Using Habit-Forming Technology for Good by Nir Eyal

BY YAEL BURLA ON MAY 2, 2018

Summary: In this ProductTank NYC talk, behavioral designer Nir Eyal examines the ways in which product design can influence consumer behavior, and discusses how to apply this thinking across various technologies to create a positive impact on the world.

Companies and products are fighting for share of mind among consumers, so leveraging concepts from behavioral design and science is becoming increasingly relevant. Roughly half the decisions that people make every day are made out of habit, with little or no conscious thought. As we build products that drive repeated usage and engagement with our customers, we can leverage this phenomenon to not only our advantage as product managers, but to the advantage of consumers in enabling them to live more fulfilling and connected lives.

The key way in which pattern-forming technologies become successful is through what Nir calls “the hook”. The hook is an experience designed to connect a user’s problem to a company’s products and solutions with enough frequency to form a habit. These habits, tastes, and preferences are formed and shaped through successive passes through these hooks.

Every hook has four basic parts:

  • Trigger
  • Action
  • Reward
  • Investment

The Trigger

Product managers see and create external triggers all the time – links, buttons such as “click here” or “share”, and even recommendations via word of mouth are prime examples. These triggers cue our next action, where the information on what to do next is within the trigger itself.

Nir claims that we don’t focus enough on creating associations with an internal trigger. Internal triggers also cue our next action, but instead the information is stored as an association or memory in the user’s mind. These experiences and emotions, often negative ones, strongly dictate our habits. The reason why Instagram is so successful, for example, is because it taps into multiple internal triggers, such as not wanting to “miss the moment”, feeling lonely, and trying to make a certain impression on one’s followers. Instagram also created external triggers that were largely spread user-to-user, fueling its growth at a much lower cost and in less time than most products.

Understanding the internal triggers that make your users itch and figuring out the external call to action associated with those triggers is fundamental to designing and building engaging products. But it’s important to not exaggerate triggers. For example, Twitter’s original landing page was full of links, videos, and images, making it difficult to understand its primary purpose: to sign up/log in. Today, Twitter’s landing page is much simpler, with the sign up/log in link being almost the only trigger present.

The Action

Once users are triggered to arrive on a particular platform, they perform the simplest behavior possible in anticipation of a reward: an action. Examples include scrolling on Pinterest, searching on Google, and clicking the “play” button on YouTube. Nir explains that there is a formula to predict the likelihood of these behaviors. For any human behavior, we need a trigger (as explained above), sufficient motivation, and sufficient ability.

Motivation is the energy for an action – how much we want to do a particular behavior. Motivation has six “levers,” that we can pull on to make someone more or less likely to do a behavior: seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, seeking hope, avoiding fear, seeking social acceptance, and avoiding social rejection.

Ability is the capacity – the ease or difficulty – of a particular behavior, and there are a number of factors that influence ability. The easier something is to do, the more likely people are to do it. Social deviance is another factor; people are more likely to do a certain behavior when they see other people like them doing it. Routines also play a role;  people are more likely to do things that they have done in the past. This is why habits are so important. The more users do something, the easier it gets, and therefore are more likely to do it again in the future.

More often than not, products suffer because the user either has motivation but no ability, or ability but no motivation. For example, if your phone rings but you don’t want to talk to the person calling, you don’t answer the phone. You have the ability to pick it up, but you lack the motivation. On the other hand, if your phone rings while you’re driving, you still don’t answer the phone. You may have the motivation to talk to the person calling, but lack the ability to pick up.

The Reward

In the reward phase, users achieve what they set out to do with the product. Our reward circuit is controlled by the nucleus accumbens, an area in our brain that operates on dopamine and serotonin, and is stimulated by many aspects throughout the average person’s day, such as junk food, luxury items, sex, and technology. The nucleus accumbens is most active not during the reward itself, but during the anticipation of the reward. The desire to check our email whenever that idea comes to mind is what stimulates us, and we desire the reward even more when there is variability in not knowing when we will receive it.

All of the products that we find the most engaging and habit-forming will contain one of three types of variable rewards. These are rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt, and rewards of the self.

Rewards of the tribe are things that feel good, have the element of variability, and come from other people. Social media exemplifies this well – when you go on Facebook, people are keen to know how many people commented on and liked their photo.

Rewards of the hunt are material possessions that have that element of variability, such as gambling. Interestingly, social media is also an example. As we scroll through our feed, we are hoping to see something that we like. Scrolling through a feed can be compared to pulling the lever on a slot machine.

Finally, rewards of the self are things that feel good, have the element of variability, and are intrinsically pleasurable. This is the search for mastery, competency, consistency, and control. When we play a video game, we aren’t really playing to win a physical reward, and we often aren’t playing with other people, but we are playing for the feeling of getting to the next level.

Nir notes that variable rewards do not work unless you connect it with the internal trigger. If the internal trigger is boredom, the variable reward has to be entertainment; if the trigger is loneliness, the reward has to connect people.

The Investment

In the investment phase, immediate gratification is no longer the goal; it is all about future rewards. Product managers can increase the likelihood of the user passing through the hook again in two ways.

The first way is by loading the next trigger. When someone sends a WhatsApp message, there is no immediate reward; they are loading the next trigger, which will be the reply they eventually receive. That reply is an external trigger that will take bring you back into the hook.

The second form of investment is storing value. In the physical world, products lose value over time. However, in technology, habit-forming products do the opposite – the more content you have on a platform, the more valuable the product becomes. For example, the more documents you upload to your Google Drive, or the more followers you have on Instagram, the more valuable you derive from the platform.

The final form of investment is reputation. This is a type of stored value that users can literally take to the bank. For example, your reputation on sites like TaskRabbit or Upwork dictate how much you can charge for your services. Thus, even if a better product comes along, it will be difficult to leave your current product because of that investment.

Fundamental Questions to Ask

Nir states that it isn’t the best product that wins, but the product that can capture the monopoly of the mind. It is the products that we turn to first, with little or no conscious thought. If you are building a habit-forming product, you need to be able to answer five fundamental questions:

  • What is the internal trigger that your product is addressing?
  • What is the external trigger that prompt the next action?
  • What is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward?
  • Is the reward fulfilling, and yet still leaves the user wanting more?
  • What work will the user do to increase the likelihood of the next pass through the hook?

The Morality of Manipulation

It may seem wrong to expose people’s psychology to meet your own needs, especially when those needs are commercial. Being concerned about the morality of manipulating people’s mind and emotions for your products is a natural human response.

So, as product managers, entrepreneurs, and investors, we have a responsibility to use the psychology of habit-forming technology for good. Pick a problem that is worth tackling, and help people find meaning by engaging them in something important to help them live better lives. To loosely quote Gandhi, Nir emphasizes you build the change that you wish to see in the world.

Yael Burla

About YAEL BURLA

Yael is passionate about applying behavioral psychology to building great products. With a background in Neuroscience, she has consulted several brands on delivering valuable products and experiences to customers. Yael lives in New York City and is currently a User Engagement Associate at Quid, a SaaS platform that analyzes unstructured data at scale, where she works cross-functionally to ideate, build, and launch new products. Yael is also a co-organizer for ProductTank NYC. To find out more, visit http://producttank.nyc.

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