Wanna, Hafta, Track, Win – Can An App Change Your Behavior?

Posted December 6, 2016 By Sara Conzemius Andrew Mielcarek

In our last blog posting, Eileen Hannigan talked about whether utility interactions and payment plans should be more like banking or phone services. Eileen compared different ways of communicating usage and engaging customers in the context of other industries and what impact each has on behavior. She suggested a product similar to a fitness tracker that could let customers set goals around usage and monitor them in real time could be the solution of the future.

A Fitbit for your energy diet might be a ways away, but right now many utilities are actively leveraging  digital approaches to support deeper customer engagement in energy efficiency programs, especially programs designed to modify customer behavior. While paper reports have been the norm and continue to realize savings for many utilities,  mobile engagement holds potential for utilities looking to deepen savings opportunity from behavior.

If you think that mobile engagement or apps are not going to become a required interface between a utility and their customer, think again.  According to a recent report by comScore, desktop usage now only accounts for 40% of digital media engagement, with mobile representing 60%. More specifically, people are using mobile apps. In the same study, comScore found that 52% of all digital media engagement (7 out of every 8 minutes on mobile) are in app usage. They found that 57% of smartphone users access apps every single day, with 80% accessing apps at least 26 days out of every month.

Given the increasing reliance on mobile apps, it seems like a forgone conclusion that utility programs will need to leverage app technology not only for usage and billing, but for programs and engagement. If you are looking to modify your customer’s behavior around energy usage via an app, you may be wondering, what really works?

Through a combination of secondary and primary research on apps designed to support behavior modification, we found there are four keys to success.4-keys

  1. Choice & reciprocation – when participants feel a lack of choice they often rebel against the asked behavior. It cannot feel like a “hafta” when users want to feel they are getting as much as they are giving. In short, to affect behavior, people must want to use the app.
  2. Community, not competition – users want to feel a social connection in their interactions, a cheering section, they are not so interested in competing with others. (If your mind is immediately screaming “but… but…what about gamification?!” keep reading.)
  3. Simplification & building – apps that make an existing behavior easier to do, simpler, or more rewarding have a far better chance of changing user behavior apps that ask people to do something completely new this also makes it easier to move people to more complex actions over time.
  4. Alignment – If an app includes rewards or incentives they need to be aligned with the behavior desired (e.g. giving a discount on running shoes for completing a set number of work outs)

Each of these keys to success are a blog post in and of themselves.  So for the sake of some brevity (and to encourage you to make visiting the ILLUME blog part of your behavior) we are going to focus on choice and reciprocation today as Part One of the series.


Many apps rely on tracking as a means for modifying behavior, but the research suggests that tracking action, in and of itself, is not enough to motivate changes. For example, there is some indication that tracking-only health apps don’t lead to long-term behavior change.  Apps like Lose It! that track calories for the purposes of weight loss, often lead to disappointing results. In and of itself it is not a behavioral strategy. Tracking behavior quickly starts to feel like a “hafta”.  Think about it. How many times have you downloaded a calorie or finance tracking app only to use it diligently for a few days or weeks and the stop completely? I know I have, and not only did I stop using it, my behavior hasn’t changed at all.

To be successful, apps need to offer specific strategies to achieve the desired behavior change, not just ways to track it. In short, apps that focus on things we feel we have to do versus things we want to do are often unsuccessful. According to Nir & Far “When faced with “haftas,” our brains register them as punishments so we take shortcuts, cheat, skip-out, or in the case of many apps or websites, uninstall them or click away in order to escape the discomfort of feeling controlled.” When participants feel part of a community, get kudos from others, or feel they are connecting with others like them, when it becomes something they want to do there is more success in achieving long term behavior change.

We have found the same in our own research in the energy space, when customers feel a utility app is adding to their to-do list, that the act of “engagement” starts to feel like something they have to do, motivation and interest wanes. When asked, we found that customers are far more motivated by “connecting”, indicating that feeling a sense of community was a far more critical component to app success than tracking and ultimately to potential behavior change.

Speaking of community, for all of those who balked when I said “community, not competition”, check back in when we will elaborate on those other keys to success. In the meantime, if you cannot wait, reach out to us. We are always happy to engage in reciprocal conversations on behavior, apps, customer experience and more.