Fabulous: Motivating App Engagement

How a health app uses UX and storytelling to help people achieve their goals

Everyone knows how difficult it is to establish healthy habits like exercising, eating right, or practicing mindfulness. The team behind Fabulous set out to solve this common problem by channeling behavioral economics research into an app that cleverly helps users to meet their goals. Leveraging the Material Design guidelines, the company created an engaging UI around science-based strategies for psychological reinforcement, motivating users from onboarding through goal completion. Since its Material redesign, this motivational app saw a sixteen-fold increase in daily downloads, received over 97,600 five-star reviews, and earned a Material Design Awardfor "Charming Engagement" in 2016.

Harnessing the power of storytelling

Fabulous infuses storytelling into everything from the tone of the writing to the app’s illustration-rich design. Each set of related rituals (known as “journeys”) is framed as different chapters in your story. Establishing an evening routine, for instance, is introduced as “A Fabulous Night: In which [your name] learns how to manufacture a great night’s sleep.” Fabulous becomes both narrator and insistent fairy-godmother for the habit-forming transformation. In fact, even the app’s pervasive use of quirky icons and illustrations grew directly from the storybook metaphor:

“The app is a companion, guiding users through a story, and giving them the support and information they need along the way. We use a lot of stylized storybook imagery to reinforce the user’s goal.”
— Taylor Ling, Co-Founder, Fabulous

Fabulous creates short, personalized letters of encouragement that are easy to read and digest.

Fast and engaging onboarding

Fabulous jumpstarts the user experience with a vibrant, immersive onboarding process. The app immediately guides you to commit to cultivating an energizing morning routine that includes drinking a glass of water, eating breakfast, and exercising. Quick transitions generate an almost physical momentum with leftward-moving elements and stepper-like illustrations of a sun moving across the sky. The app puts a unique spin on the Self-Select onboarding model, asking users to check boxes committing to each of the three morning-routine goals. But unlike the typical Self-Select use case, which would customize the user’s experience, this action is used entirely for its psychological effect—generating a sense of control and dedication. The action is akin to making a promise to a friend. By maintaining a brisk pace and creating this moment of conscious commitment, Fabulous compels first-time users to take action and dedicate themselves to establishing habits. Fabulous co-founder Taylor Ling told us that the team spent months iterating this onboarding sequence until it was as engaging as possible:

“We discovered that asking the user to check boxes committing to their routine makes them think, ‘Yeah. I can do that.’ The process makes you feel the weight of this decision, like you’re about to embark on a journey.”
— Taylor Ling, Co-Founder, Fabulous

The app’s onboarding process drives users to select a morning ritual (i.e. drinking a glass of water) and then check a box to record its completion.

Using notifications for action, not annoyance

Relevant and timely notifications are a key part of how Fabulous gets folks to change their habits. Rather than unnecessary pings, prompts are designed to feel like friendly moral support. Three elements—a song, an illustration, and a countdown clock—become visual and aural triggers for performing the desired action, effectively carving out time and psychological space for each user. It’s the mental equivalent of someone handing you a pair of running shoes and leading you out to the track. Here’s how it works: A chime sound acts as an aural cue for users to perform their habit. After the cue, the initial screen alert expands into a beautifully designed custom dialog with a pulsating floating action button (FAB). Pressing the FAB plays a song associated with the routine (for the water-drinking goal, this means mellow tones and water-drop sounds) and fills the screen with a goal-related illustration overlaid with a countdown clock. The clock ticks down the amount of time it takes to complete the required ritual.

“We tried to make notifications as immersive and contextual as possible, so that when you see the illustration of your ritual, you think, ‘Let’s do this.’ It’s gentle, but still gives you a sense of responsibility.”
— Taylor Ling, Co-Founder, Fabulous

Pressing an alert’s play button opens an illustrated dialogue box with a countdown clock that displays the amount of time it should take to complete your ritual.

A wildly positive response to Material

After rolling out their Material-influenced app in 2015, the overwhelmingly positive response left Fabulous co-founder and designer Taylor Ling “totally flabbergasted.” The number of daily downloads jumped from 300 to 5,000 each day and the app has racked up more than 97,600 five-star reviews. Fabulous was also a finalist for Google Play’s Most Innovative App, in addition to being an Editors’ Choice and Top Developer in the Play Store. All of the app’s delightful and effective design touches—from notifications to illustrations, sounds, and tone—helped Fabulous earn a Material Design Award, and continue to charm its growing community of users.