Mobile user behavior is COMPLICATED! Today’s users abandon apps for a range reasons and have standards and expectations up the wazoo! Even top psychologists like Sigmund Freud wouldn’t be able to fit the convoluted behavior of today’s mobile users into one theory or flow.

But one thing we’re sure of is that human psychology is relatively standard. So today’s users, no matter how complicated, are still biologically predisposed to a number of established thought patterns. And guess what- by knowing and fully embracing these said thought patterns in the context of your mobile app, you have the potential to notably improve your product. In particular, we’ve decided to break down 5 of the most essential neuro design principles and exactly how they serve an important purpose for your mobile app.


Neuro Design Principle #1: Give Before You Take

The rule of reciprocity is a powerful force that’s wired into the human subconscious. In a nutshell, this rule means that humans are naturally inclined to pay back what they have received from others. For example, if Mike does you a favor, you are likely to return it to him. When it comes to mobile user experience, this principle has a lot of influence (both good and bad).

Basically, give your users something before you ask anything from them.

In particular, this rule directly applies to your in-app permissions. “Users will be tempted to say no when they are asked if they want to receive push notifications and the app has not yet gained their trust,” says Raluca Budiu, senior researcher at Nielsen Norman Group, a user experience consulting firm.

If you want your users to actually agree to your in-app permissions, such as turning on push notifications, you must ask the permissions only after your users have been able to experience your app and see its value. Asking your in-app permissions in the beginning of a new user’s experience will likely overwhelm and annoy your users, or worse prompt them to abandon your app. Why should users accept a permission when your app hasn’t done anything for them yet?

In-app permissions is just one of the many facets of your app that this rule can influence. If you embrace this principle, you are sure to reap the benefits of more engaged users. Neglect it and your users could drop your app faster than a hot potato.

rule of reciprocity


Neuro Design Principle #2: Use the Power of Contrast

The contrast principle, according to influence specialist Robert Cialdini, is simply “the way we see the difference between two things that are presented one after another”. The Contrast Principle is the reason why some salespeople like to sell higher-priced products to customers early in the sales process. This makes product upsells (or back-end offers) appear a lot less expensive in comparison, and much more appealing to purchase. Think about buying an electronic device like an iPad, for example, and then being offered the opportunity to purchase product insurance as you’re checking out. This kind of offer is VERY difficult to turn down.

Product Managers can use the contrast principle to increase back-end sales from customers who purchase your products. If a user makes a purchase using your m-commerce app, can you offer them a related add-on product? If you can, your users will be much more likely to purchase your suggested add-ons because of the power of contrast.

Image: Domino’s Pizza App


Neuro Design Principle #3: Humans are Innately Lazy Beings

Convenience is one of the most prevalent feelings that your users experience in their everyday lives. People are constantly reverting to the age-old law of inertia, homeostasis, the path of least resistance, or whatever else you’d like to call it. Humans are simply wired to take the most convenient options that have been made available to them in life, unless one consciously decides otherwise. It’s for this reason that your users generally want to obey the principle of least effort, and follow a smooth user journey that has already been decided for them, and refrain from using features and forms that appear too complicated or time-consuming. A perfect example of how this prinicple applies is when it comes to creating your login screen. The instant your login form appears too long or involved for your user- they will likely quit that screen and not even create an account. Keep in mind that users are downloading your app to understand what it can do for them, not what they can do for your app.

principle of least effort


Neuro Design Principle #4: Social Proof Attracts Big Use

Building social proof into your mobile brand is a strategy that ‘hot’ fitness, health, dating, and media apps love to capitalize on. Many mobile apps in these categories are heavily influenced by trending topics, so they understand best of all that appealing to a select segment of the mobile marketplace can attract an extremely passionate audience. This tends to happen because modern-day humans have a deep-rooted desire to follow the norm, and not upset the “tribe” that they’ve chosen to associate with.

Evolutionary psychologists believe this happens today because our ancestors relied heavily on social groups for survival. You just couldn’t make it on your own back then. And, your users still feel this same ancient urge to do whatever is cool or trending at the moment, because it’s simply “stuck” in their biology. Humans haven’t adjusted well to modern times, and your users still make most of their decisions without doing much conscious thinking.

So, how can you add social proof to your product? Easy. Ask the most likeable or popular influencers you know for video testimonials, and add those videos to your mobile app’s landing page. This trick will give your app instant social proof, and almost certainly higher opt-in rates as well.

Mobile apps can also leverage social proof by adding “sharing” capabilities when users complete certain achievements, or reach certain levels in a game. This helps to further reinforce the social proof mentality, as people always want to feel a sense of approval from fellow tribe members. And, what better way is there to feel socially validated than using the same mobile app! For even more social proof, you can also do excellent design work for your app, which will make your product more “socially acceptable” and easier for users to show off to friends.

social proof in apps
Image: RingCentral


Neuro Design Principle #5: People Hate Missing Out on Things

Your product should be a highly-enjoyable experience to your end-users, but it should also operate as a profitable entity for the sake of your start-up or mobile app business. This is the kind of line that you have to tiptoe across carefully when you use scarcity or fear-based sales tactics in your product.

Good marketers know that most consumers constantly feel the need to buy another product in order to temporarily increase their level of happiness. It’s believed that this deeply-ingrained feeling of scarcity or fear stems from ancient times, when humans genuinely didn’t know if they would be able to find food or water for a number of days. So, it’s probably best not to exploit this urge by creating false scarcity or taking FOMO to the extreme.

But, by building a great product, you will naturally attract these scarcity and fear-based urges from users without having to feel like you’re “tricking” anyone. The reality is that the best mobile apps all invoke feelings of scarcity and fear in users, but they do so ethically because they are able to offer real value at the end of the day.

Slickdeals, for example, is a great product-pushing mobile app that aims to “notify you of the best deals before they’re gone.” This app provides consumers with some of the best deals in the world, but the deals truly are only available for a limited amount of time, so people feel a natural sense of urgency to purchase products listed on the app. Other apps like Facebook invoke feelings of fear through the sending of push notifications. Most people initially react to Facebook’s push notifications with fear, although this is normally followed by an immediate feeling of excitement or happiness.



The powerful principles of psychology affect virtually every great mobile app on the market today. That being said, you are not expected to become a master psychologist. Your role first and foremost is a mobile product manager- we get that. However, by absorbing these 5 essential neuro design principles, and actually applying them to your mobile app will greatly increase the likelihood of your users coming back for good.

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