For the love of Duolingo, Headspace, and Peloton: please stop streaking.
What’s the highest streak you’ve ever achieved on a digital product? For me, it’s Duolingo. I once hit a streak of 60 days in a row of learning Italian, but then one leisurely Saturday, I was too busy shopping ’n’ socialising. When I got home at one minute past midnight, I got an email informing me that my streak had ended, and I was a failure, and this is why I can’t have nice things, and nothing I ever hope to achieve will happen.
Ok, yes, I’m being dramatic, but I got an email and was a little annoyed, which put me off from continuing my learning journey with Duolingo.
This was in the days before you could pay to repair a streak, and since then, there are streaks everywhere, and it’s starting to feel a little too cheap as a way of getting users to engage. So, let’s take a deeper dive into how streaks work and whether they’re effective…
So, friends, let’s make a streak. What are the essential ingredients?
For one, we need to choose a behaviour that we’ll be counting. Is it enough for the user to simply show up and log in each day to count towards their streak? Or do they need to complete an activity, take a photo, or learn a new word?
Tie the behaviour we’re counting to those that lead to what they want to get done with your product. So, if we’re talking Duolingo, the desired outcome is to learn a language, so any activity that contributes to this should count, such as taking a lesson, learning some new words, or revising some previously-learned vocabulary. Just showing up isn’t quite enough to count.
Now that we’ve got our behaviour, let’s reward it. Are we going to show a little celebratory pop-up each time the user’s streak continues? Will they have a flaming emoji with a number on their profile to proudly show off their streak? Will there be extra special rewards for hitting certain milestones, for example, 10 days in a row? Whatever you decide, it’ll need to be celebratory and consistent.
On the flip side, what will we do to streak-breakers? Lock them up and throw away the key? Or just send an email to let them know and encourage them to get back on it when they can?
In brief: streaks are about rewarding consistent behaviour that drives users towards their desired outcome and punishing inaction.
Streaks aren’t exactly a new thing. Well, maybe rewarding daily engagement is a little more common now in digital products, but before, loyalty cards and programs were kind of like streaks.
Each time you purchase from the store, you get a stamp, and eventually, you get a reward, like a free cup of coffee. If you’re as caffeinated as me, this probably was the same as rewarding you for visiting every day.
Do we have a behaviour being rewarded? Yes, buying coffee. Am I punished if I break it? Yes, because I miss out on free coffee. How am I rewarded? With free coffee. And a stamp.
So in my eyes, this is streak-esque by design.
Why do I bring up these old lil’ cards? With these, there’s a very definite end and definite rewards. Buy 9 coffees, get a free coffee, and start again.
That’s not the case with streaks. Streaks are infinite, and that’ll be important to keep in mind…
Psychologically speaking, there are many reasons that streaks are particularly effective when it comes to boosting engagement. Let’s take a look at just a couple…
🥅 The Goal Gradient Effect: The closer someone is to reaching a goal or milestone, the more effort they will likely put into reaching it. You’ll have more motivation to invest time in something if you’re 80% of the way there to reach 100% completion compared with if you’re at 15% going to 35%.
For streaks incorporating milestones and rewards, this is an interesting one. Streaks are often dependent on daily engagement, so you can’t up your streak if you’re nearer a milestone short of time travelling. But the goal gradient effect here may mean you’re more likely to keep on returning to meet that goal than if there wasn’t that milestone to aim for.
Thinking back to our loyalty card example of streak-like behaviour, this may mean someone who already has 2 full rows of stamps may go to get coffee more frequently over the next few days to get their free coffee.
🎆 Positive Reinforcement: How Pavlovian, an oldie but a goodie. If we’re given small rewards for completing some desired behaviour, we’re more likely to repeat that behaviour.
If I log into Duolingo and do a lesson and get a pop-up with fireworks and a happy dancing owl every day, it makes me smile and I’ll be more likely to return tomorrow. If I get that same dancing owl and see a streak increasing by one, quantifying how many times I’ve seen this celebration in a row, I may be even more likely to return.
Ultimately, I end up taking the desired behaviour repeatedly in the long term, which is great if I’m learning a language or trying to exercise regularly.
💸 Sunk-Cost Fallacy: The more time, effort, money or anything you put into something, the more you’re reluctant to abandon ship.
Imagine you want to start going to the gym regularly. Would you be more likely to go every day if it were free compared with if you were paying £200 per month? (Don’t come for me if that’s too high, I haven’t been to a gym… ever 😂).
With streaks, time and effort is usually the resource, more so than money. If you’ve got a streak of 200 going, even if you’re not really learning German or feeling relaxed after your meditation sessions, you’re more likely to keep going because of how much time and effort you’ve already put into it.
👑 Building social status: Not necessarily a psychological phenomenon as much as a sociological one, but there’s undeniably a certain status attached to being one of the tops, the best, the fastest, the calmest — whatever the superlative.
If you have one of the longest streaks, you’re also likely to be one of the most successful on the platform with the most points or equivalent. Couple that with displaying the streak on your profile and having leaderboards, and it becomes an even more powerful tool to drive engagement and prove that you’re not just a dedicated user on the platform, you’re one of the top ones.
🔁 Habit formation: All of these effects so far have related more to extending your streak for the sake of extending your streak and what that represents.
As a side-effect, you may indeed integrate whatever behaviour relates to the streak into your routine. You may have that five minutes a day of learning German, and you may prioritise that ten minutes after lunch to meditate before diving back into work.
However, habit formation does not always imply constructive habits are being formed. A streak-fuelled habit may mean a rushed five minutes of tapping through a Duolingo lesson at 23:55 on most days for the sake of keeping your streak alive. It may mean starting a meditation session on Headspace and then skipping to the end to count it as complete.
Ideally, the habit formed will be the one leading to the desired behaviour. However, given how strong the drive to continue a streak can be psychologically speaking, it’s entirely possible that the habit formed instead will simply be doing the minimum amount of activity with minimum effort to maintain the streak.
We’ve mentioned Duolingo enough that we have to show how they do streaks now. As you can see, we have the visual celebration with fire (which seems to now be the dedicated “streak” emoji, because of the phrase “you’re on fire”, I am guessing).
You have your streak displayed prominently on your profile, and get an email and push notifications reminding you to maintain it, so there’s plenty to nudge users to log in and learn.
One thing I like here though is that the behaviour they’re rewarding isn’t just simply completing a lesson, but rather it’s earning a certain amount of XP. The amount differs depending on the intensity of learning you choose in the onboarding, but for most learning modes, you need to do more than one lesson to complete the daily goal.
This goes some way to alleviating what we were discussing as a potential pitfall in habit formation. Besides, you can’t just tap your way through a Duolingo lesson, because you have lives, and if you make too many mistakes and lose all your lives, you need to start again and don’t get any experience.
This goes to show the amount of gamified mechanisms in place complementing the streak to make it meaningful: experience points, personalised goal-setting, and lives.
Yes, this is a screenshot of Headspace from 2014. And yes, I chose it on purpose — you can see some badges at the bottom.
Like Duolingo, Headspace rewards streaks, and in the past, it has done so for different types of content, e.g. running meditations, and sleep meditations.
As you can see in the screenshot, one thing they’ve tried is badges, so you get a badge for your first day, third day, 10th and 15th and so on. This is a nice way of breaking longer streaks down into smaller goals to get that goal gradient effect in gear, giving the user the next badge to be consistently working towards.
Does this achieve the same as Duolingo and help ensure the streak is meaningful? Unless the streak is triggered by more than starting/finishing a session, potentially no. But it’s something to consider.
On fire again, woo!
Unlike Headspace and Duolingo, Snapchat isn’t rewarding some behaviour that’s related to self-improvement. Well, I guess you could make a case for it to be rewarding socialisation, which I suppose could have some benefits (thinks for a moment in fluent introvert), but your streak continues here just by sending a snap to someone.
There are different emojis too, so you get the 💯 at a hundred days, and there are others which are trickier to trigger, but here, you get a streak for each contact, so you can have countless streaks on the go at once, and both parties in the conversation see it and can contribute.
Do I think this is effective in boosting engagement? Absolutely. Do I think this could also contribute to the overuse of social media that negatively impacts mental health in some users by making them feel pressured to continue sharing to keep up the streak with each person? Also absolutely.
I know what you’re thinking, this article’s meant to be about why we need to stop using streaks, and I’ve highlighted some ways they could be positive in the examples above.
And you’re right, but these examples also highlight that streaks are likely most effective and impactful in aiding the delivery of value in a product experience when cohesively combined with other gamified devices to augment daily activity and take it beyond surface-level engagement.
So, let’s talk about pure streaks again, and how they relate to motivation.
Motivation is what drives you to do things. When users choose to use your product, they are hiring it to get a job done. Therein lies their motivation: to learn German, to feel less anxious, to make their crush fall madly in love with them due to their strong Snapchat game etc.
Now, the longer you get into a streak, the more of a big deal it would be to lose a streak. Losing a 3-day streak? Mildly annoying. 10 days? Ok, that’s a pain. 365 days? Devastating. That’s because it’s not something we can easily or immediately get back.
So, the perceived value of losing the streak increases as time goes on, which in turn, increases the likelihood that you’ll do whatever is necessary to maintain your streak, and that means resorting to surface-level engagement.
And if you miss a day? Self-punishment! How dare you ruin 365 days of work! The impact of breaking a long streak could be enough to put people off attempting to get back on track, which, to be clear, isn’t about the activity itself, but about the fact that the streak was broken.
Speaking of motivation, how about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and how they relate to streaks?
In an ideal world, we know that intrinsic motivation drives more meaningful engagement and leads to a higher chance of a successful income in the long run. It means you’re driven by the task and outcome itself. You find joy, pleasure and fulfilment in the task.
However, realistically speaking, intrinsic motivation isn’t necessarily common, and when we are intrinsically motivated to do something, the obstacles to achieving the goal may be too great and the motivation too weak.
By contrast, extrinsic motivation relates to being driven by external rewards to complete a task. These rewards may be more immediate, which is why in the short term, extrinsic motivation can be a much more powerful driver when it comes to boosting engagement and task completion.
If I’m learning German because I enjoy learning languages and am fascinated by obscure German operas and wish to understand them, I am intrinsically motivated. However, that’s not much of a driver when I sit down on day one of my Duolingo journey, because there’s a long way to go between learning the words for basic greetings and watching a performance of the play “Woyzeck”.
Extrinsic motivation can therefore drive me to take action in the short term. I may be more likely to complete that lesson if I gain a reward, such as Duolingo currency, or a badge for my profile. And the next day, my motivation may be to increase my streak on my profile and get to level 3.
Ideally, over time, my intrinsic motivation to learn German would be strengthened because I would be getting closer to my goal of being baffled by Woyzeck, and I’d start enjoying the lessons more and find them fulfilling.
And while that may happen for some, we also know that over time, the perceived pain from losing my streak increases. I don’t want to start again and lose that badge from my profile, and I don’t want to lose the chance to hit that 500-day milestone because I know realistically I’m unlikely to get there again. That means I start to be driven by avoiding breaking my streak.
And what kind of motivation is that? It’s firmly extrinsic. There’s the risk that I’m not learning because I enjoy it, I’m doing it to avoid something bad.
At its best, I would still be learning, especially in products like Duolingo where I am required to put in work to maintain my streak. At its worse, I am engaging with a product on a surface level every day, for example, sending a random blurry photo to a friend on Snapchat not because I want to share it with them, but because I want to get to that 100 emoji.
What happens when we start to do something consistently to avoid a negative consequence? Resentment builds. So, that gamified device that was meant to help me achieve a goal could conceivably end up building resentment in me toward it.
My biggest issue with streaks, however, is simple and doesn’t have to do with the potential for negative habit formation necessarily:
WHO. HAS. TIME.
Ok, I do usually have time, and I simply don’t prioritise certain things. That’s why this Medium post has been sitting in my drafts for 5 weeks.
But honestly, we’re surrounded by digital products and real-world events constantly vying for our attention, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to feel bad about breaking my 85-day streak because I was busy, or even if I simply forgot or felt too tired to keep it going.
In my opinion, streaks are designed for an idealised version of a user. Give us some grace when it comes to keeping up — if I’m returning once a week, I think that’s a win, so why not count streaks every week instead of on a daily basis? Why not count the total amount of days I’ve learned within a month rather than requiring me to learn every day, and instead provide a cherry on top if I do make it every day?
Combine the guilt of breaking a streak due to business/tiredness/forgetfulness with how bad it feels to lose 85 days of progress in the first place, and… well, you get the idea.
No, I don’t want to never see streaks again. I just want to see smarter streaks, taking into account realistic patterns and “success” for actual users, and being embedded in flows incorporating other elements of gamification to increase the chance of success in the streak remaining focused on the outcome of the behaviour being counted in the first place rather than on the streak itself.
*long sentence, deep breath*
I would love to hear what you think of streaks and any good or less good examples of streaks you’ve come across!
I’ll end by saying this: UX friends, please streak consciously and carefully.