Designing Products That Build Positive Habits

Business of Design

Learnings from design projects

A column by Manik Arora
July 11, 2022

Since the dawn of digital-product design, there have always been questions about the impacts applications and Web sites have on people’s minds. Some designers exploit dark, devious patterns to get people to waste their precious time and spend a few more seconds using an application or Web site. In fact, some big corporations optimize every small interaction to ensure maximum stickiness. In this column, I’ll consider dark patterns through the lens of User Experience and how we could apply them for good.

The inspiration behind this column was a product that I recently designed and built, whose focus was building habits of mindfulness and meditation. In that moment, I realized that patterns are dark because of the reasons for which designers use them, not because of their essential nature. If we applied the same foundational principles of behavioral psychology to something positive, we could actually help people to establish good habits. After all, hacking the toughest system of all—the human brain and nervous system—is no small feat. Doing this to help people build positive habits rather than negative ones would be a great way of gauging the role that User Experience could play in self-improvement applications.

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The Role of User Experience in Forming Habits

Many of us have probably heard stories about how Instagram designers spent weeks making a tiny scroll animation as smooth as possible, with the goal of stimulating the human mind. However, the true goal of UX design is to continually iterate our designs to achieve ideal outcomes for people. Unfortunately, some people now believe that application experiences are deliberately manipulating them to carry them through an experience and creating ideal outcomes only for businesses. While that is unfortunately sometimes true, I would happily disagree that anyone should set such goals. My primary goal is to achieve ideal outcomes for the people who use our products. In doing this, we can also achieve good outcomes for our companies.

For this reason, I recently dove deeply into discovering exactly how UX design can positively motivate users. In this column, I’ll discuss the specific techniques my company used when building a meditation app.

Strategies for Motivating Users Throughout Long User Journeys

Let’s consider some of the individual UX design techniques that we used to motivate users to complete extended user journeys.

Create a Gamified Experience

Creating a user experience that features elements of gamification can push users in a positive direction in all their actions. First, they create intrinsic motivation, which plants a seed of consistency within the user—one of the major difficulties in building a product. Furthermore, it enables all kinds of users to become immersed in the experience, obsessively spending hours using gamification features, with fringe users simply using them as trackers or metrics. The way in which we implemented gamification in the meditation app was by introducing a garden feature that sprouted new trees after each meditation session. This not only gamified the external user experience but also gave users a reminder of how far they had come in their journey!

Provide a Consistent Visual Experience

A consistent visual experience is important in all of UX design, but particularly so when creating a positive, habit-forming product. The user interface must refrain from overloading the user, while still providing a reasonable amount of motivating information, which is necessary for an immersive user experience. Furthermore, the user experience must be captivating enough that the user wants to keep coming back, compounding the aesthetic usability effect. Discrepancies in your own design logic serve only to confuse users, making it difficult for them to focus on the habit-building process as a whole.

Be Transparent About Objectives

Generally, when companies keep things hidden, the general public perceives them as far more nefarious. This is uncalled for. Take, for example, the recent battery controversy at Apple. However, when it comes to UX design, it is far better to be up front about how and why you’re using certain techniques, as opposed to keeping the user in the dark. Plus, removing the barriers between your users and the reality of your product can also be a positive step in building a long-term, healthy partnership with them.

Avoid Overloading the User with Information

Another basic rule of UX design that is all the more applicable to habit-building products is that you should avoid overloading the user with information. If users feel overwhelmed at any point in the user journey, they are less likely to be able to focus on the goal at hand. As a result, they’re more likely to abandon their journey. It’s better to introduce users to new information, features, or insights progressively, as they ease their way into a new world. Don’t forget that, by using a product of this kind, users are already channeling some degree of willpower and discipline. Don’t make them go the extra mile to get what they came for!

Know When to Nudge the User

Nudges, in the form of pop-ups or notifications, can be equally effective and annoying for users. The key to a positive response is timing. Knowing when a journey is approaching a common user drop-off point and hitting users with just the right incentive can make them stay a while longer—perhaps even push them further along their user journey. However, when it comes to building daily habits, users are less receptive to nudges than in a product such as Candy Crush. Be sure to leverage your users own motivations when nudging them. Place all motivational messaging in the context of their own life to build an altogether more personal experience.


Endeavoring to help users build positive habits through UX design was a highly rewarding experience for me. Seeing the app that we built garner over half a million downloads has helped overcome a lot of my negativity regarding the use of dark patterns. I’ve seen that, when we apply design patterns correctly, UX designers have the potential to make huge impacts on people’s lives—for the better! Going forward, I hope using these techniques can help other UX designers make a positive difference through their products, possibly by building positive habits in their user base! 

Co-founder and Design Director at Onething Design Studio

Gurugram, Haryana, India

Manik AroraManik was introduced to design when he was building Placesso, a ride-sharing platform based on Facebook’s social graph. While they never launched the platform, the experience taught Manik a lot about design and development. Since then, he has stayed with design. He and his friends began spending a lot of time discussing the designs of newly launched apps, exploring ways to improve their user experience. They felt really badly about people using poor designs so, in 2014, launched Ketchup Designs Studio. In 2015, they changed the name to Onething Design. Since then, they’ve helped a lot of businesses design products people love to use.  Read More

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