The First One’s Free: Making Your UX Habit Forming

It’s unlikely that the user experience that you’ll craft will ever be ‘fun’ for your users. But, on the other hand, you can support making your application a habit…and that’s almost as good.

4026529904_d9e1b5e08f_oLet’s face it: most of our applications aren’t fun or exciting or immersive. Users don’t long to work with our applications — they regard our applications as, at best, a necessary evil, as a means to an end. If applications were food, we’re the vegetables-  we’re (I hate to say it) good for you.

Yet, when we prepare a meal, we don’t leave out the vegetables; when we go to a restaurant, if we don’t get vegetables with our meal we feel (somehow) that something is wrong…perhaps, even, that we’ve been shortchanged. Vegetables have become a habit with us – we may not look forward to them but we miss them when they’re not present.

User Interfaces as Habits

If we can’t delight our users (and we probably can’t), we can make using our applications ‘habitual’ – a part of the user’s work day that they can use without thinking. They may not think of our application as “fun” but they can miss it if it’s not there. There’s even some research on how people form habits that you can leverage to achieve that goal.

According to 99u, there are five key activities that you can follow to increase the likelihood that you’ll develop a new habit (and the article links to the studies that show how those activities make a difference). Four of those activities are ones that you can leverage to make your application a habit for your users.

1) Make “micro quotas” and “macro goals” People are, it turns out, motivated by the big picture and their long-term goals. However, when people fail to achieve those long term goals in the short run, people get discouraged. The trick, therefore, is to figure out what is the minimum you have to do today — your micro-task — that will, inevitably, lead to your goal. In UI design this means, for any time-consuming process, you need to keep the user aware of what their long term goal is while delivering the message that this particular step is something doable right now. A “steps on top” on your page combine with a page that fits inside the browser window will do that nicely.

2) Create behavior chains Closely related to activity 1 is the problem people have – problems turning abstract commitments (“I will exercise more”) into practical steps that are tied to a specific schedule (“I exercised today”). The solution to creating a habit that sticks is to break that abstract problem down into something you’ll do at specific times. What works especially well is to chain your micro-task to something that happens in your world: “When it’s time to walk the dog, I will be the person who does it.” Now, when it’s 2:00 and the dog comes looking for you, you will automatically get up and head out. Cue users so that they’re always clear what they have to do next can get the same automatic response (in Learning Tree’s UX design course we talk about achieving that through prospective memory and exploiting design patterns).

3) Eliminate excessive options Barack Obama limits himself to nothing but blue and gray suits. The reason, he says, is that “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.” In terms of building up habits, reducing decisions (by packing the same lunch every day, for example) makes it easier to stay on your diet. You can do the same thing in your UI by reducing the number of decisions that users have to make. The first step is just to take all of the reasonable defaults in your UI instead of offering your users all of the possible options. Instead, offer those choices in an options screen where the user can change the default once and never have to make that decision again. Now, when users return to your application they’ll always be taking the same, simple, routine path through your application.

4) Eliminate “ah-screw-its” This is name for when people drop a new habit as soon as they screw up the first time (it’s also known as the “What the Hell Effect”). There is a solution for this, though: If people examine what went wrong and take action to prevent that happening again they will often persevere with their new habit. The truth is that “ah-screw-its” is an easy thing to have happen in your application: It’s unlikely that users will make your application work the way they want the first time they use it. To avoid the “What the Hell Effect”, therefore, you must make clear to your users how they can fix their current problem and how they can avoid having that problem again. Providing feedback is key here and the most obvious place to do this is in your error messages: Tell users how to get out of their problem and how to avoid having it happen again.

Follow these four steps and, while you may not delight your users, you’ll have something better: You’ll become a habit to them.

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