While I was waiting at the Mumbai airport to catch a Bangalore flight last week, I started scrolling down my Instagram. The shares and likes I had got on my recent sunset photo at Marine Drive made me smile. Fifteen minutes flew by, and I jumped to Twitter to check my feed. Ultimately, I switched to Netflix, trying to find something interesting to watch. Hopping between apps, my two-hour wait time passed pretty quickly. Ok, you know that’s not true, but you know the drill.
I am not particularly interested in any of these apps, but there is something that makes me go back to them time and again. And I am damn sure it doesn’t just happen with me.
Apart from the ones I mentioned earlier, there are a plethora of apps that people check many times a day. Tik Tok, ShareChat, Helo, Dailyhunt, LinkedIn and Quora to name a few. Our addiction is not just limited to entertainment and informational apps. WhatsApp, Amazon, Flipkart, Swiggy, Zomato, Dunzo, Uber and Ola—-all have become a part of our lifestyle.
Of course, they make our life much easier. We start using an app if it brings us some value—-offers us some service or entertainment, or helps us stay connected or makes us more productive.
But the question is what makes us continue using them? Or in some cases, make us addicted. Have you ever thought about why we get hooked onto certain apps?
Israeli-American author and investor Nir Eyal, in his best-selling book Hooked, presents an insight into what makes habit-forming products. His ‘Hook model’ consists of four steps —-Trigger, Action, Variable Reward, and Investment. The same model is also very much applicable to some of the successful apps that have caught the fancy of millions of users across the world.
Everything starts with a Trigger. Smart apps get your attention by sending them notifications—-of updates or offers. Nudge, nudge, come and click me. Once you open these apps, the next step is to take an Action. Click and check out what’s new and interesting. That leads you to the Variable Reward stage. It could be information or entertainment or some other satisfactory outcome. And these rewards are generally unpredictable. Because it’s no fun if you know what to expect. The rewards make us invest our time and energy and sometimes money on these apps. As Eyal says in his book, “The more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that our labour leads to love.” Little surprise then we keep going for more and it becomes our habit. This habit is what creates an internal trigger in us.
Getting bored? Go to social media or your choice of video streaming app. Feeling hungry? Fire up your favourite food-delivery app. Need a ride? Just book a cab already. You get the point, right?
The psychology of an app
The devil, however, lies in details.
Delving deeper, most of the popular apps aren’t just some random programs put together to cater to us. They are made in a certain way that makes us keep going back to them.
Let’s look at how popular apps are designed. Imagine apps have two layers.
The outer layer is that of what we can see—-the colours, the visuals, the layout, and the choices they present.
While the kind of service an app is offering determines the Trigger it would shoot, which is crucial for the first stage in the Hook model; design is the most important aspect right after the app’s purpose.
The colour scheme, how elements are put together, how intuitive it is, if it’s clear and visually appealing—-all of them play a critical role in bringing users back. Because if something is cluttered, unappealing and hard to figure out, we tend to avoid that no matter how useful it is. There is a one-off scenario like that of Amazon Seller Dashboard :-/
Designers often use the psychology of colours to appeal to a specific target user group, because specific colours can harness specific behaviour in humans. For example, shades of Blue imply intelligence, communication, efficiency, trust, serenity, logic and calm. Similarly, White invokes the feelings of positivity, clarity, purity, simplicity and sophistication. The combination of two colours can be found in many popular apps. Look at Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Then comes the ease of use, which leads to Action, the second stage of the Hook model. If something is simple enough, we just do it without even thinking about it.
Take food-ordering apps such as Swiggy, FreshMenu, and Zomato for example.
Hundreds of listed eateries with fat menus can make anyone confused and tired. Hence the mouth-watering images and the recommended must trys and bestsellers. To make it simple for us to choose from. And then all it takes is a couple of clicks, and yay, your food is enroute.
Many times, apps are designed to take advantage of our habits—-choices that we make by default. For instance, when asking users to subscribe to something, the ‘Yes’ option is on the right side. Well, more often than not. And by default, many users, being right-handed, click it, even when they wanted to cancel the whole thing.
Then there is the inner layer, which deals with how these apps make us feel—-connected or entertained or engaged or rewarded or all of these things.
Most of the popular apps are designed to engage users the moment they log-on . For example, on social media apps, users can browse, create, share, like, comment, etc. almost immediately with no-signup/login We can see what others are up to and entertain yourself with plenty of promotional content while sharing things we want to.
So the most crucial element for an app is to make users feel happy or rewarded or both. Here comes the stage three of the Hook model—-Variable Reward.
Humans inherently seek attention. And they want to feel good. If someone liked your post or left a comment or shared something you created—-without a doubt, it would make you feel acknowledged and appreciated. When a shopping app gives you discounts and cashback, it makes you happy. While binge-watching Netflix, if you had a good laugh, you would definitely come back for more.
This reward system is what makes apps addictive. Internally, when we have lesser levels of Dopamine and Serotonin, otherwise known as happy chemicals in our brain, we start doing something that may make us feel good or happy. For example, when you are bored or tired or just procrastinating a task, you would go to one of your favourite apps to distract yourself.
In short, the basic psychology behind the apps when gaining users is to provide them with something that would help them feel happy and rewarded. And excited! Those discounts, deals and cashback and other random rewards such as scratch cards keep users coming back to try their luck. Remember the Rangoli hunt?
Then there are many popular apps that make users feel invested so that they can’t leave midway. Think about it. If you have shared a post on Instagram or created your personal booklist on, say, an audiobooks app, you wouldn’t want to switch. That’s your last stage of the Hook model—-Investment—-which relies on the fact that users irrationally value their efforts.
At the end of the day, it is all about making users feel they are in the state of ‘flow’.
Going with the flow
Yes, there is this concept of being in the state of flow, which app makers and designers try to capture. Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, notes, flow most commonly occurs when people are actively engaged in a task, and there comes a sweet spot where the level of challenge is balanced with the individual’s skill level, meaning that both frustration and boredom are avoided. Apps, utilizing this concept, try to strike a balance. They make users feel engaged but not overwhelmed. They make apps easy, but not so simple that can make people lose interest, and at the same time not too complex because then users can become anxious. According to Csikszentmihalyi, a state of flow induces feelings of genuine satisfaction and happiness. And most viral apps—-be it social media or gaming or productivity, or entertainment—-put you in that state, so that eventually, you will come back for more.
What’s more, a lot of apps have gotten to a stage where they have become an integral part of our lifestyle. And it is evident that we are becoming more and more wired to use them whenever and wherever. In short, we have been hooked.