You travel to work on autopilot without being aware of how you got there. A friend recommends a new book and you immediately think of Amazon. You repeatedly check for emails on your smartphone even though you are not really expecting important emails. If any of these behaviors sound familiar to you, then you have experienced habits — automatic response patterns that are nearly or completely involuntary and without cognition.
Contrast this automatic habit behavior to goal-directed behavior such as when you travel to a new location and meticulously pay attention to street signs and addresses, or when you research a new piece of software to see if it has the features you need.
UI design typically focuses on goal-directed behavior
When most people think of user experience and UI design for SaaS, they think about designing for goal-directed behaviors. The focus is on identifying and developing an appropriate set of functionality for the software based on user and business goals/processes. The UI design makes it easy to discover and use this functionality. Goal-directed design is essential for customer acquisition and makes it possible for users to research and even try a SaaS application before they are familiar with all that it can do or how it works.
Churn is the challenge for SaaS
Once you’ve acquired new SaaS customers, the big challenge is how to keep them using the software. All too often, customers sign up and then, after a time, they find they aren’t using the software or they find another application that meets their goals and they cancel their subscription (i.e., churn).
One very powerful way to reduce SaaS churn is to design the UI/UX to transition the customer away from exclusively goal-directed behaviors towards expanded, habitual use. Whereas goal-directed UI designs can deprecate and lose value over time, habit-forming UI designs can actually appreciate over time.
Designing interactions to create habits
A habit-forming SaaS UI is ingrained, additive and uncomfortable to give up. As a typical example, think of switching from Google (a search SaaS) to Bing. Even though Bing and Google are essentially identical in utility, if you’ve ever tried switching, you know it requires concerted, sustained effort. Most of us simply stick with Google.
Using Google search is a habit and represents the kind of habit you want to develop for your SaaS product. You want users to turn to your SaaS app automatically without thought whenever they are engaged in relevant work (and even when not). The more your customers use your product, the more they value it and the higher your customer lifetime value.
SaaS habit- design guidelines
So how do you design a SaaS product to become a habit? The basic behavioral engineering principles tap research ranging from associative conditioning to neuroimaging. The principles center around designing in emotive and sensory triggers, variable rewards, actions and opportunities for personalization or commitment. They can be readily applied to the user experience design of SaaS across the entire customer life cycle.
Here are eight guidelines to design SaaS UI to create customer habits. The battle against SaaS churn begins with these design strategies.
1. Build for existing behaviors
Design the SaaS product around appropriate mental models because new habits are built upon old habits. By supporting existing mental models in software, you can attach them to an existing internal trigger to new behaviors.
2. Design for simplicity and focus
Make the key work areas the focus of the design, and design for simplicity and learnability. Making the desired action simpler to accomplish is a strong way to increase the occurrence of the action so that it can be linked to the triggers and rewards necessary to form habits. Avoid drawing attention to non-task-related information, which can distract users and disrupt the key temporal connections for establishing habits. A directly related guideline: make it easy to resume interrupted tasks or recover from errors.
3. Design for triggers
A trigger is any stimulus or cue that can be associated with an action and a reward. The trigger can be external such as email notifications, text message and word of mouth, or internal such as wanting to know the answer to a question, desiring social interaction and day-to-day emotions (including boredom).
Internal triggers are the cues that elicit the most robust habits; but initially they often need to be linked to software use via external triggers. The important takeaway is that, no matter how easy software is to use, a user will not build a habit without the presence of a trigger that is linked closely in space and time to the desired behavior and a relevant reward.
4. Use Personas to discover triggers
Personas — narratives about the experience and interactions different kinds of users will have at each touch point in your software — can be translated into triggers for your products. The interactions take place at a certain point in time, in a certain context, and with the intention to meet a specific customer need.
This can be represented as an experience map of triggers that a user encounters in the software so you can then design a UI to associate these triggers with actions and rewards.
5. Design for small rewards early on
Habits are learned sequences of actions that can be ingrained through triggers and rewards. Rewards can be many things such as the surprise of discovery, feelings of competency or control, social recognition and sharing or alleviation of a “pain” point.
For example, if every time that I log into my financial SaaS in the morning, the first thing I do is check a particular stock, the UI can be designed to start presenting that option immediately after I log in. My action of logging in, when presented with the login dialog, is immediately rewarded (as opposed to just entering into the software as a clean slate).
By designing the UI for users to experience small rewards that are associated with triggers and actions, you build momentum early on in the use of the software. This not only engages the user in the moment but also establishes habits so that the user sticks with your application even when encountering a bug or a new competitive SaaS product.
An important design note: If these rewards are variable or slightly unpredictable, users are far more likely to get hooked (think of gambling in Las Vegas).
6. Design for surprise
Surprise users with new functionality on a semi-regular basis; but it should appear incrementally in the UI rather than as big new changes. Associative learning (habits) is optimized when there is a small discrepancy between what is expected and what actually happens. So the big version 2.0 rollout will be a lot more impactful if it is instead delivered in small incremental features or UI updates rather than as a big blowout release.
7. Create behavior chains
Most of our day-to-day habits are really quite complex, comprised of many smaller, discrete sub-behaviors that we perform in a certain order. To build complex habits out of the behaviors that are required to use most SaaS applications, it is essential to first break the process down into a chain of simple behaviors that follow one another in order. These small, defined tasks can individually be designed into habits (think of them as phases of engagement) and then chained together to create a highly robust habit for a complex behavior.
Most application designers make the mistake of asking users to perform a complicated behavior without first establishing the behavior chain. This reduces the likelihood of habit formation and increases the odds of churn.
8. Require effort
The more users are invested in your software, the stronger their habits will be. The design should enable customers to transform your SaaS product into their SaaS app by investing in personalization, configuration, social interaction/sharing and user-generated content. The more you require your customers to do a tiny bit of work to customize the product to their business processes and their data, the more they value it and the stronger the habit-forming potential.
For example, a SaaS product that retains historical performance data that you’ve accumulated or that has all of the contacts you have entered is far more valuable after months of use than it is right out of the box. The product experience improves with use, and this increases the user’s likelihood of using the product again.
These eight strategies are examples of user-experience design intended to create habits around SaaS use. Habits, once established, take tremendous inertia to break. For SaaS, this translates to lower churn and greater social referrals.
It goes without saying that designing for habits must be built on top of designing effective goal-directed functionality and UI. Your application and feature set still has to be useful. But by also designing for habits, you create an application that is not only functional but also irresistible and imminently socially shareable.
Paul Giurata is the managing partner for Catalyst Resources, a user experience and application design firm headquartered in Silicon Valley. He and his teams have worked on more than 450 software projects in Financial Services, SaaS, Life Sciences / Biotech and mission-critical Systems. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.