Why do Snapchat, Instagram and a few other tools hook us?

How much do you really care about driving customer engagement? Well, if you do, then you must have for sure asked / discussed / perceived why the market is full of apps that suck — and why we use just a handful of other tools daily with little or no conscious thought. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were patterns we could learn from those tools we use daily?

Nir Eyal describes this in his book called Hooked, How to Build Habit-Forming Products — together with Ryan Hoover CEO at ProductHunt. Because I refer in many of my speeches, Q&As, workshops to Nir’s book when asked about how to improve product strategy — I decided to abstract my takeaways and give you some to-do guidelines as a motivation for you to read the book fully sooner rather than later.

“The convergence of access, data, and speed is making the world a more habit-forming place.”

What is a habit and how to form one

“A habit is a behavior done with little or no conscious thought.” To form a habit, we have to understand our users’ behavior. We have to define patterns that make users’ behavior change. Think of a habit as a pain alleviator — because if users don’t do that specific action (our tool might stand for) in that very moment, it causes a bit of pain. The resulting “itch” is a psychological reaction to a physical need. In other words, a habit is a “pleasure seeking behavior” — looking for a reward or a solution to a discomfort. Therefore, it is obvious to say that habits create a higher customer lifetime value.

To form a habit users must seek the “pain alleviator” with frequency — must complete the action with frequency — and users must change their attitude, or way of doing things.

“The enemy of forming new habits is past behaviors, and research suggests that old habits die hard. Even when we change our routines, neural pathways remain etched in our brains, ready to be reactivated when we lose focus.”

TO DO: How does it apply to your product? Respond to the following questions within your team!

  • Why does our business require habits?
  • What problems are users coming to you to solve with your product?
  • How is it currently solved? Why something new?
  • How frequently are you expecting users to engage with your product?
  • What action do you want to make into a habit?
“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 functional needs.”

Hooked: design patterns to form better products

The hook is an experience designed to connect the USER’S PROBLEM to YOUR solution, with enough FREQUENCY to FORM A HABIT. A hook has four parts:

  1. Trigger
  2. Action
  3. Reward
  4. Investments


Triggers are “impulses” a brain receives that lead to an action. Nir differentiates between External and Internal Triggers.

External Triggers are the ones where the information for what to do next is contained within the trigger itself… such as Word of Mouth, Growth Hacking, Buttons on an eMail, a website or any other growth hacking method that suggests us to take action.

The Internal Triggers are those whose information for what to do next is informed through an association in the user’s memory: People, Places, Emotions, Routines, Situations triggering an action — of ideally using our app. Negative emotions especially form habits (pleasure seeking behaviors).
For instance:

  • When feeling lonely → Facebook
  • When unsure about something → Google
  • When bored → Pinterest, YouTube → alleviating this boredom
  • Instagram: solves the pain of losing the moment. Capture the moment.

If the user is confronted with the FOMO = fear of missing out — the chance of anchoring a trigger that stimulates them to take action is pretty high.

“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.”
“First, the company must identify the particular frustration or pain point in emotional terms, rather than product features.”
“These common needs are timeless and universal. Yet talking to users to reveal these wants will likely prove ineffective because they themselves don’t know which emotions motivate them.”

TO DO: How does it (the trigger) apply to your product? Respond to the following questions within your team!

  1. What itch are users coming to scratch/satisfy?
  2. Understand the narrative! Write a story from their side/user perspective!
  3. Come up with 3 internal triggers (emotion, routine, situations)
  4. Which one occurs more often?
  5. Attach the External trigger as close as possible to the Internal trigger. How to be in front of the user when the user triggers the Internal emotions?


Now this is the one thing — and only one thing — you must want your ideal-user to do. Before you move ahead — I want you to read the previous sentence again — because many startups can’t respond to that question: What is THE simplest ACTION that your user should do on your tool — in anticipation of a reward? This must become the habitual behavior that the user does with no thought — no efforts — no friction. It must be simple and must lead to a reward. Let’s consider a couple of examples for a simple action and its reward:

  • On Pinterest, the simplest action is “scrolling down”. The reward is to get more posts.
  • YouTube wants the user to click play. The reward is in the video playing.
  • Gmail wants the user to click the email. The reward is the email marked as read = done.
“To initiate action, doing must be easier than thinking. Remember, a habit is a behavior done with little or no conscious thought.”

What is a behavior, though? Let’s break that down:
“behavior” = motivation + ability + trigger

1. What’s motivating (to use more)?

  • seek pleasure and avoid pain
  • seek hope and avoid fear
  • seek acceptance and avoid rejections

2. Is the user able to increase, and how? Six factors that increase / decrease ability:

  • how much time
  • money
  • physical effort
  • how difficult to understand
  • how often are others doing this behavior (social)
  • non-routine … not having done before but getting better and better (practice)

3. What’s the trigger that makes them take action?

  • as described above in Trigger

Consider that if something is new — it’s limiting its adoption. In this case the ABILITY to do something comes before the MOTIVATION.

TO DO: How does it (the action) apply to your product? Respond to the following questions within your team!

  1. Review the flow — what’s the most difficult / what’s the main action?
  2. Which resource is lacking? Time, money, physical efforts, too confusing, social deviance, non-routine?
  3. What are 3 testable ways to make the action easier?


The reward-system in brains activates with anticipation and calms only when we get what we want. That’s “the itch” the user seeks “to scratch”. Now, how to supercharge (reward) the users’ stress of desire? The unknown — the curiosity of what comes next — is fascinating and therefore increases engagement. There are three variable rewards:

1. Reward of the “Tribe” — which is “the search for SOCIAL rewards”

  • empathetic joy
  • partnership
  • sex
  • competition — such as on Social Networks
  • Sports — huge variables — associating with our tribe
  • Stackoverflow — recognition and cooperation

Consider that social reward must come from people — and can’t be automated — otherwise it doesn’t mean anything.

“…this technique works particularly well when people observe the behavior of people most like themselves or who are slightly more experienced (and therefore, role models).”

2. Reward of the “Hunt” — which defines “the search for RESOURCES”

  • Hunt for money — such as slot machines
  • Hunt for material reward — as for goods on “sale”
  • Hunt for variable information — such as on timelines
“The need to acquire physical objects, such as food and other supplies that aid our survival, is part of our brain’s operating system.”

3. Reward for the “Self“- which stand for the search for self-achievement

  • Leveling-up reflects Mastery and Competency
  • Inbox or task management reflects Consistency and Completion
“Only by understanding what truly matters to users can a company correctly match the right variable reward to their intended behavior.”

Nir cautions though that variable rewards must be infinite and users can’t predict the outcome, otherwise it has no mystery and the probability of users losing interest in it is very high.

TO DO: How does it (the reward) apply to your product? Respond to the following questions within your team!

Review your user flow — between the feeling of the trigger up to the first experience of the reward. How can you reward the user to help him/her do more?

  • Reward of the tribe → ?
  • Reward of the hunt → ?
  • Reward of the self → ?


Investment changes the perception of the user’s action and of the product, because of the mid/long term value they create. Human beings value things when they put work into them. The more you customize, the more the user puts efforts into your product — the greater the chance the user will come back. In other words, the user invests for future benefits such as:

  • Social Capital
  • Digital Assets
  • Time
  • Effort
  • Emotional Commitment
  • Money
“…investments are about the anticipation of longer-term rewards, not immediate gratification.” And that, “…in contrast to the action phase, the investment phase increases friction.”

The Investments increase the likelihood of the next pass in two ways:

1. Load the next trigger of the hook

  • Push Notification informing users about an action that happened regarding user’s last post.
  • Or the red dot on an app icon showing how many new “activities” since user’s last visit

2. Store value, improving the product with use

  • Amount of followers — such as on any Social Network
  • My personal data — such as on banking apps, my shopping history on Amazon, etc.
  • Reputation — such as on a LinkedIn blog post, or on TaskRabbit
“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 labour leads to love.”


  • Triggers are calls to actions for users that products must be anchored to
  • Action must be simple — and lead to a reward
  • Rewards supercharge the user’s stress of desire
  • Investments in future rewards increase the likelihood of usage
  • Frequency of user going often through the 4 components is key to creating a new habit

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