How to build habit forming products?

What I learnt from Hooked

I really love to read books and articles that give sound practical advice on building startups or products that can capture the imaginations of millions of people. I was lucky enough to get my hands on one such great book Hooked by Nir Eyal.

Nir Eyal tries to answer some important questions in this book.

  1. Why do some products capture widespread attention while others flop?
  2. What makes us engage with certain products out of sheer habit?
  3. Is there a pattern underlying how technologies hook us?

Nir Eyal answers these questions (and many more) by explaining the Hook Model — a four-step process embedded into the products of many successful companies to subtly encourage customer behavior. Through consecutive “hook cycles,” these products reach their ultimate goal of bringing users back again and again without depending on costly advertising or aggressive messaging.


Lets go into the details of the four steps that makes this model so compelling for product designers.

1. Trigger

We all know about Instagram — A photo and video sharing social network, purchased by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012 which reports of 300 million active users per day.

Their app is a great example of a habit-forming product that became a part of daily routines of millions of people. People love it so much that they capture thousands of moments of their daily lives and share it with strangers.

New habits need a foundation upon which they are build. Triggers provide the basis for sustained behavior change. Just look at your life for a moment. What motivated you to start using certain products? What brought you to Facebook or Whatsapp?

Triggers come in two types : external and internal.

External Triggers : External triggers communicates the user what next action he should take. The desired action is made explicitly clear. Like a login now button standing out in a different color or a share button made explicitly visible using some cool animations.

Have a look at the View Deal button in the Groupon Promotion Email. Look how it stands out using some shadow effects.

Companies utilize a variety of external triggers to catch the eyeballs of heir customers. Some triggers are paid like advertising or search engine marketing, some are earned through favourable press mentions or featured appstore placements. One of the most significant external trigger is the relationship trigger where one person tells the other about a product.

A young Indian Startup OlaCabs that is now valued at 1$ billion relied heavily on the relationship trigger in its early days. They used a referral system where people were given free cab rides when they refer a friend to use their service.

External triggers are only the first step. The ultimate goal of all external triggers is to propel users into and through the Hook Model, so that after successive cycles, they do not need further prompting from external triggers. When users form habits they are cued by different kinds of trigger : internal triggers.

Internal Triggers : When a product becomes tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre existing routine, it leverages an internal trigger. You cannot see an internal trigger, they are manifested automatically in your mind. Emotions, particularly negative ones are powerful internal triggers and greatly influence our daily routines.

Feelings of boredom, loneliness, stress and frustration instigate an itch or irritation and prompt an instantaneous action to quell the negative sensation. When bored many people seek excitement and turn to dramatic news headlines. When we feel stressed we seek calm in sites like Pinterest. When we feel lonely, destinations like Facebook and Twitter provide instant social connections. When we feel uncertainty Google is just a click away.

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 into action.

2. Action

The second step in the Hook is action phase. The trigger tells the user what to do next, but if the user does not take any action on its basis the trigger is useless.

There are three ingredients required to initiate an action or behavior.

  1. The user must have sufficient motivation.
  2. The user must have the ability to complete the action.
  3. A trigger must be present to activate the behavior.

A given behavior will occur if the motivation, ability and trigger are present at the same time and in sufficient degrees.

Motivation

When a trigger cues an action, motivation defines the level of desire to take that action. All humans are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to seek hope and avoid fear and finally to seek social acceptance and avoid rejection. The advertisement industry knows it the best. Advertisers regularly tap into people’s motivations to influence their habits.

A very good example of motivation in advertisement relates to the old saying “Sex Sells”. Images of hot models(usually females) are used to hawk everything from the fast food chains like Burger king to domain name companies like GoDaddy.com. These ads use pleasure to capture attention and motivate action. However even with the motivation running high the product designers often find that users still don’t behave like they want them to behave.

Ability

Any technology or product that reduces the number of steps to complete a task enjoys high adoption rates by the people it assists.To increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring, designers need to focus on simplicity. What is making it difficult for the user to take the desired action? Is the user short on time? Is the user exhausted after a long day of work? Is the behavior too expensive?

The product makers need to ask themselves these questions and then remove any difficulties from the path of the user that limits his ability to take action.

A great example of this is a very simple interface used by a lot of companies.

Logging in with Facebook

Traditionally registering for a new account with a website requires a lot of steps. The User need to enter email address, create a password and submit other information. This introduces friction, detracting users from signing up.

However today it is impossible to find a app or a website without having a login with Facebook prompt. Many companies have eliminate a lot of steps by enabling users to register on their sites by using their Facebook credentials. Other similar examples are sharing with twitter or searching with google that can be integrated in any website with ease. Product designers are devising new ways in order to make the lives of their users a lot easier by removing various roadblocks from their ways.

To increase the desired behavior, ensure a clear trigger is present , then increase the ability by making the action easier to do and finally align with the right motivator.

3. Variable Reward

The third step in the Hook Model is the Variable Reward Phase. In this phase you reward your users by solving a problem. The rewards are not fixed. They keep on changing to keep the user hooked to your product. Novelty sparks our interest and makes us to pay attention.

There are three types of variable rewards.

  1. Rewards of the tribe

We are social beings that depend on each other. Rewards of the tribe are driven by the connectedness with other people. Our brains are adapted to seek rewards that make us feel accepted, important and included. Thats why social media has exploded in popularity. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and several other sites collectively provide over a billion users with powerful social rewards on a variable schedule which make them keep coming back.

Logging in reveals an endless stream of content friends have shared, comments from others and things people have “liked”. The uncertainty of what users will find each time they visit intrigues them to come back. The “Like” and “Comment ” buttons provide social validations to those who shared the content.

Quora is one of my favorite websites which enables users to ask questions on different topics and get some amazing answers. Quora uses a lot of variable rewards to motivate the people to answer more questions on their site.

Quora has developed a credit system in which the users are awarded credits on the basis of number of up votes they get on their answers. There are badges like the Top Writers which awards people who produce great content on the website regularly. A user can be thanked and his answer can be promoted by giving a few credits. All these variable rewards make the site interesting for the users and they keep on generating great answers which attracts other people to the site.

2. Rewards of the Hunt

The search for resources defines the next type of variable rewards — the rewards of the hunt. The need to acquire physical objects, such as food and other supplies that aid our survival, is part of our brain’s operating system. But where we once hunted for food, today we hunt for other things. in modern society, food can be bought with cash and most recently by extension, information translates into money.

Pinterest a company that has grown to reach over 50 million active monthly users employees a feed which is a visual treat. The site is curated by its community of users who ensure that a high degree of intriguing content appears on each page. Pinterest users never know what they will find on the site. As the users scroll to the bottom of the page more images load on the page. All the user have to do is keep scrolling and the endless search for the variable rewards of the hunt continues.

3. Rewards of the self

Finally there are variable rewards we seek for a more personal form of gratification. We are driven to conquer obstacles, even if it is just for the satisfaction of doing so. Rewards of the self are a defining component in video games, as players seek to master the skills needed to pursue their quest. Leveling up, unlocking special powers and other game mechanics fulfil a player’s desire for competency by showing progression and completion.

Another great example is email. We constantly keep on checking our email throughout the day even when we are not expecting any important information. Getting to zero inbox gives us inner satisfaction and that keeps us bringing back to checking email.

Variable Rewards must satisfy users needs, while leaving them wanting to re-engage with the product.

4. Investment

This is the last step in the Hooked Model that is critical for building habit forming technologies. Before users create the mental associations that activate their automatic behaviors, they must first invest in the product.

Together there are three tendencies that influence our future action.

  1. The more effort we put into something, the more likely we are to value it.
  2. We are more likely to be consistent with our past behaviors.
  3. We change our preference to avoid cognitive dissonance.

In the investment phase users are prompted to put something of value into the system, which increases the likelihood of them using the product and of successive passes through the hook cycle.

In Twitter for example, the investment comes in the form of following another user. Following is an investment in the service, which increases the likelihood of the use checking twitter in the future.

The software that we use can adapt itself to our needs. Like the more you use Amazon, the better it becomes in suggesting you books or other items that might be of value to you. The stored value that users put into the product increases the likelihood that they will use it again in the future.

Reputation is also a form of stored value. On online marketplaces like eBay, AirBNB and Yelp people with negative scores are treated very differently from those with great reputations.Reputation makes users more likely to stick with whichever service they have invested their efforts in to maintain a high quality score.

Investing time and effort into learning to use a product is a form of investment and stored value. For example, Adobe photoshop is the most-widely used professional graphics editing program in the world. The Software provides hundreds of advanced features for manipulating images. People often invest days in learning this software and once they have invested this much time they tend to stick to the product.

Loading the next trigger

Triggers bring users back to the product. Habit forming technologies leverage the user’s past behaviour to initiate an external trigger in the future. Let’s look at an example.

Snapchat

Snapchat, a popular photo messaging app boasts of 100 million active users sending millions of photos everyday.

Why are so many users in love with Snapchat? In large part, its success can be attribute to the fact that users load the next trigger every time they use the service. Each photo or video sent contains an implicit prompt to respond and the SnapChat interface makes returning a pic incredibly easy by double tapping the message to reply.

Investments increase the likelihood of users returning by improving the service the more it is used. They enable the accrual of stored value in the form of content,data, followers, reputation or skill.

What to do next ?

You are now equipped to use the Hooked model. Ask yourself these questions while creating a 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 simples action users take in anticipation of rewards, 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)

Creating products that form habits is not easy. But if you follow the above model, you can create compelling products that will be difficult for users to ignore.


Most of the learnings I have shared are directly part of the book. I recommend this book to anyone who is going to start an entrepreneurial journey or is just interested in learning how to create great products. I would love to hear about any experiences that you might have had while creating products using this model.

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