Case Study: Coffee & Competence

Case StudyMany apps that reward users by badging or leveling up miss the mark. Maybe they reward the wrong behavior (like assigning badges for check-ins when the goal is really to get someone to work out). Or maybe they assign rewards for behaviors that a person would do anyway (and thereby run the risk of the undermining effect). And this isn’t even taking into account whether rewards even work in the first place. Starbucks, however, seems to have developed a mobile app that effectively rewards the right behavior (that’s buying coffee) in a way that generates revenue.

Last July, Starbucks reported that 20% of their revenue came from mobile payments, which increased to 22% by Q4 2015. Clearly, the mobile app is making it easy for people to buy coffee, because they’re doing it. After holding it up as an example of rewards done right, I figured it was finally time to check it out, my lack of affection for Starbucks be damned.

I downloaded the Starbucks app for Android, loaded it with $25, and set about making my coffee pit stops at Starbucks on those mornings I didn’t quite manage to brew any at home. Just as I expected, the app does a lovely job supporting a sense of competence by providing clear feedback on progress toward my goal (drinking coffee), the benefits of reaching various levels of achievement (more coffee), and how to reach the next achievement (you guessed it: buy coffee). Check it out:

Three lonely stars bouncing around in my Starbucks cup . . . I should get more stars.
Three lonely stars bouncing around in my Starbucks cup . . . I should get more stars.

You can’t tell from the screenshot, but those stars rattle around the Starbucks cup. It’s clear how many I have and that there’s a lot more room in the cup for more.

I also think it’s smart that it doesn’t take a lot (just five coffees) to progress to the second reward tier. Recognizing and encouraging early successes is a well-established way to build self-efficacy and foster engagement.

That's better. More coffee = more stars.
That’s better. More coffee = more stars.

Notice how the background of my rewards screen also changes to reflect my status. Once I achieved Green, the screen became green. I don’t think it’s an accident that it also looks much more pleasing than the gray background when I first downloaded the app.

Finally, there is a very clear explanation of what my current rewards tier gets me linked right to the visual display of my performance. This helps reinforce that there’s actual financial and nutritional value (caffeine is a nutrient, right?) behind the reward levels of the Starbucks app.

A full and clear description of my amazing coffee benefits.
A full and clear description of my amazing coffee benefits.

In addition to all of this, I would guess that people using the Starbucks app to pay tip more than people who use other methods of payment. Why? After you use the app, you have the option to add a tip for several hours afterward, and your phone prompts you to let you know. Moreover, the default tip rates start at $0.50, which may not seem like a lot, but is more than a barista gets when someone throws in the change from their $3.75 beverage. Starbucks has implemented a hot trigger for tipping. I’d love to see how it has translated into dollar amounts.

The verdict: The digital team at Starbucks has a behavior change whiz in-house. Nice work, Starbucks.