neon sign of the "like" button from social media showing zero likes
PHOTO: Prateek Katyal

I left the house the other morning, drove to the train station, hopped on the train, and ... couldn't for the life of me remember if I locked the front door. After several frantic calls to my neighbors, I found out I had.

Like many of you, I leave the house at the same time every day and perform many of the same routines. I repeat these routines so frequently they have become unconscious. They’ve moved from the realm of controlled actions and become habit: turning off lights, straightening up after the kids, hanging the car keys on the key rack, feeding the cat, checking Facebook ....

Hold on. Checking Facebook and locking the front door are the same type of habit?

Brains Are Happier When They’re Not Thinking

Let’s take a step back and look at what happens in our brains when we form habits.

Our brains love routine. Routine allows you to follow the same route to work every day while your brain does other stuff — like preparing your presentation for tomorrow’s board meeting. Routine is valuable to your brain, because it frees up resources. And that’s why our brains reward us for routine, encouraging us to create more of them.

For example, after we flip on a light switch (the action) several times and the light comes on (the reward) — our brain learns this is what it should expect. The next time we flip the switch, and the reward comes, we get a small burst of dopamine. After several of these loops, a new association is created. This behavioral pattern becomes literally etched into our neural pathways, and a new habit is formed.

Habits make us feel good because they help us predict the world around us and provide a sense of control. But what happens when you want to check email and your internet connection is down? You try to connect again and again and end up feeling frustrated. Your brain is upset, and so are you. You don’t get the burst of dopamine that your brain is expecting. You experience withdrawal — just like when you quit smoking.

Since brains reward repetitive behavior with consistent outcomes, people form a LOT of habits. In fact, a study from Duke University estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape some 45% of the choices we make every day.

There is one thing our brains love even more than routine: positive surprises. Positive surprises deliver bursts of dopamine that are three to four times larger than those from habit-based rewards. Your team won the big game? Jackpot at the slot machine? Dopamine burst! That post you worked so hard to compose got 500 likes? Dopamine Big Gulp!

Related Article: Everything You Thought You Knew About User Experience Is Wrong

What Does This Have to Do with Apps?

As a web psychologist, I've worked with many companies. When I ask these companies about the goals for their apps, the answers are always similar: We want to be thought leaders. We want to change the way people interact with devices.

Here’s the connection between habits, brains and your app: we need to change this conversation.

We need to steer away from abstract goals and start thinking in terms of clear and defined actions. The conversation about your app needs to be about behavior. What do you want your customers to do? Do you want them to check in with friends on your app? Open it twice a day and take a specific action? Share content? Click? Read?

Our brain can only turn behavioral actions into routine. The simpler the action, the quicker your users establish habits. Thus, the more clearly we define the specific behavior we’re trying to initiate, the faster we can move on to the real questions app creators should be asking themselves every day: how exactly can we trigger this behavior, and how exactly can we turn it from a controlled action into a habit?

Related Article: Why They Click: The Psychology of Your Audience

Triggering Habit-Forming Behavior

Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg posited that you need three things for human behavior to occur: motivation, ability and a trigger. Triggers are divided into two types, internal and external.

External triggers provide us with guidance on what needs to be done next, like the Like button on Facebook or the play button on an embedded video. These are crucial to keep users working smoothly on your app, and should be thoroughly considered in UX design.

However, to truly connect your app with user needs and create the associations that lead to habits, we need to intimately understand their internal triggers.

Internal triggers are the inner motivations and needs that drive us to use an external trigger. Translated into the context of apps, internal triggers are what drive us to use, and come back to, our favorite apps. We use Waze to establish a feeling of control in an uncertain environment — traffic or a new place. We turn to Facebook when we feel lonely or the need to connect with people. We play Candy Crush when we feel bored. Each time we act on these internal triggers, we receive the expected dopamine reward, and the behavior is reinforced.

What’s more, in all of the above apps (and many others) we receive the bonus of a pleasant surprise. Since we don’t know when the reward is going to come, we end up in constant "waiting mode." We anticipate the email, the WhatsApp message, or any of the daily small surprises that result in the dopamine burst, which strengthens the habit loop even further. With Facebook, 500 likes will do the trick. With Candy Crush, getting through a really tough stage. Each of these apps has effectively harnessed the ongoing rewards and random surprises that act as internal triggers associated with habit formation.

Related Article: Great Websites Pass the 3-Second Rule

The App Challenge? Become a Habit

So yes, checking Facebook and locking the door as you leave the house are the exact same type of habit. And, as we’ve learned, 45% — nearly half — of everyday actions are the product of habit.

Your challenge as an app creator is to get your solution into that 45%.

How? Start by identifying one or two simple behaviors connected to your app, and designing cues and rewards around them. If the behaviors you choose are easy enough, and the rewards on-target, this will motivate repetitions. These behavioral repetitions trigger the creation of new associations, which coalesce into habits.