back to books

Hooked: How to build Habit-Forming Products

Nir Eyal with Ryan Hoover

Personal Thoughts

Nir lays out the model for how to engage (or get them addicted?) to your app. It centers around the Hook model which is pretty much the same as any model associated with building a habit. You must create a Trigger, a simple action for them to engage with, then offer a variable reward and try to increase the liklihood of this loop by getting them to invest in the app. If you’re a first-time app builder then this is worth the read as it’ll provide a framework for your app ideas.

Summary Notes

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).

Triggers cue the user to take action and are the first step in the Hook Model. Triggers come in two types — external and internal.

  • External triggers tell the user what to do next by placing information within the user’s environment.
  • Internal triggers tell the user what to do next through associations stored in the user’s memory.
  • Negative emotions frequently serve as internal triggers.
  • 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 to action.

Refer to the answers you came up with in the last “Do This Now” section to complete the following exercises:

  • Who is your product’s user?
  • What is the user doing right before your intended habit?
  • Come up with three internal triggers that could cue your user to action. Refer to the “5 Whys Method” described in this chapter.
  • Which internal trigger does your user experience most frequently?
  • Finish this brief narrative using the most frequent internal trigger and the habit you are designing: “Every time the user (internal trigger), he/she (first action of intended habit).”
  • Refer back to the question about what the user is doing right before the first action of the habit. What might be places and times to send an external trigger?
  • How can you couple an external trigger as closely as possible to when the user’s internal trigger fires?
  • Think of at least three conventional ways to trigger your user with current technology (emails, notifications, text messages, etc.). Then stretch yourself to come up with at least three crazy, or currently impossible, ideas for ways to trigger your user (wearable computers, biometric sensors, carrier pigeons, etc.). You may find that your crazy ideas spur some new approaches, which may not be so crazy after all. In a few years, new technologies will create all sorts of currently unimaginable triggering opportunities.

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
3. A trigger must be present to activate the behavior.

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.

Fogg describes six “elements of simplicity” — the factors that influence a task’s difficulty. 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.”

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.

Refer to the answers you came up with in the last “Do This Now” section to complete the following exercises:

  • 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.

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 users’ needs, while leaving them wanting to re-engage with the product.

A team of researchers asked a group of suburban residents to place large, unsightly signs in front of their homes which read “Drive Carefully.”civ Two groups were tested. In the first group, only 17 percent of the subjects agreed to the request, while 76 percent of those in the second group agreed to post the ugly yard signs. What was the cause of this huge discrepancy? The groups were identical, with the exception of one factor. Those in the second group were approached two weeks prior to the yard sign request and asked to place a much smaller, three-inch sign with the words, “Be a safe driver,” in their window.

Nearly everyone who was asked to place the smaller message agreed. When the researchers returned two weeks later, a whopping majority of these residents willingly replaced the small sign with the large one on their front lawns. 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.

In the story, the fox comforts himself by changing his perception of the grapes because it is too uncomfortable to reconcile the thought that the grapes are sweet and ready for the taking, and yet, he can not have them. To reconcile these two conflicting ideas, the fox changes his perception of the grapes and in the process relieves the pain of what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.”

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 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.
  • Investments increase the likelihood of users passing through the Hook again by loading the next trigger to start the cycle all over again.

The Hook Model helps the product designer generate an initial prototype for a habit-forming technology. It also helps uncover potential weaknesses in an existing product’s habit-forming potential.

  • 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 habitual users. To generate new hypotheses, study the actions and paths taken by devoted users.
  • 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

Hooked: How to build Habit-Forming Products

Nir Eyal with Ryan Hoover
Back to notes

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.