How to turn your product into your customer’s habit

The science of getting customers hooked so they come back for more

Entrepreneur, professor and author Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal holds the key to some powerful information — the formula for manufacturing desire. An entrepreneur, professor and author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” Eyal has spent years studying what it takes to change customer behavior. He calls it “behavioral design,” and it’s exactly the kind of thing Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have expertly executed, making their products happy habits for the blissfully tech-addicted. At the upcoming Digital Experience Workshop in July, he’ll share his methods with retailers. Before we head to California for the event, we had a few questions.

Why do you think it’s so important for retailers to create not just a good experience, but a habit-forming one?

Nir Eyal: At my last company I worked at the intersection of gaming and advertising, and I saw all kinds of tactics used to change customer behavior. I noticed that many people in the industry didn’t know why certain things worked or the psychological principles driving behavior — they just knew they worked.

As an entrepreneur, I spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall trying to figure out why people were or were not engaging with the products my company built. Many designers experience this same frustration. Some products fly while others flop, and we are never quite sure why.

When my company was finally sold, I decided I needed to understand user behavior better before starting another venture. I wanted to find out what made some experiences habit-forming, and that’s really been the central question with my work — how do products create habits? How do some companies draw users back again and again without wasting money on expensive advertising or spammy marketing tactics?

I spent years poring over consumer psychology texts, behavioral economics books and human-computer interaction research, but didn’t find practical tools for building repeat engagement. So I decided to write the book I couldn’t find.

“As interfaces have shrunk from desktops, to laptops, to mobile devices, and now to wearables, habits become more important because there just isn’t the screen space to trigger people to action.”

I also believe that as interfaces have shrunk from desktops, to laptops, to mobile devices, and now to wearables, habits become more important because there just isn’t the screen space to trigger people to action the way software once could. There just isn’t the space, and so habits matter more than ever.

Give us a sneak peek at how to create a habit-forming product.

NE: “Hooks” are experiences that connect users’ problems to a company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit. Hooks are in all sorts of products we use with little or no conscious thought. Over time, customers form associations that spark unprompted engagement. In other words, habits.

Use of the product is typically associated with an emotional pain point, an existing routine or situation. For example, what product do people use when they’re feeling lonely and seek connection? Facebook, of course! What do we do when we feel uncertain? We Google! What about when we’re bored? Many people open YouTube, Pinterest, check sports scores or stock prices. There are lots of products that address the pain of boredom. In the four-step process I describe in my book, I detail how products use hooks to create these powerful associations.

How is the hook model different than the approach a retailer might typically take to market or sell a product?

NE: Today, retailers tend to rely on the “mere exposure effect” to stay top-of-mind. They do this by spending billions in advertising. This technique works, but if you think about it, you’ve rarely seen an ad for Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Slack. Why is that? It’s because these companies don’t rely on expensive advertising to change consumers’ minds. It’s the experience itself that forms new habits. It’s important to learn how these companies do it, so we can create habit-forming products to improve our customers’ lives as well.

What questions should retailers ask themselves when trying to build an addictive experience?

NE: There are five fundamental questions a company needs to ask themselves when building a habit-forming product:

  1. What do users really want? What pain is your product relieving? (Internal trigger)
  2. What brings users to your service? (External trigger)
  3. What is the simplest action users take in anticipation of reward, and how can you simplify your product to make this action easier? (Action)
  4. Are users fulfilled by the reward, yet left wanting more? (Variable reward)
  5. 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)
“What is the simplest action users take in anticipation of reward, and how can you simplify your product to make this action easier?”

Do you ever use your hook method to trick yourself into good personal habits? How?

NE: What makes me happy is not succumbing to certain habits. As a writer, I depend on focused concentration to synthesize new ideas. To me, the constant temptation to succumb to a mindless habit like checking email is a constant threat. I feel consistently happier when I successfully overcome habits I don’t want in my life and maintain focus on the things I want to accomplish. Truth be told, this isn’t easy, and I’ve had to implement several strategies to prevent distraction.

For example, when I work, I use a program that shuts off the Internet for a fixed period of time and makes it impossible to turn back on — that’s the only way I can get any writing done.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

You’ve been speaking on this topic since your book came out. What have you learned through the process of sharing your model with others?

NE: There are two reasons I wrote “Hooked.” First, I want to help people build products that create healthy habits. I think there is so much we can do to help our users live happier, healthier, more productive lives, by designing healthy habits.

“I want to help people build products that create healthy habits.”

Second, even if you’re not a product designer, you’re still a consumer yourself, and it’s important to understand how products change behavior so that you can break the hooks that aren’t serving you in your own life. “Hooked” exposes the hidden psychology of all the attention-draining distraction in your life so that you can regain control. Since writing the book, I’ve become even more aware of how important it is to manage our own habits so we can do our best work.

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