The scientists who make apps addictive

Excerpt from this article (thanks for the link Benoit!):

At the workshop, Fogg explained the building blocks of his theory of behaviour change. For somebody to do something – whether it’s buying a car, checking an email, or doing 20 press-ups – three things must happen at once. The person must want to do it, they must be able to, and they must be prompted to do it. A trigger – the prompt for the action – is effective only when the person is highly motivated, or the task is very easy. If the task is hard, people end up frustrated; if they’re not motivated, they get annoyed.

One of Fogg’s current students told me about a prototype speech-therapy program he was helping to modify. Talking to its users, he discovered that parents, who really wanted it to work, found it tricky to navigate – they were frustrated. Their children found it easy to use, but weren’t bothered about doing so – they were merely annoyed. Applying Fogg’s framework helped identify a way forward. Parents would get over the action line if the program was made simpler to use; children if it felt like a game instead of a lesson.

Frustration, says Fogg, is usually more fixable than annoyance. When we want people to do something our first instinct is usually to try to increase their motivation – to persuade them. Sometimes this works, but more often than not the best route is to make the behaviour easier. One of Fogg’s maxims is, “You can’t get people to do something they don’t want to do.” A politician who wants people to vote for her makes a speech or goes on TV instead of sending a bus to pick voters up from their homes. The bank advertises the quality of its current account instead of reducing the number of clicks required to open one.

When you get to the end of an episode of “House of Cards” on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically unless you tell it to stop. Your motivation is high, because the last episode has left you eager to know what will happen and you are mentally immersed in the world of the show. The level of difficulty is reduced to zero. Actually, less than zero: it is harder to stop than to carry on. Working on the same principle, the British government now “nudges” people into enrolling into workplace pension schemes, by making it the default option rather than presenting it as a choice.

When motivation is high enough, or a task easy enough, people become responsive to triggers such as the vibration of a phone, Facebook’s red dot, the email from the fashion store featuring a time-limited offer on jumpsuits. The trigger, if it is well designed (or “hot”), finds you at exactly the moment you are most eager to take the action. The most important nine words in behaviour design, says Fogg, are, “Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.”

If you’re triggered to do something you don’t like, you probably won’t return, but if you love it you’ll return repeatedly – and unthinkingly. After my first Uber, I never even thought of getting around Palo Alto any other way. This, says, Fogg, is how brands should design for habits. The more immediate and intense a rush of emotion a person feels the first time they use something, the more likely they are to make it an automatic choice. It’s why airlines bring you a glass of champagne the moment you sink into a business-class seat, and why Apple takes enormous care to ensure that a customer’s first encounter with a new phone feels magical.