You wake up. You check Facebook, maybe your email. You have a shower, brush your teeth, make breakfast. Head in your car and go to work. Listen to the same playlist. Wear the same clothes in your wardrobe. And you don’t even think about it — you just do it.
Habits form the basis of our behaviour. According to one study published through Duke University in 2006, 40% of our behaviour is habitual. This isn’t always a bad thing. Barack Obama has said he only wears suits of two colours and eats the same breakfast to free up mental capacity for bigger decisions.
The holy grail for digital product makers is for their offering to become part of a customer’s habitual behaviour. Being a “must have” is one thing. Forming part of your customer’s unconscious behaviour is altogether different — it’s the jackpot.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. But for many businesses the ability to create a product or service so inviting users can’t help but interact with it daily, is actually closer than they realise. They just need to follow a simple principle:
Connect a user’s problem to your solution with enough frequency to make it a habit.
Entrepreneur and investor Nir Eyal, who founded two successful tech companies in the 2000s and taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, distilled this ability into a methodology he calls the “hook model”.
At its simplest form, the hook model describes how businesses can fundamentally change behaviour within their users, and create day-to-day habits around their products. The heart of the principle is that businesses should always seek to connect a user’s problem to your solution with enough frequency to make it a habit.
Defining Habits as “automatic behaviors triggered by situational cues”; things we do with little or no conscious thought. Companies that attach “internal triggers” enjoy several benefits to their bottom line. Companies can change behavior by guiding users through a series of experiences called ‘Hooks’, the more often users run through these hooks, the more likely they are to form habits.
Hook Model — A four-phase process companies use to form habits; through consecutive hook cycles, successful products reach their ultimate goal of unprompted user engagement, bringing users back repeatedly, without depending on costly advertising or aggressive messaging.
- Trigger (External or Internal)
- Variable Reward
Trigger — A ‘trigger’ is the actuator of behavior; comes in two types — External and Internal
Action — The behavior done in anticipation of a reward
Variable Reward — Rewarding users by solving a problem, reinforcing their motivation for the action taken in the previous phase.
Investment — This implies an action that improves the service for the next go-around.
Teaches innovators how to build products to help people do the things they already want to do but, for lack of a solution, don’t do. When harnessed correctly, technology can enhance lives through healthful behaviors that improve our relationships, make us smarter, and increase productivity. Hooks connect the user’s problem with a company’s solution frequently enough to form a habit. The convergence of access, data and speed is making the world a more habit-forming place. Businesses that create customer habits gain a significant competitive advantage.
For some businesses, forming habits is a critical component to success, but not every business requires habitual user engagement. User habits increase how long and how frequently customers use a product, resulting in higher CLTV: the amount of money made from a customer before that person switches to a competitor, stops using the product, or dies. Users who continuously find value in a product are more likely to tell their friends about it. Hooked users become brand evangelists. ‘More-is-More’ principle — more frequent usage drives more viral growth. ‘Viral Cycle Time’ is the amount of time it takes a user to invite another user and it can have a massive impact. The nontransferable value created and stored inside the habit forming products discourages users from leaving. User habits increase a business’s return on investment; Higher Customer lifetime value, greater pricing flexibility, supercharged growth and a sharpened competitive edge together equal a more powerful bang for the company’s buck. A company can begin to determine its product’s habit-forming potential by plotting two factors — ‘Frequency’ — how often the behavior occurs and ‘Perceived Utility’ — how useful and rewarding the behavior is in the user’s mind over alternative solutions. ‘Painkillers’ solve an obvious need, relieving a specific pain, and often have quantifiable markets. ‘Vitamins’, by contrast do not necessarily solve an obvious pain point. Instead they appeal to users’ emotional rather than the functional needs. Habit-forming products often start as nice-to-haves (vitamins) but once the habit is formed, they become must-haves (painkillers). Habit-forming products alleviate users’ pain by relieving a pronounced itch. Designing habit-forming products is a form of manipulation. Product builders would benefit from a bit of introspection before attempting to hook users to make sure they are building healthy habits, not unhealthy addictions.
Triggers cue the user to take action and are the first step in the Hook Model. Habits are not created, they are built upon. A trigger is the actuator of behavior. Trigger comes in two types — ‘External’ and ‘Internal’
- External Triggers —
These are embedded with information, which tells the user what to do next. Examples — Coca-Cola vending machine and Mint.com email provide good examples of explicit external triggers. These also convey implicit information about the next desired user action. Example, we have learned that Website links are for clicking and App icons are for tapping. Types of External triggers -
a. Paid Triggers — Advertising, Search engine marketing and other paid channels are commonly used to get users’ attention and prompt them to act. Paying for reengagement is unsustainable for most business models, companies generally use paid triggers to acquire new users and then leverage other triggers to bring them back.
b. Earned Triggers — For earned triggers to drive ongoing user acquisition, companies must keep their product in the limelight. These cannot be bought directly, but they often require investment in the form of time spent on public and media relations.
c. Relationship Triggers — One person telling others about a product or service can be a highly effective external trigger for action. These can create viral hyper-growth and sometimes drive growth because people love to tell one another about a wonderful offer.
d. Owned Triggers — These consume a piece of real estate in the user’s environment. They consistently show up in daily life and it is ultimately up to user to opt in to allowing these triggers to appear. While paid, earned and relationship triggers drive new user acquisition, owned triggers prompt repeat engagement until a habit is formed.
Internal Triggers —
Internal triggers tell the user what to do next through associations stored in the user’s memory. When a product becomes tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion or a pre-existing routine, it leverages an internal trigger. These manifest automatically in our mind. Connecting internal triggers with a product is the brass ring of consumer technology. In the case of internal triggers, the information about what to do next is encoded as a learned association in the user’s memory.
Negative emotions frequently serve as internal triggers. Product designers must know their user’s internal triggers; the pain they seek to solve. 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. What would your users want to achieve by using your solution? Where and when will they use it? What emotions influence their use and will trigger them to action. If you want to build a product that is relevant to folks, you need to put yourself in their shoes and you need to write a story from their side. So, we spend a lot of time writing what’s called user narratives. A clear description of the users — their desires, emotions, the context with which they use the product-is paramount to building the right solution. Tools like Customer Development, Usability Studies and Empathy Maps are examples of methods for learning about potential users. Try asking the question “Why” as many times as it takes to get to an emotion; “5 Whys Method”. To build a habit-forming product, makers need to understand which user emotions may be tied to internal triggers and know how to leverage external triggers to drive the user to action.
If the user does not take action, the trigger is useless. The action is the simplest behavior in anticipation of reward.
Fogg behavior Model posits that there are three ingredients required to initiate any and all behaviors (B=MAT);
- The user must have sufficient Motivation.
2. The user must have the ability to complete the desired action and
3. A trigger must be present to activate the behavior.
To increase the desired behavior, ensure a clear trigger is present; next, increase ability by making the action easier to do; finally, align with the right motivator. Every behavior is driven by one of three core Motivators;
- Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain
2. Seeking hope and avoiding fear
3. Seeking social acceptance while avoiding social rejection
Motivation — While a trigger cues an action, motivation defined the level of desire to take that action; “the energy for action”. Negative emotions such as fear can also be powerful motivators.
Ability — Three simple steps to create innovative products -
- Understand the reason people use a product or service
- Layout the steps the customer must take to get the job done
- Once the series of tasks from intention to outcome is understood, simply start removing steps until you reach the simplest possible process. Consequently, any technology or product that significantly reduces the steps to complete a task will enjoy high adoption rates by the people it assists.
To successfully simplify a product, we must remove obstacles that stand in the user’s way. Elements of Simplicity — Fogg describes six “elements of simplicity” -
- Time — How long it takes to complete an action
2. Money — The fiscal cost of taking an action
3. Physical effort — The amount of labor involved in taking the action
4. Brain cycles — The level of mental effort and focus required to take an action
5. Social deviance — How accepted the behavior is by others
6. Non-routine — How much the action matches or disrupts existing routines.
The easier an action, the more likely the user is to do it and to continue the cycle through the next phase of the Hook Model. Make your product so simple that users already know how to use it and you have got a winner. The appearance of scarcity affected their perception of value. The mind takes shortcuts informed by our surroundings to make quick and sometimes erroneous judgements. People often anchor to one piece of information when making a decisions. The endowed progress effect, a phenomenon that increases motivation as people believe they are nearing a goal. Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts we take to make quick decisions. Product designers can utilize many of the hundreds of heuristics to increase the likelihood of their desired action.
Reducing the steps needed to complete the intended outcome increases the likelihood of that outcome. In this phase you reward your users by solving a problem, reinforcing their motivation for the action taken in the previous phase.
Understanding Variability —
- To hold our attention, products must have an ongoing degree of novelty.
- Novelty sparks our interest, makes us pay attention and — like a baby encountering a friendly dog for the first time — we seem to love it.
Rewards of the Tribe, the Hunt and the Self -
- Habit forming products utilize one or more of these variable reward types;
- Rewards of the Tribe — It is the search for social rewards fueled by connectedness with other people. Our brains are adapted to seek rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important and included. Rewards of the Tribe keeps users coming back, wanting more.
- Rewards of the Hunt — It is the search for material resources and information. The need to acquire physical objects, such as food and other supplies that aid our survival, is part of our brains’ operating system.
- Rewards of the Self — It is the search for intrinsic rewards of mastery, competence and completion. These are variable rewards we seek for a more personal form of gratification.
Only by understanding what truly matters to users can a company correctly match the right variable reward to their intended behavior. Rewards must fit into the narrative of ‘why’ the product is used and align with the user’s internal triggers and motivations. Too many companies build their products betting users will do what they make them do instead of letting them do what they want 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 fulfill existing needs. To change behavior, products must ensure the users feel in control. People must want to use the service, not feel they have to.Finite Variability — An experience that becomes predictable after use. Experiences with finite variability become less engaging because they eventually become predictable. Businesses must constantly churn out new content and experiences to cater to their consumers’ insatiable desire for novelty. Products utilizing infinite variability stand a better change of holding on to users’ attention, while those with finite variability must constantly reinvent themselves just to keep pace. When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing a new behavior. Psychologists refer to this as “reactance”. Maintaining a sense of user autonomy is a requirement for repeat engagement. Variable rewards must satisfy users’ needs while leaving them wanting to re-engage with the product.
This the phase in which users are asked to do a bit of work. Investments are about the anticipation of longer-tern rewards, not immediate gratification. The more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that our labor leads to love. The more effort we put into something, the more likely we are to value it; we are more likely to be consistent with our past behaviors; and finally we change our preferences to avoid cognitive dissonance. In this phase, however asking users to do a bit of work comes after users have received variable rewards, not before. The stored value users put into the product increases the likelihood they will use it again in the future and comes in a variety of forms. Storing Value -
- Content — The collection of memories and experiences, in aggregate, becomes more valuable over time and the service becomes harder to leave as users’ personal investment in the site grows.
- Data — The company (LinkedIn) found that the more information users invested in the site, the more committed they became to it. If we could get users to enter just a little information, they were much more likely to return. The tiny bit of effort associated with providing more user data created a powerful hook to bring people back to the service.
- Followers — Investing in following the right people increases the value of the product by displaying more relevant and interesting content in each user’s Twitter feed. It also tells Twitter a lot about its users, which in turn improves the service overall.
- Reputation — Reputation makes users, both buyers and sellers, more likely to stick with whichever service they have invested their efforts in to maintain a high-quality score.
- Skill — Once users have invested the effort to acquire a skill, they are less likely to switch to a competing product.
Investments increase the likelihood of users passing through the Hook again by loading the next trigger to start the cycle all over again.
Five Fundamental questions for building effective hooks
- What do users really want? What pain is your product relieving? (Internal trigger)
- What brings users to your service? (External trigger)
- What is the simplest action users take in anticipation of reward, and how can you simplify your product to make this action easier? (Action)
- Are users fulfilled by the reward yet left wanting more? (Variable Reward)
- 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)
A simple decision support tool for entrepreneurs, employees, investors who can use long before product is shipped or code is written.
- Facilitators use their own product and believe it can materially improve people’s lives. They have the highest chance of success because they most closely understand the needs of the users.
- Peddlers believe their product can materially improve people’s lives but do not use it themselves. They must beware of the hubris and inauthenticity that comes from building solutions for people they do not understand firsthand.
- Entertainers use their product but do not believe it can improve people’s lives. They can be successful, but without making the lives of others better in some way, the entertainer’s products often lack staying power.
- Dealers neither use the product not believe it can improve people’s lives. They have the lowest chance of finding long-term success and often find themselves in morally precarious positions.
It is a process inspired by the “build, measure, learn” methodology championed by the lean start-up movement. Habit Testing offers insights and actionable data to inform the design of habit-forming products. Habit Testing helps clarify who your devotees are, what parts (if any) of your product are habit forming, and why those aspects of your product are changing user behavior.
Habit Testing includes three steps — Identify, Codify and Modify.
- Identify — First, dig into the data to identify how people are using the product.
- Codify — Next, codify these findings in search of habitual users. To generate new hypothesis, study the actions and paths taken by the devoted users.
- Modify — Finally, modify the product to influence more users to follow the same path as your habitual users and then evaluate results and continue to modify as needed.
Where to look for Habit-Forming Opportunities
Business models for delivering customer value or methods for profitable customer acquisition, both are necessary components of any successful business, start to find a way to monetize and grow. Instead of asking ‘what problem should I solve?’, ask ‘what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?’ You can find business opportunities from the nascent behaviors among early adopters. Identifying areas where a new technology makes cycling through the Hook Model faster, more frequent, or more rewarding provides fertile ground for developing new habit-forming products. New interfaces lead to transformative behaviour change and business oppurtunities.
Nir’s Hooked Model in Slideshare
MBA597 Must Read — Hooked by Nir Eyal
Behavior by Design (Part 1 and Part 2)
Nir Eyal — Building Habit Forming Products