Understanding what drives users to be deeply engaged in one app over another can feel like you’re trying to read tea leaves. To solve this problem, you need to understand how users think. Fortunately, someone has already done much of the groundwork for us.

That person is Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, a Gestalt psychologist and psychiatrist who made significant contributions to the establishment of the discipline of experimental psychology. In 1927 she discovered that incomplete or interrupted tasks are remembered better than completed tasks – this phenomena is now known as the Zeigarnik Effect. It’s based on the idea that the initiation of a task creates a task-specific tension, which can only be relieved upon task completion. Bluma’s studies showed that when people are interrupted halfway through a task, they are twice as likely to remember that task, as opposed to other tasks which they complete uninterrupted.

Consider how the Zeigarnik Effect impacts you on a daily basis. When you have a lengthy email sitting in draft, it bugs you until you send it off. Similarly, when you’re watching an exciting episode of your favorite TV show and a phone call interrupts you, the urge to get back to the show can be overwhelming – you just have to know what happens next.

Now that we have an understanding of how powerful the Zeigarnik Effect can be, let’s look at how you can harness it to drive deep user engagement in your business.

Method #1: Completeness Meters

One of the first methods that comes to mind when attempting to take advantage of the Zeigarnik Effect is the use of some form of a completeness meter, such as a progress bar, task list, etc. This approach works as an extrinsic motivator which triggers the users’ desire for achievement and completion. This is usually visually displayed as a percentage of a total that quantifies a user’s progress. The end goal of completion can be arbitrary in order to increase general user engagement within an app, or it can be something specific, like getting more personal information (by filling out an account/profile) in order to maximize an app’s functionality.

LinkedIn encourages users to advance through profile creation by outlining simple steps with a clear benefit in the end.

LinkedIn encourages users to advance through profile creation by outlining simple steps with a clear benefit in the end.

Google+ does a great job of gently moving users through profile creation via simple questions and a progress indicator.

Google+ does a great job of gently moving users through profile creation via simple questions and a progress indicator.

Dash (by General Assembly) guides users through their learning app by presenting lessons in a clear checklist format. Users can easily track progress, as well as see which skills they unlock as they complete lessons.

Dash (by General Assembly) guides users through their learning app by presenting lessons in a clear checklist format. Users can easily track progress, as well as see which skills they unlock as they complete lessons.

Cons: This approach can sometimes feel surface-level and shallow to users. Sometimes, the apparent benefit to users of (for example) completing a profile can be minimal, while the cost (time and effort) is high. One way to incentivize users to complete a profile if there isn’t an obvious benefit is to start the completeness meter from an artificially inflated percentage (starting from 60% completion is a lot less intimidating than starting from 0%).

Method #2: Product Ecosystem

Another common – and supremely successful – approach smart companies use is to create a harmonious product ecosystem. By offering a full suite of habit-forming products, those companies maximize utility for the user and hook them into their system. The Zeigarnik Effect comes into play when new products are released and the user seeks to maximize the ecosystem’s utility by acquiring all new products.

Apple is the king of creating harmonious and all-encompassing product ecosystems. Their combination of complementary hardware and software is self contained - which drives users to purchase Apple products across a wide variety of categories in order to stay in the ecosystem.

Apple is the king of creating harmonious and all-encompassing product ecosystems. Their combination of complementary hardware and software is self-contained, which drives users to purchase Apple products across a wide variety of categories in order to stay in the ecosystem.

Google uses a similarly all-encompassing ecosystem approach to Apple, with one fundamental difference - many of Google’s products are free. Additionally, Google’s products play well with all major operating systems. This makes Google’s products enticing to an enormous variety of users.

Google uses a similarly all-encompassing ecosystem approach to Apple, with one fundamental difference – many of Google’s products are free. Additionally, Google’s products play well with all major operating systems. This makes Google’s products enticing to an enormous variety of users.

Companies like Sony and Microsoft draw users into their game console ecosystems (PS4 and Xbox One, respectively) via console-exclusive features that increase utility to the user. This often takes the form of an enhanced multiplayer online gaming experience, which is best achieved when a group of users play a multiplayer game on within the same game console ecosystem.

Companies like Sony and Microsoft draw users into their game console ecosystems (PS4 and Xbox One, respectively) via console-exclusive features that increase utility to the user. This often takes the form of an enhanced multiplayer online gaming experience, which is best achieved when a group of users play a multiplayer game on within the same game console ecosystem.

Cons: This approach will bring the naysayers out of the woodwork. Because exclusion of anything outside of the ecosystem is inherent to this approach, some users will be driven away.

Method #3: Scoring

One of the most popular methods of increasing user engagement on the web today is through various forms of social proof. For socially conscious users, the incentive to keep their “score” high can be a powerful motivator to stay engaged with an app because it triggers their desire for external validation. Virtually every type of social network keeps a “score” of some kind, be it likes, follows, comments, etc. This is a highly effective way of harnessing the Zeigarnik Effect because most users are not satisfied with their “score” – there is always the desire to get more likes, follows, etc. Users desiring to increase their score will post more engaging content more often, and in doing so become involved in a positive feedback loop of engagement.

Klout aggregates data related to users’ influence across social media platforms to produce one all encompassing score that represents users’ influence. This taps perfectly into users’ desire to keep their score high, thereby driving them to stay engaged in social media.

Klout aggregates data related to users’ influence across social media platforms to produce one all-encompassing score that represents users’ influence. This taps perfectly into users’ desire to keep their score high, thereby driving them to stay engaged in social media.

Another common way of keeping “score” is through the use of reviews, most commonly on eCommerce and service sites. Reviews drive engagement doubly: they engage reviewees by driving them to keep their review scores high, and they engage reviewers by incentivizing them to generate reviews, usually through the giveaway of free merchandise to review (eCommerce) or the promise of prominent social status and exclusivity (service sites). Again, this approach plays on the Zeigarnik Effect by pushing users to be engaged based on their desire to keep their score high, which is (by its very nature) a never-ending process.

Users who are deeply engaged in Amazon’s review community (by writing accurate and insightful reviews) receive free items - which they get to keep - to review. This encourages those users to stay engaged with the platform in order to keep receiving free items. It also serves as a goalpost for other users to aim for.

Users who are deeply engaged in Amazon’s review community (by writing accurate and insightful reviews) receive free items – which they get to keep – to review. This encourages those users to stay engaged with the platform in order to keep receiving free items. It also serves as a goalpost for other users to aim for.

Yelp entices users to write reviews with the promise of membership in the Yelp Elite Squad. Its most prolific and popular reviewers gain access to exclusive parties, free swag, and online notoriety. This drives users to write reviews on an ongoing basis, as the process of moving up the Yelp ranks is never-ending.

Yelp entices users to write reviews with the promise of membership in the Yelp Elite Squad. Its most prolific and popular reviewers gain access to exclusive parties, free swag, and online notoriety. This drives users to write reviews on an ongoing basis, as the process of moving up the Yelp ranks is never-ending.

 Cons: This approach may be ineffective if poorly tied to an app. The scoring system shouldn’t be completely arbitrary – it is most effective when tied to some quantifiable element.

Method #4: Gamification

An increasingly popular (but often misused) approach to user engagement is the use of game playing mechanisms. Game designers have known for a long time that the Zeigarnik effect can be a powerful instrument. Games are usually organized with a level system in order to take advantage of users’ desire to complete an incomplete task. App designers can use this same level system to engage users with their apps. The key is that rewards should be given for level completion – these often take the form of badges, point accumulation, new titles, or some variation thereof. A social dimension is often added through the use of a leaderboard, where users can compare their level of completion/rank against others. This also ties into the scoring approach by taking advantage of users’ same basic desire for competition and external validation.

Foursquare encourages users to become “experts” by creating tips, which earn them points (aka “expertise”). The pursuit of points in the name of status distinction motivates more and better tip creation, which keeps users engaged.

Foursquare encourages users to become “experts” by creating tips, which earn them points (aka “expertise”). The pursuit of points in the name of status distinction motivates more and better tip creation, which keeps users engaged.

Duolingo is revolutionizing learning through gamification. It uses a level system, awarding points for lessons and exercises completed, while keeping track of users’ progress (through badges) over time. This keeps users engaged by allowing them to comfortably progress at their own pace, while tapping into their desire to complete more and more incomplete lessons, tasks, exercises, etc.

Duolingo is revolutionizing learning through gamification. It uses a level system, awarding points for lessons and exercises completed, while keeping track of users’ progress (through badges) over time. This keeps users engaged by allowing them to comfortably progress at their own pace, while tapping into their desire to complete more and more incomplete lessons, tasks, exercises, etc.

Treehouse also utilizes badges to incentivize users. Its badges are based on a points system which was created to “help students compare their progress with each other and also help them see where they’ve done the most learning.” The long term goal of the points system is to “help potential employers see quickly how skilled Treehouse users applying for jobs are.”

Treehouse also utilizes badges to incentivize users. Its badges are based on a points system which was created to “help students compare their progress with each other and also help them see where they’ve done the most learning.” The long term goal of the points system is to “help potential employers see quickly how skilled Treehouse users applying for jobs are.”

Cons: This method can come off as gimmicky and lacking in substance if sloppily implemented. It has the potential to distract from the central focus of an app.

Takeaways

The Zeigarnik Effect is a potent tool to be used in the pursuit of driving deep user engagement. When harnessed properly, it can be a powerful force that keeps your users returning for more regardless of your business category or product type (software, hardware, service, it works across the board). The following are the key things to keep in mind when thinking about how to apply the Zeigarnik Effect:

1. People really care (too much) about what other people think. This is unfortunate, but can really be taken advantage of when it comes to driving user engagement. Utilize users’ desire for social validation in order to propel engagement.

2. Making a quality, habit-forming product that keeps users coming back for more is the best way to sustainably drive user engagement. Building a product with a long-term hook not only engages users now, but insures that they will keep coming back.

3. Take advantage of users natural tendency to seek closure by incentivizing them to progress through your app (by rewarding them), and keeping the app open ended. When there’s alway something new to explore, accomplish, etc., users will remain engaged.

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