Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products


Cognitive psychologists define habits as, “automatic behaviors triggered by situational cues:” things we do with little or no conscious thought.[ 5] The products and services we use habitually alter our everyday behavior, just as their designers intended.[ 6] Our actions have been engineered.

Following the trigger comes the action: the behavior done in anticipation of a reward. The simple action of clicking on the interesting picture in her newsfeed takes Barbra to a website called Pinterest, a “pinboard- style photo- sharing” site.[

Companies leverage two basic pulleys of human behavior to increase the likelihood of an action occurring: the ease of performing an action and the psychological motivation to do it.[

Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire.

Variable rewards are one of the most powerful tools companies implement to hook users;

The last phase of the Hook Model is where the user does a bit of work. The investment phase increases the odds that the user will make another pass through the hook cycle in the future. The investment occurs when the user puts something into the product of service such as time, data, effort, social capital, or money.

Habits are defined as behaviors done with little or no conscious thought. – The convergence of access, data, and speed is making the world a more habit- forming place. – Businesses that create customer habits gain a significant competitive advantage. – The Hook Model describes an experience designed to connect the user’s problem to a solution frequently enough to form a habit. – The Hook Model has four phases: trigger, action, variable reward, and investment.[


“The most important factor to increasing growth is … Viral Cycle Time.”[ 25] Viral Cycle Time is the amount of time it takes a user to invite another user, and it can have a massive impact.

Sharpening the Competitive Edge User habits are a competitive advantage. Products that change customer routines are less susceptible to attacks from other companies.

A classic paper by John Gourville, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, stipulates that, “Many innovations fail because consumers irrationally overvalue the old while companies irrationally overvalue the new.”[

Gourville claims that for new entrants to stand a chance, they can’t just be better, they must be nine times better. Why such a high bar? Because old habits die hard and new products or services need to offer dramatic improvements to shake users out of old routines. Gourville writes that products that require a high degree of behavior change are doomed to fail even if the benefits of using the new product are clear and substantial.

Altering behavior requires not only an understanding of how to persuade people to act— for example, the first time they land on a webpage— but also necessitates getting them to repeat behaviors for long periods, ideally for the rest of their lives.

For an infrequent action to become a habit, the user must perceive a high degree of utility, either from gaining pleasure or avoiding pain. Take Amazon as an example: The e- tailer has its sights set on becoming the world’s one- stop shop. Amazon is so confident in its ability to form user habits that it sells and runs ads for directly competitive products on its site.[ 35]

In the Habit Zone A company can begin to determine its product’s habit- forming potential by plotting two factors: frequency (how often the behavior occurs) and perceived utility (how useful and rewarding the behavior is in the user’s mind over alternative solutions).

a behavior that occurs with enough frequency and perceived utility enters the Habit Zone, helping to make it a default behavior. If either of these factors falls short and the behavior lies below the threshold, it is less likely that the desired behavior will become a habit.

habit is when not doing an action causes a bit of pain.

My answer to the vitamin or painkiller question is that habit- forming technologies are both. These services seem, at first, to be offering nice- to- have vitamins, but once the habit is established, they provide an ongoing pain remedy.

For some businesses, forming habits is a critical component to success, but not every business requires habitual user engagement. – When successful, forming strong user habits can have several business benefits including: higher customer lifetime value, greater pricing flexibility, supercharged growth, and a sharper competitive edge. – Habits can not form outside the “Habit Zone,” where the behavior occurs with enough frequency and perceived utility. – Habit- forming products often start as nice- to- haves (vitamins) but once the habit is formed, they become must- haves (painkillers). – Habit- forming products alleviate users’ pain by relieving a pronounced itch. – Designing habit- forming products is a form of manipulation. Product builders would benefit from a bit of introspection before attempting to hook users to make sure they are building healthy habits, not unhealthy addictions (more to come on this topic in chapter eight).

– What habits does your business model require? – What problem are users turning to your product to solve? – How do users currently solve that problem and why does it need a solution? – How frequently do you expect users to engage with your product? – What user behavior do you want to make into a habit?

2. Trigger

Similarly, new habits need a foundation upon which to build. Triggers provide the basis for sustained behavior change.

Reducing the thinking required to take the next action increases the likelihood of the desired behavior occurring unconsciously.

While paid, earned, and relationship triggers drive new user acquisition, owned triggers prompt repeat engagement until a habit is formed. Without owned triggers and users’ tacit permission to enter their attentional space, it is difficult to cue users frequently enough to change their behavior.

Emotions, particularly negative ones, are powerful internal triggers and greatly influence our daily routines. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation. For instance, Yin often uses Instagram when she fears a special moment will be lost forever.

As product designers, it is our goal to solve these problems and eliminate pain— to scratch the user’s itch. Users who find a product that alleviates their pain will form strong, positive associations with the product over time. After continued use, bonds begin to form— like the layers of nacre in an oyster— between the product and the user whose need it satisfies. Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.

3. Action

Fogg posits that there are three ingredients required to initiate any and all behaviors: (1) the user must have sufficient motivation; (2) the user must have the ability to complete the desired action; and (3) a trigger must be present to activate the behavior. The Fogg Behavior Model is represented in a formula, B = MAT, which represents that a given behavior will occur when motivation, ability and a trigger are present at the same time and in sufficient degrees.[ 55] If any component of this formula is missing or inadequate, the user will not cross the “Action Line” and the behavior will not occur.

Fogg states that 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.

In line with Hauptly’s assertion, as the steps required to get something done (in this case, to get online and use the Internet) were removed or improved upon, adoption increased.

the factors that influence a task’s difficulty.[ 61] These are: – Time – How long it takes to complete an action. – Money – The fiscal cost of taking an action. – Physical Effort – The amount of labor involved in taking the action. – Brain Cycles – The level of mental effort and focus required to take an action. – Social Deviance – How accepted the behavior is by others. – Non- Routine – According to Fogg, “How much the action matches or disrupts existing routines.”

The study showed that a product can decrease in perceived value if it starts off as scarce and becomes abundant.

The Framing Effect Context also shapes perception.

how perception can form a personal reality based on how a product is framed, even when there is little relationship with objective quality.

People often anchor to one piece of information when making a decision. I almost bought the shirts on sale assuming that the one feature differentiating the two brands— the fact that one was on sale and the other was not— was all I needed to consider.

The study demonstrates the endowed progress effect, a phenomenon that increases motivation as people believe they are nearing a goal.

Stephen Anderson, author of Seductive Interaction Design, created a tool called Mental Notes to help designers build better products through heuristics.[ 68] Each of the cards in his deck of 50 contains a brief description of a cognitive bias and is intended to spark product team conversations around how they might utilize the principle.

– Action is the second step in The Hook. – The action is the simplest behavior in anticipation of reward. – As described by the Dr. BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model: – For any behavior to occur, a trigger must be present at the same time as the user has sufficient ability and motivation to take action. – To increase the desired behavior, ensure a clear trigger is present, then increase ability by making the action easier to do, and finally align with the right motivator. – Every behavior is driven by one of three Core Motivators: seeking pleasure or avoiding pain, seeking hope and avoiding fear, seeking social acceptance while avoiding social rejection. – Ability is influenced by the six factors of time, money, physical effort, brain cycles, social deviance, and non- routineness. Ability is dependent on users and their context at that moment. – Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts we take to make quick decisions. Product designers can utilize many of the hundreds of heuristics to increase the likelihood of their desired action.

Walk through the path your users would take to use your product or service, beginning from the time they feel their internal trigger to the point where they receive their expected outcome. How many steps does it take before users obtain the reward they came for? How does this process compare with the simplicity of some of the examples described in this chapter? How does it compare with competing products and services? – Which resources are limiting your users’ ability to accomplish the tasks that will become habits? – Time – Money – Physical effort – Brain cycles (too confusing) – Social deviance (outside the norm) – Non- routine (too new) – Brainstorm three testable ways to make the intended tasks easier to complete. – Consider how you might apply heuristics to make habit- forming actions more likely.

4. Variable Reward

The startling results showed that the nucleus accumbens was not activating when the reward (in this case a monetary payout) was received, but rather, in anticipation of it. The study revealed that what draws us to act is not the sensation we receive from the reward itself, but the need to alleviate the craving for that reward. The stress of desire in the brain appears to compel us, just

Without variability, we figure out what will happen next and become less excited by the experience. The same rules that apply to puppies also apply to products. To hold our attention, products must have an ongoing degree of novelty.

I propose that variable rewards come in three types: Tribe, hunt and self (figure 20). Habit- forming products utilize one or more of these variable reward types.

With every post, tweet, or pin, users anticipate social validation. Rewards of the tribe keep users coming back, wanting more.

“social learning theory.”[ 76] Bandura studied the power of modeling and ascribed special powers to our ability to learn from others. In particular, Bandura showed that people who observe someone being rewarded for a particular behavior are more likely to alter their own beliefs and subsequent actions.

Stack Overflow works because, like all of us, software engineers find satisfaction in contributing to a community they care about; and the element of variability turns a seemingly mundane task into an engaging, game- like experience.

Early humans killed animals using a technique known as “persistence hunting,” a practice still common among today’s few remaining pre- agrarian societies.

Our ability to maintain steady pursuit gave us the capacity to hunt large prehistoric game. But persistence hunting was not only made possible because of our bodies; changes in our brains also played a significant role. During the chase, the runner is driven by the pursuit itself; and this same mental hardwiring also provides clues into the source of our insatiable desires today. The dogged determination that keeps San hunters chasing kudu is the same mechanism that keeps us wanting and buying.

Finally, there are the variable rewards we seek for a more personal form of gratification. We are driven to conquer obstacles, even if just for the satisfaction of doing so. Pursuing a task to completion can influence people to continue all sorts of behaviors.[

Only by understanding what truly matters to users can a company correctly match the right variable reward to their intended behavior.

Rewards must fit into the narrative of why the product is used and align with the user’s internal triggers and motivations.

The magic words the researchers discovered? The phrase, “but you are free to accept or refuse.” The “but you are free” technique demonstrates how we are more likely to be persuaded when our ability to choose is reaffirmed.

people often feel constrained by threats to their autonomy and will rebel. To change behavior, products must ensure the user feels in control. People must want to use the service, not feel they have to.

The cycle of conflict, mystery and resolution is as old as storytelling itself, and at the heart of every good tale is variability. The unknown is fascinating and strong stories hold our attention by waiting to reveal what happens next.

Experiences with finite variability become less engaging because they eventually become predictable. Businesses with finite variability are not inferior per se, they just operate under different constraints. They must constantly churn out new content and experiences to cater to their consumers’ insatiable desire for novelty.

This is in contrast with companies making products exhibiting “infinite variability”— experiences, which maintain user interest by sustaining variability with use.

Remember and Share – Variable Reward is the third phase of the Hook Model, and there are three types of variable rewards: tribe, hunt and self. – Rewards of the tribe is the search for social rewards fueled by connectedness with other people. – Rewards of the hunt is the search for material resources and information. – Rewards of the self is the search for intrinsic rewards of mastery, competence and completion. – When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing a new behavior. Psychologists call this “reactance.” Maintaining a sense of user autonomy is a requirement for repeat engagement. – Experiences with finite variability become increasingly predictable with use and lose their appeal over time. Experiences that maintain user interest by sustaining variability with use exhibit infinite variability. – Variable rewards must satisfy the user’s need, while leaving them wanting to re- engage with the product. *** Do This Now Refer to the answers you came up with in the last “Do This Now” section to complete the following exercises: – Speak with five of your customers in an open- ended interview to identify what they find enjoyable or encouraging about using your product. Are there any moments of delight or surprise? Is there anything they find particularly satisfying about using the product? – Review the steps your customer takes to use your product or service habitually. What outcome (reward) alleviates the user’s pain? Is the reward fulfilling, yet leaves the user wanting more? – Brainstorm three ways your product might heighten users’ search for variable rewards using: – Rewards of the Tribe – gratification from others – Rewards of the Hunt – things, money or information – Rewards of the Self – mastery, completion, competency or consistency

5. Investment

for a behavior to become routine it must occur with significant frequency and perceived utility.

The commitments we make have a powerful effect on us and play an important role in the things we do, the products we buy, and the habits we form.

those who invested labor associated greater value with their paper creations simply because they had worked on them. Ariely calls this the “IKEA effect.”

The homeowner’s greater willingness to place the large, obtrusive sign on their lawns after agreeing to the smaller ones demonstrates the impact of our predilection for consistency with our past behaviors. Little investments, such as placing a tiny sign in a window, can lead to big changes in future behaviors.

possible. In the Investment Phase, however, asking the user to do a bit of work comes after the user has received variable rewards, not before. The timing of asking for user investment is critically important.

The big idea behind the Investment Phase is to leverage the user’s understanding that the service will get better with use (and personal investment). Like a good friendship, the more effort people put in, the more both parties benefit.

The stored value users put into the product increases the likelihood they will use it again in the future and comes in a variety of forms.

The company found that the more information users invested in the site, the more committed they became to it.

“If we could get users to enter just a little information, they were much more likely to return.” The tiny bit of effort associated with providing more user data created a powerful hook to bring people back to the service.

Reputation is a form of stored value that increases the likelihood of using a service. Whether a buyer or seller, reputation makes users more likely to stick with whichever service they have invested their efforts in to maintain a high quality score (figure

Once users have invested the effort to acquire a skill, they are less likely to switch to a competing product. ***

to achieve the intended behavior in the Investment Phase, the product designer must consider whether the user has sufficient motivation and ability to engage in the intended behavior. If users are not doing what the designer intended in the Investment Phase, the designer may be asking them to do too much. I recommend that you progressively stage the investment you want from users into small chunks of work, starting with small, easy tasks and building up to harder tasks during successive cycles through the Hook Model.

Remember and Share – The Investment Phase is the fourth step in the Hook Model. – Unlike the Action Phase, which delivers immediate gratification, the Investment Phase is about the anticipation of rewards in the future. – Investments in a product create preference because of our tendency to overvalue our work, be consistent with past behaviors and avoid cognitive dissonance. – Investment comes after the variable reward phase, when users are primed to reciprocate. – Investments increase the likelihood of the user 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. – Investments increase the likelihood of the user passing through the Hook again by loading the next trigger to start the cycle all over.

Review your flow. What “bit of work” are your users doing to increase their likelihood of returning? – Brainstorm three ways to add small investments into your product to: – Load the next trigger – Store value as data, content, followers, reputation and skill – Identify how long it takes for a “loaded trigger” to re-engage your user. How can you reduce the delay to shorten cycle-time through the Hook?

6. What Are You Going To Do With This?

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

The Facilitator When you create something that you would use and that you believe makes the user’s life better, you are facilitating a healthy habit. It is important to note that only you can decide if you would actually use the product or service, and what “materially improving the life of the user” really means in light of what you are creating.

In building a habit for a user other than yourself, you can not consider yourself a facilitator unless you have experienced the problem first-hand.

7. Case Study: The Bible APP

“Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding” found the act, “engages neural and cognitive mechanisms associated with reward.”[129] In fact, sharing feels so good that one study found “individuals were willing to forgo money to disclose about the self.”

8. Habit Testing And Where To Look For Habit-Forming Opportunities

“Who are the product’s habitual users?” Remember, the more frequently your product is used, the more likely it is to form a user habit.

Once you know how often a user should use your product, dig into the numbers and identify how many and which type of users meet this threshold.

But if you have exceeded that bar and identified your habitual users, the next step is to codify the steps they took using your product to understand what hooked them.

Paul Graham advises entrepreneurs to leave the sexy-sounding business ideas behind and instead build for their own needs: “Instead of asking ‘what problem should I solve?’ ask ‘what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?’”[

observed.” Maples believes technology waves follow a three-phase pattern, “They start with infrastructure. Advances in infrastructure are the preliminary forces that enable a large wave to gather. As the wave begins to gather, enabling technologies and platforms create the basis for new types of applications that cause a gathering wave to achieve massive penetration and customer adoption. Eventually, these waves crest and subside, making way for the next gathering wave to take shape.”[138]

By looking forward to anticipate where interfaces will change, the enterprising behavior designer can uncover new ways to form user habits.

Once a product is built, Habit Testing helps uncover product devotees, discover which product elements are habit forming (if any), and why those aspects of your product change user behavior. Habit Testing includes three steps: identify, codify, and modify. – First, dig into the data to identify how people are behaving and using the product. – Next, codify these findings in search of the habitual user and study the actions and paths taken to generate new hypotheses. – Lastly, modify the product to influence more users to follow the same path as your habitual users, and then evaluate results and continue to modify as needed. – Keen observation of one’s own behavior can lead to new insights and habit- forming product opportunities. – Identifying areas where a new technology makes cycling through the Hook Model faster, more frequent or more rewarding provides fertile ground for developing new habit- forming products. – Nascent behaviors — new behaviors that few people see or do, and yet ultimately fulfill a mass- market need — can inform future breakthrough habit- forming opportunities. – New interfaces lead to transformative behavior change and business opportunities.

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