AMA1: What philosophies give apps a higher propensity for success?

This blog post is part of a recent AMA hosted at Sean Ellis’, with Prabhjot Singh, cofounder + President at We are fans of Sean Ellis and wrote about why Growth Hackers need Growth Intelligence.

Logan Stoneman: I have been fascinated by the addicting quality of some gaming apps, Pokemon Go specifically. Many people have cited psychological theories such as Nir Eyal’s “Hooked”. Can you share any other theories on what get’s users ‘hooked’, causing traction and scaling? Are there any other philosophies you build into your apps to give it a higher propensity for success?

Logan, thanks for this great question. Given the amount of competition on the app store, this is interestingly a topic that doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention it deserves. At the core of any of the psychological theories being used in the most addictive games and social apps is: Sustained Motivation. Basically, what causes a person to repeat a behavior again and again? Whether its facebook, Kim Kardashian, Pokemon or Candy Crush, there are deep psychological constructs at work that drive the urge to keep coming back.

I am a big fan of Nir and his book Hooked. His discussion on Pavlovian conditioning and variable reward as it relates to the desire to put in more effort in the hopes of a greater reward is fascinating. Once you get a user into the loop of wanting to put in effort in anticipation of a reward, and appreciating there is more reward for putting in more effort again, you have them… hooked.

There are lots of academic literature on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (you need a mix of both). When we’re looking to build gamification into an app, there are basically three key aspects of motivation that we care about: Autonomy, Value and Competence. Check out this Lifehacker article by Thorin Klosowski I have bookmarked for more details if you don’t want to read the heavier journal articles on the topic.

The best games tap into your intrinsic motivation while providing extrinsic rewards. Motivation also comes from friendly competition and lots of studies show that competition positively motivates some people. Depending on the app you’re trying to build, you’ll want to drill in deeper, whether its Incentive Theory for optimizing rewards in a game or Content Theory for a social app, it’s really important to understand how your app is going to create an addictive effect. The big players in the app market are hiring psychologists and data scientists so it’s important to bake the right psychological level into your app for sustained motivation.

I also suggest checking out the Ted Talk by Tom Chatfield on “7 ways video games reward the brain,” that is referenced in the Lifehacker article for a discussion on how these psychological theories have been successfully utilized in video games for a very long time. Definitely worth your time.

Vibhushan Waghamre commented

Besides the motivation, I found that “achievability” is a very important factor for user-engagement. At every given moment in the game’s journey, user should always feel that he can achieve the target. In the TED Talk by Tom, he talks about probability of reward. Especially for games like 2048, users are always made to feel that the elusive goal is just round the corner, which makes them keep playing on for hours together. I believe this is different from positive rewards at every regular intervals, and can be dug deeper into to drive engagement.