Designing for Habits? Why You Should Design for One-Time Behaviors Instead (& How to Do It)

May 18, 2022  |  By: Kristen Berman & Ingrid M. Paulin
designing for habits

If you’re at a tech company building a consumer product, you are likely measuring user engagement. Product managers, marketers, and designers are known to stare at dashboards tracking logins and agonize over daily active metrics above all other metrics.

Companies use these engagement metrics to understand if customers are getting benefits from the product and whether they will continue to pay for it.

This exaggerated focus on engagement is not only bad for customers: It may also lead a product team to over-invest in the wrong features.

Why Designing for Habits Can Be Bad for Customers

By measuring ‘engagement’ rather than consumer well-being, product teams may start to ask questions like,

“How do I make using this product a habit?”.

The logic behind this is that if the product can become a habit in the user’s life, engagement will be high. Problem solved? Not really.

Habits by themselves are not bad. In fact, habits are an essential part of how we interact with the world: They are behaviors that we do so regularly that we almost stop paying attention to them. Researchers have estimated that habits account for as much as 40% of our behavior on a given day. They allow us to go about our daily lives without making a ton of tiny decisions. A world without habits would be draining! However:

Designing for Habits: Not a Magical Solution

There are two main reasons why designing for habits isn’t a silver bullet for successful product design.

1. New Habits Are Hard To Create

Contrary to popular belief, studies have found that there is no ‘magic’ number of days to develop a habit. The number of days taken to form a habit depends on many factors such as complexity of a habit. This means it is hard to predict, and design for habit formation. By choosing to design for habit creation, you’ve picked something that has a high risk of failure. When we use habit creation to create engagement, we neglect other solutions that may be easier on the user and have a higher chance of success.

Let’s use medication adherence as an example. Adherence is crucial for managing chronic conditions, it’s a behavior that needs to happen regularly and at set times, and the consequences of non-adherence loom large. Thus medical adherence could seem like a ripe domain that needs products to help us form habits.

Consider, for example, birth control. Around 16% of American women use oral contraceptive pills that should be taken around the same time every day. With perfect use, these pills are highly effective: They only have a 0.3% failure rate in the first year. There are numerous apps to help remind us when to take the pill, and the design of the packaging makes sure that it’s known which pill should be taken on what day. The consequence of missing pills is high: No one wants an unplanned pregnancy. Yet despite the consequences, design, and reminders, the failure rate of oral contraceptive pills for “typical use” is 9%. Why? Because despite our best effort and intentions, habits can be really hard to develop.

Then let’s look at a different type or contraception: IUDs. They have a similar failure rate to the perfect use of oral contraceptives — 0.2% for hormonal devices.

The difference with IUDs is that deciding to use one only requires a one time action of getting it rather than building a habit of taking a pill every day. As a result, there’s no increased failure rate for IUDs.

While there are barriers to taking a big action, like getting an IUD inserted, these are minuscule compared to the barriers of remembering to do a small action every day.

2. Habits Risk Being Intrusive

One must only reflect on how many times a day we check TikTok to understand this. According to Statista, in 2023, an average American above the age of 18 years old spends 53.8 minutes per day on TikTok, compared with 48.7 minutes on YouTube and 34.1 minutes on Twitter.

Another example of products that take up too much of our time is mobile games. Take “Hearthstone” for example, a popular game from the company behind “World of Warcraft” that has ~50 million active users worldwide. Playing it is entertaining in the moment, but it can get addictive. The game uses cues and rewards to get you to come back again and again. As you play it, you improve, unlock new features, and sometimes even beat your friends. Before you know it, you have a habit of checking in whenever you can for a quick game. You downloaded it because you wanted easy entertainment on your commute, but suddenly you’re playing it every time you have a free moment.

Related: Behavioral Game Design: 7 Lessons from Behavioral Science to Help Change User Behavior” 

Designing for a One-Time Behavior

The key takeaway here is that while there are some instances when habit creation is the right answer, there are also instances where it is not. At the very minimum, before landing on habit design as a way to increase benefits for the users of your product, we recommend seeing if you can instead design a one-time consumer behavior that gets the user to take a BIG action that delivers the same benefit but prevents them from having to do daily actions.

We discussed one example of a big one-time consumer behavior already: Getting an IUD rather than taking birth control pills every day. But there are many more:

  • Getting an annual membership to a fruit delivery service rather than remembering to buy them when you grocery shop.
  • Setting up an automatic transfer to your savings account every time you get a paycheck rather than transferring it manually every time (For example by using services such as DoubleNet Pay).
  • Unsubscribing from Netflix rather than rely on our willpower to avoid spending too much time on the couch watching shows.
  • Committing to walking every day by getting a dog. A one-time purchase of a dog provides you with at least 20 minutes of walking for years to come!
  • Using autopay for bills rather than remembering to pay them before they are due every month.

One-time behaviors are much less intrusive and easier to avoid than products that regularly take time and attention away from the already busy lives of users.

As social scientists, we believe that there are fundamental reasons to ensure that we actively create the choice architecture in order to be helpful rather than harmful — and make people’s lives better and longer.

Wrapping Up: Don’t Make a Habit of Designing for Habits

It’s on us to design the system that is best for our users and measure our success based on well-being rather than active use.

To find out more about our work, visit the Irrational Labs website. If you want to be the first to get our updates, make sure to sign up for the newsletter!

Originally published at on April 7, 2017.

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