Commentary

The Psychology Behind Successful Apps

Wouldn’t it be great if we understood why humans do the things we do? We’re an unpredictable bunch, and most of the time we’re not even sure why we’ve done things ourselves. Why on earth, for example, did I spend three hours looking at subscription boxes online yesterday? (Actually, if you read to the end of this article, you’ll be able to suggest a few answers to that.)

This unpredictability can make analyzing user behavior in mobile apps seem like a pretty daunting task, and yet understanding your users and anticipating their actions (and reactions) is exactly what it takes to make an app business a success.

But how do you make that happen? Thankfully, social and behavioral psychology can offer some answers: below are four psychological theories that can be easily applied to improve an app’s chances of success.

1. Choice Paralysis

Case Study: Choice paralysis has been made famous by Barry Schultz’s Choice Paradox, based on research affectionately known as “the jam study.” In this experiment, shoppers were shown a table with 24 varieties of jam on it. On another day, shoppers were shown a table with only six varieties of jam. The large display attracted more interest than the small one, but people who saw the small display were 10 times more likely to buy than those who saw the large display.

Applying It To Apps: Obviously, a certain amount of choice is necessary: no one likes being told what to do. But too much choice means that we avoid making a choice at all. Remember my hours spent looking at subscription boxes? Faced with all those options, I didn’t sign up to any them. Limit the options being offered to users and you’ll be able to focus more on optimizing the options given. Using A/B testing allows you to see how altering the number of choices can have a significant impact.

2. Random Rewards

Case Study: B.F. Skinner’s experiments are amongst the most famous in behavioral psychology, and his theories on variable schedules of reinforcement are put into practice by countless businesses. In one of Skinner’s experiments, treats were released when a pigeon pecked at a sensor, but the frequency at which the treats were given was random. Surprisingly, this made the pigeon peck more than if the frequency was regular. Not convinced? The exact same principle is applied to most gambling machines: the promise of rewards combined with the inability to predict when they will be given increases desire and engagement.

Applying It To Apps: Giving rewards can seem like a no-brainer. After all, who doesn’t like being rewarded? However, if rewards are given too often, they lose their novelty, and users will stop putting effort into earning them. Surprising a user with a discount offer or exclusive access builds anticipation for more offers that could follow, and so makes them more likely to stick around. The real knack to improving customer retention rates is to give these rewards at random so users will keep engaging until it happens again.

3. Incomplete = memorable

Case Study: Few people have heard of the Zeigarnik Effect, but we’ve all seen it in action. Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters could remember details of the orders for tables they were serving, but only until the customers had paid. Once the task was considered completed, the details were forgotten.

Applying It To Apps: Use human instinct to work towards completion by making elements feel like they’re part of a process, or building toward a goal. An example that you’ve probably encountered is the two-step sign-up process. The user clicks on a button or a link, and in order to get where they want to go they have to fill out a form that pops up. Another great use of this principle is in re-engagement: reminding lapsing users of an action they left uncompleted has a good chance of drawing them back to the app.

5. Reciprocity Principle

Case Study: In his 1971 “soda study,” Dennis Regan asked participants to undertake a selection of tasks with a partner, who was really his research assistant, Joe. During the tasks, some were given a soda by Joe, and others were not. At the end of the experiment, Joe asked them to buy a raffle ticket from him. Those who had been given a soda were far more likely to buy a ticket.

Applying It To Apps: It’s a social norm to respond to a positive action with another positive action. In terms of apps, this can mean giving to a user before you can take from them. Allowing users to see the value of the app first makes them more likely to submit their details and create an account, or to give approvals for location access and push notification opt-in.

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