The Habit Loop: Key to Building Habit-Forming App Experiences
Written by
Surya Panicker

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

Habits play a crucial role in our day-to-day lives. It subconsciously trains our minds to set a routine for accomplishing certain goals in our personal or professional lives. Setting up routines allows us to offload our brain from everyday tasks and focus on more crucial actions for the day like- preparing for an important client pitch or planning a birthday surprise.

According to a study by Duke University, 45% of the everyday actions are the result of our habits. As a product manager, your objective is to penetrate the product into that 45% of daily actions, developing a habit-forming app. Let us explore this with a simple example.

Look at the famous apps- Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Netflix even.

What is the common factor in these apps that makes users feel the urge to use it every single day?

What are these apps doing differently from the rivals that gets them so much user attention?

Well, it is the meticulous research and endless experiments that enabled them to explore their users’ behavior patterns. Through analysis of their user behaviors, these brands were able to eventually crack the formula of hooking users to their app- by turning it into a habit!

Now you know what compels you to open WhatsApp or Facebook app, first thing in the morning. So, let’s buckle up and align our strategies to users’ behavior and modify them to reach the desired action.

In this blog, you will explore how habits are formed, how they influence users to take an action and how habit loop plays a crucial role in transforming your apps into a sustainably sticky habit.

What is the science behind habit formation?

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 conscious impulse and the other is called the subconscious impulse. While a conscious impulse helps us in taking conscious initiatives like communicating to people, expressing a thought, or other intellectual decisions. Subconscious impulse holds more control over involuntary thoughts or actions that are beyond the perimeter of our conscious mind like – feelings, memories, attitude, beliefs, gut instincts etc.

For example: Imagine you want to learn a song and you are trying to tune into its lyrics- this is called a conscious impulse. However, if you are doing some household work and suddenly start humming a song that keeps popping in your mind repeatedly then, that is a subconscious action as you did not initiate it. Most times it happens automatically without your conscious mind knowing it.

When these subconscious actions are repeated several times, our mind registers it as a new behavior and thus a new habit is formed.

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 the concept of how marketers 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.

As per this concept, an action is initially triggered by a goal, which is nurtured by a reward giving birth to a new routine.

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 a period of 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). This practice of repeating the activity inducing a new habit is called the habit loop.

Habit Loop

Let’s understand how each of these stages of the habit loop helps to transform your app into a habit.

The Cue A cue or trigger commands your brain to perform an action. The cue gets your user acquainted with the product. It can be of two types- external triggers (social media ads, emails, push notifications) as well as internal triggers (product curiosity, boredom, FOMO- fear of missing out, etc.). These triggers compel users to take an action.

For example: You receive a push notification from Instagram when your favorite influencer posts a new video. This is called the cue which leads you to perform an action.

The Routine An action performed in response to the cue or trigger is called a routine.

For example: Viewing the influencer video on Instagram after being triggered by the push notification is called a routine.

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 example: Your influencer’s video talks about the need for normalizing menstruation, this gives you a sense of positivity (works for female audiences). You experience a burst of dopamine. And you keep visiting the app for more such videos. This is the reward, your ‘aha moment’ after following the routine.

How to apply the habit loop formula to your apps?

Creating a habit-forming app experience is a tedious process. Hence, to make it more comprehensible, we have broken this lengthy process into four small steps:

1.      Walk in your user’s shoes

2.      Nurture the trigger

3.      Design a new routine

4.      Experiment with variable rewards

Walk in your user’s shoes

The best way to understand user problems is by being one. Start by emulating your user’s journey. Take a walkthrough, starting from getting a cue to receiving the reward.

Note the limitations in the user journey like complex walkthroughs, inadequate nudges, or the number of steps to reach a reward.

Compare the journey with your peers. Basis the information, ideate 2-3 ways to make your process more seamless and highly adaptable.

Nurture the trigger

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

These motivations can be in the form of curiosity to learn a new skill, hope to seek pleasure or get entertained, etc.

By identifying and nurturing the intention of users you are able to 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: All your friends have found a partner on online dating apps. This persuades you to look for a partner through an app. This is the ‘motivation’. You found an app and it says that you need to make a payment to be able to get the services. So you make the payment. This shows your ‘ability’ to reinforce the motivation.

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, first identify the trigger and reward associated with the old routine and seamlessly replace it with the new routine.

Make sure that the cue and the reward is similar so as to avoid frustrating users with the change in routine.

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

Here the trigger stayed the same but the reward was alien which frustrated users and turned out to be their biggest nightmare.

Experiment with variable rewards

User attention is subject to the ongoing novelty that makes their journey exciting. Adding a variable boosts user action which elevates 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 difficult deal or have found the most hilarious tweet, like when you find a diamond in the rough.

The reward of the self – when you accomplish something for yourself, like your fitness goals or mastering a skill etc.

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

For example: Instagram uses a mix of both the reward of the tribe and the self by creating a platform, where they seek appreciations (follow, like & comment) as well as showcase their skills (Reels).

However, just like a coin has two sides, rewards too can be either positive or negative. A positive reward will reinforce the desire to repeat the action repeatedly until it turns into a habit. But if the reward is negative, the user is likely to abandon or uninstall the app thereby breaking off the habit loop you created.

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

How to turn your app into a habit-driven experience?

Right 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 newer app developers and product managers, the results are not that astonishing. Building apps are not enough. In order to create habit-driven app experience, you need to first understand your user’s problems and preferences, and align your app goals as per user requirements.

Here are a few tips to get started

1– Ensure your app not only entertains but also improves lives of the users by solving their everyday problems.

2– Self test the app to see if you would use it regularly. Iterate and experiment with different versions to analyze what features keep you hooked.  

3– Emphasize more on how your app can help users save time, ease physical & mental efforts and simplify their lives.

4– Convince users that your app is all they need. It is the only essential tool to help them break free from the series of monotonous chores.

Lastly, let us look at some examples of the famous apps that successfully created habit-driven experiences for their users. Because the best learning comes from the best players.

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

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

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

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

All these apps and many more realized their user problems which allowed them to strike the right chords of their users, influencing deeper engagement and transforming into an immersive and habit-driven app of all times.

Intrigued to know how Netcore Cloud can help your transform your app into a continual habit for users? Then get in touch with us today!

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