Why can’t I get addicted to exercising more everyday the same way that I’m addicted to social media or video games?
What did those products get right that gyms and traditional fitness apps don’t?
Is it possible to use the addictive techniques of those apps and put them on top of exercising?
Why the status quo doesn’t work
In the real world, after you push yourself to complete a set at the gym, nothing happens. When you finish your training session, totally sweaty, nothing happens. When you take the stairs instead of the elevator and reach your floor, out of breath, nothing happens. No reward chest, no happy jingle and nothing to celebrate that behavior. And that’s part of the problem when trying to make it into a habit: rewards are required to form an addiction.
That problem is the same across the entire fitness world. Real world gyms and the vast majority of fitness apps (most of which are just super slick video repositories) offer no immediate reward upon completion of an activity. Good luck forming a habit.
If that’s the issue, why don’t they just give you a reward at the end of the video? Because this mechanism only works if you get rewarded for something you’ve actually done. The reward MUST be tied to the behavior, so apps MUST go through the difficult process of measuring the effort and confirming it was done.
To encourage habit forming, you must also give people a sense of growth, empowerment and investment into something. In your favorite video games, for instance, playing more gives you more currency or helps you level up. And in your favorite social networks, your friend/follower count grows, you invest in adding pictures and making new connections. You can’t just switch over to a competitor because you’ve already put in all this time building this account and you don’t want to start from scratch again.
The consequence of fitness apps providing no immediate rewards and no opportunities for investment is that their audience is very fickle and migrates from app to app, following the trends dictated by Instagram influencers. And why wouldn’t they? They aren’t leaving anything behind when they go to a new app.
All in all, properly building addiction to a product boils down to three simple components:
- Reliably measuring the behavior of interest
- Offering immediate rewards
- Building long term investment
Many of the experts in building addictive products (such as BJ Fogg at Stanford, whose work has impacted key people at Facebook and Instagram, or Nir Eyal) focus more on the last two elements, but most of their successful use cases are built on digital products for which measurement is easy. If you want to addict people to doing something in the real world, you absolutely NEED to be able to measure it.
Building an Addictive Movement App
With PlayFitt, we had a simple goal in mind: to utilize all the techniques that are keeping you addicted to video games and social media to help you improve your health and well-being. We don’t want to be in an ever decaying world where key psychological tactics are only being used to downgrade you as a human. We want to align your incentives as a person with what the app does for you. The more you spend time on the app, the healthier you’ll be.
Why should psychological hacks only work to keep you sitting down?
At the onset, people said that those techniques worked for digital products only because the user wasn’t required to do anything harder than click. We were told that if the user was required to do anything more, all those psychological tricks wouldn’t work.
The psychological tricks don’t work because the thing they are requiring you to do is easy.They work mainly because your action is being properly measured (it helps if its not too hard!). You cannot gamify what cannot be reliably measured. That’s what everything hinges on.
That’s the part we figured out that no one else did. We use the sensors in your phone in combination with machine learning to automatically detect if you are really doing fitness moves or not. We have effective cheat detection mechanisms to prevent you from simulating the activity. Because there is a bedrock of truth in the app, users trust our leaderboard and invest in climbing it. Because there is a bedrock of truth, users cheer when their friends pass their personal best, knowing it’s real. Because there is a bedrock of truth, gamification can work.
Don’t take it from me, read some feedback that users have given us in the past few weeks:
‘’From the bottom of my heart, a fitness app or any app for that matter hasn’t changed my life as much as this one has. I have something to look forward to each day and it challenges me to be a better person for myself. I don’t feel alone and I’m the one empowering myself. Can’t say it enough- THANK YOU!’’
“I have to say I love the app a lot, it’s the only workout app that has ever made me consistently workout! I’ve recommended this app to so many people.’’
By the numbers:
- As of February 15, 2020, more than 4M squats and pushups have been done using our app. Obviously you don’t need an app to exercise so the fact that people are doing all those reps in PlayFitt tells us that they are enjoying the motivating experience that it brings.
- Many users have exercise streaks of more than 14 days! I’ve never been to the gym 14 days or more in a row…
- Our retention is best in class among top apps (except ours is being built by a company of only nine people). 65% of our users come back at least twice a week and 20% come back five times or more a week. In other words, people are using it and sticking to it!
We are helping people get over the inertia that plagues all empowerment. We couldn’t be prouder to be the engine behind this change in the world. We love helping people better themselves. The whole team is extremely proud to be able to put a product out that makes a positive difference in people’s lives and health outcomes. Time spent in the app is Time Well Spent and it’s definitely helping to upgrade our users’ health!
Finally, an app that aligns its core offering with your well being.
We understand so much more about dopamine generated addiction now than we did when casinos first appeared. So much that entire industries have been built around it. We have collected many of the lowest hanging fruits at the cost of downgrading humans and have left our collective selves in a worse state than before discovering everything we now know about addiction.
There is no doubt that the main reason dopamine-based addictive products have historically been digital ones is solely because they can easily measure behaviors, that can then be gamified and driven to be repeated. This leaves us with the world we live in now, where many consumer apps are designed to be addictive, many of which are misaligned with our well-being. There is no healthy real life counterpart because measuring that real life counterpart hasn’t been possible until now.
Think about all the possibilities that exist as tech enables the measurement of more and more kinds of behaviors. Imagine helping patients be more consistent with their physio rehab exercises, or making eating reasonable portions of healthy food digitally addictive, or a personal favorite: getting digitally addicted to learning. We can’t do it just yet because you can’t measure these actions reliably…. yet.