How Product Design Can Influence Self-Control

Humans can be completely irrational. We rejoice over getting a $10 discount off a $20 item (that’s half off!) but shrug over a getting $10 off a $1000 item (due to the framing effect). When it comes to product design, leveraging the behavioral patterns of people to influence behavior is crucial. Understanding psychology allows you to build products that help people form new habits by reducing their self-control and making it easier for them to perform certain addictive tasks. Technology has already trigger compulsions in people, who now seem to have an irresistible, powerful urge to stay connected. Even across varying levels of usage, checking mobile phones has increased by at least 23% amongst regular users and up to 123% amongst those who are categorized as “Addicts”, or those who check their phones up to 60+ times per day according to Flurry Analytics. With access to an endless whirlwind of content, it becomes harder and harder to resist checking your Instagram feed...just one more time that day (it’s normal to do it every hour, right?).  


These compulsions are driven by the small triggers built into product today: small red notification badges or the cheerful ping of a newly arrived text message. Because these triggers lead to rewards that are variable, they cultivate compulsions. Could the text be from your husband with a sweet message or Amazon letting you know a package has arrived? Psychological phenomenons like the status quo bias, anchoring or framing effect all are elements that can be strategically incorporated into product design to influence perceptions and behaviors.

Figuring our what Trigger, Reward, Investment, and Action should be built into the product can impact everything from frequency of Tweets to whether or not you choose to work out that day. Being aware of what the core psychological principles are that can be used to hook users through product design is important for designers and users alike. Here, we will explore some product design examples from Pinterest, Amazon, Tinder, Slack, and Snapchat have used design to modulate self-control to encourage or discourage specific actions.




An addictive visual feast, Pinterest has capitalized on curiosity by incorporating endless scrolling and multi-column into its visual design. By hinting at additional photos barely making it over the fold in each view, Pinterest triggers curiosity through variable rewards (what if the best Taco recipe is just one more scroll away?). It makes the browsing experience as frictionless, clean, and delightful as possible. It takes only 2 clicks to Pin something to a board, reducing the effort required to give in to collecting more images and continuing to browse. The more you “pin”, the more valuable your boards become, increasing your investment in Pinterest. Next thing you know, you’ve got 20 different Pinterest boards and you are hooked.




Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. It’s Newton’s Law and it’s true whether it’s about staying dormant on the couch for a 10 hour House of Cards marathon or going on a shopping spree online. In this case - the trigger is setting the default option as a purchase, and it is extremely powerful in reducing self-control. Amazon uses this in the process of managing shopping carts: the top button is to “Buy Now”, which makes it 1 click to purchase anything. This design capitalizes on the heat of the moment when the user is in search mode. By creating a “Buy Now” button, Amazon removes all additional steps that might potentially delay or reduce purchase intent, and consequently self-control making it much easier for the user to take action.




Another app that focuses on simplicity to reduce self-control is the popular dating app, Tinder. By using left and right swiping gestures as its primary means of engaging users, Tinder makes it virtually frictionless to browse countless photos of Tinder members online. Understanding the power of variability, the profiles Tinder serves up are entirely random, making it addictive for users when they are matched with a potential date, at which point Tinder pronounces “It’s A Match!” with user experience fanfare. In fact, this slot-machine like design of Tinder makes it so easy for users to take action that they are spending up to 90 minutes per day in the app, surpassing the average time spent on Facebook. The rewards of finding a new Match have proven to be irresistible.



Seamless and slick, Slack creates triggers for users to begin jumping in on the conversation channels within the app by leveraging notifications and invites. Because the information is relevant to work and often contains files that are attached, the rewards of checking your Slack notifications become very high. To drive investment in the app, the Slack team has seamlessly built in integrations with other key productivity tools and the more information stored on Slack, the easier it becomes to search and find everything you need in one place.  




Snapchat opens to a default of photo and video capture, making it incredibly easy to take action. Unlike Instagram or Twitter, which have defaults that are the actual feed of activity, Snapchat prioritizes capturing the moment in their design. Sending and receiving snaps also become variable rewards: by literally having to take special action to “open” them, the anticipation and excitement increases. The more excitement and anticipation, the less self-control, the more hooked users become.

Using Product Strategy To Influence Self-Control

From messaging to shopping, using product hooks strategically can skyrocket user growth and engagement. By understanding psychological triggers, products can be built to influence self-control in a way that helps users build habits around taking certain actions. Once a user becomes hooked on a product, their self-control diminishes and compulsion to use a product grows. That small red notification badge soon becomes just a little too tempting to ignore...


Victoria YoungComment