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The habit loop and mobile content discovery

Matt Tubergen, EVP of Digital Turbine dives into the concepts detailed in Duhigg’s best-selling book, “The Power of Habit,” and how it manifests in mobile.

6 min read

Digital Technology

The habit loop and mobile content discovery

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The “habit loop,” a concept detailed in Charles Duhigg’s best-selling “The Power of Habit” book, famously explained how cues, routines and rewards cement our daily habits. While it wasn’t written about mobile habits, by applying his concepts to our mobile behaviors, we can explore the dynamics shaping tomorrow’s opportunities for mobile app developers and unwrap the critical role of discovery in shaping our mobile habits.

Breaking down the habit loop

Duhigg’s work defines our habit loops as a self-reinforcing process driven by cues, routines and rewards.

  • Cues are what consciously or subconsciously spark our habitual behaviors and can be based on time of day, location or emotional state.
  • Routines are what you have “learned” to reflexively do in response to a cue.
  • Rewards are the positive reinforcement we get in exchange for our reflexive Routines. These rewards or “micro-satisfactions” leave a residue of “glee” that entices us to repeat the routine next time, cementing the habit.

A non-mobile example of the habit loop is a TV commercial: a TV commercial break starts (the cue), we absent-mindedly walk to the kitchen and open the fridge (the response) and with no premeditated thought or decision making, we enjoy a chocolate pudding snack (the reward).

Because of the stickiness of habit loops, Duhigg makes two key conclusions:

  1. 40% of our actions are not conscious decisions but habits
  2. If you can figure out habit loops – identify the cues triggering the reflexive routines that lead to rewards – then, and only then can you begin to shift the behavior.

If we want to change behaviors, we need to somehow alter the habit loop. In order to shift our refrigerator-grazing behavior, we could keep a crossword puzzle handy while watching TV. When next presented with the commercial break cue, we’d respond by solving a puzzle with the rewards of solving mental gymnastics.

The Mobile user habit loop and the hidden role of discovery

Now, let’s look at how Duhigg’s habit loop applies to mobile, and how the key concept of discovery becomes the lynchpin in unlocking new opportunities for content and app developers. Duhigg’s habit loops manifest themselves in plenty of our daily mobile behaviors. Let’s look at a common one – our mobile mornings.

Mobile Cues: The cues that spark our mobile habits are similar to those in real life — location, time, emotional state and social connections. Just look at time and location. We start our smartphones from the moment we wake up (time), with 58% of us using our phones before we even leave the bedroom (location) according to a recent study by Phoenix Marketing International.

Routine: We reflexively and “appnostically” unlock our phones – half the time without an app in mind. This is even more true first thing in the morning as 6 in 10 consumers begin their morning mobile journeys with the subconscious desire to discover something, which makes a significant portion of our mobile routines much more “lean-back” in nature as we aren’t immediately looking to “lean-in” to a specific app or relevant content because of need.

Rewards: What rewards are we seeking from our discovery? Looking at our morning cues, Phoenix found people seek a mix of left brain (informed of the news and weather) and right brain (connecting with friends/family or entertained) were key rewards.

What does this mean for the future of mobile and app developers?

Laying out the habit loop, Duhigg speaks to the power of the linkage between cues, responses and rewards. When applied to the mobile web, app developers see the power of new cues, but may be underestimating the power of new responses and their routines.

Opportunities from new cues: When looking at our mobile behaviors, we typically see opportunities by focusing on need-based cues and app-based rewards. Amid the social distancing of COVID-19, we see new opportunities for app developers to activate the desired response of opening their app where a host of new cues have surfaced: children to be entertained, empty fridges, etc.

Opportunities from new responses: in Comscore’s 2019 “global state of mobile” report released in December, they found that while most of our usage is spent in apps, 67% of users don’t really install new apps. It seems that many mobile consumers have locked into apps they use and aren’t actively looking for more.

If our appnostic tendencies and the data from Comscore continue to be pervasive trends, then mobile discovery solutions become the linkage between every-day cues and our mobile rewards. The challenge becomes making the phone smarter – to proactively bring the consumers what they want, eliminate the need for search and remove the friction throughout the process. Great mobile discovery solutions allow us to get the reward we’re looking for in an easier way, thus making discovery the new habit-maker.

For example, look at how Apple News serves as a content discovery platform for news and entertainment. It caters to those “lean-back” users who are curious but not actively looking for something specific.

 Apple News changed the response to a “what’s the news” cue, from searching for an app to a handy “swipe right.” By doing so, they’ve created a top 15 app as measured by Comscore. The same is and will be increasingly true for app discovery and this form of discovery-centric, user acquisition is the shape of future app acquisition.

Overall, if you can change discovery, you can change the routine — which is a big opportunity for developers.

The race to win over our habits, and to be part of our mobile habits, as well as our hearts and minds, is well underway. As technology evolves and bandwidth expands, anything can happen. A decade ago, no one dreamed we’d be staring at smartphones every spare moment of the day.

Tapping into mobile habits

What will our new mobile habits look like in the future? Only time – and technology – will tell, but easy and simple app and content discovery will be a central player.


Matt Tubergen is the executive vice president of Digital Turbine Media where he is responsible for overseeing all mobile media and campaign development, management and strategy for its 300 top brands and app clients. With more than 15 years’ experience in the mobile app ecosystem, he has pioneered mobile-first strategies for hundreds of the top mobile properties. His background includes media acquisitions, mobile marketing and monetization strategies, product management and business development with partners spanning NFL to Disney.


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