Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Psychology of Apps

Published in May-Jun 2021

Amin Rammal explains your mobile addiction.

You are staring blankly at a face. Lips are moving, words are spewing and you are grinning unknowingly. You care little about the conversation. The only thing on your mind is the addiction in your pocket which you anxiously want to pull out – your mobile phone of course.

Many of us feel this urge whether in a social setting or a business meeting. What causes this itch? Why have we become addicted to this increasingly ubiquitous device?

While the device is a critical means, its utility through apps keeps us coming back. According to a report from mobile data and analytics firm, App Annie, global consumers in Q1 spent an average of 4.2 hours per day using apps on their smartphones, an increase of 30% from just two years prior. Our mobile usage is becoming increasingly more habitual and like any product innovation and its usage, an understanding of human psychology sheds light on why.

MIT researchers discovered that at the core of every habit – good or bad – is a neurological loop in our brain that operates below the level of conscious awareness. Habitual behaviour involves three elements: a cue, a routine and a reward. A cue in the environment (an app notification) triggers a routine response (checking messages) which satisfies in some rewarding way (making the user feel informed).

In building an app, the approach starts with understanding how an app’s solution matches a user’s problem. Without utility, apps are short-lived. The mobile screen is prime real estate, as mobile app revenues are projected to reach nearly one trillion dollars by 2023. Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store currently have almost three million and two million apps respectively. On average, mobile users store 80 apps on their phone, of which 30 are used in a month and 10 daily. One study suggests that on average, 71% of app users churn in 90 days. The data reflects the opportunities for mobile apps and the challenge to get installed and more importantly remain by becoming a habit.

‘The Fogg Behaviour Model’ by Dr B.J. Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behaviour to occur: Motivation, Ability and Prompt. Fogg states that motivation is driven by:

Sensation: Searching to experience pleasure or avoiding pain. These strong motivators are physical. Games, for example, satisfy a need for pleasure or avoid the feeling of boredom.

Anticipation: Hoping that good things will happen or the fear that bad things will occur. These motivators relate to emotions. WhatsApp keeps its receiver in anticipation of information or news whether positive or negative.

Belonging: The need to seek social acceptance or avoid rejection. The desire to belong somewhere is overwhelming for humans, which motivates them to act in a certain way. Reactions on Facebook and Instagram make users feel appreciated.

While motivation creates the push, ability ensures the action is completed. Simplicity and ease of doing a task is paramount and offers the greatest return on investment for companies building technology solutions. Here is where design thinking based on user insights driven by techniques such as behavioural mapping, customer journey maps, empathy maps help simplify and optimise the experience. An example is the trend for bigger mobile screens which is great for showing more content; however, designing for one-handed usage (according to one research, this accounts for 49% of users) is a challenge with bigger screens. In addition, research suggests that on average users check their phones as many as 58 times a day, out of which 70% of mobile interaction lasts less than two minutes.

Google’s Product Director, Luke Wrobleski, terms these short bursts as ‘one thumb, one eyeball’ mobile-usage experiences, since the highly distracted environment causes most mobile users to engage in one-handed use with short spans of partial attention. To address such issues of reachability with larger screen sizes using one-hand navigation, Amazon’s updated iOS app has the ‘Quick Access’ bar floating at the bottom of the screen that offers shortcuts to the most frequently accessed features and has its own ‘hamburger’ menu (the three horizontal lines).

In designing apps for better usability, app builders should consider Fogg’s six elements of simplicity:

  1. Time: How long it takes to complete an action
  2. Money: The fiscal cost of taking an action;
  3. Physical Effort: The amount of labour involved in taking the action
  4. Brain Cycles: the level of mental effort and focus required to take an action
  5. Social Deviance: how accepted the behaviour is by others
  6. Non-Routine: How much the action matches or disrupts existing routines

From financial apps with the goal of increasing financial inclusion to health apps focused on modifying behaviour, understanding these elements in context of the indigenous user can help people achieve their objectives.

According to Nir Eyal’s ‘Hooked’ model, the ability to act is followed by anticipation of rewards. A study conducted by Stanford Professor Brian Knuston among subjects playing a gambling game revealed that “what draws us to act is not the sensation we receive from the reward itself, but the need to alleviate the craving for that reward.” Habit-forming products, according to Eyal, deliver variable rewards to increase the frequency of completing the intended action.

Experiments suggest that variability increases dopamine, which is a chemical produced by our brains that plays an important role in motivating behaviour and experiencing pleasure. It is released when we do something that meets a survival need, such as when we eat after we exercise and when we have successful social interactions. Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways as drugs. Smartphones have provided us with an unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. A rating on a recipe, a like or comment on Instagram, a message on WhatsApp, all have the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine driver.

When a behaviour is repeated, it triggers a specific reward, and the pattern becomes engrained into the neural pathways of the user. The brain begins to crave that reward regularly and since dopamine metabolises quickly in the brain, it makes the user wanting more and more, as soon as possible. Picking up the phone is an easy way to get that surge of dopamine. And variable rewards take advantage of the dopamine-driven desire for social validation, optimising the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until a habit is formed.

The body’s dopamine system is sensitive to cues in anticipation of rewards. When the light blinks on a phone, notifying the user that a message has arrived, it sets off the dopamine system in anticipation. The triggers can also be intrinsic, where immersing in an app may be a way of escaping from a stressful event or situation. Introverts may find relief through their phone in large social gatherings. Whatever the motivation, the association over time creates a dopamine loop and if sustained, it strengthens the neurologic loop of cue, routine and reward.

Successful apps leverage user behaviour data captured by the app to continue to sustain the loops by constantly testing and learning the relationship between the elements of habit-forming loops and eventually culminating in algorithms. However, it all begins with the core principle of understanding a customer’s behaviour and how the app solves a problem. As Steve Jobs said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other way around.” n

Amin Rammal is a marketing technology enthusiast and Director, Asiatic Public Relations.