Design Bite #1 — The Habit Loop

by Nicolas Perez Cervantes | December 5, 2016 | More Articles

Design Bites is a collection of articles on different topics that help us expand our knowledge as designers. Each design bite represents a unique topic that relates to different fields of study such as cognitive science, philosophy, or ethnography, and are pulled from specific sources such as books, articles, or podcasts. Their main goal is not only to help us learn new concepts but also to be actionable and useful in our day to day design process.

The Habit Loop

Book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business Author Charles Duhigg

Illustration by Nicolas Perez Cervantes

Habits

Our daily lives are mostly composed of habits. Habits are repetitive actions that happen automatically, and over time they can have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, finances, and happiness.

Habits are formed as a way for the brain to conserve energy. By creating habits, the brain doesn’t have to think constantly about basic, mundane behaviors, such as walking or choosing what to eat, which allows us to spend more energy on complex actions such as problem-solving or reacting to unexpected situations. Most habits can be deliberately designed into our daily lives, but some happen spontaneously without us realizing it. Some habits can be easily changed or broken, but others are so strong that our brains cling to them at the exclusion of all else. Normally we attribute habits to individuals, but organizations can be shaped and molded by them as well. As Geoffrey Hodgson, an expert in organizational pattern, said, “Routines are the organizational analogue of habits.” If an organization can understand its own habits it can transform itself. To be able to create or change a habit one first needs to understand how habits work.

Habit Loop

According to Charles Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times, a habit is composed of three key elements: cue, routine, and reward. These elements fall into what he calls the “habit loop,” where a cue triggers a routine, which in turn leads to a reward.

For example, if a person leaves her running clothes on the bed, it acts as a cue for her to go for a run. After the run, she makes a tasty protein shake which serves as a reward for accomplishing her task.

Cravings

In order for habits to form and be continuously repeated, a craving needs to be developed. When we receive a reward, our brain is stimulated by a pleasure response.

A craving is created when we start feeling this same pleasure response before the reward. You crave the reward before attaining it.

Thanks to these neurological cravings, we develop strong habits. When a strong craving is made, people fall into a habit automatically applying the routine without thinking. Cravings are what make habits repetitive. Without cravings, a new habit would be lost because people would stop seeking the reward.

Take email, for example. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates, it triggers the anticipation of a distraction. The anticipation is the craving, opening email is the routine, and the distraction is the reward.

Creating a New Habit

The best way to create a new habit is to spark a craving. For instance, following the fitness example, if I want to create a habit of running, I allow myself a protein shake as a reward after each run. Over time, if I start anticipating the protein shake, this reward can become a craving that propels me to develop a habit of running.

Changing a Habit

To change a habit, it is easier if the old cue and reward are kept, and a new routine is learned. An example of this is changing an alcoholic’s habit of drinking after work. A trigger could be finishing work and craving company. The routine is drinking, and the reward is the social interaction. Alcoholics Anonymous substitutes the routine of drinking with going to support groups. The reward of social interaction is still satisfied, and over time the person exchanges the routine of drinking with the routine of going to AA meetings.

Application in Design

So how can we utilize the habit loop as a design tool? The most obvious and widely used example is fitness trackers or wearables. Fitness trackers are designed to motivate users to exercise, track their progress, and gain some sort of reward.

Fitbit uses haptic feedback to remind people to get moving. Initially, Fitbit’s reward system was based on simply displaying personal metrics, but this did not develop a neurological craving, so they added badges and social challenges. The act of collecting badges triggers a small amount of dopamine, but it is not meaningful enough to create a craving. The social challenges happen through the app rather than in person which limit social interactions to certain experiences.

On the other hand, Strava has had success at retaining users. Strava is a social network for athletes that leverages a digital interface to motivate people towards their fitness goals. They understood that the reward for many is the social interaction, so they designed challenges that physically brought people together to exercise, which sparked a stronger craving. One possible explanation for why their product is so successful is because it satisfies a higher psychological need in people.

Strava includes other motivational mechanics to keep people engaged their product. However, their interaction model was initially built on a psychological reward that is positioned higher than Fitbit’s physiological reward, as mapped to Maslow’s Pyramid of Need. This leads us to hypothesize that the strength of cravings might be influenced by what needs they are serving.

Conclusion

Every day we engage in our habits constantly and often unconsciously. Over time, our habits have a big impact on our lifestyle. Thus, we need to pay attention to what these habits are and understand how we can change them or create new ones in order to improve our lifestyles. When we design applications that depend on making habits to create behavioral change, we need to understand how they work. By finding the right reward to spark a craving, the habit will become strong and repetitive. With this knowledge, we, as designers, can help create or change habits which will have a positive impact, not only at the individual level but at a collective level as well.