“Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” with Nir Eyal

January Event Review: “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” with Nir Eyal

By Rohan Balwani

Dubbed by the M.I.T. Technology Review as “The Prophet of Habit Forming Technology,” Nir Eyal spoke at the January 13th meeting.  He presented his ideas about the psychology behind habit forming technology and gave a 30,000 foot view of the concepts in his book, Hooked: How to build Habit-Forming Products.

Nir captivated the audience by describing how the best products and services such as Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest are great at changing daily behaviors of people, and how they did it in a very short amount of time.  He began by explaining that embedded inside each successful product is a hook – an experience designed to connect the user’s problem to their solution.

Nir explained that companies such as Facebook employ a loop that repeats over and over, enticing users to spend a large amount of time using the company’s service.  The loop starts with a trigger, which leads to an action, followed by a reward, then an investment, which leads to another trigger and so on.

Trigger: There are two types of triggers – External and Internal Triggers.  The external triggers are usually buttons that provide some information about what to do next such as “Click Here” or “Learn More.”  With Internal Triggers, the information for what to do next is informed through an association in the user’s memory and is usually an emotion.  Negative emotions such as boredom, loneliness, and fatigued are powerful internal triggers.  Nir pointed to a study that showed that people suffering from depression check email more.  Loneliness drives a user to Facebook and boredom to YouTube.

Nir shared what made Instagram so habit-forming.  Apart from external triggers of friends, and interfacing with Facebook, Instagram appeased internal triggers such as the fear of losing a moment, Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and loneliness.

Action: Habit-Forming products must employ the simplest action done in anticipation of a reward such as scrolling on Pinterest, the search button on Google and the play button on YouTube.

According to B.J. Fogg, for any behavior to occur, we need motivation, ability and a trigger.

b = m + a + t

Motivation: There are 6 factors that can increase motivation – Seeking Pleasure, Avoiding Pain, Seeking Hope, Avoiding Fear, Seeking Acceptance, and Avoiding Rejection.

Ability: The capacity to do a particular action. There are 6 factors that can increase or decrease ability – Time, Money, Physical Effort, Brain Cycles, Social Deviance, and Non-Routine.

If something is easy enough and there is a high motivation, it is likely that the trigger will succeed.  Nir then showed the example of the Twitter website over the years.  The cleaner layout in 2013 increased the number of signups compared to the busier layout from 2009.  Hence by decreasing the cognitive clutter, Twitter was able to increase conversions.

Reward: Nir spoke about a study in lab rats and humans about the activation of the Nucleus Accumbens (NA).  The NA is activated when we crave.  He explained that our reward system activates with anticipation of the reward and calms when we get the reward.  Nir informed the audience that companies can supercharge/manufacture craving by creating mystery.  The NA is stimulated by variability.  Habit-forming technology companies employ 1 or more of 3 types of variable rewards.

  • Tribe: Social rewards or empathetic joy, partnership, competition.
  • Hunt: The search for resources earns variable material rewards.  The Feed in apps like Facebook, Twitter, etc. became very popular because scrolling to find something that interests the user is akin to playing at a slot machine in Vegas.
  • Self Achievement: The rewards of mastery, competency and completion.  Conquering our inbox, or app notifications is an example of a self achievement reward.

Variable rewards by themselves are not good enough; a link between the variable reward and the internal trigger must exist.  The point of variable rewards is to scratch the users itch and leave them wanting more.

Investment: Nir claimed that the investment hook is probably the most overlooked.  This hook occurs when user puts something into the product in hope for future reward.

Investments increase the likelihood of the next pass through the hook loop in two ways:

  • Investments load the trigger for the next hook.  For example, sending a message on WhatsApp is an open invitation for an external trigger to be returned.
  • Investments store value, improving the product with more use. For example, the more reputation points a user has on eBay, the more valuable the product is to the user as it can earn him more money.

According to Nir, the company that can gain a monopoly of the mind is likely to succeed in the market.  Nir also briefly addressed the question of the morality of this type of manipulation by discussing a particular product that uses hooks to design healthy habits.  He concluded his presentation with a quote he borrowed from Gandhi and then modified it to read “Build the change you want to see in the world.”

Rohan Balwani has 7 years of experience in engineering with a passion for finance and product management.