The out-of-app part of the loop

You’re in charge of a consumer mobile app — say it’s a mobile game. And you’re thinking about how to improve retention. The most important thing to think about is the part of your user’s engagement loop when he’s out of your app living his life. Because the critical factor in determining your retention is what that user does when he’s out of your app. Does he open it up again, or not?

To improve your retention, there are three things to thing about: habits, triggers, and pull.


Your number one priority is to turn app use into a habit. The reason is that only when a behavior becomes habitual is it durable. Non-habitual goal-directed behaviors rely on motivation — and motivation is ephemeral. The default pattern for any non-habitual behavior is that the behavior will not occur. This pattern might be interrupted temporarily when goal-directed motivation is strong — but eventually, things will revert to the default. Habitual behaviors, on the other hand, are the default. They will occur unless something else comes along to stop them.

There are three parts of a habit:

  • Context — the subjective experience that serves as the ‘trigger’ for the automatic response. For example, the context of an app open habit might be a feeling of boredom when I sit down on the bus.
  • Response — When the context occurs, a mental response is automatically triggered. This leads to the behavior. For example, the feeling of boredom might lead to the thought of my phone spontaneously arising in my consciousness. I then pull the phone out of my pocket.
  • Reward — In order to build and strengthen a habit, the response must be reinforced when it occurs. For example, every time I open Clash of Clans, I’m rewarded with some gold and elixir that I can harvest and add to my storage facilities.

To build a habit, you need to drive the user through the context — response — reward loop again and again.

But you can’t control when a user sits down on the bus or feels bored. What you can do is make sure to reinforce the user as soon as he opens the app.


The best kind of triggers are the kind that occur frequently and in moments that are suitable for app use. For example, a subjective feeling of boredom or overwhelm is often a trigger for me to play a mobile game. These occur relatively frequently, and when I’m bored that’s probably a great time to play a game.

External triggers like push notifications are valuable as well. But don’t be too aggressive. Remember that your goal is to get the user to develop internal triggers. When there’s some reward waiting in your app, don’t feel like you need to send a push notification immediately. The user might spontaneously come back. If he does, and you reinforce him immediately, then whatever mental experience he had just before opening the app will be one step closer to becoming stamped in as a trigger.


When a user is in your app, you want him to always feel a clear sense of purpose and motivation to pursue a goal. When a user leaves your app, you want to make sure that he leaves not fully sated — that he’s still feeling pull towards some objective in your app. He just wasn’t able to get it because it was limited somehow. In Clash of Clans, for example, I might really want my Town Hall to finish upgrading so that I can build a dragon, but I have to wait 4 days for that to happen. When I close the app, I do so feeling a strong pull towards seeing that Town Hall completed.

Because of this, when I’m outside the app I’ll be easily triggered to think of the app and open it up. This is how habits get created.


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