Habit-forming technology Part I — A new frontier from the past

Or how the handling of habits and actions was, is, and will always be machined
Oasis in the Desert. Artwork by #thepacedteam

Habit-forming technology. Yes, it is the technology behind forming a habit, and it is most commonplace in the consumer Internet where we all belong. Just take a look at your smartphone screen.

It is based on the trigger-action-reward sequence that has its root back in Ivan Pavlov’s experiment. Pavlov’s dog (not the band, of course) helped the famous scientist develop his “conditional reflex” theory, showing that when a buzzer was sounded in subsequent time with food being presented to the dog in consecutive sequences, the dog would initially salivate when the food was presented. The dog would later come to associate the sound with the presentation of the food and salivate upon the presentation of that stimulus.

Nowadays, the evolution of technology seems to have turned us all to Pavlov’s dogs. A Facebook notification, the sound of an incoming e-mail, the buzz of a twitter comment on a status we have just uploaded, urge us to reply, to correspond, to engage ourselves with our social media and a variety of digital products in an unprecedented scale. A Luddite would start preaching about the hazardous consequences of the advent of technology that strips us off our freedom, but a closer and less biased look will reveal that, habit, addiction and conditioned reflex seems to be an integral characteristic of the human nature.

The clap of a thunder, the church bell that tolls, the whistle of a train, have all existed before our computer and smartphone screens, equally triggering feelings, reflexes and impulses.

The conditioned reflex exists in our nature, just like habits and addictions. Their types vary, be it smoking, eating chocolate, having a glass of wine after dinner, counting the seconds until the traffic light turns green. Which of those is a habit and which an addiction?

There is a simplified way to outline a main difference between the two:

An addiction is a compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance and it’s always bad, in terms of hurting the one who has it and the addicted person therefore wanting to cease having it.

A habit is an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought. It is not bad for the person who has it, but still it is not impossible that a habit might turn to addiction.

The common ground is that both habit and addiction can coexist, and revolve around one person. Just like a product that intends to convince you it is tailor-made for you and you alone, with you being the bearer, the preacher, the evangelist of it, as if it were made by you, you being the center of what the product represents. This phenomenon has become commonplace in the social media and other technology products that are designed to fit into each and everyone’s mentality and character.

For a long time, the methodology for designing habit-forming products was as follows:

build the product, put it before the public, and watch it go viral or just be forgotten. However, lately, the teams behind such products have become more deliberate.

Psychology and behavioral science along with a series of tools derived from human sciences have become the arsenal of designers. They offer a variety of methods — the outcome of centuries of observation and classification- that render the design of a habit-forming product an art and a science at the same time.

Now the target is to lead users into a repetitive procedure, by triggering their action, rewarding it (or creating the promise of a reward) and making sure the reward will be perceived as an investment, triggering their next action, in a virtually endless loop. Nir Eyal, author of “Hooked: How to build habit-forming products”, describes the cycle as follows:

“It starts with a trigger, a prod that propels users into a four-step loop. Think of the e-mail notification you get when a friend tags you in a photo on Facebook. The trigger prompts you to take an action — say, to log in to Facebook. That leads to a reward: viewing the photo and reading the comments left by others. In the fourth step, you inject a personal stake by making an investment: say, leaving your own comment in the thread.”

The thorough study of human nature and of our fundamental reflexes opens a new window in the way products are designed, especially the ones that lie in the digital world. The goal is to turn the use and the interaction with, or via a product, to a habit.

Nevertheless, as we mentioned before, a habit might turn into an addiction, and there is a fine line that needs not be crossed.


Originally published at medium.com on October 22, 2015.

Like what you read? Give Paced a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.