Behavior Engineering

How WhatsApp's check marks subtly shape your behavior to drive usage

Behavior Engineering
Source: Unsplash

Happy New Year, dear readers! I hope your 2024 is off to a great start.

As I embarked on my new year resolution to dive deeper into the world of non-fiction, I recently stumbled upon "The Geek Way" by Andrew McAfee. This is an informative book about how successful tech companies have been able to create a unique work culture by intentionally shaping behaviours and norms inside their organizations.

In the book, the McAfee lays out the key ground rule for driving behaviour change. 👇🏼

Drive change by identifying desired behaviours and then increase observability, and reduce plausible deniability around them.

So, what does this behavior theory have to do with WhatsApp?

The answer lies in WhatsApp's ingeniously simple feature: the little message check marks.

The check marks are a clever feature that utilizes the behavior theory above to nudge user actions in the desired direction.

How does that work? Let me break it down below... 

Identifying Desired Behavior: The behavior that WhatsApp wants to shape is the same that every mobile app desires - user engagement. WhatsApp wants us to engage frequently with the app and does so by creating a sense of urgency about reading and responding to messages.

Increasing Observability: The single and double gray ticks provide real-time status of messages, and implicitly shape our social expectations. As soon as my message shows as received, I expect that you are going to read it!

By increasing observability of the message status (delivered, received, read) WhatsApp is making the important aspects of this social exchange visible to both the sender and the recipient.

Reducing Plausible Deniability: The moment the two check marks turn blue, it's clear you've read my message. A social expectation is now set for you to reply back!

By showing that the message has been read to both the sender and recipient at the same time, WhatsApp removes plausible deniability about reading the message and room for excuses such as "I didn't get the message" or "I must have missed it".

WhatsApp check marks are a fantastic everyday example of putting the ground rule of behavior change into practice:

identify desired behaviour (get users to read & respond to WhatsApp chats),

increase observability around the behaviour (show everyone when messages are sent, received, and read),

and reduce plausible deniability (highlight read messages in neon blue check marks).

In "The Geek Way", McAfee emphasizes how we, as humans, adjust our behavior in response to social cues. WhatsApp has smartly leveraged this concept to implement a feature that creates implied social expectations and nudges users towards increased engagement with the app.

The next time you see those WhatsApp check marks, know that it's not simply a feature. It’s a lesson in behavior change, right at your fingertips!

Remember, to change behavior you must identify the desired norms, highlight their presence, and minimize excuses for not following them.