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Event round-up: Digital products that stick

How to design digital products and services that promote long-term use, brand loyalty, and commercial gain

In the 21 years we’ve been in business, we’ve seen some significant changes in how brands approach building digital products and services. Ten years ago, we had to convince brands to be customer-centric and think about data to make more informed decisions. Nowadays, most businesses know what good looks like:

  • Customer-centric
  • Data-driven
  • Iterative
  • Outcome-driven

However, being good at product doesn’t necessarily guarantee customer retention and long-term product use. The numbers look bleak: a recent report stated that only 31% of users return to an app after they first open it, and only 14% are still engaged after 30 days. Retention is still a massive challenge for most brands. For most brands, this means their digital products deliver value in the short-term but then fall away as the curve of motivation drops. However, if brands impact and change the behaviour of their users, they can significantly improve retention, and increase value for the business and the customer.

This led us to start thinking about what the magic formula is for making a product ‘stick’ and be used long-term. What we found is that the products that stick, create habits in users that keep them coming back for more.

To understand how brands can achieve this, we recently hosted a panel discussion with digital leaders who included: Rod Brooks, Head of Architecture previously working with Domino’s Pizza; Roxanne Nejad, VP Marketing at Cleo; Matt Harris, Director of Digital Product at Sky; Remy Brooks, Head of Strategy at Future Platforms; and Behavioural Strategist and Author, Samuel Salzer. The event focused on how brands can achieve long-term digital product use through the creation of digital habits.

Why habits are important

At the core of repeated product use is the formation of a habit that causes us to reach for something with no external trigger or conscious thought. Brands that successfully develop habits through their digital products experience better commercial value, brand loyalty, and happier customers. However, the vast majority of brands fail to utilise this when it comes to their digital products, and a big opportunity is missed.

Samuel Salzer took us through the science of habit formation and how we move through the process of trigger, to action, to reward and through the process again.

Digital habit basics - Future Platforms Samuel Salzer’s breakdown of the basics of digital habits

Unfortunately, in the real world, it’s not always as simple as it seems.

The challenges of habit-formation

When we spoke with our panel, we found that they were facing challenges that are a common barrier to delivering digital products and services that have long-term impact. It all starts with buy-in and convincing stakeholders to think less traditionally.

One of the key challenges for Sky is “getting buy-in from the wider business and getting people to think in a new way,” said Matt. A new way of thinking might be more user and product centred than its traditional approach.

For Rod, as Head of Architecture, the challenge lies in getting the digital team to work as one with the IT team. “One of the bigger challenges of buy-in I have is from the digital team, and persuading them [to work with the] input from IT and getting these two to gel together.” When these two teams work together, it benefits the entire ecosystem.

One of the ways Harris has overcome this challenge at Sky is to “start small, iterate often, test concepts, and ensure that [Sky] gets the broader stakeholder buy-in so that people aren’t scared to try digital products.” They work closely with stakeholders to help them along that journey to understand that building digital products with user behaviour in mind is going to have a positive impact. “It’s going to change customer behaviour, and it’s going to move customers away from feeling the need to pick up the phone and explore some of those new channels,” said Matt.

Making experiences memorable

Cleo is a budget-assistant app, with a primarily Gen Z audience. It’s an AI-powered budgeting app that helps people track spending and start saving. At Cleo, they found that an iterative approach to launching new products helps them determine what works best with their audience. “This means that everyone is able to have a very user-centric approach and focus on solutions and new product builds based on a user feedback cycle,” said Roxanne.

One of the ways they put this into practice is through their chat functionality, where they gave Cleo a tone-of-voice that was based on what they saw their audience engage with online:

“When Cleo first launched, we were a card abrogator and budgeting platform. One of the UX writers saw someone Tweet a notification from Cleo that said something like ‘You have £0 balance…good luck with that.’ From this, it could have gone in one of two ways: Cleo could have said that’s a bug or lean into and see what else getting roasted by Cleo could develop into.”

The brand then included the audience by asking them how they like to get roasted and input that feedback as part of Cleo’s chat functionality. This is now part of the onboarding process, where you get roasted by Cleo for your spending habits.”

The Cleo app roast function - Future Platforms The Cleo app roast function – image credit: Big Sis Energy

Roxanne refers to this as an Easter-egg feature that surprises and delights users, and that they can discover. What started out as a small test turned into a feature that their users really love, and now it’s one of Cleo’s most engaging features because it was done in conjunction with its users.

In order to ensure continuous use of your product, beyond delivering all of its core features (whether that’s ordering pizza or banking), your product needs to be memorable.

Evolving with users

Habits come and go. This means that even the most successful products have to change as their users do, in order to address new challenges. The Domino’s Pizza Tracker started off relatively simple and then it grew over time. Rod’s team is always looking ahead for ways to improve a feature, even at launch:

Before we even finish the design, we try to work out when we’re going to get rid of it and what we’re going to replace it with – just a high level view to start with.”

The most exciting part for Rod is seeing something take off after trialling it with users:

“You never know when something will become bigger than you expect. That’s the really exciting bit because that’s where you drive innovation. Pizza Legends from Domino’s, for example, was very driven around creating your own pizza and then you could order it through a code. The original lifespan of that was 3 months but you never know when you will hit on something that is just grabbed by the public. We couldn’t retire it for a long period of time because everyone was just using it. Then we had to come up with a plan of how we were going to retire the promotion because you can’t keep them running for a long time,” said Rod.

For Sky, the business has had to shift their way of thinking to be more user and product-centred in order to allow them to evolve quicker.

“We’ve re-platformed the app and we’re onto our 4th iteration of it in 7 years but [some features have] lasted since the start of time from a digital point of view. So we’re trying to get into the much more product-centered way of evolution, whereby we should be thinking of the next experience, and the next, and so on. We need to be thinking about ‘when are we actually going to rebuild this thing or design this thing?’,” said Matt.

User feedback is gold dust

To develop long-term use in a product, it’s really important to listen to users and their feedback on what works and what doesn’t as they will be the ones using it. Cleo does this by introducing features in an iterative way and listening to feedback before rolling them out to the wider public.

“[We] do a soft launch that [we] test with real users to see if it has market appeal, and then build and improve it over time until it becomes something,” said Roxanne.

Allowing users’ voices to be heard by giving feedback on a product gives them more of a reason to invest in its future. And this ensures they return to see how a product has evolved to better meet their needs. At Sky, this process was sped up due to the pandemic, which made gathering user feedback much quicker and easier than their previous traditional methods:

We used to get into a lab and interview customers physically but now we have digital tools to conduct user research. So, we’re able to get user insight much more quickly, much more compliantly, using new tools and tech that we haven’t previously used and go to a much bigger audience.”

“We have also taken on a community approach whereby we now have Super Users who can give feedback quicker. They’re the ones who are actually using the product so developing this relationship through feedback is massively important.”

Rod agreed that the best way they developed the digital products at Domino’s was through feedback. Even from their own team.

Domino's Pizza pizza tracker The Domino’s Pizza Tracker

“We were trying to get the Domino’s team to order pizza through the app so that we could get feedback on their experience the next day. The [best] insights we could get was from my own team actually using the app and ordering the products as a customer. We then took that to HR, who were less IT-savvy, to give feedback on how it was working. In the past, they would try to solve problems by looking at the data which often wasn’t helpful in finding out how users came across a certain error.”

To get to the bottom of a problem, [you] need to turn to the users. Once you fix a problem for a customer, they become the biggest brand advocate you can have.”

Knowing what triggers your users

Motivation is a big component of why digital products get used. In order to build a habit, you need to ensure your product is a recurring part of a user’s life. Knowing who your users are and why they want to use your product in the first place will give you insight about their triggers.

Triggers are usually external (a notification or email) or internal (a thought, feeling, or location). Internal triggers are the root of forming habits, because it’s what causes a user to perform an action without thought. These drive users into performing repeated behaviours, so knowing what triggers your users is invaluable. Soft launches, user feedback, and data can help brands determine their users’ triggers.

Key takeaways

Habits are integral to repeated product use. There are certain actions brands can take that help products ‘stick’ and be used long-term. By adopting a more user-centred and product-centred approach, you can increase customer retention and lifetime value.

When designing a habit-forming product, users’ needs and motivations have to be considered first and foremost. As the ones who will be using the product, their experiences should be at the forefront of the product design. During our panel discussion, we discovered that what Cleo, Sky, and Domino’s Pizza have found has led them to developing successful digital products are:

  • Embracing collaboration internally as a way to get buy-in from the rest of the organisation to the process.
  • Creating memorable experiences and products that let a brand’s personality shine.
  • Products that evolve with their users and do so based on user feedback and user experience.
  • Brands that acknowledge what triggers users and consider this in the development of a product.

You can watch the full event here. See you at the next one!