let’s go streaking
A look into how gamified streaks lead to lasting behavior change.
Oh, yes they call him the Streak (Look at that, look at that) - Ray Stevens
If you ask anyone who knows me well (especially my wife Julia), I’m a sucker for a good streak. Every January I come up with a goal to accomplish every day for the month. I’m not a huge fan of resolutions, but this is a fun way for me to start off the new year with something novel. Eating keto, 15 minutes of stretching every night, 100 push ups and sit ups, 15 minutes of meditation, only eating vegetarian…the list gets longer every year.
While the end of the month often becomes a reminder of my own stubbornness, the great thing about setting a time limit on the streak (31 days) is the transformation of a daunting task (I’m going to eat vegetarian) into something very achievable (I can’t eat meat until February). Once the month is over, I have a sense of accomplishment for having completed my goal and if I enjoyed the habit I can choose to continue on with it.
“Sprint streaks” like this are extremely powerful.
Whether it’s the kind that interrupts the Super Bowl or the kind that helps you learn Spanish, sprint streaks can lead to significant increases in engagement and changes in our behavior even after the streak is over.
Even though we didn’t continue my vegetarian streak every day, Julia and I almost never buy meat at the grocery store and when we do it’s only for special occasions. With a single 31-day sprint streak, we’ve changed our eating habits for the rest of our lives.
Product designers have been leveraging the power of streaks to make the mundane fun and to encourage long-term behavior change for decades. From fitness trackers to todo apps, there are tons of companies relying on continued, daily usage from the fear of losing a streak. And even though every streak ultimately comes to an end, these products have a lasting effect on the way we live.
Let’s dive into a few of them with some suggestions on how to make them even more powerful and positive!
todos los todos
When someone mentions streaks as a core feature, Duolingo is often included in the conversation. In the 10+ years the app has been around, users have been working (and paying) towards building an impressive streak to show their friends and families. We’ve all been there before, hurriedly mumbling broken Spanish into the phone on the commute home from work so that we get credit for the day.
While there are some articles complaining or arguing against the merits of the streak mechanic when it comes to language retention, I find applying pre-planned sprint streaks to Duolingo as a great way to keep the fun alive while actually learning. After coming off a yearlong streak “learning” Mandarin, I realized I had learned next to nothing. I was going through the motions, clicking and rambling until I met my XP goal for the day. My vocabulary was essentially the same as it was before and I wouldn’t dare to try to use whatever skills I had developed in the real world. The 7.5 months of work had been purely for me to get satisfaction from the streak and not the actual end goal of conversing in Chinese.
After taking a month off, I decided to change things up and launch a sprint streak for 30 days in Spanish. While I still desperately wanted to keep the streak for that time, I also had set a goal of being able to use my new skills to order fluently at our local taco truck in Austin without defaulting back to English. It was nothing big, but having a designated end goal and a timeline for it made the streak mechanic even more powerful. There wasn’t mindless action to make sure I extended the streak. Instead, I knew there was limited time to learn what needed to be learned and that each day was important in that endeavor. By changing a streak from infinite to a designated timeline, I was able to leverage the addictive mechanic and actually accomplish my goal.
Another positive alternative to sprint streaks are sporadic streaks, those that allow the user to allocate how often the behavior is required to still “earn” the streak. Apps like Streaks (and Streaks Workout) let users set up sporadic streaks by creating non-daily schedules for certain habits. Cleaning the house is a great example of this. In Streaks, the user can decide that they want to vacuum the floors at least twice a month. Instead of pushing to vacuum every day or every Friday, all the user has to do is confirm that they completed the task twice in a 30-day period to earn the streak. The magic of the sporadic streak is that it is still motivation enough to do the task at hand without the streak itself becoming the intrinsic motivation. With a traditional streak, you might devolve into vacuuming half-assedly just to check the box whereas the sporadic streak leaves some leeway to focus on the merit of the task at hand.
Habitica takes the sporadic streak and fully gamifies it by immersing the user in a virtual RPG. The same basic principle applies, having the player set sporadic goals to gain XP and level up. While the gamification of streaks can often lead to paying more attention to the streak instead of habit forming, when the focus is not on a daily or infinite streak and the experience is truly fun (instead of manufactured fun), actual progress is much more likely.
friends who streak together
A pitfall of most streaks is that they are single-player. Lacking a community surrounding the streak leads the user to focus even more on the mechanic than the actual task because there’s no one to bring you back to the big picture. If you have a friend learning Spanish with you on Duolingo, there’s no place to hide when they ask you to practice. You can’t rely on the streak to save you. Products that have a built-in multiplayer or community-focused streak improve the overall effectiveness of the streak and the long-term engagement of the individual user.
Snapstreaks is a great toy example for this concept. Getting a streak for logging on or sending one Snap a day would be addicting. Pushing users to only get a streak by interacting with a specific friend directly takes it to the next level. Snapchat users can’t hide behind the streak as an end itself and instead have to actually interact with their friends. This genuinely increases connection and bonding within friend groups and is a net positive to relationship building.
Wordle and the NYT Crossword are other great examples of how positive social pressure can lead to positive outcomes with streaks. If either game was private, two things would happen: engagement would drop after a couple of days once people lost interest and people wouldn’t challenge themselves to improve for the clout. Since they are meant to be shared though, the opposite happens. Engagement stays high as everyone shares their Wordle results daily on Twitter and people work hard to improve their scores each day.
My sister and I have always been competitive and send each other our Wordle scores right when we complete the day’s word. If the game hadn’t have been designed to be sharable, the streak wouldn’t matter much at all to either of us and we would have churned after a few days. Now, we both spend significantly more time focusing on getting the word in fewer attempts. What’s better than a 24-day streak? A 24-day streak with a better guess distribution than my friends and family. 😈
Since I think everything MSCHF does is fun and attention worthy, I’ve got to wrap up this section with a callout to Tontine Cash. The premise of Tontine is to hold the longest streak of signing in to the app out of 7100 contestants. That’s it. You just have to sign in to the website and click the “stay alive” button for more days than 7009 other people. Each contestant pays $10 to join and the last person “alive” wins the entire pot. At the time of this writing there are about 3200 people remaining after a bit longer than a month in. While the monetary aspect of the streak is definitely motivating (who doesn’t want $71k for visiting a website every day…we already do that with lots of other websites), competing against others in a visible, social forum makes the streak that much more enticing.
sprint / sporadic streaks + positive social pressure
For a good chunk of COVID, I was obsessed with my daily ring closing streak on my Apple Watch. I even signed off some of the Macro team calls with the Apple Fitness+ mantra “stay active, close your rings, see you next time” accompanied by the ring hand motion and all. An infinite daily streak like the one I had kept up for close to 300 days turned out to be more detrimental than I thought. I was burnt out, didn’t feel fit even though I walked ~8 miles a day, and felt very down mentally and physically. After transitioning to sprint and sporadic streaks though, I’ve been able to bring my relationship with streaks back to a healthy, positive place. By combining these types of streaks with positive social pressure, companies will be able to bring fun products to market that keep users engaged for all the right reasons and we’ll all be better for it.
As always, if you’re a founder working on a fun product or know of any awesome companies that fit into this category, send them my way at email@example.com. I’d love to meet and include them in a future post!