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Applying habit forming systems to digital technology

Chloe Henderson


habit forming systems Technology Transformation

How can habit forming systems be applied to digital technology? DIGIT spoke to Jamie Woolnough of DOGFI.SH Mobile for some insight into the world of consumer psychology.

Establishing consumer habits has long been recognised as a necessary step towards creating a successful product. It’s the science behind ensuring that consumers continue to use a commodity on a regular, or even daily, basis. Take toothpaste, for example: The mint flavouring present in most brands possesses next to no cleaning properties, but instead provides the sensation of cleanliness that ensures that you keep on using it. Habit forming is about providing consumers with a sense of ‘reward’ for using a product, and an incentive to do so again.

Despite the fact that habit forming systems are present in almost all disposable products, they have only recently been considered with regard to the digital market. DOGFI.SH Mobile, which was recently acquired by Insights Group, attended the annual habit forming conference in San Francisco last April, where representatives from the tech sector came together to discuss the science behind consumer psychology.



“The habit summit is about how you can build habit forming products, and also to see how it can be used inside other systems,” Jamie Woolnough, head of user experiences at DOGFI.SH told DIGIT. “Habit forming products have been around for a long time, but it’s fairly new to the digital area. In particular, it’s a new concept to building apps, and websites”

habit forming systems

“The interesting thing about the conference was that it covered many different areas, all the way down from conversational design, which is how we talk to the likes of Alexa (Amazon) and Siri, all the way up to how the products that you make can actually help people fight addiction… It was fascinating to see how the way that we design something can massively impact the way that people react to it.”

One particular area of discussion was the smartphone. In the space of little over a decade, smart devices have become a staple in our daily routine, with most of us carrying them on our person throughout the entirety of the day.

According to Jamie, our inability to fully disconnect from our devices presents an interesting dichotomy: on the one hand, we are unable to fully remove ourselves from social interactions, but on the other, the technology has been imbued with processes and applications that are designed to improve our everyday lives. He cites sleep-tracking apps as an example of this, designed to monitor and improve our sleeping habits by taking our phones to bed with us.

Another example is Uber, which has revolutionised the way that we order a taxi by making the process convenient and efficient. The ‘reward’ for the consumer in this instance is the fact they no longer have to worry about finding and tracking the progress of a car. Even the matter of payment and tips has been simplified, with apps such as Uber and Lyft removing the need to carry the right amount of cash.

“You can see that there is a market to change our behaviour, and change the way that we interact with things… you never know there is a problem with the market until you solve that problem.”



DOGFI.SH’s role at the Habit Summit was to observe and learn how habit systems can improve their habit forming systemsservices, before bringing their knowledge back to the UK.

“Customers usually come to us wanting the basics. They already have a business, now they just want an app. It’s the same with websites. Now we can start to ask different questions: What experiences are we trying to create for the users? What problems are we trying to solve. We’re not just building another version of your website.”

In the process, they were able to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in the tech sector, including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft Office.

“A large majority of the reason why people use Microsoft Office is because everybody’s got it, which makes it very hard to move away from it – even though the numbers on Google Drive are a lot higher in terms of customer satisfaction rates,” Jamie said. “To see them at the conference listening to how they can make their product habit forming at the same time shows that there is an interest from the biggest players in the market.”

“There was only one other person from the UK over there, and he was there for personal career development. So it didn’t seem like there was much representation for the UK market which makes me think that we’re ahead in that area. For us it was about understanding where we are compared to everyone else in the market, to make sure that we’re on par with the Silicon Valley ethos, and to also bring some of that knowledge back and to implement it in the products that we’re moving forward with.”


Jamie places a particular emphasis on the use of habit systems in chatbots to tackle a number of human problems, ranging from simple problem solving to helping combat addiction.

habit forming systems“At some point last year there was a big competition inside the UX industry that said chatbots were the future of user interfaces. The interesting thing that we learned about chatbots is that actually they can be used as almost a powerhouse in the addiction field.

“There are two different fields of theory surrounding addiction and how it starts. One of them is trauma and the other one is social disorder, such an anxiety, loneliness and depression. The interesting thing is that you can actually use chatbots as a process to help people fight addiction.”

Addiction can manifest in many different forms, existing beyond the simple definition of substance and alcohol abuse. It is often compared to overuse – if you feel like you are overusing something, it can be classified as an addiction.

“You can actually use these conversational UI’s to help people fight these overuses or addictions in that field,” Jamie explains. “Depending on what people tell you, you can build a prediction algorithm to help people out further forward, and you can put it all into a database, which can then help other people moving forward.”

He believes that such an algorithm would not only be of immediate benefit innovators and medical professionals, but would also have a lasting impact on later users benefitting from improvements and adaptations made in response to data mined from early consumers.

“Imagine if you could help everybody with every addiction, or help people solve a problem that they are trying to solve, or ‘scratch an itch’ that they’ve got that they need to get rid of. We can gently nudge them in the direction that they want to go rather than forcing it down their throats.”



Data is arguably one of the of the most important by-products of habit systems that Jamie believes is not being explored to its full potential. Using the example of addiction, he explains that digital products can be imbued with ‘situational awareness’ that will help users manage their urges when they are likely to be at their most potent.habit forming systems

“If you’re using a product to change a behaviour, or to make people better in one area – such as influencing people to not buy as many sugar products, or helping them fight addiction – you need to understand a little bit more about what their mental state is at certain points in the day. For example, when you wake up in the morning your willpower is slightly higher than throughout the rest of the day.”

Providing products with this sense of situational awareness gives them the potential to predict a future relapse, and can inform the relevant bodies that an intervention is needed to help.  


The coercive nature of habit forming systems means that they could easily be subject to misuse. According to Jamie, the onus is on technology firms to ensure that they are applied ethically, and and are used only for the benefit of the consumer with their consent. But even then, the question is raised whether or not consumers will feel comfortable disclosing their personal data even if it is for their benefit? Jamie doesn’t believe that this will be a problem.

“How much information do you give to your social network? Pretty much everything about your life. People are willing to share if they know where the information is going, and what it is being used for.

“When you tell them, ‘everything that you share is going to help me to help you,’ they will respond.”


Chloe Henderson

Staff Writer - DIGIT

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