5 Psychological Theories That Every App Marketer Should Understand

March 15, 2018 | Article written by Kate Hawkes

This week’s guest blog post is contributed by Kate Hawkes, Content Marketer at Swrve.

Wouldn’t it be great if we understood why humans do the things we do? We are a decidedly unpredictable bunch, and most of the time we’re not even sure why we’ve done things ourselves.

This inherent unpredictability can make second-guessing user behavior in mobile apps seem like a pretty daunting task, and yet understanding your users and anticipating their actions (and reactions) is exactly what it takes to make an app business a success. Rather than launching into trial-and-error changes to move your metrics on user engagement and conversion, approaching apps from the user’s perspective is the smart way to ensure that you’re delivering what they really want – whether or not they know it themselves.

In the absence of any mind-reading powers, the study of psychology can offer some insights into how we think and why we do certain things. Below are five psychological theories that could be shaping your users’ experiences, and a few ways that these can be applied easily and effectively to improve an app’s chances of success.


1. Limit Choices

Choice paralysis has been made famous by Barry Schultz’s Choice Paradox, based on research affectionately known as ‘the jam study’. Customers were shown a display of 24 jams in a store on one day, and 6 jams on the next – those who were shown fewer jams were ten times more likely to buy.

A certain amount of choice is necessary: no one likes being told what to do. But too much choice means that we avoid making a choice at all. Limit the options being offered to users and, as well as receiving better overall uptake rates, you’ll be able to focus more on optimizing the options that you are given.

Keep calls to action clear with just two or three straightforward choices, and use A/B testing to show the impact of altering the number and presentation of choices.


2. Give Rewards at Random

B. F. Skinner’s experiments are amongst the most famous in behavioral psychology, and his theories on variable schedules of reinforcement are put into practice by countless businesses. In one of Skinner’s experiments, treats were released when a pigeon pecked at a sensor, but the frequency at which the treats were given was random. Surprisingly, this made the pigeon peck more than if the frequency was regular.

Giving rewards can seem like a no-brainer: we’re hardwired to seek them out, thanks to the sense of achievement they give us and our natural competitive spirit. However, if rewards are given too often they lose their novelty, and users will stop putting effort in to earning them. Surprising users with discount offers or exclusive access at random intervals builds anticipation for more rewards that could follow, and with no clear way to directly earn them, users are encouraged to keep engaging until it happens again. Not convinced? The same principle is applied to most gambling machines.



3. Make Processes Memorable

We’ve all seen the Zeigarnik Effect in action without realizing it. Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed that waiters could remember details of the orders for tables they were serving, but only until the customers had paid. Once the task was considered completed, the details were forgotten.

Use our natural instinct to work towards completion by making elements feel like they’re part of a process, or as if they’re building towards a final goal. For example, rather than facing users with a signup form that they could forget to fill in, including it as part of a process that they’ve initiated (such as accessing a piece of content) will mean they’re more likely to sign up in order to finish the action.

Another great use of this principle is in reengagement: reminding lapsing users of an action they left incomplete has a good chance of drawing them back to the app. Be aware though: the action needs to have a clear and achievable objective for a user to engage with, rather than drawing a process out too long and risking losing the pull of completion.


4. Find Your Users’ Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the Flow Model to explain the sensation of concentration and productivity we experience when we’re fully absorbed in a task. If you’ve ever looked up from an activity and realized that time has flown without you taking notice, then you’ve experienced ‘flow’.

Studies carried out with thousands of participants suggest that flow most commonly occurs when people are actively engaged in a task, and when the level of challenge is balanced with the individual’s skill level, meaning that both frustration and boredom are avoided.

To maximize time spent in an app, users need to feel engaged but not overwhelmed. If an app is too straightforward or simple, people will lose interest; if it’s too complex, they will become anxious. Examine your app analytics to see where users are spending the most time, and therefore are most likely to be experiencing flow, but also to find the moments that are disrupting it. Having a complex feature introduced before users have developed enough knowledge of the app to deal with it could be blocking flow.


5. Give Before You Take

In his 1971 “soda study“, Dennis Regan asked participants to undertake a selection of tasks, during which some were given a soda and others were not. At the end of the experiment, they were asked to buy a raffle ticket – those who had been given a soda earlier on were far more likely to do so.

The relationship between apps and users is also one of both give and take. Allowing users to see the value of the app first makes them more likely to submit their details and create an account, or to give approvals for location access and push notification opt-in. Asking for this information only when it’s necessary means that it seems like a small favor to ask in order for the app to continue delivering.

The same principle applies to app store reviews too: target those users who have recently had a great interaction and you’re more likely to find people willing to take the time to rate, as well as more positive ratings.


Swrve is the customer interaction platform for the enterprise, giving you everything you need to build great relationships with customers, interact in the moment on any channel, and drive engagement, retention, and revenue as a result. For more insights from the Swrve team, you can check them out right here.

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