How Robinhood turns stock trading into a game it always wins

When a group of Redditors rallied collectively to purchase up beleaguered GameStop and AMC shares, they despatched every firm hovering in opposition to all market expectations. AMC specifically was capable of wipe away $700 million in debt, rescuing the film chain from sure chapter. Whereas most of the different beneficial properties could also be short-lived, there’s little doubt historical past was made in a meme-fueled collective funding maneuver that will likely be studied and debated for years to return.

And no less than a number of the credit score, or criticism, belongs to Robinhood, the free day-trading app that helped gas the frenzy, soared to a top spot within the App Retailer, and launched a funding spherical toward a $30 billion valuation at the same time as it grew to become a villain to a lot of the web for stopping trades on the 2 shares that propelled the app to the highest.

However Robinhood didn’t luck into this viral second; Robinhood was designed to permit new customers to impulse-buy. Robinhood’s interface is like no different trading app in the marketplace. The app swaps poise, persistence, and different hallmarks of cautious funding for hyperbole, celebration, and fast gratification. And the reason being easy: Whereas other stock brokerage apps by trade mainstays akin to Constancy or Charles Schwab earn a living by taking a tiny sliver out of your long-term investments, Robinhood makes the majority of its income off stock transactions (an trade time period known as PFOF). So the extra typically you purchase and promote shares, the extra money Robinhood makes—even for those who lose cash with every faucet.

Robinhood’s complete expertise is extra about optimizing sure kinds of engagement over confirmed strategies of funding.


“After I take into consideration Robinhood, I like to check it to social media apps. Twitter, Fb, TikTok,” says Blain Reinkensmeyer, head of analysis at, who performs an annual audit of roughly a dozen fashionable stock trading apps.

As I deposit $1 into my Robinhood account to start trading—opting to purchase a tiny fraction of a single Tesla stock—Reinkensmeyer serves as my knowledgeable information. He confirms, no, my eyes should not deceiving me. Robinhood is nudging me with funding peer strain at each second.

It’s feast or famine

The very first display screen you see once you log in to Robinhood is a large line graph that reveals how your portfolio is performing, which updates robotically each 5 seconds. These types of funding dashboards aren’t distinctive to Robinhood. All apps have an account overview someplace to trace your portfolio. However Robinhood makes this expertise notably pressing, each time you load the app.

[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]

In case your portfolio is up, each UI component on the display screen is inexperienced—even people who aren’t instantly linked to shares. In case your portfolio is down, even a penny, each UI component on the display screen turns pink. I can let you know firsthand, this visualization issues. I invested a mere $1, and nonetheless, my coronary heart nonetheless skips a beat each time I load it! If it’s pink, I really feel like I’ve to do one thing. It’s an emergency!

[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]

After I point out this to Reinkensmeyer, he says this form of interface-invented stress is what’s saved him off of Twitter for the final two months. And he factors me again to the app’s enterprise mannequin to clarify the phenomenon: To not get you wealthy, however to get you to commerce. Robinhood’s cofounders didn’t reply to our request to talk for this piece.

What’s much more attention-grabbing is what you see subsequent, as you scroll down your private home display screen. You get information playing cards, provided up by the Robinhood algorithm, which consist of stories that might impression firm stock costs. After you expertise the shock that your entire portfolio is sinking (by one cent), these information playing cards appear as if a life raft. “Right here, learn all this information. Have interaction. Your subsequent commerce may rescue you.”


Solely when you scroll previous the information are you able to see your particular person shares. Right here, once more, resides a easy trick. Your shares seem with their full share value (in pink or inexperienced, based mostly on in the event that they’re up and down). What they don’t present is the PNL, or the precise revenue or loss in your funding. In different phrases, whereas I personal a $1 piece of an $800+ Tesla stock, Robinhood affords nothing there to convey the precise quantity of my achieve or loss as different apps will do (that’s solely listed after I faucet into the stock). As a substitute, the house web page is feast or famine.

Coaching to interact

Along with your head in a frenzy over the magnitudes of your beneficial properties or losses, you could use this second to go purchase a new stock. However there’s a catch. It’s more durable to do than you may suppose.

“Let’s say you’re logged in and need to place a commerce. You possibly can’t simply faucet commerce like another trading app. There are 5 buttons on the backside, and there’s no commerce!” says Reinkensmeyer. “It’s important to click on on the magnifying glass, which takes you to their Concepts web page first. They’re funneling you into the Concepts web page, and also you’ll see fashionable lists, information headlines, high movers, and an countless scroll of extra information.”

If Robinhood’s objective is to promote you extra shares extra typically, why would it push you to so many tendencies and tales as a substitute of simply making it sooner to purchase a single stock? Reinkensmeyer believes it’s as a result of Robinhood is aware of its viewers—much less skilled merchants.

“It’s like Robinhood is aware of its prospects on common haven’t any clue what they need to purchase,” says Reinkensmeyer. “So that they checklist concepts to drive that habits!”

A counterpoint to such criticism is that this information friction within the interface most likely slows much less skilled merchants down, too. In the event you logged in to purchase AMC, then noticed tales that it was overvalued, you may query leaping on the development. On this sense, Robinhood might be making a design determination right here to profit customers even when it’s circuitously serving its marketing strategy.

In any case, this countless onslaught of stories tales also can suck you into the drama of day trading. I had no intention of shopping for GameStop on its method down, however studying all these GameStop tales coming into my feed made it powerful to disregard. I discovered myself questioning . . . perhaps I ought to simply purchase a little to be a part of the second. In any case, this feed is supposed to drive engagement, the chief metric of any social media app.

Gamifying trading to really feel like a lottery

After I spent my $1 to purchase a tiny fraction of Tesla stock, I knew that even when the stock sextupled in worth, I’d by no means have the ability to purchase greater than a cup of espresso with my earnings. However Robinhood didn’t care. No no, this was a second for celebration.

[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]

Confetti dropped from the highest of the display screen. Was this some little celebration for my very first commerce? Nope. Robinhood makes it rain confetti each single time you purchase a stock.

“Once you go to promote, even for a revenue, no confetti falls. Why, is there a regulatory cause?” muses Reinkensmeyer. “I don’t know, however it’s very obvious to me what habits Robinhood needs to bolster.”

[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]

Except for the confetti, the ideas of items, winnings, and normal free earnings are robust foundational metaphors to the Robinhood UI.


On the aforementioned residence display screen, a button studying “Free Stock” full with a wrapped current completely sits within the higher right-hand nook. It’s always there (and sure, it’s inexperienced when your shares are up, and pink once they’re down). Robinhood offers each person a free stock for becoming a member of the app.

[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]

As a consequence, the temptation to enroll is nice—you might land a stock value a whole bunch of {dollars}, akin to Apple, Fb, or Tesla! (A person research Reinkensmeyer ran prior to now discovered that the common free stock is value lower than $6 a share. I personally scored a $3 pharmaceutical stock for signing up.) However notably, Robinhood will provide you with a free stock with each new member you get to enroll. And that “Free Stock” button is an omnipresent invitation to win a mini lottery.

[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]

“Lottery” shouldn’t be a time period I’m utilizing metaphorically, however actually. As a result of once you do get a free stock, Robinhood presents you an possibility of three scratch-off tickets. You select one, and also you actually scratch your finger throughout your cellphone’s display screen to see what you’ve received. I’ll admit, it’s enjoyable as heck. Upon signing up, I rapidly tried to get others to enroll too—only for the joys of one other scratch.

[Screenshot: courtesy of the author]

It’s not all dangerous! However it’s not optimized so that you can earn a living

Regardless of most of the UX video games being performed by Robinhood to make sure that it makes cash, Reinkensmeyer doesn’t see it as some notably evil drive in trading. Whereas he himself solely has a couple of bucks within the app to check it, he admits to liking a few of the options fairly a bit.

Reinkensmeyer argues there’s nothing inherently incorrect concerning the “Free Stock” button. It’s simply a free stock button! He additionally commends Robinhood’s publication as his favourite in all the trade.

In the end, nevertheless, proof means that Robinhood buyers aren’t making out in addition to the corporate is. Impartial analysis by Oklahoma State and Emory College has found that, on common, Robinhood merchants purchase shares that don’t carry out any better over the subsequent three to twenty days. “We discover that Robinhood possession modifications are unrelated with future returns,” the researchers write, labeling Robinhood’s customers as mere “noise merchants” available in the market. But, there could also be a actual worth to Robinhood all the identical. The app offers on a regular basis buyers a chance to experiment with trading—and for as little as $1—that’s hardly ever as high-profile or risky because the GameStop saga.

“Some folks say Robinhood is rather like a on line casino. I don’t imagine that in any respect. I feel investing in any method is wholesome when it’s finished [right],” concludes Reinkensmeyer. “Solely speculate with 5% of the cash you’ve. When you’ve got $1,000 in money, $50 to invest is wholesome.”