When to stop rewarding app users and start punishing them

Editor's Corner
Shane Schick

I'm sure developers get their ideas from everywhere, especially when they're not sitting behind a desk, but I wasn't expecting to come across some inspiration while watching an episode (okay, several episodes) of HBO's Girls on a recent cross-country flight.

The show was about how one of the main characters was shocked to discover that her ex-boyfriend (who she secretly still loves) went from a seeming under-achiever to a bona fide business success by creating and selling a popular dating app. Instead of keeping the app's details vague or as derivative as all the other tools for connecting with potential mates, however, the producers of Girls came up with something really clever: it's a tool that helps prevent someone who's recently gone through a breakup from making an embarrassing call to their former flame. It's called Forbid, and if you override the app, which is free to download, you have to make a payment. Not a bad monetization strategy, and maybe worth stealing.

Of course, it didn't take long for a real-world app to hit the market that sounds an awful lot like Forbid. Ex-Lover Blocker, created by Brazilian developer Guaraná Antarctica, doesn't demand payment for making a bad judgment call, but it does send a text message to friends who could try to intervene and posts details about what you've done to your Facebook profile. If you consider public shaming a higher price to pay than actual money, this may be an even better approach.

Beyond the obvious novelty of such apps, they point to an interesting use case philosophy that might deserve deeper exploration by the developer community. So much of what we hear from analysts and other experts in this space are about ways to reward users in some way. This could be points in a game, virtual currency or, in some cases, discounts and coupons on real-world purchases. All of these things are good and no doubt an effective way to drive engagement. The flip side is about restricting or penalizing users based on their behavior – not to be mean, necessarily, but to help them meet other goals. This is the logic behind popular desktop programs such as Freedom, which lets users voluntary make it impossible to get online so they can focus on their offline tasks.

What other kinds of apps can help keep our indulgences in check? I'm thinking about an app I'd call Budget Police, which would automatically make a charitable donation somewhere every time a consumer spends more than he should on an item that isn't categorized as an essential need. You could create Road Rage Revenge, a location-based app that posts a speedometer image on Twitter every time you go over the speed limit (watch out if the cops start tracking that one, though). I'd love it if someone created EyesUpHere!, which could create an angry pop-up message that blocks a smartphone screen when someone takes their attention away from the conversation during business meetings.

Positive reinforcement will probably remain the best way to attract and keep users, but there's something to be said about apps that make us, even in small ways, better human beings. If you ever start seeing "Self Control" emerge as a standard app store category, though, you'll know the industry is overdoing it.--Shane