Eyal: Hooked – How to build habit-forming products

Nir Eyal sets out a framework for building engagement with users of a product, based on repeatedly guiding users through a series of ‘hooks’ to form habits. “The ultimate goal of a habit-forming product is to solve the user’s pain by creating an association so that the user identifies the company’s product or service as the source of relief.” Portfolio/Penguin 2014.

People use their smartphones a lot

  • 79% of smartphone owners check their device within 15 minutes of waking up every day.
  • People use their smartphones around 150 times a day, according to industry professionals

What is a habit?

  • A habit is an automatic behavior triggered by situational cues.
  • Habits require little or no conscious thought.
  • A product has high habit-forming potential if it is seen as useful and is used frequently. Fundamentally your product must solve users’ problems.

The four stages of the Hook Model

1. Trigger

A trigger instructs the user to take an action. Triggers can be external or internal.

Habit-forming products start by using external triggers like email, app icons or notifications, but over repeated hook cycles users form associations with internal triggers. Internal triggers are based on existing behaviours or emotions.

  • External – tells the user what to do next by placing information in the user’s environment. e.g paid (unsustainable, earned (media and PR), relationship (peer recommendations), owned (“Owned triggers consume a piece of real estate in the user’s environment. They consistently show up in daily life and it is ultimately up to the user to opt in to allowing these triggers to appear.” e.g. an app icon, email newsletter). “Without owned triggers and users’ tacit permission to enter their attentional space, it is difficult to cue users frequently enough to change their behavior.”
  • Internal – associations in the user’s memory tell them what to do next. Achieved by tightly coupling a product with a thought, emotion or existing routine.
    e.g. “A need is triggered in Yin’s mind every time a moment is worth holding on to, and for her, the immediate solution is Instagram. Yin no longer requires an external stimulus to prompt her to use the app – the internal trigger happens on its own.”
    So you need to understand a user’s internal triggers – the pains they seek to solve. Focus on these emotions rather than product features. (“Only an accurate understanding of our user’s underlying needs can inform the product requirements.”)
    And don’t just ask people what they want “talking to users to reveal these wants will likely prove ineffective because they themselves don’t know which emotions motivate them… You’ll often find that people’s declared preferences – what they say they want – are far different from their revealed preferences – what they actually do.”
    Ask “why” 5 times to arrive at an emotion.

2. Action

Activity undertaken by a user in anticipation of a reward.
To increase the likelihood of an action being taken:

  1. Make it easy
  2. Maximise the motivation

Core motivations:

  • Seek pleasure and avoid pain
  • Seek hope and avoid fear
  • Seek social acceptance, avoid rejection

The 6 elements of simplicity:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Physical effort
  • Brain cycles
  • Social acceptance/deviance
  • Whether an action is routine/disruptive of routine

To make action more likely, simplify it with regard to the user’s scarcest resource at that moment.

Utilise heuristics to encourage people to take action:

  • the scarcity effect: items that appear scarce are valued more highly
  • the framing effect: people assess information in context – e.g. ignoring Joshua Bell when he performed in the subway, or enjoying identical wine more if told it cost $90 rather than $5.
  • the anchoring effect: people often fixate on one piece of information when making a decision, e.g. buying something because it’s on sale even though another item is actually better value.
  • the endowed progress effect: people want to continue with progress towards a goal. So make them seem like they are already making good progress – e.g. giving loyalty cards starting part-way through rather than at 0%. In a study, both groups had to purchase 8 further car washes to gain a free one, but one group started with 2/10 completion rather than 0/8. This group had an 82% higher completion rate. Linkedin Profile strength uses this heuristic too.

Respecting people’s autonomy makes them more likely to take the action you want.
Telling people “But you are free to accept or refuse” makes them more likely to comply. So when you make a request, affirm their right to choose.
Leverage “familiar behaviors users want to do, instead of have to do.”
“Companies that successfully change behaviors present users with an implicit choice between their old way of doing things and a new, more convenient way to fulfil existing needs.”

3. Variable Reward

Predictable rewards don’t create desire. But variable rewards are compelling. This isn’t because of the sensation from the reward itself, but the need to alleviate the craving for the reward.

e.g. looking through social media and scanning through to find material that might be relevant to you. “The exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common, sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward.”

Types of variable reward:

  1. The Tribe: feeling “accepted, attractive, important and included”. e.g. people liking your Facebook post or upvoting your Stack Overflow answer. These social rewards, of connectedness to other people, are all variable.
  2. The Hunt: seeking resources to aid survival e.g. material resources or information. e.g. searching through Twitter to find something interesting, or carrying out a Google search to answer a question.
  3. The Self: acquiring a sense of competency. e.g. getting better at a computer game, or improving at codeacademy. In both cases you have feedback on your performance, are improving your self and your skills, and experience variable rewards.

On gamification (“the user of gamelike elements in nongame environments”)

Points, badges and leaderboards only prove effective if there is a fundamental match between the customer’s problem and the company’s solution. Otherwise no amount of gamification will help.
“Likewise, if the user has no ongoing itch at all – say, no need to return repeatedly to a site that lacks any value beyond the initial visit – gamification will fail because of a lack of inherent interest in the product or service offered.”

“Variable rewards are not magic fairy dust that a product designer can sprinkle onto a product to make it instantly more attractive. Rewards must fit into the narrative of why the product is used and align with the user’s internal triggers and motivations.”

4. Investment

The user performs some work that will improve their next experience of the service. This increases the odds that they will pass through the hook cycle again.
Investment happens after the variable reward phase, so users are primed to reciprocate.

Users could be asked to invest content, data, followers, reputation/social capital, skill, time or money.
e.g. inviting friends, stating preferences, building assets, following users, adding photos to Facebook or data to LinkedIn, building a reputation on a forum.

Josh Elman, early senior product manager at LinkedIn: “If we could get users to enter just a little information, they were much more likely to return.”

Investment utilises these heuristics:

  • Subjective value increases as expended time and effort increases. e.g. people value their own origami creations five times higher than other people do.
  • We seek to be consistent with past behaviors.
    Two groups of people were asked whether they’d put up “large, unsightly” “DRIVE CAREFULLY” signs in their front gardens. Only 17% of the first group agreed, but 76% of the second agreed.
    This was because two weeks previously, the second group had been asked to place a much smaller, three-inch sign “BE A SAFE DRIVER” in their windows. They wanted to be consistent with this behavior when the next request was made.
    “Little investments, such as placing a tiny sign in a window, can lead to big changes in future behaviors.”
  • We try to avoid cognitive dissonance.

The five fundamental questions for building effective hooks

  1. What do users really want? What pain is your product relieving? (Internal trigger)
  2. What brings users to your service? (External trigger)
  3. What is the simplest action users take in anticipation of reward, and how can you simplify your product to make this action easier? (Action)
  4. Are users fulfilled by the reward yet left wanting more? (Variable reward)
  5. What ‘bit of work’ do users invest in your product? Does it load the next trigger and store value to improve the product with use? (Investment)

Be wary when designing a product that you do not use yourself, even if doing so for positive reasons.

“Heady altruistic ambitions can at times outpace reality. Too often, designers of manipulative technology have a strong motivation to improve the lives of their users, but when pressed they admit they would not actually use their own creations. Their holier-than-thou products often try to ‘gamify’ some task no one really wants to do by inserting run-of-the-mill incentives such as badges or points that don’t actually hold value for their users.”
“fitness apps, charity Web sites, and products that claim to suddenly turn hard work into fun often fall into this category.”
Peddlers tend to lack the empathy and insights needed to create something users truly want. Often the peddler’s project results in a time-wasting failure because the designers did not fully understand their users. As a result, no one finds the product useful.”

The stages of Habit Testing

  1. Find out who the habitual users are of your product/service.
  2. Find out how they started using the product to identify the Habit Path – “a series of similar actions shared by your most loyal users”
    “For example, in its early days, Twitter discovered that once new users followed thirty other members, they hit a tipping point that dramatically increased the odds they would keep using the site.”
  3. Alter your product to nudge new users down these same habit paths. E.g. twitter encouraging new users to instantly begin following others.

Opportunities for new habits are presented by new technologies, new behaviours, new interfaces.