Connecting with Our Future Selves

The key to long-term user engagement

Imagine you're the lead product designer for a popular fitness app. Your goal is to create an experience that not only attracts new users but also keeps them engaged for the long haul. You know that the key to sustained success lies in helping users achieve their long-term health and wellness goals. But as you dig into your retention data, you notice a troubling trend: most users start off strong but quickly lose momentum and stop using the app altogether.

The problem you're facing is a common one in the world of product design. When the benefits of using a product are centered around users' future selves - whether that's getting in shape, saving for retirement, or learning a new skill - engagement can be hard to sustain. The psychological distance between our present and future selves creates a barrier that's tough to overcome.

But what if you could close that gap? What if you could make users' future selves feel just as real and relevant as their present selves? That's where behavioral science comes in. By understanding the psychological forces that shape our perception of the future, we can design products that forge a stronger connection between the user's present and future self.

Understanding the Intention-Action Gap

Let's start by examining one of the core psychological barriers to future-oriented engagement: the intention-action gap. We all have good intentions for our future selves. We intend to eat healthier, exercise more, save money, and learn new skills. But when the moment of decision arrives, our actions often fail to align with those intentions.

The Role of Hyperbolic Discounting

Behavioral economists have a term for this phenomenon: hyperbolic discounting. In essence, we tend to prioritize short-term rewards over long-term benefits. The instant gratification of watching Netflix feels more compelling than the distant payoff of a workout. The satisfaction of an impulse purchase trumps the vague notion of financial security down the road.

We discount both gains and losses. The further out into the future the loss or gain happens, the more heavily we discount it. Enticing people to save for retirement is difficult because we discount the value of our future money. The benefits of retirement savings lives in the distant future so we discount the value of those savings.

This cognitive bias is deeply ingrained in our psychology, and it can be a major roadblock to long-term engagement with future-oriented products. As product designers, it's our job to find ways to counteract hyperbolic discounting and make the long-term feel more immediate and visceral.

The Power of Commitment Devices

One powerful tactic for bridging the intention-action gap is the use of commitment devices. Commitment devices are strategies that help us lock in our good intentions now, increasing the likelihood that we'll follow through on them later. They work by creating barriers to backing out or by imposing costs for failing to stick to our commitments.

Commitment devices help us follow through on our intentions. At their core, these devices are an agreement made today to complete a task in the future. According to journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, commitment devices are "a way to lock yourself into following a plan of action that you might not want to do, but you know is good for you."

As a product designer, you can bake commitment devices right into the user experience. That could mean prompting users to set specific, time-bound goals, leveraging social accountability, or even imposing self-enacted consequences for falling short. For example, a fitness app could prompt users to commit to a certain number of workouts per week, and if they fail to meet that commitment, the app could automatically post an embarrassing confession on their social media accounts. The key is to help users put stakes in the ground in the present moment, making it harder for them to back out in the future.

Closing the Empathy Gap

Another reason we struggle to engage with our future selves is the empathy gap that exists between our present and future states. It's hard for our present self to relate to the needs, desires, and challenges our future self will face. We tend to underestimate how much our preferences and circumstances will change over time, a phenomenon known as the "end of history illusion."

Future Selves as Strangers

Moreover, research suggests that we often view our future selves more like strangers than extensions of our current identity. Some research suggests that the way we perceive our future selves is similar to the way that we perceive a stranger. It is an odd concept, but one could argue that because of this, what happens to our future selves is as inconsequential as that thing happening to a random person we've never met.

This psychological distance can make it difficult to muster the motivation to take actions that benefit our future selves. After all, why would we sacrifice for someone we don't feel connected to?

Tactics for Increasing Future Self-Continuity

To close the empathy gap, we need to make the future self feel more vivid, concrete, and emotionally resonant in the present moment. Product designers can employ a range of tactics to achieve this:

  • Personalized visualizations that show users what they might look like or be able to do if they achieve their long-term goals
  • Narrative scenarios that immerse users in the experience of their future selves, making the distant consequences of their choices feel more tangible
  • Interactive tools that allow users to communicate with or make choices on behalf of their future selves, fostering a sense of connection and continuity

One powerful example of future-self visualization comes from a study by Hal Hershfield and colleagues. In an attempt to close the gap, the researchers took photos of each participant and altered them to approximate what they would look like at age sixty-five. The final product was an avatar complete with wrinkles, receding hair lines, and grey hairs. Participants were allowed to interact with their "future self" in virtual reality and then asked to allocate some portion of a hypothetical $1,000 reward to their retirement savings. On average, participants who experienced a virtual version of their future selves were willing to put away roughly double for retirement.

By leveraging techniques like this, product designers can help users develop a stronger emotional connection to their future selves. And the more users empathize with their future selves, the more motivated they'll be to take actions that benefit them in the long run.

Harnessing Fresh Starts and Temporal Landmarks

In addition to closing the empathy gap, product designers can also leverage the psychological power of fresh starts and temporal landmarks to catalyze future-self engagement.

The Fresh Start Effect

There are certain moments in time - like the beginning of a new year, the start of a week, or the day after a birthday - that carry special meaning in our minds. These temporal landmarks create a heightened sense of opportunity for change and growth. They signal a psychological separation between our past and present selves, making us feel more capable of transforming into the person we want to become.

It's January 1, 2020, and I've just walked into my local YMCA. 2019 has come to a close, and with a new year comes new aspirations and a willingness to improve. I, along with millions of others, have set new goals for the new year. We all want to become better versions of ourselves, and we are all at the YMCA to start becoming that person.

Aligning Features with Temporal Landmarks

Product designers can harness the fresh start effect by aligning features and messaging with these key moments in time. For example, a language learning app could launch a "New Year, New Language" challenge that encourages users to set ambitious goals for the coming year. A financial planning tool could prompt users to do a "Birthday Financial Checkup" to assess their progress and make adjustments. By framing these moments as opportunities for a fresh start, designers can tap into users' heightened motivation to invest in their future selves.

Charting a Path to the Future Self

Finally, to sustain long-term engagement, product designers need to help users chart a clear and rewarding path to their future-self goals. The journey to self-improvement is often a long and bumpy one, full of setbacks and discouragement. It's easy for users to get lost along the way and give up on their aspirations.

The Goal Gradient Effect

To keep users on track, designers can break down distant goals into smaller, more manageable milestones. This approach is grounded in goal gradient theory, which suggests that motivation increases as we get closer to achieving a goal. Goal gradient theory states that the closer we are to a goal, the more motivated we are to achieve it; this is why it is critical to create goals that feel achievable. One key to achieving your goals is to set evenly spaced, intermittent deadlines along the path to achieve your goals.

By creating a series of mini-goals that lead to the ultimate future-self objective, designers can give users a sense of progress and momentum. Each milestone becomes a moment of celebration and a reason to keep going.

Providing Feedback and Positive Reinforcement

In addition to setting clear milestones, designers can also help users stay motivated by providing regular feedback on their progress and the positive impact of their actions. This could take the form of data visualizations showing the user's improvement over time, or personalized reports highlighting the tangible benefits they've reaped. The more users can see the fruits of their labor, the more invested they'll become in the journey to their ideal future self.

The Evolving Art of Designing for the Future Self

Crafting products that keep users engaged for the long haul is a complex challenge, but it's one that designers must tackle if they want to create meaningful, lasting impact. By understanding the psychological barriers that stand between users and their future selves - hyperbolic discounting, the empathy gap, and the discounting of distant rewards - we can architect our products to bridge that divide.

Through commitment devices, future-self visualization, fresh start framing, and progress-rich path design, we can make the future feel immediate, relatable, actionable, and worthwhile to our users. We can help them become the selves they aspire to be, one small choice at a time.

Of course, designing for the future self is an evolving art and science. As new research emerges and new technologies arise, the tactics at our disposal will continue to expand. But the core principle will remain the same: the more we can connect users with their future selves, the more we can drive lasting engagement and transformation.

So the next time you're faced with the challenge of sustaining long-term engagement, remember to think beyond the present moment. Ask yourself how you can make the future self feel real, relevant, and worth investing in. The answers you uncover may just change the trajectory of your product - and the lives of your users.