TNW – Nir Eyal – Building Habit Forming Products | The Next Web
- Articles, Blog

TNW – Nir Eyal – Building Habit Forming Products | The Next Web


It’s a pleasure to be here today. You know
if there’s one thing that we know about the technology that we use every day is that it
profoundly changes our behaviors. And so what I’ve done over the past several years is to
look at these companies that tend to meet a certain pattern. See if you recognize a
company that meets this description. It typically starts out as a toy, a nice to
have, perhaps a feature of somebody else’s product and then in the span of 5 to 10 years
they’re making hundreds of millions of dollars if not billions of dollars and they’re touching
hundreds of millions if not billions of people’s lives. Now what companies come to mind? What do you
think of? Twitter. What else? Apple. What else? More recent. Facebook, of course, the
$155 billion behemoth. What else? WhatsApp, right $19 billion acquisition for that company.
All right, it makes Instagram look cheap by comparison. Instagram was started by 12 people,
18 months, billion dollar acquisition. So I’ve been looking over the past several
years, what is it about these companies that allows them to very quickly fundamentally
change users’ day to day habits. And I’ve been looking for patterns of how technologies
change behavior and change people’s day-to-day lives. And I’ve been studying this phenomenon
of habits, these behaviors that are done with little or no conscious thought. It turns out
that about 50% of what you do day in and day out whether you like it or not is done with
little or no conscious thought, purely out of habit. And I think that we’re on the age,
the precipice of an age where we can use habits for good. And I’m not alone. There’s an explosion
of companies where I live in Silicon Valley and around the world that are using the psychology
of habit design to help people live happier, healthier, more fulfilling, more connected
lives. And that’s what I want to help you do today. I’m going to share with you this pattern that
I’ve found is endemic to habit forming technologies and I call this pattern “the hook.” Now the
hook is very simply an experience design to connect your user’s problem to your solution
with enough frequency to form a habit. Connecting your user’s problem to your solution with
enough frequency to form a habit. And what we find is through successive passes through
these hooks, this is how habits are formed, this is how we begin to shape, and form, and
create user’s tastes and preferences. Now these hooks have four parts. They start
off with a trigger, an action, a reward, and an investment and we see this pattern time
and time again in habit forming technologies. So normally, I have to give you a bit of a
disclaimer, normally when I teach this course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business,
at the design school at Stanford this is over several weeks, three weeks at a time but I’ve
got about 20 minutes, so this is going to be very, very condensed. So stick with me. The first step of this hook model is the trigger
phase. Now, triggers come in two types, two flavors if you will. They come in external
triggers and internal triggers. Now, external triggers you’ll be very familiar with especially
if you’re a designer or product development or entrepreneur or if you work in technology,
you know all about these external triggers. These are things that cue our next action,
where the information for what to do next is contained in the trigger itself. So things
like a button that says “play this” or “click here” or “tweet this” or “share now” or a
cop standing at the corner and telling you which direction to go or your friend through
word of mouth telling you about a great app you should really try, these are all examples
of external triggers. The information is in the trigger itself. We know all about these
things, right? But what designers don’t think about enough
are the internal triggers. Internal triggers are things that cue the next action where
the information for what to do next is contained through an association in the user’s mind.
And it turns out that what we do in response to being in a certain place, a situation,
a routine, and most frequently emotions dictates our habits just as reliably as those external
triggers. So what we do when we’re feeling lonesome, or indecisive, or bored, or stressed,
or dissatisfied, or lost, what would we do in response to these emotions can dictate
our habits. The foundation of these habits are these internal triggers. And if you notice
these emotions are negative emotions. And it turns out that there’s a lot data that
shows us that people will react in different ways in response to these negative emotions.
And here’s some of the science that proves this. We know that people who have clinical
depression check email more. Now why would that be? Why would people with clinical depression
check email more? I was giving a workshop a few weeks ago and somebody stood up in the
back of the room and said, “It’s ’cause email makes us depressed,” which I could kind of
get that, sometimes I feel like my inbox is overwhelming. But actually what this study
found was that people suffering from clinical depression experienced what psychologists
call “negative valence states.” They felt down more frequently than the rest of the
population. And so what were they doing to lift their mood? They were checking email.
They were using the web differently and more frequently than the general population. Now let’s think about this in our own lives.
What technology do we use when we’re feeling lonely? Facebook, right. How about when we’re
unsure? Before we actually consider whether we know the answer we go ahead and we, we
Google it. And what about when we’re feeling bored? Between two and four o’clock in the
afternoon when you have that big project you need to work on that you really don’t feel
like working on, it’s a great time to hop on to YouTube or check the news or stock scores
or sports scores. Lots and lots of solutions for this internal trigger of boredom. Boredom
doesn’t feel good and so we seek to get out of that negative valence state. So what do we do with this information? All
right, maybe it’s a bit of pop psychology. Some of you might be considering how you use
technology in your own life and what triggers your behaviors. But how do we build better
products to help people, knowing this information about the importance of internal triggers?
Well it comes down to first and foremost understanding what your user’s itch really is. Understanding
what is that internal trigger that you’re forming an association with. Let’s do a quick case study here. Let’s think
about Instagram and what made Instagram such a habit forming product. How many of you use
Instagram? A lot of people? Okay, great. So let’s think about it. What was the external
trigger for Instagram? How did most people first find out about it? Well there was Facebook,
there was Twitter, there was word of mouth, and every time someone posted a photo from
Instagram to these social networks there was an explicit call to action, there was an external
trigger telling the user what to do next. Let’s think about for a moment about the internal
triggers. Did you, sir, say you use Instagram? What was the last thing you took a picture
of, do you remember? Of me, okay, so I’m guessing, okay, what’s your name? Adam. So I didn’t
tell Adam “Take a picture of me with Instagram.” Did I? No, there was a moment in time that
he wanted to capture, namely my talk, thank you very much, and the solution to capturing
this moment in time, to holding on to it, was Instagram. Instagram scratches this itch
of needing to hold on to the moment. And now of course Instagram is much more than just
a way to capture the moment. Instagram is also a social network. So the more times users
pass through this four steps of the hook, the more they begin to associate using Instagram
with these other internal triggers, right? When they’re bored, or seeking connection,
or FOMO, what’s FOMO? “Fear of missing out,” right, it’s actually in the Merriam-Webster
dictionary this year. Fear of missing out feels bad. We don’t like the sensation that
we might be missing out on something and the solution to that discomfort, to that pain
point, is Instagram. Instagram wins. So that’s the trigger phase of the hook. Understanding
your user’s itch and figuring out the call to action, the external trigger, that prompts
them to action. Let’s talk about that action, the action phase
of the hook model. The action phase can be summarized as the simplest behavior in anticipation
of a reward. The simplest behavior in anticipation of a reward. Let me show you how simple I
mean by “simple.” Something as simple as a scroll on Pinterest, or searching on Google,
or the act of pushing the play button on YouTube. That simple action in anticipation of reward.
And it turns out that there’s a formula to help us predict the likelihood of these singular
behaviors and this formula comes to us from BJ Fogg, who’s a researcher at Stanford. How
many people have seen this before? A few folks? Okay good, so for those of you who aren’t
familiar with it, Fogg posits that for any human behavior, as represented by “b,” we
need three things for this behavior to occur. This is online as well as offline, it doesn’t
matter. Any human behavior requires these three things. Sufficient motivation, sufficient
ability. Ability is how easy or difficult something is, and a trigger must be present.
We talked about triggers. So let’s talk about motivation for a minute.
Motivation, according to Edward Deci, the father of self-determination theory, is the
energy for action, how much we want to do something. And psychologists have been arguing
about the nature of motivation for decades and decades but I think Fogg gives us these
six levers which are useful in a start-up context. And when we think about how do we
change user motivation it really comes down to these six basic levers to increase or decrease
motivation. That all human beings seek pleasure and avoid pain. We seek hope and avoid fear.
We seek social acceptance and we avoid social rejection. So there’s a lot more about motivation
and all these concepts in my book but that’s just a quick overview of these six levers. Let’s talk about ability for a moment. Ability
is the capacity to do a particular behavior, how easy or difficult something is. And here
again we have these six factors, these six things which make a behavior more likely to
occur by making it easier or more difficult to do. So how much time something takes, how
much money is involved, how much physical effort is required, brain cycles. Brain cycle
is a big one in our industry when it comes to technology because it turns out the harder
something is to understand, the less likely it is for that behavior to occur. Social deviance.
We become more likely to do something when we see other people like us also doing it.
And then finally, non-routine. Non-routine is an important factor and it’s why habits
have a repeater effect, because what we know is that the more we do a particular behavior
the easier it becomes and, therefore, as it becomes easier to do we do it more frequently.
What do we call that? What’s that principle? It’s called “practice.” So habits have this
repeater effect. The more we do something, the easier it becomes, and therefore we become
more likely to do it in the future. So Fogg puts these three factors together
inside this graph and I think it’s actually very useful in a start-up context. When we’re
building new products we can ask ourselves, “Hey, why aren’t users doing this specific
action we designed for them?” And so we can ask ourselves, “Does the user have sufficient
motivation?” “Do they have sufficient ability?” If something is easy to do it’s way over here
on the right. If something is hard to do it’s over here on the left. And if they do they
cross this threshold, this blue line, and if a trigger is present the behavior will
occur. Let’s make this concrete. I want you to think
about the last time a phone rang in your life and you didn’t pick it up. What’s the reason?
Somebody give me a reason. Why didn’t you pick up the call? Because I called and you
didn’t want to talk to me or a telemarketer or somebody who you didn’t want to talk to
called you. So your motivation was too low. Okay, if you didn’t want to talk to me your
motivation was too low. The phone was right there next to you and you heard the call ring,
so the trigger was present. What’s another reason why you may not pick up a call? You’re
in a meeting or you’re in a conference and it’s too socially awkward to take a call and
walk out of the room. Your ability was too low. You had high motivation but your ability
was too low. What’s one more reason that has to do with a trigger, it has to do with a
trigger why you may not pick up a call? You didn’t hear it, the phone was on silent. You
really wanted to pick up the call, high motivation. The phone was right there next to you, high
ability. But no trigger was present. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called in for
these expensive design reviews and I see the UX and I ask the team where’s the trigger.
What do you want the user to do here? So having a clear trigger present must be there every
single time to get the intended behavior. Sufficient motivation, ability, and a trigger
every single behavior. The next step of the hook model is the reward
phase. So after we figured out the user’s itch, we’ve designed the simplest action in
anticipation of reward. Now it’s time to scratch the user’s itch, to give them what they came
for, to give them the reward. Now when we talk about rewards, we have to start in the
brain and in particular an area of the brain studied by two Canadian researchers in the
1940s called the nucleus accumbens. Now Olds and Milner, these two researchers discovered
that when they provided a bit of stimulus, an electric current to this part of the brain
in lab animals, all they wanted to do was to stimulate that part of the brain. They
would have a little lever that they could push and every time they pushed that lever
they would receive a tiny stimulus inside this part of their brain and they would forgo
food, water, they would run across electrified grids just to continue to experience that
sensation. In later experiments, they observed the same type of behavior with people. They
would incessantly click on this button that self-stimulates this part of the brain, the
nucleus accumbens. But it turns out that you actually don’t need electrical currents to
stimulate this part of the brain. Other things also activate the nucleus accumbens. Luxury
goods, sex, certain chemicals, junk food, and of course, in the center, technology.
All of these things stimulate the very same part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens.
At the time Olds and Milner and much of the psychology community thought that the purpose
of the nucleus accumbens was to stimulate pleasure. Why else would lab animals incessantly
click on this button? Why did they have to take these machines forcibly away from people
if it wasn’t because the sensation felt good? Well it turns out that wasn’t exactly the
case. The job of the nucleus accumbens is not to stimulate pleasure, it’s to stimulate
the stress of desire. Wanting, anticipation, craving. That turns out to be the role of
the brain’s reward system. Because the nucleus accumbens becomes active in anticipation of
the reward but when we receive the thing we think we want, the thing that’s supposed to
make us feel good, the object of desire, that part of the brain becomes less active. That’s
the itch that we seek to scratch, this anticipatory response, the craving. That idea of wanting
to check your email whenever you think about it, whenever it comes to mind, that automatic
response is stimulated from this itch. And it turns out that there is a way to supercharge
that stress of desire. Is anybody curious how? Anybody want to know? Exactly, that’s
the point. That the unknown is fascinating. So when I asked you a question, and I changed
my cadence, and I took that pause, I did something a little differently. And many of you perked
up. What’s he going to say next? What’s going to happen? And it turns out that this variability,
this bit of mystery, this intrigue causes us to increase focus, engagement, and it’s
also highly habit forming. Much of the research around the power of variability
comes to us from BF Skinner which many of you might remember from your first psychology
courses, the father of operant conditioning. Skinner put these pigeons inside his famous
boxes. He gave these pigeons a tiny disc to press on and every time they pressed on this
disc they would receive a food pellet, a reward. And at first the pigeons would click whenever
they were hungry but then Skinner did something a little different. He introduced variability.
Sometimes the pigeons would click, nothing would come out. Sometimes the pigeons would
click and the reward would come out. And Skinner found that when there was a bit of variability,
a bit of mystery, a bit of the unknown the rate of response increased. The behavior was
observed to occur more frequently. Why? Because we now know that the nucleus accumbens becomes
stimulated with variability. And so in all sorts of products that we find
most engaging, most habit forming, the ones that capture our attention and won’t let go
we find one or more of these variable reward types: Rewards of the tribe, rewards of the
hunt, and rewards of the self. Rewards of the tribe are about social rewards, things
that feel good from other people and have this variable component. So, empathetic joy,
feeling good because someone else feels good, partnerships. cooperation, competition, all
examples of variable rewards. Of course in technology there’s no better example than
social media, where on a site like Facebook when Mark Zuckerberg got married 1.3 million
people liked it. Think about all the variability involved on a site like Facebook. What am
I going to find when I open my news feed? What did people post? How many people liked
it? What do the comments say? Very high degree of variability involved with what I might
find using a social network. Stack Overflow, how many of you here use Stack
Overflow? I’m guessing a lot of you, right? For those of you who don’t use it, Stack Overflow
is the world’s largest technical question and answer site. Five thousand questions get
answered every single day and this is technical documentation. Why? Why do people do it? Well
what happens when you post your answer to Stack Overflow? What happens to your answer?
It gets up-voted or down-voted. And every time it gets up-voted you earn points and
these points translate into badges. But these badges aren’t something that you post on your
wall for aesthetic reasons. These badges confer status in your community, the people whose
opinions you care about, your fellow engineers. It’s a form of social reinforcement that has
this variable component, there’s this bit of mystery involved. Next comes the search for resources, rewards
of the hunt. Rewards of the hunt stem from our primal search for food and resources and
of course today these things are bought with money. So when we think about gambling the
variable reward is of course about money, that’s what comes out of these machines. But
what many people don’t consider is that information can also be a form of variable reward. So
the reward of the hunt can be demonstrated in the feed. Think about why the feed is so
prevalent today? Why is it that every technology product seems to have this type of feed mechanism. Well let’s think about it. Let’s look at Twitter.
That first thing is not very interesting, the second thing is not very interesting,
but oh the third that’s interesting. And so if I want more, what do I have to do? I just
scroll, right? So this becomes very similar to this. Both variable rewards of the hunt,
this endless search, searching and searching and searching. Never done searching. Finally is the search for self-achievement,
what I call rewards of the self. Rewards of the self are things that have an element of
variability, feel good, but don’t come from other people and aren’t about these material
or information rewards. So intrinsic motivators. Things like mastery, competency, consistency,
control, these are examples of rewards of the self. So if you think about game play,
getting to the next level, the next accomplishment is all about the search for mastery and competency.
And if you say to yourself, “Yeah but I don’t really play video games, that’s not really
for me,” I bet you you play this game every day: Checking that unread message, clearing
your box, finishing your to do list, checking that jewel icon on an app is all about this
variable reward of the self. Mastery, consistency, competency, and control. Because the purpose
of variable rewards is to scratch the user’s itch, to give them what they came for, but
leave them wanting more, right? Some type of element of mystery to keep them curious
about what they might find the next time they engage. So we figured out the user’s itch in the trigger
phase. Then comes the simplest behavior in anticipation of reward, the action phase.
Then comes the reward and finally the investment phase. Now the investment phase is the part
of the hook that I think most start-ups neglect. The investment phase is all about future rewards,
not about immediate gratification, that’s what the action phase is about but the investment
phase is about some kind of future reward. And the investment phase increases the likelihood
of the next pass through the hook in two ways. Number one, investments load the next trigger.
Investments load the next trigger. So when I send a message on WhatsApp, and by the way
this slide was in my deck way before the acquisition, but when I send a message on WhatsApp I don’t
get anything. What happens? What’s my immediate reward? Nothing. What I’m doing is investing
in one of these, right? Every time I send a message I become more likely to use this
technology, this platform, because I’ll get one of these. I’ve loaded the next trigger.
That jewel icon from someone’s reply brings me back into the app and takes me through
these four steps of the hook again. That’s the next external trigger. So that’s the first
thing that investments do, they load the next trigger. The second way investments increase the likelihood
of the next pass is by storing value. You know one of the reasons I love working in
technology is because unlike things made out of atoms, things in the physical world like
our computers and our phones and the chairs you’re sitting on and everything that’s made
out of real things, these things depreciate, right? They lose value the more they’re used.
But habit-forming technology has the opportunity to appreciate, to become more valuable with
use. And it does this through this principle of stored value. That the more content I add
to a product like iTunes, the more valuable it becomes to me as my one and only music
library. The more data I put into mint.com or any other personal finance software, the
more valuable the product becomes, the more data I put in, the more stored value in that
product. Followers. The more followers I have, for instance on a site like Twitter, the more
valuable the product becomes as a way to reach my audience. So if Twitter sends out an email
tomorrow and said, “Hey, guess what, we’re going to start charging you for Twitter,”
who’s more likely to send in the check, someone with 10 followers or someone with 10,000 followers?
Of course it’s the person with 10,000 followers. The product becomes more valuable the more
stored value in the form of followers that we accrue. And then finally, reputation. Now reputation
is a form of stored value that users can literally take to the bank. So the more, the higher
reputation I have on sites like TaskRabbit or eBay or Airbnb, the higher price I can
sell my products and services. And how likely is it that a competitor can sweep in and take
me away? Pretty unlikely, pretty tough to do because I’ve spent all this time investing
in my reputation. I’ve accrued all this stored value. So that’s the four steps of the hook
model, these experiences designed to connect your user’s problem to your solution with
enough frequency to form a habit. And through these hooks, done in series, this is how users’
preferences and attitudes are shaped. This is how habits are formed with our technologies. Now, I need to apologize because that was
a lot. I gave you word of warning that that was going to be a lot of information. So if
you’re a bit overwhelmed, the good news is that the organizers of this conference have
bought 100 books that will be given out for free right at the break and I’m happy to sign
those for you. It’s also available on Amazon. But the five fundamental questions that you
should be answering for yourself to ask whether your product has the potential to form habits
is: Number one, what’s the user’s itch? What’s the internal trigger that your product is
addressing? Number two, what’s the external trigger that prompts the next action? Number
three, what’s the simplest behavior done in anticipation of reward? Number four, is the
reward fulfilling and yet leaves the user wanting more? And then finally, what’s the
bit of work done to increase the likelihood of the next pass? Now, before I go there’s one more thing I
want to talk about. The morality of manipulation. Now we need to be honest with ourselves here
that designing habit forming products is a form of user manipulation and that the products
that we’re building, our technologies, are the ones that users are taking with them to
bed every night. They’re the first thing that people are reaching for before they even say
good morning to their loved ones and as Ian Bogost said, “Our technologies are quite possibly
becoming the cigarettes of this century.” So what responsibility do we as designers,
as entrepreneurs, as investors have to shape people’s lives using these technologies? Well
I think it’s time to use the psychology of habit design for good. You know, problems
is one thing that we have no shortage of. So I encourage you to use these tactics for
good, to pick a problem that’s worth tackling. Help people find meaning and engage them in
something important. And to build on the words of Gandhi, to build the change that you wish
to see in the world. Thank you very much.

About Ralph Robinson

Read All Posts By Ralph Robinson

5 thoughts on “TNW – Nir Eyal – Building Habit Forming Products | The Next Web

  1. I found his book ‘hooked’ about habit forming technologies very interesting. Have ordered one at Amazon. In the meantime I watched this tedtalk by him and mindmapped it, for the fear of forgetting the key concepts. Here is the link to the mindmapdictionary

    @t

Leave a Reply to Ee Venn Soh Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *