Can Online Apps Change Real-Life Behavior?
6 min read

Can Online Apps Change Real-Life Behavior?

Can Online Apps Change Real-Life Behavior?

Weight gain happens pound by pound, over many years, and that’s how Dave Haynes found himself sixty pounds away from a healthy BMI. In his career, Dave was immersed in the startup world; he helped start Soundcloud, which allows anyone to share and produce music and has over 10 million users. So when he ultimately resolved to reverse this disturbing weight trend, he naturally looked to technology for the solution; he downloaded the popular fitness apps and bought an Internet-connected Withings scale. But could these online apps help him achieve real-life behavior change?

For Dave, the answer was “Yes.” In just six months he returned to a healthy weight. And when I asked if the apps helped, he didn’t hesitate. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” he told me. “I wouldn’t say any one app was the most important, but together they absolutely made it possible to achieve my goal.”

Dave’s success was a personal cocktail of technology to fit his personality, and it worked. But the variety of apps and the even greater variety of personalities that exist in the world make it questionable whether a single behavior tech product can work for everyone.

On the Screen vs. IRL

Most technology products are looking to change behavior in some form or another. With the help of psychology, many online companies are leveraging the feedback loops within their products to form strong, addictive user habits. Whether a company is focused on user engagement, growth, or monetization, the ultimate goal is to get people to take action. From push notification triggers to highly enticing variable news feeds, dozens of design strategies have cultivated tech habits that we rely on; there’s a reason that 60% of Facebook users are active on the site daily.

But when you’re trying to change behavior, getting users to engage within the app or web platform isn’t enough. That’s because no matter how many times a user logs in to WeightWatchers online or opens the Nike+ app, the products are really only successful if users take action in real life. For behavior change products to be successful, users have to go to the gym, eat a healthy salad, or say “no” to ice cream–not just scroll mindlessly through cat memes.

The Science of Captology

One of the most popular behavior change models used by behavior tech companies is that of Stanford professor BJ Fogg, a pioneer in the area of persuasive technology. Fogg even coined the term “captology”–Computers As Persuasive Technology. The gist of Fogg’s model is that for any behavior to occur, three components must be present: motivation, ability, and a trigger.

For example, if you’re trying to get yourself to go to the gym, that might mean having the desire to exercise (motivation), having the time and resources to get to the gym (ability), and setting a calendar event to remind yourself to go (trigger). The best health and fitness apps incorporate some or all of these components in the user experiences that they offer. And that’s just to get yourself to the gym one time! In order to make a significant lifestyle change, like losing a lot of weight or quitting smoking, motivation, ability, and triggers must be consistently optimized for the new behavior.

Of the three components, triggers are probably the easiest to implement using technology. Emails, text messages, and push notifications can be sent to us on our smartphones at any time and in any location to poke us towards good behavior. The real question is how well apps can offer the motivation and ability that people need to achieve their goals.

Real Addictions, Real Motivation

Dozens (likely hundreds) of apps are designed to motivate users. Fitocracy uses gamification to help users earn rewards, accept challenges, and advance to a new level. CarrotFit entertains users by berating them into shape with humorous insults. With the Lift app, an entire community of like-minded individuals is there to offer “props” any time you’re successful with a habit. And that’s just to name a few of the apps and types of motivation that are out there.

One of the most unique “motivating” technologies is, which relies on the economic principle of loss aversion to create motivation. Loss aversion, oversimplified, is the idea that people are more motivated by the prospect of losing something (e.g. money) than they are by the prospect of a reward. Most people who sign up for Stickk choose a goal, like “I want to quit smoking” and then commit to a consequence if they don’t achieve their goal: donating money to an organization that they despise, like a political party.

Though I’ve signed up for, I’ve never had the guts to put it to the test, so I went searching for someone who had. Plus, I wanted to know how powerful the effects of loss aversion really were, so I went on the hunt for someone with a real addiction. I searched through some public profiles on and that’s how I found Jeremy Stevenson, a student at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Jeremy wasn’t addicted to meth or heroin but instead a 21st century drug fueled by technology itself: pornography.

“There were a lot of things I didn’t like about [pornography],” he told me. “I felt guilty after I looked it up and I found myself looking up dirtier and dirtier shit. Also, it changed my expectations of sex and also what women looked like naked, so I was disappointed when I started having my first sexual experiences.”

Over the course of about 8 months, Jeremy set commitments with Stickk to avoid pornography altogether. And did it work? “I had a 100% success rate with Stickk, it worked remarkably,” he said. “It’s difficult to explain why, perhaps the notion of my money being donated to some horrendous cause like the American Republican Party, perhaps the knowledge of how disappointed I would be if I failed. …It was the pinnacle of commitment and I really hate failing at a commitment that I value.”

For Simplicity’s Sake

For Jeremy, Stickk definitely supplied the motivation necessary to change. And with the variety of technologies available, it seems that most people are likely to find at least one that offers the type of motivation that will truly help them. The only remaining ingredient in BJ Fogg’s recipe for behavior change is ability.

One way to think about ability is to think in terms of simplicity. Is the app simple enough? And, more importantly, is the action, such as “going for a run” or “saying no to dessert” simple enough? As Fogg says, “Simplicity differs by person and by context,” meaning that all the tiny details of our environent matter significantly, and lead to his conclusion: “Simplicity lies outside the product.”

This is where the true effectiveness of behavior change apps comes seems debateable. Even the best apps–with simple and intuitive UI, engaging content, and research-based methodology–are helpless when it’s time to actually go for a run.

Limititations on our time, money, and the level of effort we’re willing to exert all affect simplicity. And, to complicate things further, these limitations are constantly changing. It may be relatively simple to spend 30 minutes at the gym on a Saturday, if you have fewer weekend appointments on your calendar. But by Monday, when your calendar is packed and you only have intermittent free time, going to the gym becomes significantly more difficult. If innovative apps can find ways to make the real-life behavior challenges easier, these apps will succeed.

For example, think about the time it takes to track calories. There are plenty of apps available to do this, but anyone who’s counted calories knows that logging fresh food meals (which are generally the healthiest) is a painstaking process. So much so that for many people the challege isn’t eating healthy food, it’s preparing it. After losing 100 pounds, former Apple employee Michael Grothaus gained back the weight for that very reason. The problem frustrated him so much that he built a solution called SITU–a smart-scale and calorie counting app combo that simplifies the process of tracking fresh foods. Though it’s too early to tell, SITU seems to fill the void between online app and real-world simplicity by making a cumbersome task fairly quick and efficient. As technology improves, I suspect that more apps will find ways to buoy users with ability by simplifying physical tasks.

The Future of Tech Change

If you visit the website of just about any behavior change tech product, you’ll see testimonial after testimonial from users lavishly extolling the app that finally made the difference–for them. There’s still no pill, no app that solves everyone’s bad habits, and with the complexity of human psychology will likely never be one. In the mean time, the weight loss apps, fitness games, and wearables should offer something unique for just about everyone. And the apps that remove as much friction as possible, while still inspiring users, are the most likely to succeed.

Thanks to Dave Haynes, Jeremy Stevenson, and Michael Grothaus for the stories they shared for this essay.

Image credit: Dave Haynes.

This essay was originally published on The Next Web.