As mobile internet usage has rapidly increased, the ability to create user-friendly and engaging mobile apps has become an in-demand skill in the product design suite. One of the challenges of creating digital products in the attention economy is keeping users engaged, this is especially the case on mobile devices. To create a highly engaging mobile app that drives business outcomes, product designers need to understand how users make decisions and the factors that impact them.
By applying behavioural science principles early in the product design process it’s possible to understand user behaviour more deeply and create a frictionless experience for users whilst boosting app performance. Below are some principles of behavioural science you can easily apply in your mobile app design.
Make your mobile app feel familiar
Based on the availability heuristic (the idea that we tend to use information that can be recalled quickly when making decisions), the “familiarity heuristic” suggests that people favour familiar experiences, places, people, or things. Familiar situations allow users to default to a state of mind that they have experienced before, thus reducing cognitive load. The more familiar your app feels in terms of usability, the less effort it will take for new users to onboard and learn the ins and outs of your app, reducing the likelihood of churn.
When designers strive to create a match between systems and the real world they are using the familiarity heuristic to ensure that their designs speak their user’s language. In mobile app design, this translates to using interaction patterns, gestures and icons that the majority of consumers are already familiar with. As an example, Google creates some of the most widely adopted digital products in the world and as a result they have outlined guidelines, components and tools that constitute UI best practices with their Material Design documentation.
Aside from leveraging standardised design frameworks, in-app tutorials such as product walk-throughs can also increase speed of learnability and produce familiarity. This could be especially useful right after launching app updates and major releases.
Overall, a combination of standardised best practices and consistent branding will make your mobile app feel familiar and easy to use; no matter where your users begin their journey.
Take cues from social media apps
In situations of ambiguity, it’s common for users to look to others for information or cues on how to behave and make decisions – whether it’s downloading an app or making an in-app purchase.
With millions of apps available for download on the Google Play and Apple App Stores it can be difficult to effectively market your app to acquire new users. Along with advertising and app store optimisation, social proof is a powerful way to communicate to potential users that your app is legitimate and can provide value. Examples of how social proof can be applied to user acquisition include the use of customer reviews on your acquisition pages or displaying the number of people who are already using your mobile app.
Social proof can also be applied to your app design more deeply to drive acquisition and engagement. Many of the most downloaded apps are social media apps such as Instagram or TikTok. To embed the power of social proof within your app you can include features such as discussion forums, comment sections or the ability to engage with other users through follows, likes and direct messages. If these features support your core value proposition, they can become a powerful tool in making your sticky from the get-go and produce network effects in growing your user base.
Architect your choices
Providing users with variety can enrich the user experience and allow for personalisation but presenting customers with too many choices can also lead to friction and churn.
In mobile app UIs, this is particularly important due to the small size of the screen. Presenting many options in a crowded space can lead to poor navigation and cognitive overload.
By applying ‘Choice architecture’ principles to your app design, it’s possible to reduce the time and effort it takes for your users to make decisions and complete tasks.
Generally, this will consist of limiting choices, providing a default option, and emphasising immediate benefits:
If your app has menus and sub-menus, do not present your users with more than 3-5 choices at a time.
Highlight a default or recommended option when users need to make a set-up or purchase decision.
Give users one task to complete at a time.
Use small incentives with immediate benefit to drive conversions, referrals and purchasing decisions.
Present options side by side to contrast a current state and desired future state.
Not losing is more important than winning
Choices can either be presented as a gain or a loss. In most cases, users are more likely to be motivated by the prospect of losing something rather than gaining something of the same value. When it comes to your mobile app design, this is particularly powerful in how you frame your choices and the words or numbers that you use. For example, rather than saying “Save x% by signing up to a yearly subscription,” you could say “Your monthly subscription is costing you x% more.”
An awareness of ‘loss aversion’ principles can also help you retain users and reduce churn. The ‘sunk cost effect’ suggests that users will be hesitant to stop using something if they’ve already invested time, money or effort in it. This is also supported by the ‘endowment effect’ which suggests that a feeling of ownership creates a higher sense of value for a product or service.
For product designers, this can mean creating features that allow users to personalise their account i.e., the ability to create a profile or curate wishlists. As users gain a sense of ownership over their interactions within your app they are also more likely to perceive it as high value.
Applying behavioural science: the EAST Framework
Originally designed for policymakers in the UK, the EAST framework details four dimensions to encourage certain choices and behaviours by making them Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. For product designers, the framework is a pragmatic way of applying decades of behavioural science research to make human-centered design choices.
Across its four dimensions the EAST framework condenses key behavioural science principles. When applied to mobile app design, this includes the following:
When making a decision humans tend to default to the ‘status quo’ so use default and pre-set options when presenting a choice.
Simplify messages and provide a clear next step e.g. in onboarding flows
Reduce or increase ‘hassle’ factor to encourage or discourage certain behaviours. For example, signing up and making a purchase should be as frictionless as possible.
A series of small, immediate rewards has higher perceived value than a single, larger reward. Use and design rewards with clear and immediate benefits.
We attribute more value to things that have an attractive visual design. Attract attention through personalisation and visual design.
Highlight how the use of your app or certain in-app actions are common within a peer group. By highlighting what most users do in a particular scenario encourages other users to do the same.
Leverage the power of social networks to acquire users by encouraging interaction between users through social app features.
Users are more likely to be influenced if their actions have immediate consequences so highlight the immediate costs and benefits of your offer.
Strategically prompt users with in-app messages or notifications when they are most likely to be receptive based on previous in-app behaviour.
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