Building Products, Building Habits

November 6th, 2014
Published on
November 6th, 2014

On Tuesday, we published a book review of Nir Eyal’s new book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” Now, we’re very excited to have a chance to speak with the author himself—read on to see what Eyal has to say about technology, the Internet of Things, and the difference between habits and addictions. And don’t forget to enter the free giveaway, for a chance to win a copy of the book!

Thanks for speaking with us today, Nir! We really enjoyed “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” In it, you define a hook as the experience a user has, which (sometimes subconsciously) helps them form a habit of using a particular app. You hint at some of the moral dilemmas that come up for designers when creating a hook. How would you differentiate between an unhealthy addiction and a well-designed hook?
Addictions are always bad, they harm the user. However, habits are different. We have good habits and we have bad habits. I believe that we’re on the precipice of an age where designers can help their users create healthy habits through the technologies they use. By building habit-forming products we can help people live healthier, happier, more connected lives by using habits for good — we just need to understand the deeper psychology behind habits in order to build them.

Nearly all the companies I profile in the book promote healthy habits. Of course, sometimes we use our technologies too much, but nearly everyone can dial back and find the appropriate level of usage. Even though services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can be overused, I think they do far more good than harm. I for one certainly wouldn’t want to go back to a time before these services existed. I think they keep people connected and they’ve certainly enhanced my life.

When people understand what makes these products so compelling, they can put technology in its place. It’s important to ensure we are in control of our habits, instead of our habits controlling us.

That’s some great food for thought! We definitely live more connected lives these days. As we move into the Internet of Things, we are even beginning to expect our devices to anticipate our needs and wants. How would you use that expectation when designing a habit-forming product?
Anticipating user needs is at the core of good design. As technology becomes increasingly pervasive, it is also becoming increasingly persuasive. The fact that our devices can now trigger us with reminders and alerts throughout our day means they can change our behaviors in ways that weren’t possible a few years ago. I think that as the interfaces we use to interact with our technologies shrinks — from desktop, to laptop, to mobile, and now to wearables — we’re going to see technology become more habit-forming.
On a related note, could you provide us with an example of a hook not only fulfilling, but anticipating the user’s need?
The more closely a product can couple the external trigger (like a notification) with the internal trigger (like an emotional need), the more likely the user is to respond. For example, Yahoo’s News Digest is a surprisingly habit-forming app that sends you a push notification first thing in the morning. That also happens to be the time when you’re most likely to feel anxiety about not knowing what’s happening in the world. Over time, users form a habit with the product and check it even without the external trigger.
I find your differentiation between of external and internal triggers particularly interesting. What is it, exactly, that shifts when users begin responding to internal triggers?
The premise of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” is that the products we find most engaging have a basic design pattern called a Hook. Hooks are experiences that connect users’ problems to a company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit. Hooks are in all sorts of products we use with little or no conscious thought. Over time, customers form associations that spark unprompted engagement, in other words, habits. They move from needing external trigger like ads and other calls to action, to self-triggering through associations with internal triggers.

Use of the product is typically associated with an emotional pain point, an existing routine, or situation. For example, what product do people use when they’re feeling lonely and seek connection? Facebook of course! What do we do when we feel uncertain? We Google! What about when we’re bored? Many people open YouTube, Pinterest, check sports scores, or stock prices — there are lots of products that address the pain of boredom.

In the four step process I describe in Hooked, I detail how products use hooks to create these powerful associations. Hooks start with a trigger, then an action, then a reward, and finally an investment. Through successive cycles through these hooks, user habits are formed.

Triggers come in two types: external and internal.viii Habit-forming products start by alerting users with external triggers like an email, a website link, or the app icon on a phone.

For example, suppose Barbra, a young woman in Pennsylvania, happens to see a photo in her Facebook newsfeed taken by a family member from a rural part of the state. It’s a lovely picture and since she is planning a trip there with her brother Johnny, the external trigger’s call-to-action intrigues her and she clicks. By cycling through successive hooks, users begin to form associations with internal triggers, which attach to existing behaviors and emotions.
Nir Eyal, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Hooked: Building Habit-Forming Products
I was also very interested to read about the variable reward. What markers do you look for, to identify if a reward will be successful and appropriate?
BF Skinner’s classic work on intermittent reinforcement showed that rewards given on a variable schedule yielded more of a given behavior. Of course, we see the same mechanism that was at work on Skinner’s famous laboratory pigeons influencing our behavior every day. All sorts of products utilize variable rewards to keep us coming back.

I identify three types of variable reinforcement found in the products and services we use repeatedly: Rewards of the Tribe, Hunt, and Self. All three are things that feel good and have an element of variability. However, the three differ in the type of reward. A Reward of the Tribe, are reinforcers that feels rewarding as a result of interacting with others — competition, cooperation, and empathetic joy, are all examples. Rewards of the Hunt is about the search for resources or information while Rewards of the Self are intrinsic motivators such as the search for mastery, control, and competence. The most habit-forming products, like email for example, involve all three variable reward types.

The key to finding appropriate variable rewards is to figure out what scratches the users itch and yet leaves them wanting more. The only way to do that is to start with the internal trigger we described earlier. There must be a connection between the internal trigger (the problem) and the reward (the solution), or the Hook won’t work.

We’re so glad we had the opportunity to speak with you, Nir. Are there any last thoughts you’d like to leave readers with?
My advice is to build something you believe materially improves people’s lives AND you yourself use. When you do this, you not only stand on a good moral footing when it comes to the morality of manipulation, but you also greatly increase your odds of success because you deeply understand the user.

Thanks again for speaking with us Nir!

For readers who are feeling hooked, don’t forget to check out “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” on Amazon, or enter the giveaway for a chance to win a free copy.