Many companies tend to spend a lot of money marketing their products, but neglect the actual product itself. While this can create short-term interest, it does little to retain customers over a prolonged period of time.

A big part of product development for digital applications is user experience (UX). Create a valuable or meaningful experience and you’ll not only acquire more users, but also retain them more effectively than fleeing marketing campaigns.

User acquisition and retention

As UX designers, we always ask ourselves, ‘how can we increase user retention rates in digital applications?’ If we filter that down, the question from a psychology perspective becomes, ‘how do we increase the likelihood of a desired behaviour being repeated by users?’

This goes all the way back to nature vs. nurture – innate reflexes and learnt behaviours.

Reflexes are innate, behaviours are learnt

All humans are born with some innate reflexes. For example, when the doctor hits your knee with a hammer and it moves or when the wind blows into your eye and you blink.

However, almost every behaviour that we display is learnt from someone or something – children are raised by their parents to act in a certain way with a chosen set of ideals in mind.

Because human behaviour is taught and learnt, there are endless opportunities to enforce and reinforce positive actions through the formation of memories.

Memories are formed when one or all of our senses attend to stimuli. Evidence has shown that the hippocampus organ located within the brain’s medial temporal lobe is responsible for encoding and transferring information from short-term to long-term memory.

Memory process

The interesting thing about that is when you have an emotional reaction to stimuli, we see a bigger neurological impact, such as the secretion of dopamine – the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter – and the activation of the amygdala set of neurons.

As soon as there is a emotional component to memory, both the hippocampus and amygdala combine to create a stronger long-term memory.

This is why you remember things that made you really happy, really scared, or really mad. And because these neurological pathways are stronger, it becomes easier to enforce and reinforce positive actions.

Behavioural theories in psychology – classical and operant conditioning

There are two leading behavioural theories in psychology:

  • Classical Conditioning – How people make connections between two stimuli and how relationships are formed.
  • Operant Conditioning – How rewarded behaviours and likely to be repeated and punished behaviours less likely to be repeated.

When it comes to the power of sound, classical conditioning is more applicable because of renowned Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, and his dog.

Food will make any dog naturally salivate, as its an innate reflex we cannot influence. On the other hand, the sound of a bell won’t elicit any reaction at all, as it means nothing to the dog.

But every time Pavlov showed his test dogs some food, he would play the sound of a bell. He did this enough times that every time the dog saw food, they would hear the bell.

After many trials, the dog developed an association between the food and the bell, which didn’t exist before. It was taught to the dog. Eventually, Pavlov removed the food completely, and whenever he rang the bell, the dogs would salivate. This was a learnt behaviour.

Pavlov's dog

So, how do we apply this sort of theory to digital applications?

How digital applications evoke an emotional response

No matter whether its getting compliments on your Facebook profile picture, receiving a match on Tinder, or winning an auction on eBay (one of my biggest vices!), certain features on our favourite digital applications make us happy.

These notifications are often accompanied by a sound effect, which on first listen, elicits no response from the user, as it doesn’t mean anything. However, users will soon start to make a connection between these sounds and the app notification in question because they represent positive events.

Digital application sounds

As a result of this association, a simple sound is enough to secrete an emotional response from users without any interaction whatsoever. The custom, albeit arbitrary sound effects that designers and developers use then become synonymous with specific apps and a feeling of euphoria.

The fact that app notifications are an incredibly common occurrence only makes the association stronger too. The more times you have a positive emotional experience, such as getting a social media ‘like’ or message from a loved one, the stronger your memory will become.

It might sound strange, but these memories and associations are often stronger than other significant events in your life. When recalling something from your childhood, accuracy decreases over time because you recreate it in your mind and often add or change details. This is one of the reasons why eyewitness testimonies are so unreliable.

But with something like an app notification, you can constantly build stronger memories, which in turn should lead to positive brand association, more loyalty, and greater user retention.

Here at Transpire, we constantly look to improve and enhance the user’s experience in any way we can. If that includes custom sound effects for app notifications, so be it!

Styliana Sarris is a User Experience/Visual Designer who studies psychology at the University of Melbourne with a focus on cognitive and biological psychology. Recently, she hosted a presentation at Transpire alongside iOS Developer Luke Pearce about the power of sound in digital applications.