Why People Start, and Why They Keep Going

Insights from building behavior change products

Emma Townley-Smith
4 min readJan 24, 2021


It’s January, and my social media streams are full of meal prep ads — losing weight (one form of behavior change) is top of all our minds again.

I’ve written before about building products designed to promote behavior change. The more users I’ve interviewed, experiments I’ve run, and products I’ve launched, I’ve observed a pattern in the fundamental motivations that get people started, and the fundamental motivators that seem to keep them going.

Getting Started

Product managers always want to talk to the early “super users” and understand what is making them so successful. I have been through several of those cycles for behavior change — we interview the people who are successful (losing weight, saving money, etc) and try to understand what drives them to start. We always hear the same ~5 things:

  1. Personal scare: I had a “close call” (ex: health scare, financial scare) that made me realize how much I need to change to have the kind of life I want.
  2. Related scare: A friend or family member had a close call, and I can see that if I don’t change, I’m headed that same way.
  3. Life milestone: A milestone birthday, retirement, a child’s wedding, etc. reminded me of who I want to be, and I’m ready to work toward that vision.
  4. Personal connection: I interacted with someone who understood my challenges and opportunities in a new way, and they gave me hope that when I tried something new (again), it would work this time.
  5. Tried something, and it worked: In a fit of inspiration — on a Monday morning, or after an inspiring conversation with a friend — I decided to try something new. The rewards were so tangible and immediate that I wanted to continue to keep up the momentum.

People are often driven to behavior change products on the basis of 1, 2, or 3 — life milestones in particular can offer a positive, forward-looking marketing message — but your product can only offer 4 or 5. As you approach your roadmap, I suggest you:

  • Embrace that personal scares and life milestones arise over time. No matter what marketing message you put on paper today, it may not be the right moment. You may need longitudinal relationships with your prospective users to see people embrace your product when the right moment arises.
  • Focus on developing the personal connection and “something to try” aspects of your product. In the health context people often jump to “coaching” and “challenges,” but these aren’t the only approaches. For example, I’m fascinated with how social media (instagram in particular) offers social rewards in the health context, and how Noom grounds “small changes” with an educational background rather than a one-off challenge format.

Maintaining Momentum

Getting started isn’t enough for most meaningful behavior change. If you’re pursuing a long-term outcome — like a goal weight, or a retirement savings amount — you have to commit to additional changes and continue your new behaviors for months or years. You have to overcome barriers that arise (including your own mindset barriers — like impulsiveness, pessimism, insecurity), and continue when life gets stressful… Again interviewing super users, you tend to hear about the same few motivational levers that help people persevere when they consider giving up:

  1. An inspirational figure: Someone encourages me when I have a moment of doubt, and makes me feel like there’s still hope if I keep trying.
  2. Peer support: Others have been where I have been, and they found a way out/through. I can too.
  3. Inspiration from my past self: I can see where I’ve been, and I want to see if I can push just a little bit further. Or maintain my streak of good behavior.
  4. Environmental support: I’ve set up my environment such that doing the “right” thing is still the default or the only option. Working toward my goals is the path of least resistance, and doesn’t require much willpower when I’ve had a particularly challenging day.

Behavior change companies today tend to offer #3 to all their users (it’s the easiest motivational lever to offer in the form of data and dashboards), and some offer #1 (in the form of coaches) or #2 (in the form of community). I believe that the most successful behavior change companies will either:

  • Own a certain motivational lever, so that people who want to achieve a specific goal in a specific way know where to go. (Ex: WW is very well-known for its community support of members (#2) — if you’re a person who wants to lose weight and you know you need accountability from others, you’d be likely to start there. BetterUp launched with a strong focus on 1:1 coaching and accountability (#1) for current or aspiring leaders.)


  • Use a matching algorithm to link people with the right motivator at the right time, recognizing that not all people understand their motivators well enough to proactively seek out the right solution. (Peloton strikes me as a particularly interesting example where this kind of matching could take place — they have live coaching, community, structured programs, and a plethora of data to help me understand how I’m improving over time. Right now their experience allows me to choose my own adventure each day, but they have the perfect real estate to tell me in the moment whether I should ride live with a group or try to beat my personal best offline.)

There are a finite number of tools in our toolkit for helping someone maintain behavior change — once we codify them, we create a bounded problem we can act on (which motivational lever makes sense here?) instead of looking at the broad question of “how we motivate our users to do X.” With this kind of structure, I believe that digital behavior change solutions will eventually scale up to more effectively augment the largely human service-driven companies we see in the digital health space today.



Emma Townley-Smith

Early-stage Head of Product. Love learning how people and products work.