Retention in mobile apps: it’s about habit

Mobile app developers want retention. Greater retention means more active users, more content creation, more virality, more conversion likelihood, and for subscription apps, greater renewal likelihood.

So how do we get users to retain?

It’s about habit

Retention is engagement repeated over some span of time. Engagement is simply a person using your app. At a bare minimum, that means opening the app. So retention is a user opening your app and then opening it again after some span of time.

How do you get a person to do something? Well, people generally do things for two reasons: either the behavior is “goal-directed”, which means the agent performed the action because he wanted some outcome, or the behavior is “habitual”, which means that the behavior was more or less automatically triggered by some context.

Goal-directed behaviors require a bunch of cognitive stuff: the agent has to be aware of the potential outcome, has to be motivated to get that outcome, has to believe that he can do the action to get the outcome, and has to be not otherwise deterred or distracted. It can be relatively easy to leverage goal-directed behavior to get an agent to ‘engage’ one time — open your app. But it’s exceedingly difficult to use goal-directed behavior to get an agent to engage with your app again and again over a span of time. The agent’s motivation will fade, his attention will be drawn elsewhere, and he will forget about you.

Habits, however, don’t require so much fickle circumstance to line up. Habits are automatically triggered by the context. They’re stable. If a behavior is a habit, then the default is that the behavior will occur when the context occurs.

To achieve long-term retention, you need to make opening your app a habit.

Mechanics of habit formation

The mechanism is repetition of three parts of a sequence:

  1. the context
  2. the work or action
  3. the reward

Each time an agent goes through some sequence of context, work, and reward, a habit gets stamped in slightly more. What a designer must do is figure out how to get the user to go through that loop a bunch of times.

Here’s an example of how that might look:

  • Context: sit down on bus, feel bored
  • Work: take out phone and open app
  • Reward: gold and gems that you can immediately collect

Whatever it takes to get the player to run through that loop a bunch of times will be serving the goal of creating and reinforcing a habit that drives retention.

Read more about habits:

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