How to build habit-forming products

Author and entrepreneur Nir Eyal on the line between habit and addiction — and on building products that improve people’s lives

You’re standing in line, riding a train, or waiting for a friend. You find a spare moment, and almost instinctively, you reach for your phone. You quickly check Facebook. Or email. Or Instagram. It’s something you do without even thinking. It’s a habit.

This is no accident says Nir Eyal, entrepreneur and WSJ bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which has made waves in the tech industry since its release in 2014. Quite literally, he argues, it’s by design. In this book, Eyal set out to capture the principles of human psychology and product design into a practical how-to guide for those looking to create habit-forming products that improve lives.

Two years later, after receiving hundreds of emails and questions from product managers, Eyal has continued his research into habit-formation. Eyal, who’s speaking at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on August 10th, sat down with the Center to share his thoughts on using habit-forming products for good.


What did you see as a product designer and startup founder that prompted you to write this book?

My last company was at the intersection of gaming and advertising — two industries that are dependent on mind control. Advertisers don’t spend billions for their health, and game designers know what makes you tick and click better than you even know yourself. I learned about the underlying psychology that influences our behavior with products and services. It’s not by chance. It’s not luck.

Majorly successful companies didn’t just hit it big because they had the right timing. Sure, there’s an element of luck. But take a deep look at Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Those products are designed based on what makes users engage. It’s not as simple as if you build a product, they’ll come. There’s no golden rule that says the best product wins.

I set out to write this book because I didn’t see much research out there that was a practical how-to guide for incorporating the psychology of habit into building these kinds of products.

Who is this book is for: product designers or consumers?

Well, there’s a Trojan horse here. I primarily wrote the book for product makers who think they’d like to build the next Facebook or Instagram. But my goal is really to help people build products that establish healthy habits in people’s lives. So the Trojan horse is that as a product designer, you’re still a consumer. You can’t help but think, “Hey, this is being done to me too.”

So from a broader perspective, by understanding that engagement doesn’t occur by chance but by design, we can do something about it. We begin to understand how these hooks work and can break unwanted habits for products and services that don’t serve our lives. I specifically wanted to write something for product makers who care about ethics — who see it through the lens of the user, asking if they’re materially improving people’s lives.

Speaking of ethics, what is a product designer’s responsibility when habit-formation takes an ugly turn?

There are two important questions to ask when it comes to the gray zone of building products that manipulate behavior: 1.) Does this harm the user? and 2.) Can the user stop? If the product isn’t harmful and the user can stop engaging with it, then terrific. That’s the vast majority of products we consume. That’s productive capitalism and everything’s fine.

What if you have a product that isn’t harmful but the user can’t stop? Or a product that is harmful, but the user can stop whenever they want? In those cases, the responsibility is on the user. For example, for attention-grabbing apps like Facebook or Instagram, users can find tools and tech that block these distractions when they need to focus.

But what about when a product harms the user and they can’t stop? This is addiction. And when use of habit-forming tech becomes abuse, that’s where maker has ethical imperative … because we know who who’s abusing.

We have data to measure that. You could use metrics of time, for example, that raises red flags — say 60 hours a week of engagement. You could identify those users and reach out, offering assistance and raising awareness that they may have an addiction. You’re not telling anyone what to do. You’re not cutting them off. You’re just offering help. They can always say, “I’m fine! Leave me alone.” But to do nothing feels scummy.

Nir Eyal is the author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” Nir has distilled years of research, consulting and practical experience to write a manual for creating products people love. He has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His writing on technology, psychology and business appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today. Nir blogs at NirAndFar.com.