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Destructive vs Constructive Habit-Building Technology: Which Type is Your Startup Building

Some things are intuitive. We know that we need food, safety, and socialization. However, beyond that, many of the things that we consider to be natural are actually learned. A big part of what we learn today surrounds and comes from the technology we use. Through familiarity,  experience, and, above all, use, technology is constantly teaching us not only how to use it but also how to engage with information which is learned.

Media and tech companies themselves have drawn attention to the way that technological products manipulate our habitual behaviors. They have a privileged position to access our emotions, needs and drives.

Furthermore, networking, gamifying, and social connectivity features allow them to influence individual habits with potentially addictive devices and content. The average adult consumer formed these consumption habits even before we had a chance to ask ourselves how they were forming us and what they were teaching us about interfacing and our own personal needs.

Destructive habits often incentivize thoughtless scrolling and gamify meaningless goals. When individuals engage with destructive habits, they are aware that they have wasted their time, but find it difficult not to. Whether a habit is considered destructive, however, takes a level of self-recognition on the part of the consumer.



Many parts of the technology industry are working to crack down on destructive habits in favor of constructive habits that allow technology to enhance the quality of life. Not only is this a benefit for consumers, but it’s also a boon for brands that are identified with the development of good habits.

Consumers associate these brands with positive forces in their lives, as opposed to something unhealthily or compulsive. They are more likely to portray these positive brands publicly and to recommend them to friends. Furthermore, they are more likely to return to brands that they ultimately feel did them good as opposed to doing them harm.

This article will look at how to identify what kind of habits your startup intends to build or manipulate and how those effect consumers.

Habit-Forming Products

Habit-forming products are the key to consistent sales and customer loyalty. Our products and their interfaces train us about how to approach and navigate the abstract spaces of technology. By training us this way, they create habits that make it easier for these interfaces to sell and manipulate how customers spend their time.

Habit-forming products aim for the long-term. Habits aren’t built in a day or even a week. Even binging on a certain behavior or technology doesn’t create a habit unless it happens for a sustained period of time. Instead, habits take time, a lot of time, and it can be difficult to see the short-term rewards of building a habit.

Sometimes, they take so much time that it’s hard to do it on our own, which is why we resort to technology to help prompt us to complete our habits. This is because, when we plan to develop habits on our own, we are often so strict with ourselves that we leave no room for these short-term rewards. This leaves us open to breaking the habit almost as soon as we manage to incorporate it into our routine and allocate it the time.

Habit-forming products balance this time paradox in a simple way. They first recognize that forming habits takes time, and they find ways of incentivizing habit building through offering small short-term rewards. In other words, long term rewards from good habits bring us to the results we want. But short-term rewards promptly deliver us the things we crave.

This is where technology helps us. Many of the best habit-forming technologies incorporate short-term rewards amidst longer-term rewards. Technology is also more willing to pace us and build on our commitments than we are. This is true of both destructive and constructive habits. Most technology that is habit-forming is designed to allow you to begin with a small time-commitment each day and then expand that time commitment more and more until you have formed a full habit.

The divide comes with each technology’s approach to time. Destructive habit technologies will be structured such that they take more and more time away from you or decrease the value you get from your time. And this isn’t always the applications that you would assume would be the problem. While many are mindless games, activities that seem to add value to our lives, such as social media and habitual email-checking, also fall into this category.

Constructive habit-building applications and technologies, on the other hand, will most likely give your time back. They will use small rewards to incentivize building on yourself, developing skills and healthy lifestyle habits, or spending time with your loved ones. Rather than deriving their value from how much they can hook you, they derive their value from how they can help to organize and shape your life.

Understand the Triggers That Would Drive Someone to Your Technology

One of the best ways to target or identify what kind of habits your product is incentivizing is to identify its triggers.

Habits are frequently developed based on triggers. Negative emotions tend to cause the most common triggers, that would cause someone to initiate or open up a habit-forming technology. For example, someone who is frustrated might turn to escapism. Someone who is feeling lonely might open social media. Someone who is bored or unstimulated might find a form of entertainment.

Your job in developing a habit-forming product is to identify what triggers might drive someone to open your application and address them. Until your product becomes its own habit, it relies on these triggers.

Using Socialization to Motivate Users

Socialization and the development of social standing is a powerful motivator. In fact, it tends to be more powerful than monetary incentives, and in many cases is the underlying driver of many monetary incentives.

Many of the most habit-forming bits of technology build a community. Think about Twitter, Youtube, Reddit, and Facebook. All of these social media build habits based on their ability to connect users to a community of other users and satisfy a social craving.

To use a community for the sake of positive goals, one must build a positive community. This can be done through social modeling, or having active users model the positive ways in which users interact on a platform.

In other word, frequent users set the tone for others, and many users, despite how they interact elsewhere, may follow suite in order to fit in and gain validation. If the tone is caustic, the platform is likely to become home to more and more caustic interactions. If the tone is positive, then the platform is more likely to become a place of positive interactions.

Avoid Spammy Advertising

Whether you’re trying to help people or not, spam advertising sends the message that your product is out for itself. The key here is in timing.

Your product should be able to avail itself to your customers like a shiny beacon at the exact moment they need it. Whether it’s an email campaign or a push notification, you need to do the research to know when your customers would be using your product, so that you can send the trigger to remind them to open it.

How to Offer Rewards

Rewards, whatever you choose them to be, must be frequent and directly correlated with the activity done. Infrequent rewards or rewards that are too long removed from the work being done are less likely to form habits. Consistent rewards are important, even if that means that the rewards are small.

Even though your rewards should be frequent enough that the user comes to expect them, they should also be variable, adding an aspect of uncertainty. The user might try to guess or might be curious about what the program offers next.


Habitual behavior must occur frequently, at least within a week of time from the last use.

To optimize frequency, it’s important to keep the function of your technology simple. For the most part, people turn to tech to simplify their lives. You don’t want your product or application to be something that overcomplicates everything.

This sometimes creates a paradox for developers, however, since it can mean more complication on the backend, to make everything simpler for users on the front end. This will payoff greatly though when you are able to form successful habits.

Ultimately, technology does nothing for a user who will not cooperate with it or use it in ways that will help them. Habit-building, particularly constructive habits, isn’t passive, and the user will still need to do the work in order to attain them.

Users know this, but they aren’t always honest with themselves about it. The best habit-forming technology asks users to invest in themselves and their ability to develop the habit, whether it’s personal growth, knowledge, skill development, or otherwise. The app is powerless to punish a person for breaking a good habit, and the rewards for breaking the bad ones may require real world reinforcement, such as social respect.

In other words, the technology can hold a user’s account and reveal to them data regarding their habits, but it cannot hold them accountable. This is a problem that can be solved by asking the user to invest in their own development and using the technology to make them aware that this is a personal and willful investment for them to improve. In this case, the user has something at stake, their own will.

The aim of most products is to form a habit among consumers and users that will allow for repeat sales and compel customers to come back to a product again and again. New and digital technologies are particularly powerful in creating habits among their customer base. This is because, in the absence of preceding tools and interfaces, they teach and train us how to use them. Companies are now deciding whether and how to incentivize potentially constructive and human development-driven habits over those that prove to be destructive and profit-driven.

Rebecca Moses on Twitter
Rebecca Moses
Staff Writer: Rebecca Moses is a creative writer who can't keep from meddling in the real world. While living in Colorado, she developed a particular interest in small business production. She loves a writing challenge, dabbles in illustration, and reads to figure out how all things work and grow. Find her at RebeccaMosesWriting.com

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Staff Writer: Rebecca Moses is a creative writer who can't keep from meddling in the real world. While living in Colorado, she developed a particular interest in small business production. She loves a writing challenge, dabbles in illustration, and reads to figure out how all things work and grow. Find her at RebeccaMosesWriting.com

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