Digital Products Should Foster Good Habits. Here Are 4 Rules For Doing It

Despite their good intentions, people lose willpower and make bad decisions. Here’s how to create digital products that help users keep themselves in line, in spite of themselves.

The beginning of a new year is a time for flexing willpower: A moment for taking stock of last year’s achievements, setting goals for the year to come, and vowing to try harder to achieve those resolutions not met.

But if you’re someone who finds yourself falling short, have you considered that trying harder might not be the answer? If at first you don’t achieve your resolutions try, try, try … using better products. Global design firm Ideo believes that incorporating (flawed) human behavior into product design is the key to creating breakthrough inventions. In other words, willpower is overrated.

Forty-five percent of Americans make resolutions, mostly on money, self-improvement, weight loss, and relationships. Eight percent are successful in achieving them. Twenty-five percent don’t even make it past the first week! Trying harder rarely works.

A recent survey of affluent households (those with incomes of $100K+) indicated that even the desire to simplify life is difficult to attain. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents agree, "I am trying hard to simplify my life," up from 48% in 2011. What’s interesting to note is that while the desire for more simplification is there, the data doesn’t show any increase in simplification-related behaviors—in fact quite the reverse. Media hours per day are increasing and people are multitasking more.

If you want to change your life, willpower is not the answer. The solution lies in smart product design, something we deliberate every day at Betterment, the behavioral-based investing startup I founded in 2008. Stephen Kraus, a senior vice president for the audience measurement group Ipsos MediaCT, agrees: "The bottom line is clear: there are growing opportunities for products, services and media brands that can help Affluents manage the trade-offs, and achieve the simplification they desire."

As product designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, there are huge implications for us to help people achieve what they desire, by creating products that help them change their behavior.

People Make Irrational Decisions

Behavioral scientists have proved time and again that any product that assumes we are anything short of crazy is assuming too much. Humans make irrational decisions all the time. We overestimate our ability to make good decisions when under pressure. Our resolve weakens when emotion takes over. Resisting the desire to sell stocks in a down market is akin to resisting candy when you’re hungry.

We’re good at making plans. It’s why so many of us make resolutions every year. But it’s easy to think of being virtuous in the future, much harder in the present. A famous study from the ’90s shows that people tend to plan a healthy snack for consumption in a week’s time, but they choose an unhealthy one to eat now.

Even if you highly value the strength of your willpower (and make no mistake, some people have it more than others), it is not a constant personality trait, but something that fluctuates throughout the day. And to make matters worse, studies show that if you resist something a number of times, the desire to have it becomes stronger.

Better Products Incorporate Behavioral Guardrails

1. Automation

Incorporating behavioral design into your product can help people by taking human error or emotion out of the equation. Automation is one of the best ways to overcome behavioral bias. A famous study documented by Freakonomics demonstrates that logic rarely plays a part in our decision-making: If people are automatically enrolled in a program—say, for organ donation or 401(k) contribution—the majority tend to stay in; if they are not automatically enrolled, the majority tend to stay out.

The impact of automation is major. Betterment customers who take advantage of auto-deposit contribute an average of twice as much to their investing goals as those who rely on willpower alone.

2. Goal Setting

Apps that help people set specific goals are smart. People who explicitly set resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t. Setting specific goals (i.e., "I want to save $3 million for retirement in 30 years") increases the likelihood of success than keeping goals vague. The goal-setting-and-tracking program Beeminder is a great example of a product that understands this—and reminds you with a sting if you get off track.

We’ve witnessed the power of goal-based investing here at Betterment. Goal setting and automation go hand in hand: For example, customers who set specific goal targets and horizons (3 years, 20 years, etc.) are more likely to automate their investing behavior—by approximately three times.

3. Digital To-Do Lists

Thinking big requires small steps, and products like RememberTheMilk and Clear get that. Never has a to-do list looked so elegant. These apps help keep goals organized and on track with reminders and due dates. Breaking down an unwieldy goal into more manageable steps increases the likelihood of success.

4. Feedback and Accountability

Put your reputation or money on the line. Up the ante of trade-offs between sticking to or straying from your goal. Fitocracy and Stickk are two clever apps that understand the psychology of motivation. Stickk uses a series of incentives and punishments, while Fitocracy harnesses the collective encouragement of the site’s community.

If you’re a UX designer, a product lead, or an engineer, add one more of these built-in guardrails into your list of resolutions. Help your users achieve theirs (then automate it!).

[Images: via Shutterstock]

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  • Travis Dommert

    Jon, Enjoyed this article.  At irunurun, we also believe that digital products can help people hard-wire their work and life together in new and powerful ways to promote positive habits in both spheres of life.  

    We discovered that users were using our tool to track both personal and professional development on a single dashboard with a single score.  Since we were initially focused on sales and leadership, we more or less ignored the personal development activities.  

    Then, as we learned more about performance psychology and the notion that personal habits power professional performance, we began suggesting that clients integrate the two.  We are finding that personal development (shared with work colleagues) drives employee engagement.  Similarly, sharing professional development activities with friends and family causes us to work harder on the things that matter at work.  Win-win.

    It's been a fascinating discovery!

  • Anne Rein

    I watched the 60 Minutes video this article links to. Interestingly, the IDEO does not mention incorporating "flawed" human behavior into product design.

  • Matthias Laschke

    These rules sound really antiquated. Automation, Goal
    Setting, Digital-To-Do-Lists and Feedback? Automation has nothing do to with
    behavior change. It is rather a patronizing method. It is based on
    the assumption that people are not able to change. If a product or law
    is doing something for me, the product does it for me. I'm out of the loop. But
    if I change my behavior based on my inner opinion or goals, differs from a
    patronizing automation. If the automation is not in line with our opinion, we
    would behave with reactance. Goal Setting is a first good step in behavior
    change. However, it is just a first step. With reference to Peter Gollwitzer,
    goal intentions just define 'what' we want to do. But products, which help us
    to define or to foster 'what we want to do’ do not help us to implement
    behavior in our daily life. Digital-To-Do-List are just a tool to record goals.
    Finally, feedback is just about information. But how could people integrate
    this information into their daily life. To know that you are fat, eating
    unhealthy stuff… is just knowledge. To overcome these bad behaviors should be a
    focus of technology. As a researcher in this field I would argue for a different
    approach that is based on choice and motivation. 

  • Sims Rogers

    Is this petty? Here is 4 rules. Here are 4 rules. Is applies to a singular item. Are applies to more than one. 4 rules ARE more than one rule, therefore here're 4 rules.

  • Shane Guymon

    All four of your points are "goal" oriented. Not all products are "goal" oriented. I was expecting to read something that could be attributed to ANY product. I feel that if you can better any product by gaining a better understanding of human behavior.