Dec 19

Designing Addicting Apps: How To Keep Your Users Hooked


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Addicting apps can launch any company into the limelight. But what makes an app addictive?

We might not all be attached to our smartphones, but we’ve all been sucked into an app at some point. Whether you're scrolling through your social media feed or swiping to find your next grand romance, none of us are immune to it.

The most addicting apps use the brilliant strategy of designing for our natural behaviors. They cater to our deepest desires to be entertained, educated, challenged, supported, or included.

Apps are everywhere because they are extremely lucrative digital products. Besides giving the user an easy way to accomplish a goal, they can make any unknown company a household name.

So, if you’re thinking about adding an app to your line of digital products, stay tuned. We’re going over the psychology behind addicting apps and how to create one yourself (with the help of a killer UX design team, of course)!

What Makes an App Addictive?

We all have needs, and the purpose of UX design is to ensure the needs of a certain audience are met. But what about our wants? 

Wants and needs intersect quite a bit. For some users, it's hard to draw distinctions between the two. For example, how many times have you ordered takeout from your favorite restaurant on Uber Eats because you were super hungry?

You NEED to eat, but you wanted pizza or Chinese food when you had perfectly good groceries in your fridge (but we’re not judging…).

Plenty of apps cater to our needs and help us accomplish our goals, but we don’t always use those in our daily lives. The most popular apps like TikTok, Candy Crush, Tinder, Spotify, and Uber Eats help us feed our desires every day.

Truth is, our wants motivate us just as much as (and sometimes more than) our needs. The most addicting apps realize this and are designed around our behaviors. As psychologist BJ Fogg said, “Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.”

Using Behavioral Design To Keep Your Users Hooked

Fogg’s theories behind addictive mobile apps were heavily influenced by Aristotle. He recognized our natural urge to seek patterns along with the feeling of accomplishment when we connect the dots. Fogg applied these ideas to building software and developed a new design method called Behavioral Design.

The Fogg Behavior Model gives designers a clear formula for designing addicting apps:

Fogg behavioral model: Motivations + Abilities + Triggers = User Behavior

All three of these elements must align to influence the user’s behavior. If the desired action from the user does not occur, then it’s safe to say one of those elements is missing.

This model is super helpful in understanding human behavior in the real world. But, when an app is designed with these elements in mind, designers can create a truly immersive experience that keeps users scrolling for hours on end.

Now that we know what makes an app addictive, let’s look at a few fun, habit-building elements you can incorporate into your design.

How To Make Addicting Apps

So, what’s in the secret sauce of an addicting app? Why do people get sucked into a TikTok black hole until 3 AM? How do apps like Shien convince budget fashionistas to drop money on a new wardrobe haul every month?

You may not notice these design elements every time you open your favorite apps, but companies incorporate these subtle features into their interfaces to keep their users coming back for more.

Get To Know the User Through Onboarding

The average smartphone user has about 40 apps on their phone, but they only use 18 of them regularly. Why don’t they return to those apps after the initial download? An engaging onboarding experience might make all the difference.

Since it’s the user’s first impression of your company, onboarding should never be an afterthought.

The app’s onboarding experience needs to set the tone, show the user around, and demonstrate how you’re tailoring everything to their interests.

You can take a few different approaches to your onboarding process. But no matter which route you choose, your goal should be to gather as much relevant information about your user as possible while building excitement and interest in your product.

But you don’t want to overwhelm the user with too much information. Focus on highlighting core features and (if they’re in a rush) allow them to skip the less critical steps.

Spotify onboarding
Source: Spotify (Image from Nasi Lemak Tech) With as many options as Spotify has, they almost have to narrow everything down through onboarding (or else the experience would be overwhelming for the user).

Grab Their Attention With Push Notifications

In the olden days, people would get daily updates on the latest community happenings from the local newspaper. Top news stories, horoscopes, movie showtimes, the funnies…yep, they were all there.

Treat your users as a community wanting instant content updates. But instead of waiting for the daily newsletter, you can deliver the content they’re looking for straight to their phone with push notifications.

Push notifications are a great way to bring users back to your app even when they weren’t planning on using it — especially when you tailor your suggestions based on their activity.

How many times could you not resist reading an interesting Reddit thread while you were working? What about that serotonin rush you get from a “like” on Hinge? Push notifications demand the user’s attention and make your app hard to ignore (within reason, of course).

Clash of Clans: Addicting app push notifications
Source: Clash of Clans (Image from Push Engage). How COULD you ignore this push notification?

Immerse the User With an Infinite Scroll

Your favorite social media apps have already mastered this. 

An infinite scroll creates what feels like an endless stream of content. It tricks the user into staying on the app longer because they’re bound to find something that piques their interest if they keep scrolling.

The longer the user stays on the app, the more you can learn about their interests. Using an algorithm to pick up on user behaviors helps you personalize your experience further after onboarding. 

Yes, the infinite scroll is addictive in concept alone. But remember: Your users have lives outside of your app. If they get TOO sucked into the experience, they can lose track of time, miss out on sleep, or feel anxious about the content slipping under their radar.

TikTok, an app with one of the most absorbing infinite scrolls, has great reminders for the user when they’ve been scrolling for too long. It’s a smart way to show the user that you care about their well-being, encouraging them to find a balance between the digital world and the real world.

TikTok: Scrolling reminder
Source: TikTok (Image from Vox). Not everyone will respond positively to this, but maybe they're the ones that need these reminders the most.

Reward the User With Gamification

Competitive or not, we all love games. They’re a great way to pass the time — making us feel challenged yet entertained.

The best thing about games is that their patterns can be applied to any kind of app to motivate the user. We in the UX field call this “Gamification”.

Some of the most addicting apps today use gamification elements for everyday tasks. The Starbucks app is a popular example because it rewards their most loyal customers for getting their daily coffee (as if Starbucks isn’t already addictive enough).

Starbucks addicting app gamification
Source: Starbucks (Image from PRmention). Why not reward your customers for the money they're already spending? An app like this gives your most frequent customers a reason to keep coming back.

Gamification doesn’t always have to include a tangible reward. Apps like Duolingo incorporate leaderboards to trigger our competitive side. Even if the user isn’t a competitive person, moving up the leaderboard makes them feel good about their progress in learning a new language. 

Feed the User’s FOMO Through Mounting Loss

Users will eventually tire of your app or outgrow the need for it. Us humans are fickle creatures and our interests are always shifting. So, how do you stop them from abandoning the app entirely for the next new thing?

You may have heard the term “mounting loss” in the context of business or financial situations, but it applies to digital products too. Basically, the more you use an app, the more you lose when you delete it.

This means that all the data you collect about the user, along with their images, messages, gamification points, coupons, etc. goes away and cannot be recovered.

To many users, this may be enough for them to not delete the app. But you might need to give them a little extra incentive to stick around. Discount codes, a free premium membership trial, or an account freeze gives them a reason to return when their attention goes elsewhere.

Hinge: delete profile screen
Source: Hinge (Image from VIDA Select). Plant a little seed of doubt in your user's mind. Maybe they'll want to start dating again and don't want to lose all their matches. You can always give them the option to just pause notifications or set their profile to inactive.

Make Your App Impossible To Put Down

An addicting app can do wonders for a start-up, a Fortune 500 company, or anything in between. It’s all about understanding human psychology and applying it to your digital product design. 

Empathize with the user’s wants and needs, motivate them to achieve their goals, and make the actions they need to take as clear as day.

On top of everything, the app still needs to be easy to use! Cut out roadblocks, simplify navigation, and make it accessible for those on the go.

When you take all these factors into account and test with your users to get the final sign-off, you’ll have an app that’s sure to become a sensation.

Got an idea for an addicting app that just can’t stay in the drafts? Our digital product design team can help you make that thought a reality. Start a project with us today!

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