How Mobile Apps Can Make Or Break A New Year’s Resolution

Infographic: Mobile applications have become an always-in-your-pocket resource for controlling and changing habitual behaviors.

Every year around this time, millions of people promise to make a change in their lives. The New Year’s Resolution tradition has its roots deep in our culture. But despite millions of people with the best of intentions on Dec. 31, only a marginal 8% of people actually manage to keep their resolutions. Why does this happen, and how can it be prevented?

Self-improvement doesn’t happen in a massive pivot around the new year mark. Self-improvement, just like so many other forms of change, can only come from adjusting habits—breaking old behaviors, and creating new ones. Fortunately, thanks to the rise of the smartphone, people have closer and more direct access to their habits than ever before. With the average smartphone user checking his or her phone about 150 times a day, and millions of apps available, successful apps create their own set of habits in order to gain and retain users.

How Habits Work

So how can people use smartphone apps to change their habits? How are habits formed, and how can they be changed? Creating or changing a habit can be described in a model, originally put forth by Nir Eyal that breaks it down into four steps: Trigger, Action, Reward, and Investment.

1. Trigger: cue that indicates a person should do something. External triggers come from obvious places like push notifications, but there are also internal triggers—for instance, a user might have started checking Facebook only when they had a notification. But over time, they find themselves checking it whenever they’re bored and wondering what their friends are doing.

2. Action: Do something. Take a picture, post a comment, read an article.

3. Reward: Hey, that felt good! Maybe the picture came out well, the article was interesting, or posting the comment made the user feel connected to an old friend.

4. Investment: Here something is asked of the user, to make them feel committed and bring them back later. Maybe they’re encouraged to set a reminder or schedule a notification, or they’re asked to enter their information to set up a profile. This is a key balance, since you want to ask something of the user, but never so much to frustrate them or drive them away.

These are the techniques used by app, website, and product designers to drive habit-forming behaviors in their audiences. But the power of this model goes beyond just driving habits related to an app—it lets people build systems to alter any habit.

Why Mobile Apps Work

Smartphones give users a direct line into each of the four steps of habit formation, which can make the right app a powerful tool for change. There is an easy system for activating gentle triggers through notifications, emails and SMS messages. A user has a control panel not only to take action directly on the phone, but people also get an unprecedented level of data about the actions of others – which can be incredibly motivating. Apps also provide an avenue for dispensing rewards, via encouragement or using more extrinsic motivators like virtual goods. And they give people a way to accrue investment, by encouraging users to track and share their progress.

Never before have people been so surrounded by such powerful technology, and having it always in their pockets makes it easier than ever before to engage the habit-forming parts of the brain.

5 Tips for Using Apps To Change Habits

So if mobile apps are the ideal tool to help people make and break habits, how do designers leverage that information to create successful apps? According to the Sourcebits design team, which has produced more than 30 chart-topping apps, here are 5 tips on building apps to help users control their habits.

1. Focus on ease of entry.The app needs to make the habitual behavior as easy as possible, and remove all the obstacles. The more setup work a user has to do in order to create an account, the less likely they will be to get through the process. The 7-Minute Workout app does a great job of stripping away all friction and getting straight to the exercise.

2. Make repetitive tasks fun. The best habit-forming apps use gamification techniques to keep tracking progress, and checking back. Epic Win, for example, is a task management app that encourages a user to complete his/her tasks by offering imaginary RPG-style rewards—increasing stats, collecting loot, and leveling up.

3. Don’t neglect Triggers. The best habit management apps manage their push notifications and alerts carefully, to make sure a user is consistently reminded of what actions they should take, without the app ever getting spammy.

4. Track data visually. It’s one thing for a user to know he or she has been good about saving money this week, but it’s another to see it laid out in an easy to follow chart, the way people can with the Level Money app.

5. Aesthetics! When an app is trying to encourage or control habitual behaviors, even the smallest things can make a huge difference. The app has to be clean and well-organized, and have an intuitive UI and attractive icon.

It takes between 28 and 45 days for someone to make or break a habit, and it requires consistency. That’s why a well-designed mobile app can be a powerful tool to help people achieve their New Year’s Resolutions this year.

For an example of a Sourcebits-developed tool for habit management, check out the Daily Deeds app on iOS.

And given what makes a great habit-helping app, our design team put together the below pocket-guide infographic on apps for New Year’s Resolutions. Share it with your friends before Dec. 31 so they’re ready to get healthy, save money or get organized in 2014 with the help of an app or two.

Piotr Gajos, Chief Innovation Officer

Piotr is Sourcebits Chief Innovation Officer. A 2006 Apple Design Award winner, Piotr draws much of his inspiration from film and music, and focuses on leading our Innovation Strategy Workshops, generating new ideas for Sourcebits, and consulting on projects.