A woman clicking on an app on her smartphone

Back-to-App: How apps keep us coming back

…time after time.

Show us someone who claims never to have ended up spent far longer than they’d planned scrolling through Twitter or Instagram, and we’ll show you a liar. 

Fundamentally, it’s our own fault.  But just as a grocery store is laid out specifically to get you to spend more, many of our favorite apps have ‘stickiness’ deliberately built into them. 

It even has a name – behavior design.

With a HT to Business Insider, here’s four ‘tricks’ tech firms use to get us – and keep us – on their apps.

Push Notifications

An alert telling you Ryan’s posted something new. Or that it’s your and Brittany’s five-year ‘friend-iversary’.  Sound familiars, right?  Social media apps are serial offenders, but thousands of apps use these push notifications. 

They’re scarily effective too: according to one study, even a weekly notification (and you know you get way more than that) increased an app’s retention of Android users six-fold!

Variable ratio schedule

This one’s Straight Outta Vegas.  “Variable ratio schedule” is when actions are rewarded, but at varying times and by varying amounts. When you pull a slot machine lever, you know at some point you’ll get a payout, but not when or how much.  If you don’t or it’s not enough, you keep pulling.  

And pulling…

The exact same applies to, say, Tinder – you keep swiping, hoping this swipe will be the one where you hit the jackpot and see your future spouse …


Variable ratio schedule isn’t the only way apps use the fun of ‘games’ to hook you in – its known as gamification, and its everywhere (think SnapStreaks or FitBit’s “challenges”).  

Sometimes it’s even a good thing. Trying not to break your DuoLingo streak of consecutive days’ learning might mean you learn Spanish más rápido. Fitbit’s medals might encourage you to walk more. But remember, their aim is still the same. 


You probably know your app tray so well you could open any app with your eyes closed.  But that familiarity also means that if something changes, it stands out even more. 

App-makers know this, and play on it.  It’s why puzzle app Two Dots, for example, intermittently changes the color of its app icon – a small change, but when everything else looks like it always did, it still grabs your attention.

And once they have that, they’re already winning …

 Many Appy Returns.