"I think my worst habit is struggling with technology," says Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How To Build Habit-forming Products, "even though I know how this stuff works, I need to bring conscious thought into how I use [it]."
Eyal teaches entrepreneurs how to create habit-forming tech products which users open without any conscious thought at all. A habit, he says, is an action we take automatically in response to an environmental trigger. "We are what we repeatedly do," said Aristotle; maybe you reach for a doughnut every time you feel stressed or take the same route to work every day. Professor Wendy Wood found that 45% of daily behavior is repeated regularly and therefore has the potential to become a habit.
So what can we learn about habits that informs the way we build products? Habitual behavior is a sort of autopilot operated mostly by the subconscious brain—which is why once a habit is established it's so hard to change. If developers can understand how their product can become a habit, they can create extremely loyal users.
Eyal's formula for habit formation is to repeatedly guide the user through a sequence he calls "the hook." A hook starts with a trigger such as a situation or an emotion like feeling stressed. Often the trigger is a negative emotion. You might check Facebook when you feel lonely or fire up Candy Crush to escape boredom. The user then takes an action in order to get a reward, in this case the doughnut.
Products can give different types of reward. Eyal calls social rewards like a message from a friend rewards of the tribe. Resources, including information, are rewards of the hunt and gaining mastery or control he calls rewards of the self; variable rewards have been shown to increase focus and engagement. Finally, the user makes some kind of investment, like personalizing the product, which makes him more likely to repeat the hook.
"I wanted to create a toolkit which I would have wanted as an entrepreneur to use these principles of psychology in product design," says Eyal. "Some startups totally forget the trigger. In some the action is too complicated. Others don't have a variable reward, which maintains mystery. A lot of companies forget to ask for an investment [from the user]."
According to Eyal, the most habit-forming technology out there is old-fashioned email. "That's a technology that has all three types of variable rewards: tribe, hunt, and self," he says. "It's rare to find a tech product that has all three. There's lots of situations where email provides a solution to an emotional problem. There's tons of internal triggers around email from boredom to loneliness. The action couldn't be easier, especially when it's this ubiquitous and this easy to access. The variable reward is tribe; it's social connection. It's hunt because it's connected to our workplace and it's an information reward. And it's self in that the completion of checking the unread messages gives you the satisfaction of control and mastery and then of course the investment is every time you send a message you are increasing the likelihood of getting one back."
You can't turn every product into a habit. The first pre-condition is frequency of use. "The cutoff point seems to be about a week or less," says Eyal. "The most habit-forming products are intra-day behaviors. We take out Snapchat or Instagram or Pinterest multiple times a day."
It's difficult to create a completely new behavior; instead try to displace an existing one. "Pinterest replaced the habit of bookmarking and in fact the people who are avid Pinterest users, they install this PinIt button on their browser geographically very close to the old bookmark button. That's not by coincidence. That's the old trigger."
If you think that your product has the potential to be habit-forming, then it's time to start habit testing. Eyal defines three steps in this process: identifying, codifying, and modifying. First you identify what a habituated user looks like.
How frequently should someone who's habituated use my product? Then you go looking for these habituated users in your data. What percentage of your users are habituated? Codify the path that those users took.
"There's the classic Twitter example, "says Eyal, "that they found that people who followed X number of other people were the ones who became habituated users." The final step is to modify the path so that other users become more likely to follow the same path.
Many startups miss the investment stage entirely and that means that users stop coming back. "A lot of websites are built to be slicky where the idea is how do we get the customer what they want as quickly as possible and get them out of here?" says Eyal. "We forget to ask for some type of investment to bring them back later. There's data. If you use personal finance software or Pinterest the more data you put into the site the better it becomes. The more content you put into iTunes, it becomes more and more valuable as your music library. You've got followers—the more followers you have the more valuable the product becomes—and then finally reputation. Those are all means of investing in a product thereby loading the next trigger. "
I asked Eyal whether developers have a moral responsibility to build habit-forming products which are truly of benefit to their users, and not just their makers.
"I'll tell you a secret here, which is that the book is a Trojan horse," says Eyal. "You buy the book because you think it's going to make your product super-engaging but you can't read the book and not encounter this chapter The Morality of Manipulation, which gives a very clear framework around how individual makers can think about their role and their responsibilities. You should use this psychology all guns blazing if you are the kind of person who is making something for themselves and if you believe that the product you are making materially improves people's lives. I call these people facilitators. If you can meet those two criteria, use away."
There's another type of product maker Eyal calls a dealer. Dealers make a habit-forming product they know doesn't benefit users, although it may offer them a temporary reward. Gambling apps might fall into this category. "There's a great book by Natasha Dow Schüll called Addiction by Design where she profiles machine gamblers in Las Vegas and it turns out that they all across the board have some kind of deep sadness they are escaping by getting into the zone of gambling." Needless to say, dealers don't use their own product.
But can you really hook users successfully and not end up creating addicts? "Habits can be good or bad whereas addictions are always bad," says Eyal. "I agree with Paul Graham that the world is becoming a more addictive place. Even if you are a facilitator, you are still going to get addicts. Social games, those businesses could not survive without these overusers. The industry calls them the whales. Is there a moral responsibility when your business depends on whales? Maybe they are 2% of the population but I think there is a really important moral question there of what do you do when you know someone is hooked? If you make alcohol you can throw up your hands and say 'We don't know who's an alcoholic!' But these companies know. They can see the data. So does Facebook have a moral responsibility for its 2%? A moral responsibility to say 'You know what? You should probably use Facebook a little less.'"