How we can use psychology to build an app that turns you into a goal-achieving machine

Notes from Content Lab #4

January’s Content Lab attendees enjoying some pizza and beer

Attendees (with Twitter handles I can find): @amyontheroad, @rahelab, @abredenkamp, @floelizabeth, @TeoLenzi, @tomhewitson
(if you have a Twitter handle drop me a line on Twitter and I’ll add you)

January’s Content Lab was all about New Years Resolutions. Why we make them and how we can keep them. The team set itself the challenge of joining the burgeoning space of apps designed to help us develop positive habits and break negative behaviours.

Getting started

As is quick becoming tradition the group started with an exploration of the problem and their own personal experiences of trying to keep a resolution. Common techniques including Jerry Seinfeld’s infamous mantra to avoid breaking a chain of tasks and using peer pressure to keep yourself honest.

The group highlighted several well-known apps including ANY.DO and MyFitnessPal as having helped them stick to goals in the past.

We also joked about taking the concept of something like Pact a step further and have the money you’ve pledged donate to something you really hate (if you want to know what the group chose you’ll have to come along to a session) if you fail to stick to your goal.

(Apparently we weren’t the only people thinking along these lines and someone’s even trying to turn it into a business).

One thing we quickly realised is that this is a really crowded space. How could we contribute anything more than another “me too” app?

Productive procrastination

Rather than dive straight into finding a solution I decided to share with the group a little of my day job. At the Money Advice Service we’re always on the lookout for ways to help people adopt positive financial behaviours, and over the last few months I’ve been exploring some very interesting psychological and behavioural techniques and how we can include them in our content.

An interesting talk demonstrating the power of these behaviour change techniques

The MINDSPACE framework was formulated way back in 2009 as a way of helping civil servants check that new policy initiatives wouldn’t have unexpected effects due to the intricacies of human behaviour. It highlights 9 of the most powerful psychological tools for influencing behaviour at scale. At the Money Advice Service we have been particularly lucky to have access to two of the framework’s key authors — Professor Paul Dolan and Professor Ivo Vlaev.

Briefly, these techniques can be abbreviated to:

Messenger: People listen to experts that they believe understand them.
Incentives: People care a lot more about happiness today than in the future.
Norms: People are heavily influenced by what they see others do.
Defaults: People tend to stick with decisions made for them.
Salience: People pay attention to things that are novel & understandable.
Priming: People’s decisions are influenced by subconscious triggers.
Affect: People are more likely to take action if they feel emotion.
Commitment: People do what they say they’re going to do.
Ego: People like to do things that make them feel good about themselves.

Obviously, this doesn’t begin to cover the complexity of these tools but it’s a good start and makes fairly intuitive sense.

Each of the techniques covers a bunch of possible implementations but for the purposes of our little thought experiment the most interesting are: trying to close the gap between happiness today (a Mars bar) and happiness tomorrow (a six pack), trying to increase the amount of goal achievement people witness and making sticking to a goal more salient.

I also spoke briefly about how different groups could be motivated by norms in different ways e.g. people who are successfully achieving their goals are motivated by competing with themselves and other people whereas people who find it harder respond much better to reassurance that they are doing well and have already achieved a lot.

Going for goal-d

After some rather delicious ginger cake (thanks Amy!) the group dug into some specific solutions. As always, some were better than others and I doubt we’ll be winning any prizes for naming apps yet.


And they say I can’t draw…

The idea with this cute little critter was to try and increase the emotional impact of failing to stick to your goals by slowly starving him to death if you didn’t stick to it. A system of phone level notifications would help trigger the user to take action before it’s too late — becoming increasingly persistent and emotive as time goes by.

There were some worries that Tamagoalchi could be taking things a step too far and causing users significant levels of guilt on top of already feeling bad for failing if they slip up.

A possible solution to this could be to share your Tamagoalchi with a friend who could go above and beyond on their goals if you weren’t contributing enough to keep the pet fed.


The Footsteps app is designed to help you both visualise the benefits of sticking to your goal and to remind you how much effort you’ve already put in.

The app would ask you what you goal is when you start and then will calculate how many days it will take you to achieve that based on your current and past progress.

By increasing the salience of their goal the app will help the user to stay motivated and to link action today to benefit in the future.

By reminding the user of the effort they have already sunk into achieving the goal it will trigger a feeling of loss aversion if they decide to give up. Studies have shown that preventing a loss is about twice as effective a motivator as taking an action to acquire something new. This will effect will become increasingly powerful as the user progresses towards their goal, helping prevent failure after their initial motivation has run out.

Wrapping up

A pizza box as a deliverable

After a bit of back and forth the group decided that Footsteps was the winner but that it would be interesting to try and incorporate the emotion of Tamagoalchi in a slightly less specific way.

The Content Lab will be back on February 17th with ‘The bailout clause’ — a look at how to write an event invite people simply can’t turn down.

Want to know more? Say hi @tomhewitson on Twitter or at