Last update: July 2021

6 mins to read - 2021/07/05

Building Users’ Habits Earlier: Tips for Designing an Addictive App

As we explored in our previous blog post on customer retention and life-time value, user retention is key for building a profitable mobile app. You might be getting thousands of installations per day, but if your users are deleting your app after the first few days, you have a problem. Take a look at the top apps on the market: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube… For many of us, clicking on those apps is the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning. We’re spending, on average, 145 minutes per day on social media alone. It’s not an accident that users are so hooked on these top apps: researchers and engineers have deliberately designed these apps to be psychologially addictive. So what’s their secret? How do these apps – essentially infinitely scrolling bulletin boards for people’s moment-to-moment thoughts, memes, and pictures of their kids – manage to suck in so much of our time? Here are a few basic tips for designing an addictive app that builds users’ habits early on.

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addictive app man smartphone

Building an Addictive App for Habitual Usage

If you’ve ever developed a habit, whether it’s brushing your teeth or smoking cigarettes, you’ll know that once your brain is wired to perform that action at a certain time, you’ll do it unconsciously. That’s the level of habitual usage you’re aiming for with your mobile app. And to achieve that you’ll need to get build that habit in users quickly, over the first 2-4 days. And believe it or not, a crucial means of getting that habit to stick is to use push notifications. (Which we’ll explore more below.)

Nir Eyal explores the psychology behind habit-building in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Basically, the way to form habits in your users is to exploit their emotional needs. Whether that’s boredom, loneliness, FOMO, or anxiety, your app needs to identify the desire it intends to fill. This “internal trigger” is then paired with an “external trigger” – that is, the mechanism of your app, whether it’s a like button, an infinitely scrolling timeline, or a push notification – that gets the user interacting with your app.

Image Source:

This leads to an action or behavior that leads to some sort of reward – whether it’s reading a person’s comment on your post, or viewing their photo, or the dopamine rush of picking fruit in a farming sim game. The crux is that the reward has to give them some sort of positive emotion, while leaving them slightly unfulfilled so they keep coming back for more.

Combine pleasing aesthetics – such as bright colors and soothing sounds – with a core function that rewards repetitive behavior. For example, one mobile game that honed this to an artform is Stardew Valley: in addition to its bright colors and nostalgic pixelated character design, it has what has been described as the perfect gameplay loop. There is the reliable, cyclical primary loop of tending to your farm, planting and harvesting crops, and feeding your livestock. Then, to keep things interesting, there’s the secondary loop of mining and fishing mini-games and small, surprising interactions with the townspeople. If you’re looking for a model to design your mobile game off of, that’s one you could take some inspiration from.

stardew valley the quintessential addictive app core loop
Image Source: Screenshot from Stardew Valley

Building Habitual App Usage With Push Notifications?

Assuming you already have a super addictive app – whether you’ve built into it an infinite scrolling mechanism, an endless algorithm of suggestions of videos to watch, or what have you – push notifications are the best tool you have for influencing a user to build a habit of engaging with your app. Push notifications are the #1 way of building a robust relationship with your user, and of communicating the value of your app.

The first 4 days are when building habitual usage is the most important, so make sure you ease the onboarding process along with push notifications. Use them to welcome new users to the community. If you see that a user has gotten distracted halfway through the onboarding process, send them a gentle reminder to come back into the app and complete their profile. Having a profile attached to their account in your app can give users a sense of identity and ownership, like your app is an extension of themselves, and make it more likely that they’ll keep coming back.

Then send them a deep link to a tutorial informing them of all your app’s great features, so they know right off the bat how to get the full value of your app. If your mobile app includes an eCommerce or in-app purchase function, it can be useful to send new users a discount code for, e.g. 15% off a purchase. Early purchases can give users a sense of investment in your mobile app, and tend to result in users making more frequent and costly purchases in the long-term.

mobile apps vs mobile games churn rate after onboarding
Churn rate of mobile apps vs. mobile games in particular; Image Source:,

After that, your go-to strategy should be sending a push notification at the same time every day. (Caveat: not all push notification platforms provide reliable delivery, which is important to factor in before you plan a time-sensitive push campaign!) Even if the user doesn’t click, it will get them into the mindset where they automatically think about your app at a certain time each day.

What Engagement Metrics Should You Focus On?

Every app is different, and focusing on different metrics charts can help you see which users are at risk of churning. You can then use push notifications based on that data to draw them back in. Here a few of the top metrics you should be focusing on.

  • Active User Cohorts: We advise looking at both DAU (Daily Active User) and MAU (Monthly Active User). MAU especially gives you an insight on which users are long-term users of your app, whereas DAU can be a more superficial metric that can give an inflated view of how many people are using your app. By looking at the ratio of the two metrics – DAU/MAU is known in the industry as “stickiness” – you can get a multi-faceted picture of your app’s health. Both how many people are using it daily, as well as people with more long-term use habits.
  • Retention Cohorts: These help you track trends and patterns of user retention that will help you project how many of your users will continue to use your app long-term. For example, Percentage Retention Cohorts show what percentage of your active user base are opening your app on a certain number of days after installation. This can also help you track churn rate, to gauge whether you can pinpoint any change in your app, push campaign, or other factors that caused a large dropoff of active users. Compare your Percentage Retention Cohorts with Rolling Retention Cohorts, which show a more dynamic view of your retention rates over the past 30 days.

retention metrics

  • Days of Use: This gives you insights on the blind spots of your Retention Cohorts, by showing which unique days users opened your app. This is helpful in understanding users’ lifecycles, how often they’re likely to return to your app, and when you should use push notifications to boost their engagement or prevent churn.

To learn more about how to use push notifications to build a robust and addictive mobile marketing campaign for your app, get in touch with one of our experts to learn more!

Also, you can download our NEW Metrics & Measurement Playbook to learn how to optimize your push campaign!

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