Why designing for habits may be harmful and the underused alternative to try

By Kristen Berman and Ingrid M. Paulin

If you’re at a tech company building a consumer product, you are likely measuring user engagement. Product managers, marketers and designers are known to stare at dashboards tracking logins and agonize over daily active metrics above all other metrics.

Companies use these engagement metrics as a proxy for understanding if customers are getting benefits from the product and whether they will continue to pay for it.

This exaggerated focus on engagement is not only bad for customers: It may also lead a product team to over-invest in the wrong features.

How can it be bad for customers?

By measuring ‘engagement’ rather than consumer well-being, product teams may start to ask questions like,

“How do I make using this product a habit?”.

The logic behind this is that if the product can become a habit in the user’s life, engagement will be high. Problem solved? Not really.

Habits by themselves are not bad. In fact, habits are an essential part of how we interact with the world: They are behaviors that we do so regularly that we almost stop paying attention to them. In fact, researchers have estimated that habits account for as much as 40% of our behavior on a given day. They allow us to go about our daily lives without making a ton of tiny decisions. A world without habits would be draining!

However, habits are not the magical solution for most products. There are two main reasons.

1. New habits are hard to create

Studies have found that depending on the complexity of a habit, it takes around 7 weeks of context-dependent repetition of a behavior to form a habit. By choosing to design for habit creation, you’ve picked something that has a high risk of failure. When we use habit creation as our tool to create engagement, we neglect other solutions that may be easier on the user and have a higher chance of success.

Let’s use medication adherence as an example. Adherence is crucial for managing chronic conditions, it’s a behavior that needs to happen regularly and at set times, and the consequences of non-adherence loom large. Thus medical adherence could seem like a ripe domain that needs products to help us form habits.

Not so fast. Consider the example of birth control.

Around 16% of American women use oral contraceptive pills that should be taken around the same time every day. With perfect use, these pills are highly effective: They only have a 0.3% failure rate in the first year. There are numerous apps to help remind us when to take the pill, and the design of the packaging makes sure that it’s known which pill should be taken on what day. The consequence of missing pills is high: No one wants an unplanned pregnancy. Yet despite the consequences, design and reminders, the failure rate of oral contraceptive pills for “typical use” is 9%. Why? Because despite our best effort and intentions, habits can be really hard to develop.

Then let’s look at a different type or contraception: IUDs. They have a similar failure rate to the perfect use of oral contraceptives — 0.2% for hormonal devices.

The difference with IUDs is that deciding to use one only requires a one time action of getting it rather than building a habit of taking a pill every day. As a result, there’s no increased failure rate for IUDs.

While there are barriers to taking a big action, like getting an IUD inserted, these are miniscule compared to the barriers of remembering to do a small action every day.

2. Habits risk being intrusive to someone’s life.

One must only reflect on how many times a day we check Facebook to understand this. According to Brandwatch, Facebook takes up 22% of the internet time Americans spend on mobile devices, compared with 11% on Google search and YouTube combined. The average user spends 20 minutes per day actively browsing the site.

Another example of products that take up too much of our time is mobile games. Take “Hearthstone” for example, a popular game from the company behind “World of Warcraft” that has around 50 million active users worldwide. Playing it is entertaining in the moment, but it can get addictive. The game uses cues and rewards to get you to come back again and again: As you play it, you improve, unlock new features, and sometimes even beat your friends. Before you know it, you have a habit of checking in whenever you can for a quick game. You downloaded it because you wanted some easy entertainment on your commute, but suddenly you’re playing it every time you have a free moment.

Designing for a one time behavior

The key takeaway here is that while there are some instances when habit creation is the right answer, there are also instances where it is not. At the very minimum, before landing on habit design as a way to increase benefits for the users of your product, we recommend seeing if you can instead design a one time behavior that gets the user to take a BIG action which delivers the same benefit but prevents them from having to do daily actions.

We discussed one example of a big one time behavior already: Getting an IUD rather than taking birth control pills every day. But there are many more:

  • Getting an annual membership to a fruit and vegetable delivery service rather than remembering to buy them when you go to the shop.
  • Setting up an automatic transfer to your savings account every time you get a paycheck rather than relying on transferring it manually every time (For example by using services such as DoubleNet Pay).
  • Unsubscribing from Netflix rather than rely on our willpower to avoid spending too much time on the couch watching shows.
  • Committing to walking every day by getting a dog. A one time purchase of a dog provides you with at least 20 minutes of walking for years to come!
  • Using autopay for bills rather than remembering to pay them before they are due every month.

One time behaviors are much less intrusive, and easier to avoid, than products that regularly take time and attention away from the already busy lives of users.

As social scientists we believe that there are fundamental reasons to ensure that we actively create the choice architecture in order to be helpful rather than harmful — and that it makes people’s lives better and longer.

It’s on us to design the system that does this and measure our success based on well-being rather than active use.

To find out more about our work, visit the Irrational Labs website. If you want to be the first to get our updates, make sure to sign up for the newsletter!