By Cogiati — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28940628

How Products Bend Habits: Review of Hooked

Consider for a moment that habits are more real than people. People — Chinese interior designers with two adult children, Persian girls at community college, Vietnamese optometrists — are membranes containing habits. Race, age, sex, class, location aside: the habit of posting food photos on Instagram or tracking your jogs or updating code repos or reviewing movies — the habit acts. It brings bodies to the screen, points eyes, buys, subscribes, tries, or rants approvingly to friends.

This posthuman vision of desiring machines buried within the mind-body apparatus is the core of Nir Eyal’s Hooked.

Summary of Book in Seven Points

  1. Products become intermediaries of everyday life, enabling wants within the long-running lives of specific people. Gossips use Facebook for gossip, writers post writing on Medium.
  2. The more the product is around, the more opportunity it has to influence habits.
  3. Product designers can inject behavioral controls into the population.
  4. Habits are autonomous and very powerful.
  5. Habits create brand loyalty, word of mouth, regular users, and block out competition.
  6. Habits only form when a behavior is frequent or has high perceived utility.
  7. There are lots of motivations to tap into, such as the Bible, that motivate people.

Are these Points True?

Like drugs, this is a delusion, insightful but not true. Let’s review the list of claims above.

  1. Products become intermediaries of everyday life. Yes, but they are therefore also squeezed in very tightly amongst other important things.
  2. Products that are around more get more chance to be used. Sort of. Some products are rarely around but influence behavior quite a bit. You don’t have to have a beer on you all the time to have a very real drinking habit. Products that are around all the time are not necessarily used more. You may have Yelp on your phone but never use it.
  3. Designers design habits. No. Products become part of habits, but companies must adapt to existing user habits and cannot create them from scratch.
  4. Habits are autonomous and powerful. Often not. People used to download mp3s but now most just stream. A video game can have quite a following and then, quickly, not. A very intense habit, like an intense relationship, may burn itself out more quickly.
  5. Do habits create brand loyalty and the rest? Or is it just that these phenomena can be described as composed of habits? Couldn’t another author claim brand loyalty etc. are essentially expressions of love or choice, rather than habit?
  6. Habits only form in the overlap of frequency and use. This varies across individuals. Some people just have more habits than others, having a specific way to use each tool, others may just mash the buttons or try whatever makes sense at the time. I have a system for everything in my kitchen, but this makes me aware that most people do not. Where do the rags live? How do we clean the colander?
  7. There are lots of motivations to tap into. Absolutely. So many that there may not be any worthwhile generalizations about how to access them.

The Hooked model suggests that “sheer force of habit” is the key dynamic, often identifying such a habit as addiction or dependence. This borders on naïveté. The terms “addiction” and “dependence” are used for rhetorical effect only in Hooked, and there is no actual engagement with theories of addiction per se. This book works under the popular, but false, assumption that media control our behavior, even though academic research on the topic abandoned this perspective 70 years ago. In the “hypodermic” model, media inject content into the population potentially against their will. Contemporary research suggests that context, interpretation, and media-specificity are more important than content and you really cannot mind control people with advertising.

Despite these gritty realities, the power of Hooked is its polemic style. Its oversimplifications are a strength. By neglecting the obvious issues of industry, history, marketing, institutions, individuality, and social differentiation, the book helps the reader get in touch with the relation between products and habits.

Habits Over Ideas

Hooked is an important book because it puts front and center what digital product designers take as their primary focus: what people do repeatedly.

Propaganda was the model of the 20th century mostly because World Wars 1 and 2 made it seem like leaflets and speeches could change the world. After creating the discipline of communication, building the industries of marketing and advertising, and giving us the shiny world of commercial art, propaganda and ideology started to look like overblown concepts. By the 1980s, cynicism became widespread in capitalism because media flooded our perception with unreal images of beautiful people wildly happy with shiny products, while real life was never that good. Outside capitalism, many regimes tended to be repressive about free expression, forcing people to say one thing (“the party is great!”) while they knew the opposite was true.

Propaganda is not really so powerful. Broadcasting ideology does not actually let you control people. It’s quite easy to say one thing and do another.

Today, no one believes the messages of propaganda. Despite this personal reality, some people still imagine that everyone else does simply read, believe, and obey.

Habit is probably a better place to focus attention than thinking ever was, and this has been the focus of theorists of ideology for several decades now. Design in general, as a mutation of marketing, takes habits as its basis rather than ideas, and Hooked provides a clearer way to think about that in business terms. Good!

Hooked, however, could use a bit of history. Users adopt habits on smartphone apps and websites because consumers spend a lot of money, the scaling of digital products makes each one cheap so each person can have many, attention is being divided and, for the first time, measured on a mass scale (which means there is more for companies to compete for), and trendy digital things have massive potential markets. Why do I have accounts with Dropbox, Twitter, Google, Quora, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and three banks? Because I pay very little for each service and have ten minutes for each one, usually with six other tabs open. The marginal pushes and pulls of design discussed in the book make less sense for other kinds of products and would make less sense in other kinds of societies.

Social Engineering by Private Powers

The real issue here is the canalization of human behavior. It’s not because “I’m hooked” that I do something, it’s because church or carpool lane or SMS or Passover or coach said. With research and background knowledge of social science, we can give much better explanations of behavior than to simply say people have habits involving apps because they are hooked.

Behavior is definitely important. But buying a product, paying for services, or viewing ads is only a tiny tollbooth; the habit is a great bridge. Behavior can overpower biology or dogma or teachers or the dust that inevitably settles in the living room every hour of every day. Habit can chip away at ancient structures or build up new ones, piece by piece. Changing habits is changing the world, more than changing ideas ever was.

There is a bigger picture to bending habits. Digital products are part of the changing mechanisms of social control in a society advancing from the paradigm of discipline. Customization, upgrades, price discrimination, flexible labor, user profiles, and easy to use interfaces are replacing one-size-fits all solutions, total institutions, standardization, and exclusive contracts. In the current phase of social engineering by private companies (rather than centralized governments), there is much work to be done. While this work is ultimately driven by the firm’s supreme mandate of increased valuation, government and institutions before had their own perverse fealty (self-perpetuation, monopoly, standardization). And where disciplinary institutions brought us mass production, universal education, sanitation systems to control disease, and powerful armies, the mechanisms of control have just begun to provide regulated freedoms that entrance and delight huge swaths of the population already.

Though rarely explicit in Hooked, the business opportunities around products designed for a world of habits are the real point of the book. And, to understand how habits pick up products, adapt to them, and grow, it can help to see the bigger picture. Products do not, themselves, create habits. Habits are not reducible to addictions. The goal is not to get people “hooked.” The goal is to find niches in existing behaviors and let desire create new habits, of brand loyalty, product evangelism, connection, or whatever else. How to direct those habits is beyond the scope of the book and, I admit, of this review.