How to Create a Successful App With Behavioral Design

October 29, 2019

Behavioral design harnesses the science of what drives human behavior. Businesses that use this process can design products that engage users and keep them coming back.

Behavioral design puts the user at the forefront of the design process, resulting in products that fully meet users’ needs and are enjoyable for them to use. Designli’s app development process uses behavioral design to ensure that MVPs are successful with their intended audiences.

While behavioral design isn’t new, UX designers are realizing just how helpful it is in creating products that people eagerly adopt and continue using on a regular basis.

We’ve integrated the principles of behavioral design into the apps we’ve built at Designli. And apps built using behavioral design see much better user adoption and retention. This article explains why behavioral design works, overviews the Hooked framework (which is the framework we use), and outlines the elements you’ll want to integrate into your UX projects.

5 Steps to Building a Successful App With Behavioral Design

  1. Understand why behavioral design works
  2. Use the Hooked framework
  3. Create triggers to drive desired actions
  4. Implement variable rewards
  5. Require a user investment

1. Understand Why Behavioral Design Works

Software and app users have more choices today than they ever have. Unless your product is truly cutting-edge and revolutionary, there are competitive products out there that users could choose instead of yours. Your mission as a UX designer is to attract users and then keep them engaged with the product on a consistent basis to ensure retention.

Traditionally, UX designers have relied on user personas built around interviews. And these persona interviews are important — they’re the only way you’ll find out details like the context users will be in when engaging with the product, the processes and workflows the product must fit into, and the other tools and software the product should integrate with.

But the fact is that much of human behavior is reflexive and automatic. We’re all driven by our formerly “lizard” brains that evolved to develop habits that kept us alive for centuries. And we can harness these patterns to design products that not only fulfill business needs but also create habitual behavior.

Behavioral design is based on the insights gained from behavioral science — things that are true about human behavior, including our users’ behavior. Behavioral design focuses particularly on the neurological loop: A cue triggers a routine (behavior) that delivers a reward.

If you reward a behavior strategically, it will be repeated. And depending on how you deliver the reward, that behavior can be incredibly strongly reinforced.

2. Use the Hooked Framework

Let’s give credit where credit is due: We certainly weren’t the ones to come up with the model we use. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, developed this highly effective model for implementing behavioral design.

Here are the foundational components of the Hooked framework:

The Trigger

The trigger is the cue that initiates the habit loop. Triggers come in two types: external and internal.

External triggers are informational prompts such as a notification alert, an eye-catching button with instructions, or a visual cue that you associate with a particular action.

Internal triggers are developed over time, and they exist in the users’ minds. For example, if someone has developed a habit of eating when they’re bored to enjoy something that tastes good (or delivers dopamine), the feeling of boredom serves as a trigger to head to the fridge.

The Action

The trigger does just that — triggers an action in anticipation of a reward.

These actions must be simple in order to create a habit loop. When it comes to product design, the action might be posting a status update, answering a question, or playing a video, all of which typically lead to what the user is really after: the reward.

The Reward

The most effective rewards are fulfilling but leave the user wanting more.

When you post a status update on Facebook and get dozens of likes and comments, you’re happy, but you want to do it again to receive even more likes and comments.

Perhaps counterintuitively, varying how rewards are delivered makes them more powerful. You may get a lot of comments and likes on your Facebook post — or you might not. A great example of the power of variable rewards is the gambling industry. Casinos have perfected using various types of rewards and how they deliver them. People who play the game are highly likely to continue, particularly in the heat of the moment.

Continued Investment

Closing the loop is continued investment. Once a person invests in something, he or she is likely to continue investing.

This is why founders who should have pivoted long ago continue on the path that’s taking them nowhere. And why gambling is so addictive. On the positive side, it’s why people who develop a habit of going to the gym will continue to go. Or people who have built new eating habits are more successful at keeping extra weight off than crash dieters.

The Hook model is a loop framework not only because it’s built on the habit loop but also because, in order to work, each element in the process must be in place. This is why it’s essential to include features in your products that are designed around each element.

Let’s look at how to do that now. We’ll use the Qapital app (built in partnership with behavioral-economics heavyweight Dan Arielly and chock-full of behavioral design features) as an example to bring these concepts into the real world.

3. Create Triggers to Drive Desired Actions

Start by identifying the primary behaviors you want users to take on a regular basis in your app. This list will show you what you’ll need to create triggers for.

Next, consider all the possible triggers you could use. A built-in trigger for apps is the notification, but there are many other possibilities, including emails, social media posts, and relationship triggers such as word-of-mouth, etc.

Qapital uses a variety of triggers outside and inside the app, including notifications, emails, photos that represent the user’s savings goals, and illustrated suggestions that prompt actions.


Being visually reminded of your goals is a powerful motivator.

Finally, think about the timing of the triggers — when are users going to be able to act on any given trigger?

For example, if your app delivers a notification when the user can’t act on it (she’s in a work meeting; he’s in class), the trigger is wasted. Think through how to ensure that your triggers are delivered at the right time.

4. Implement Variable Rewards

Ideas for rewards are endless. Gamification expert Gabe Zichermann has identified a hierarchy of rewards based on how well they drive engagement and retention.

Here’s Zichermann’s list, from most powerful to least powerful:


  • Perks visible to other users
  • Leaderboards, points, and badges, which indicate status


  • Insider access to exclusive features and/or content
  • Advance notice about new features


  • The ability to contribute ideas for new features or vote on them
  • Moderator status


  • Freebies
  • Monetary rewards

Qapital takes advantage of social rewards by allowing users to save along with their friends and track who’s ahead on a leaderboard. But the app doesn’t stop with standard rewards. Illustrated suggestions based on the science of what makes people happy in the long-term reward users by helping them discover new ways to better spend their money.

Qapital app

The pleasure that comes from having more time as a result of spending money on services that free up time for the things you enjoy is a huge reward.

Don’t forget to make the rewards slightly inconsistent — variable rewards are stronger than those that users can predict.

5. Require an Investment

Investment can take the form of money, but it doesn’t have to. Time and social capital are both strong currencies that your users may invest when first engaging with your app.

If these investments are significant, they’re likely to result in continued investment as time goes on and the user continues to engage.

Qapital is highly successful with this strategy, as the app requires users to spend time connecting their accounts, imagining and setting their goals, and connecting with friends.

Behavioral Design Is the Golden Ticket

While success is never guaranteed, basing your UX on behavioral design skyrockets your chances of attracting and retaining users.

It’s as close to a golden ticket as you’ll get because it harnesses the science of what drives human behavior.

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