Behavior Change
Personalizing the Cue-Action-Reward Cycle for Optimal App Engagement
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Personalizing the Cue-Action-Reward Cycle for Optimal App Engagement 

The science behind behavior change can be as complex as human nature, but it also follows predictable patterns. When it comes to habits, that pattern is most easily visualized as a loop composed of three interrelated stages: cue, action, reward. In this so-called habit loop, an event (cue) occurs, which triggers the brain to respond (action) in a way that results in a positive rush of neurotransmitters (reward). As Heathline explains “The pleasure or relief you experience reinforces the cue.”

Using the cue-action-reward cycle in healthcare apps

Vessel Partners relies on theories of behavior change to design engaging healthcare apps, and the cue-action-reward cycle is one of our most referenced principles — especially when it comes to user retention. But just because neuroscience adheres to common principles we can design for does not mean the cue-action-reward cycle works the same way for everyone. Differences in personalities are often accompanied by differences in processing patterns or neurotransmitter levels. Positive reinforcement might work as a small reward for most users, but some people really hate receiving compliments and can be put off by this papproach.

Fortunately, an understanding of the psychology behind personalities has opened the door for a more customized approach to the cue-action-reward cycle.

Personalizing the cue-action-reward cycle with the “Big 5” personality model

Vessel Partners recently worked with a leading pharmaceutical company to define specific cues/actions/rewards based on personality profiles that could then be leveraged in an app designed to help patients with Alzheimer's. Vessel Partners founder Zach McGill lead a workshop based on the “Big 5” personality model and developed the following guidelines for more personalized cues/actions/rewards in the app:

High Low
Trait Cue Action Reward Cue Action Reward
Openness Communicate opportunity to experience something new, novel, or immersive

Communicate opportunity to learn something new
Design to be immersive sensory experience Create Immersive Sensory Experiences

Create feeling of having learned something new
Communicate efficacy of prompted action

Communicate "tried and true" nature of prompted action
Design to feel familiar, based on traditional and accepted behaviors Create feeling of having successfully adhere to norms
Concientiousness Communicate there is a task to be accomplished

Communicate the task is discrete and can be "checked off"
Design to indicate a current status that is incomplete until the action is done

Design actions to be predictable
Create a feeling of progress

Highlight all progress that has been made
Communicate importance of the action

Vary message or style
Design actions to be less repetitive and introduce variability Communicate (again) the importance of the action

Vary stimuli
Extraversion Communicate social nature of action

Communicate exciting nature of action
Design to feel fun and exciting Consider social rewards Communicate potential rewards more explicitly

Highlight internal/intrinsic rewards
Design actions to be intellectually stimulating Consider intrinsic rewards of mastery
Agreeableness Communicate social expectations

Use social norming techniques
Design to feel cooperative Create feeling of belonging to a group of peers Communicate potential individual gain Design to feel competitive Create feeling of individual success
Neuroticism Communicate minimal risk completing action

Communicate minimal work to complete action
Make action as small as possible

Design failure states to feel forgiving
Communicate importance of small step

If possible communicate forgiveness of potential future failure
Communicate risks associated with not completing action Design can include higher difficulty or complexity Communicate risks that were avoided by completing the action

Leveraging principles of behavioral design in groundbreaking healthcare apps

Creating new habits isn’t just a matter of wanting to change; it’s about reprogramming the brain to replace a negative cue-action-reward cycle with a positive one. For healthcare apps, which are so often geared toward replacing bad habits with good ones, it is essential to understand both the overarching theories of behavioral science and the granular differences in personalities.

If you’d like to learn more about Vessel Partner’s work designing healthcare apps based on behavioral theories like the cue-action-reward cycle, check out our case studies page — or contact us for a complimentary consultation.

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