Building ‘Tiny Habits’ In Your App

Stanford professor BJ Fogg delivered a talk at SXSW Interactive on Saturday called Why Tiny Habits Give Big Results. Dr. Fogg is a founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab and teaches a class on persuasion and behavior analysis at the university. His system and teaching has become quite popular with software developers and design experts; after all, a new piece of software is designed to change or modify a user’s behavior. I was interested in attending his talk because I had enrolled in his Tiny Habits online course in the fall of 2012.

For his SXSW session, Fogg focused on how to modify personal behaviors instead of looking at how to change an entire marketplace; however, after hearing him speak on personal change I feel that many of the ideas and theories he presented can be applied to developers. Fogg believes that making behavior modifications is hard to do all at once, and to achieve true change you have to do it in tiny steps.

For example, imagine one individual who has a goal of exercising 30 minutes a day for the rest of his life, and another individual who sets a goal of walking 5 minutes after work. Fogg hypothesizes that the individual with the more modest, tiny goal will ultimately become healthier. This individual has an achievable goal that results in what Fogg terms, “success momentum.” When success is experienced early and often, it reinforces that behavior and has the added bonus of helping individuals get through the rough times.

I can see how developers can apply this idea to their software to combat the “blank screen” problem when a user first signs up. By creating an environment where users can experience small successes, you can help build this success momentum early on in the use of the software. This is not only a way to engage the user in the present, but can also be crucial when the user encounters a bug, issue or obstacle with your software. Instead of abandoning the app completely, the previous successes could influence that user to stick with you.

Fogg told the audience to “start recognizing that behavior and behavior change is systematic – it is not random.” He created the Fogg Behavior Model that plots the exponential graph of the ability to activate a change on a quadrant with ability and motivation on each axis. The central idea is that if the behavior is easy to do and doesn’t require a lot of motivation, the individual will still perform that behavior even as their motivation dips.

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He used weight lifting as an example. For an individual who has not lifted weights in a long time, doing a set of 50-pound kettle bells three times a week would be extremely difficult. Furthermore, this set would probably instigate a degree of pain and soreness the day after the exercise, decreasing the participant’s willingness to do the exercise so much that they never lift that weight again.

However, if the individual sets a modest goal of doing one set of 10-pound kettle bells every day, the exercise is easy enough that the participant doesn’t have to have a high degree of motivation. These small successes create that success momentum, which can increase confidence and motivation to try the next class of weights in the future.

I feel this is why designing for the experience of the user is crucial for developers. New users may have a very low amount of motivation to use your app at first, so in order to remain above the activation threshold, it is key to make sure it is easy for people to interact with your software. Good design is what ultimately makes it easy.

Fogg also talked about the importance of celebrating success. For the personal behavior change it could involve audibly shouting “woo hoo!” after you completed your weight lifting for the day, internally saying, “I’m the man!” or even doing a dance. He feels that these celebrations can foster the “tiny thrill” of accomplishing something, which will in turn foster the behavior change.

Celebrating tiny successes can be a way for developers to endear themselves to their users. While this may be a fine line of balancing the cheesy factor; giving your users mile markers to celebrate how they successfully impact your platform can help solidify their new behavior of using your application.


  1. This is a core concept in gamification, and illustrates the success of gamified apps (or at least the ones that implemented it well).

    Canonical examples: a “check-in” app that provides your first achievement badge after 10 check-ins. It’s a small, but positive reinforcement that encourages continuation.

    Or a video game with an easy first level (followed by an achievement), a slightly more difficult second level (followed by an achievement), and so on. Accomplishing each level with an achievement at the end (plus micro-achievements during the level) increases one’s skill with the task and decreases the level of effort required since each successive level builds on the skills obtained during the first.

    The Achievement->Reward cycle is very powerful, especially when administered in small, but incrementally larger doses. It explains why apps like Foursquare or websites like Quora are so addictive. They foster significant engagement from the very beginning of a new user’s interaction.

    The book Gamification By Design published by O’Reilly gives an excellent introduction to the topic.

  2. Prof Fogg seems to have put in print what parents and trainers of all types have know for years, success breeds success. Start with small steps to gain skill and confidence. This has a tendency to develop profiency and inovation in risk taking. An individual confident in his ability will more often take risks thinking “outside the box” then the drone who develops a skill set but is not rewarded with confidence building positive reinforcement.

    Good BLOG, I am looking forward to reading more RAX Blogs posited on Linkedin