a habit-driven app experience, you must first understand your user’s problems and preferences and align your app goals per user requirements.

Here are a few tips to get started:
1 – Deliver quick value by solving a specific pain point and improving your users’ lives.
2 – Experiment and iterate to understand which features keep your users hooked.
3 – Offer easy app navigation by implementing a suitable set of prompts. Simplify their experience and save their time and efforts.

Build user engagement within your app by establishing habit loops

Several brands have successfully created habit-driven product experiences for their users. 

Want to make more friends? – Facebook is at your service

Want to showcase your talent? – YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have got your back

Want to get a meal for the day? – Zomato and Swiggy will deliver to your doorstep

Want to buy clothes and accessories? – Myntra offers a variety to choose from

Want to achieve your fitness goals? – HealthifyMe is all you need

All these apps and many more realized their user problems, allowing them to strike the right chords for their users’ behavior. It helped each app influence deeper engagement and became an immersive and habit-driven app for its users. 

A simple solution to making your app more engaging and habit-driven is to use tools that nudge your users in the right direction.

Would you like to know more about a tool that helps you engage and retain users on your web and mobile app? Get in touch with us today, and we will show you the best way to offer a habit-driven user experience.

FAQ

How do you create a habit loop?

The following framework helps you create a habit loop: 

  1. The Cue: The best way to create a habit loop is to create cues for kickstarting a habitual behavior.
  2. The Routine: The behavior cues should nudge you toward setting a particular routine. 
  3. The Reward: The routine must be followed by a reward that makes creating and following the habit an emotionally satisfactory event.

What are the four components of a habit loop?

According to James Clear, the four components or factors that work well to build new habits are Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward.

What is a habit loop example?

A simple example of a habit loop model can be a person deciding to indulge in physical activity for 30 minutes daily. The person needs to be behavior cues to start the activity to indulge in this activity.

The cue can be “I’ll go for a walk before having my morning coffee” or “I’ll go for a walk during my lunch break.”

Please start with the cue and make it a routine. But ensure that a reward follows the routine. 

A reward, in this example, can be “I’ll get some vitamin D on my walk” or “I’ll listen to my favorite music or explore a new audiobook on my walk.” 

Rewards are always subjective and differ from person to person. It is always best to experiment; that is the best way to find whether a particular habit loop works for you or not. 

But you must follow the Cue → Routine → Reward framework.

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