Aug 5, 2020

Designing for User Retention

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"Seventy-nine percent of smartphone owners check their device within fifteen minutes of waking up every morning". - N.Eyal, (2014)

So what's the secret of the greats of the internet world such as Facebook, Twitter, and ByteDance who create digital products people can't put down? What makes us as users continue to return to those apps with little or no conscious thought?

After reading Nir Eyal's 2014 book titled "hooked", I gained insight into how leveraging the power of habits can positively influence users' lives and drive sustainable customer engagement. Following decades of distilled research, Eyal has mapped and captured the process for "unprompted user engagement" into what he has coined the "Hooked Model".


To create a habit-forming product it is important to think about what triggers are in place to encourage your users to use the app. A trigger is the "actuator of behaviour". Eyal suggests these come in two types: External and Internal.

External triggers "communicate the next action the user should take" by leveraging the use of sensory stimuli. For example, companies could create these initial triggers to be:

  1. Paid triggers such as paid advertisements, social media posts or other means of marketing.
  2. Earned triggers that require emotional investment gained from favourable PR or app store featured placements.
  3. Relationship triggers such as "word of mouth" or recommendations from friends or family on an app.
  4. Owned triggers that continuously appear in the daily lives of users in their own environment. An example of this could be an email newsletter or an app icon on the user's phone.

Whilst paid, earned and relationship triggers drive new engagement, owned triggers prompt repeated engagement until a habit is formed.

We encourage all our clients to consider how they are going to initially engage new users from very early on and we can work with them to optimise their marketing and PR efforts.

Internal triggers, on the other hand, are slightly different in that they "manifest automatically" in the users mind from emotions, thoughts, and feelings that cue the user to use the app. As an example, the model in which drives user retention for Instagram partially relies on the user's curiosity, interest, and "fear of missing out" of their friend's lives.

Internal triggers could also manifest if the product or app is solving a problem or a pain that the user is experiencing in their daily life. For example, for our client Breathe HR their product Breathe ROTA is designed to streamline the process of organising employees shifts which typically would have been done through conventional paper-based sheet rotas. Moving this legacy process to an online platform allows all staff members to have transparency on when they are working from their web browser or mobile device.

Is your product a painkiller? Does it alleviate a pain or solve a problem in a users life. Alternatively, is it a vitamin? Does it appeal to our emotions and is simply just a nice-to-have? It should be both.


Following a trigger comes an "action" where the user acts on their instinct to engage with the app or platform. It is important to consider in design that to "initiate action, doing must be easier than thinking". This being said the more cognitive power or effort required to act, the less likely it will happen. Eyal states three factors determine the initiation of an action:

  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Simplicity

Our designers here at ASquared need to consider the usability and simplicity of the user experience to ensure the user passes through the first phase of engaging with the app upon their first use. It is often said the first impression is the best impression, the same can be said for software.

Variable Reward

The third step in the Hooked Model is "Variable Reward". This is where products incentivise users to engage over time by providing a variable or periodic reward for use. This may involve utilising gamification, tokens, or points, or it may involve awarding social vanity metrics such as likes, followers, or shares.

Eyal has mapped the three types of variable reward against the instinctive drives of humankind. These are the rewards of the Tribe, the Hunt, and the Self.

Rewards of the Tribe

Eyal also refers to the rewards of the tribe as "social rewards". Humans are social creatures and seek connections with others. Utilising the theory of the "Tribe" and integrating ways into your app that allows its users to connect with others is a great way to improve user retention. This could be from anything such as having a gamified leaderboard of progress, or in-app points between friends through to having a full social networking experience that allows users to share their success in-app. These features, in turn, will make users feel accepted and important, which will incentivise further use and progression on the platform.

Our brains are adapted to seek rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important, and included.

Rewards of the Hunt

These are the rewards that are gained through consistent interaction with a product to benefit from new knowledge, information, wellbeing, or pleasure. These rewards have been likened to the human instinct of hunting or foraging for food. As an example, Eyal has mapped Facebook users scrolling their newsfeed to be hunting for new and exciting content.

Although creating habit-forming products and tapping into the instincts of humans may be considered as harmful to the user, there is a suggestion that it can be leveraged as a force for good in positively impacting a user's life through fostering new beneficial habits.

Rewards of the Self

In this rewards theory, Eyal suggests the result of the user's effort and "intrinsic motivation" to overcome obstacles and achieve competency in a given area is deemed rewarding. As an example, in the project Jennis, which we worked on with Jessica Ennis Hill, the app provides users with easy-to-follow fitness video tutorials that leave users feeling a sense of achievement and competency upon completion.


The final, and arguably most important, step to the Hooked Model is the investment phase. This involves the user realising they have invested some of their time, effort, or commitment which is stored as value in the experience. An example of this could be captured content or data, such as photos, for example on Instagram. It could also be vanity metrics such as followers, reputation, or captured skill that incentivises users to return to uphold these on the platform. These are all deemed as precious to the user and will subconsciously encourage sustainable engagement.

As an example, in our project BP Passport with our client "Simple", we featured longitudinal progress graphs for blood pressure and blood sugar readings. This meant that users can not only chart their current wellbeing but encourage them to continue to return to the app and input future readings and complete the graph. This means they can see their progression in wellbeing over time, benefitting the individual and also ensures user retention.


Successful completion of the Hooked Model by a user is suggested to encourage users to form an emotional connection and attachment with the product. Through successive cycles of the Hooked Model, Eyal suggests this will "increase the user's affinity with the experience" and the product will become more synonymous in their life until a new habit of using the product is formed. We can work with our clients to integrate these features that may improve long-term user retention. If you are looking at designing or developing a great new idea into reality reach out to us today to get started!

If you are interested in learning more about this subject I highly recommend you read Nir Eyal's book which you can find on Amazon here.
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