Why Good Intentions Aren't Enough To Make People Use Your App

A rash of apps promise to help us on the road to self-improvement. Problem is, nobody sticks with them. How can developers make it easier to commit?

A plethora of apps on goal setting, goal tracking, and coaching make it seem as though all we really need to create change are social networks, badges, and reminders.

Change, though, is hard to do.

Most behavior change app users stop engaging with apps after a few weeks. Why does this happen, and what we can do about it?

I asked BJ Fogg, the founder and director of the Persuasive Technology lab at Stanford University. He said there are two main reasons people stop using these apps. First, the developers are unrealistic about how long people will want to or should use their app, and about how much time they will want to devote to it. He cites a sleep app that requires a bunch of doodads and says it would be more successful if it were reframed as something you use for a week and then you’re done. Fogg believes this would change compliance and users would feel successful after they finish.

The second big problem is the way data is conveyed back to users. There is an assumption that giving users data will change their behavior. In fact, Fogg believes, data might discourage a user and make her less capable of change. The solution? Feed back to the users what they are doing well and highlight the most positive. “People have a huge appetite to feel successful and feel like they’re achieving,” Fogg says.

Fogg’s behavior model is defined as Behavior = trigger, ability, and motivation. All three elements have to be present for a behavior to occur. Which leads us to the other major problem with behavior change apps: They only reach the very motivated and disciplined among us.

How can these apps help everyone?

My hypothesis is that developers need to pay more attention to belief, an issue lightly touched on by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit. He writes, “Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.”

Belief is related to self-conception. In Influence, Robert Cialdini says that changing a person’s conception of himself will help him change his behavior. In his words: “You can use small commitments to manipulate a person’s self-image . . . And once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this view of himself.”

Another approach is mindset. The research of Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, shows that having a fixed or growth mindset (often learned in childhood) affects our ability to be successful. Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation.

While behavior change apps are appealing, at this point they don’t live up to their potential. I predict the next wave of these apps will start to take into account the individual and the context for her desired change; they will not only have to take into account realistic expectations for length and frequency of use, but also include an individual’s beliefs, self-conception, and mindset.

Maybe then our ability to change using apps will change.

[Image: Flickr user Caroline]

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