The promise of persuasive apps

Sustainable techniques to influence user behavior for the better

“[Smartphones] have vast potential to influence consumer welfare — both for better and for worse.” — Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity
The proliferation of smartphones in our lives presents untapped opportunities for consumers and developers alike. In the first two blog posts of this series, I explored techniques app developers can use to drive user behavior that aligns with key business objectives. In this last post of the series, I discuss the design pitfalls that undermine our actions and how persuasive app techniques can impact our lives for the better.
Most developers don’t need to worry about triggering ‘too much’ app engagement with their users. However, there’s growing discussion about the implications of using techniques designed to grab people’s attention,with this recent Guardian article generating over a thousand comments. Let’s look at some examples of how persuasive tactics can be misplaced and explore how to turn them into positive user experiences.

The pitfalls of persuasion

Take notifications as an example. Their pleas for our attention can benefit user experience, helping us to navigate our everyday lives better. However, when notifications fail to be relevant, actionable, and timely, their effect may be a momentary distraction but, in the worst case, they can actively undermine the user’s desire for control and autonomy.
Poorly designed notifications can drive users to disable future notifications or lead to user churn. The Norwegian news app Aftenposten found that sending too many notifications caused users to uninstall their app. To counteract this, Aftenposten offered users more control with the introduction of a notifications preference option in the app’s onboarding flow, which decreased uninstalls by 9.2% over 60 days.
Even if notifications are relevant to the user’s situation, they can still lure users away from an activity they value more. In his recent TED Talk, former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris argues that many retention-driving techniques lead to outcomes at odds with people’s goals or desires:
“Because when you pull out your phone, and they design how this works or what’s on the feed, it’s scheduling little blocks of time in our minds. If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intend to have. If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn’t intend to get sucked into.”
While there’s a need for wider debate on this point, one tactic to avoid sending untimely and irrelevant notifications is to adapt digital experiences to the user’s real-world behavior and their likely needs or preferences at a given moment. SDKs, such as Neura, integrate AI-enabled capabilities that enable apps to adapt to each person’s lifestyle and habits, and react to key moments in each user’s day. FemTech app My Days found that only 6% of women acted on generic-timed prompts, such as those to take their temperature. However, by using Neura AI to create custom-timed push alerts, responses increased to over 60%.
Offering Neura-enabled smart reminders had a positive impact on user engagement
Push notifications are not the only tool that can be misused and frustrate users by undermining their autonomy. There are many deceptive UX practicesknown as ‘dark patterns’. These patterns typically place business goals above the interests of the user. You can find some examples of dark UX techniques to avoid on Harry Brignull’s Dark Patterns site, where he notes:
“A dark pattern is a user interface carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do […] they’re carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.”
The user should have the autonomy to make their own choices. Encouraging engagement should be done by boosting motivation so that the user converts or engages of their own accord and not because of deceptive tactics.
We should recognize that most developers don’t set out to deceptively manipulate users’ actions. Rather, they try to seize people’s attention with notifications and habit-forming in-app techniques, but those attempts can go wrong.
For example, the implementation of game-streaks might be to reward users for a desired behavior (such as daily repeat use). While daily game-streaks encourage action by rewarding daily use, on some occasions, the user’s motivation for visiting an app daily can shift from intrinsic reasons (such as the app brings joy or fulfills a key need) to being driven by the fear of losing progress or investment in the product:
“I had to maintain snap streaks not because my friends or I wanted to, but because letting it disappear would see that physical quantification of our friendship fall back down to zero.” — Nick Vega
It’s well known that the fear of loss is a hugely powerful motivator of behavior. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s influential work on loss aversionhighlights that we’re more likely to act to avoid a loss than to acquire a gain. Encouraging a user’s investment of time, data, effort, social capital, or money within a product boosts retention because leaving the service would entail a ‘loss’ of the commitments already made. The social capital built up from receiving ‘likes’ from a growing network of friends on uploaded Instagram photos creates non-transferable value that prevents users leaving Instagram. As Nir Eyal, the creator of the Hooked model, says:
Switching to a new e-mail service, social network, or photo-sharing app becomes more difficult the more people use them. The nontransferable value created and stored inside these services discourages users from leaving.”
Investment in a product over a sustained period can provide benefits to the user that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. For example, the fine-tuning of personalization algorithms that increase the relevance of the product. This also maps to the Level 2 of Sarah Tavel’s Hierarchy of Engagement framework, where developers should seek to create accruing benefits and mounting potential losses as a user engages — the product should get better the more it’s used.
This idea of ‘mounting losses’ as a by-product of user investment centers on the notion that the product yields more value as a result. However, there are just as many examples where increasing investment leads to the ‘sunk cost fallacy’. This is where an individual may continue to sustain a specific behavior because of previous investment, not because that person finds value in performing that behavior.
“For many people there is little joy in playing these games anymore, but they still do because they’ve already invested so much time in it. Simply abandoning these games would make no sense to them, because it would seem as a loss. But then again, the loss has already happened regardless.” — Tobias van Schneider
But this sentiment applies to apps too. So, while a developer might intentionally design for this to increase user retention, it’s ultimately at odds with users’ best interests.
The fear of loss is a hugely powerful motivator to drive sustained action. Let’s now explore how some of the tactics mentioned can be used to drive behavior change for more meaningful outcomes.

Persuasion with purpose

We’ve discussed how digital technology can drive user behavior in ways that don’t necessarily lead to greater well-being. However, more and more people are willingly subjecting themselves to persuasive app design to meet goals of their choosing. In fact, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris commented on his podcast that he “would like an app in my life that got me to do something that is occasionally hard to do but I know is worth doing […] there are certain kinds of manipulations of my mind that I’d happily sign up for”.
When transparently applied to a user-defined goal, ‘manipulative’ techniques mediated through apps can boost motivation that was otherwise lacking. For example, app Beeminder’s goal is to force you to do things you want to do, but don’t always do. How? It asks users to pledge money that is paid to Beeminder if they fail to meet the goal. Another example is SnūzNlūz that aims to motivate you to get out of bed when your alarm goes off, or they’ll donate your hard-earned money to a cause that you fundamentally oppose.
My recent Medium post also illuminated the different types of rewards and incentives developers can use to boost motivation and encourage action. I discussed the idea that certain rewards and incentives are powerful short-term tactics but long-term behavior change can only be achieved meaningfully by fostering intrinsic motivation. Let’s now explore how to do that.

Meaningful app engagement

When I joined the Google Play apps business development team, I was struck by the opportunities for app developers to learn from game developers from an engagement and a monetization perspective. To learn more, I began to dig deeper into the psychology behind why well-crafted games foster such high levels of engagement. Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken attributes strong game engagement to their ability to enrich players by rewarding them intrinsically (for more on intrinsic motivation see my second post ‘ The right app rewards to boost motivation’).
As a starting point to designing more engaging products and prioritizing features that matter, I highly recommend Andrzej Marczewski’s intrinsic motivation RAMP framework. The framework identifies four core psychological needs that foster intrinsic motivation. It is heavily influenced by academic research from Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan on self-determination theory and Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive.
1. Relatedness — Meaningful connection to others; a sense of belonging
2. Autonomy — Behavior as an expression of self; the freedom to make decisions independently
3. Mastery — The process of mastering a new skill; progressing towards a goal
4. Purpose — Desire to add value to a cause larger than themselves
Let’s deep-dive into the techniques app developers are using to tap into these intrinsic motivations.


Techniques that appeal to relatedness are so common that they are almost invisible. For example, social features enabling connections between users, community forums, and the ability to exchange digital goods with others, such as credit, virtual stickers, or other items. Social features fulfill our desire for relatedness, but they’re also powerful in their ability to fuel virality. connie chan from Andreessen Horowitz wrote extensively about how WeChat’s Red Packets feature adoption was supercharged through the gaming mechanics of social interactions. Fostering social connections also led to increased session length in language-learning app busuu, with users who made one friend or more spending on average three times as long in the app.


Letting users directly shape and influence their experience of your app helps foster a sense of autonomy. This perception of freedom and choice has been linked to sustained engagement, for example with a game:
“When we look at the relationship between players’ need satisfactions, and a longer player-game relationship, nothing predicts this more strongly than rich experiences of autonomy.” — Glued to Games
Examples of techniques that positively impact user autonomy include:
  • Giving users the ability to customize and tailor their experience, for example by filtering or allowing a rich list of content choices.
  • Increasing their sense of agency by removing obstacles.
  • Affording the user freedom to browse and search content — moving beyond a list of static, pre-determined choices.


Game mechanics such as missions, quests, and achievements inspire engagement as they allow the user to feel increasing levels of competence as they progress towards mastering a specific goal. This can have a huge impact on driving behavioral change outside of the app too, as the Smoke Free app found when they experimented with offering daily missions to 50% of their user base in an A/B test. Users who received the daily missions were almost twice as likely to report being smoke-free three months after their quit date than those who didn’t get the missions.
We all want to understand our progress towards attaining a skill, and this desire for feedback on the path to mastery can be used to drive IAP or subscription purchases. The brain-training app Peak experimented with gating certain features behind a paywall, testing three different versions of their Statistics feature.
Converison uplift was highest when both comparison and over time statistics were placed behind the paywall
You can see from the graph that placing over time statistics behind a paywall resulted in a slight conversion uplift. The uplift further increased when the ability to compare statistics with other Peak users and friends was placed behind the paywall. But, the uplift when both features were behind the paywall outperformed the individual features.


“If you can tie your system to a cause that many people care about, you can build an entire business on the goodwill of others.” — Yu-kai Chou
We feel a sense of purpose when our actions help others. Various studies suggest that altruistic behavior releases endorphins, also known as “The Helper’s High”. Giving your users the opportunity to help others, no matter how indirectly, can tap into their drive for purpose. The yoga class app Yogaiacares about its users attending their interactive live classes, and so they ran an A/B test to assess whether their pledge to donate to charity would result in more users attending. Sure enough, the altruistic messaging drove an uplift in class attendance of 9%.
Another way to appeal to our innate desire for purpose is to layer a narrative or fictional story into an app or game experience. By doing this, players can better experience their actions as meaningful and engagingZombies! Run does this to great effect by narrating a zombie adventure story, giving the user’s run the additional purpose of collecting critical supplies, avoiding roving zombie hordes, and saving the world. The app’s developers Six to Start also told me that they see a tangible increase in user’s pace when zombie chases occur in the audio narrative. This use of narrative makes the act of running (something we’re not always motivated to do) more engaging:
“By layering experience and challenge that are intrinsically enjoyable (e.g. playing a part in a zombie narrative) over the activity that isn’t (e.g. running), if the two activities are sufficiently intertwined (running becomes part of the story), then the whole experience can become more rewarding, thereby increasing our intrinsic motivation to take part.” — Positive Technology
Focusing on satisfying some or all of these four psychological needs will help ensure you’re creating products with which users will be more likely to form longer-lasting, sustained relationships.
Much of the discussion around app design centers on optimizing for screen-level interactions. But, it’s important to remember that smartphone apps have the power to fundamentally change our daily routines and ultimately how we live our lives. By taking a user-centric approach to solving key daily problems and helping people achieve target behaviors, where there’s a gap between their intention and their actual actions, a sustainable business will follow.
If you’d like to discover more examples of how app developers appeal to these four intrinsic needs through the use of techniques such as missions, challenges, and customization, check out my I/O session Boost User Retention with Behavioral Insights”.