How apps keep hold of people's attention

30 June 2019

By Melody Zou

Possessions are going out of fashion. According to market research and endless media reports millennials – that amorphous mass of people born in the 1980s who have grown up with the internet and digital technology – are in favour of accessing rather than owning stuff.

Whereas we used to pride ourselves on owning collections of vinyl or CDs, we are now able to access these resources in a more flexible way – no matter when and how much we want. In fact the growth of the post-ownership economy (commonly known as the sharing economy) means everything from bikes, cars, homes and even tools can be passed around rather than owned. And yet it seems the desire to own stuff and put our own stamp on the world has not gone away. Rather it has been transferred to the digital realm.

My research studies how users perceive their relationships with mobile apps, which are usually freely accessed on an on-demand basis in the cloud, and how they contribute to the apps – something I call Technology Extra-Role Behaviour (TERB).

Extra-role behaviour is what every business leader wants. In organisational citizenship behaviour studies, organisations hope to see their employees ‘go the extra mile’; to do something beyond their job duties for the good of the organisation, such as helping other employees or protecting the organisation’s goodwill.

In the same vein, tech platforms are also pushing for extra-role behaviours from users since they possess more expertise and time. Users are thus being described as ‘partial employees’ or an ‘internet-based volunteer workforce’ in recent studies.

Users can contribute to mobile apps in the following ways:

1 Service Provision – people can help others on the app and contribute knowledge, such as answering enquiries in the user forum or completing information to enrich the app’s service.

2 Service Improvement – by providing feedback on how to improve the product and even participate in governance of the service users show tolerance and understanding to support the development of the app.  

3 Service Advocate – often users of the app champion it to friends and colleagues, even defending the service against critics and justifying its importance in online debates.

4 Service Financing – users donate or pay for the premium subscription. They want to see the app flourish and are often willing to contribute their own effort through crowdfunding.

To induce user TERBs, my research looks at a special relationship called 'psychological ownership'. This is defined as a relationship between an individual and an object, so much so that the person feels a sense of possession towards the object and views it as an extension of themselves, such as my ‘home town’ or my ‘company where I work’. This is despite the fact that they may not necessarily own it - they can only access it.

I unearthed three key experiences to incubate users’ psychological ownership with a mobile app, and was tested with more than 200 users of music streaming services like Spotify, QQ Music and Apple Music.


1 Control

We have a strong desire to exert control and influence on our environment. Research has shown people derive satisfaction and a boost in self-esteem in changing their surroundings and I found the same desire among app users to control their digital space.

Users want autonomy to use the app at their own pace and in their own way. They do this by changing the settings to suit their interests and tastes. They can choose what push-notifications they want or by which channel; they can skip or hide content; they can decide who they want to share their activity with.

Through this they learn how to use the app and see their influence on the app, gradually gaining a sense that they can control it and so perceive it to be their ‘Spotify’ or ‘Apple Music’.

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2 Self-identity

In past generations they put posters on their bedroom wall, customised their car and displayed rows of vinyl or CDs as a show of who they were and what they believed in. But that has all moved online.

Self-identity is curated in the digital sphere. The mobile apps allow users to express themselves; app users create a library of likes, tagging the music that appeals to them or they can go further and create their own playlists - there can be the homework playlist, the party list or bath-time music.

The more you explore and listen to music so the algorithm understands more your likes and dislikes, and so the service becomes more personalised to your own personality - it becomes ‘your’ service and the app is trained to look like you.

Apps are very good at allowing users to express themselves through personalisation features, such as uploading your own profile picture or being able to decorate ‘your’ homepage.

Apps that allow users to sync across different devices reinforce this sense of identity as they are able to maintain a continuity of self from a PC to a tablet.


3 Sense of home

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul,” said French philosopher Simone Weil in her 1952 tour de force The Need for Roots.

App designers would do well to recognise this need. As well as looking for a digital space to store their creations and memory, users want to build a sense of ‘home’, their place within the app, somewhere familiar and comfortable.

Some mobile apps have tapped into this longing, allowing users to ‘store’ their memory and history within the app. For instance, a timeline or statistics feature allows users to look back on what they have done on the app and what music they have listened to.

This sense of history can also be actualised through creating playlists of users’ top songs of the year, or reminding them of past events they had on the app, or even a review of the person’s usage on the app.

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These three experiences mean that users are able to build a relationship with a faceless technology such as a mobile app through psychological ownership.

Deeply engaged in such a relationship, users are then more likely to undertake voluntary contributions for the good of the technology. That can be good not only for the community of users but for the company as well.


Melody Zou is Assistant Professor of Information Systems & Management and teaches Digital Business in Modern Organisations on MSc Management of Information Systems & Digital Innovation and on the Undergraduate programme.

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