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Revenera sponsors a series of Product Management Today webinars featuring innovative ideas from top software product management thought leaders. In these blog posts, we ask the presenters to share their insights – we encourage you to watch the full on-demand webinars for even more details.

Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal is the author of the best-selling book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and the forthcoming Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life (he’s also giving Revenera blog readers who pre-order Indistractable the full PDF of the book and a complimentary 80-page workbook!).

In his webinar, Nir revealed the patterns that explain why some products and services are incredibly sticky, and how companies like Facebook, Twitter, GitHub, and Slack became masters of retention and engagement. We discuss his insights on building habit-forming products that have powerful and positive impacts on users’ lives.

To begin, what do you mean by “habit”?

A habit is an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought. About half of what you do every day is done from habit. There are good or bad habits. In our industry, we can use habits to help people live happier, healthier more engaged and productive lives.

There’s a big difference between a habit and an addiction. Addictions are persistent, compulsive dependencies that hurt the user. Everything I teach is about persuasion: helping to build healthy habits into peoples’ lives, so they do what they already want to do.

There’s an ethical line crossed when you keep someone using your product when you know they don’t want to. That’s coercion. I’d put addiction in that category. Some companies need to worry about this, but most have the opposite problem: “I have a great product that would really help my customer if I could only get them to use it.” That’s what I’m teaching you.

OK, so what does it take to create a new consumer habit?

Every product that creates a habit – whether online or off – embeds a hook. It’s a part of the user experience that connects the user’s problem to your product with sufficient frequency to form a habit.

Frequency is crucial. It’s incredibly difficult to change a consumer behavior if it doesn’t occur often enough. The key behavior you want to turn into a habit should occur in a week or less.

You might say: my product doesn’t get used that quickly. There are strategies to mitigate that. You can build a habit-forming experience around the product, but it still needs to happen within the critical cutoff point. For example, a real estate agent can’t get his clients into the habit of buying houses every week, but he can create a content habit that hooks them on getting a regular newsletter about their communities. The community habit is bolted onto the experience, and the result is eventual monetization.

What are the elements of a “hook”?

A hook includes four steps: a trigger, an action, a reward, and an investment. As people move through your hook in successive cycles, customer preferences are shaped, tastes are formed, and habits take hold.

We’ll walk through all four, starting with triggers. These tell the user what to do next. There are two types: external and internal. They need to be clear: often, I just can’t tell what someone wants me to do on their page or in their app.

The external trigger is something in the outside environment that tells you what to do: click here, buy now, play this, maybe a friend’s word of mouth recommending a great new product.

Once you have that, you need to create an association with an internal trigger. These also tell us what to do next, but the information is stored as memories inside our heads. These tend to be things like places, situations, routines, people – but most frequently, emotions. Especially negative emotions.

What do we do when we’re feeling bored, lost, indecisive, tense, confused, fatigued? These emotions prompt us to look for relief. We know people who are depressed check their email more. They do it to resolve what psychologists call a negative valence state – and if we’re honest, we all do it. When we’re feeling lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re feeling unsure, searching for an answer we don’t know, we Google it. When we don’t feel like working, we go to YouTube, check sports scores, go to Reddit; all these services cater to the painful internal trigger of boredom.

The negative and positive emotions are two sides of the same coin: they’re all about wanting and craving, and the brain registers the wanting of a good outcome with the same regions and processes as avoiding a negative outcome. But from a business perspective, focus on the pain. Think of the internal trigger as a negative emotion because that’s when it’s most needed. There’s only one reason customers use your product or service. It’s not about tech specs or even the job to be done, it’s about changing how we feel.

What made Instagram so habit-forming? Look first at its external triggers. Maybe the first time you heard of it you saw someone post a photo online. You clicked on an external trigger to see the photos, and you installed the app on your phone. Now there’s an external trigger right on your device, and you start getting notifications, friends’ messages telling you when they posted something: more external triggers.

Now think about Instagram’s internal trigger. I’d argue it’s the pain of losing the moment in time: if you don’t capture your lunch, your moment with friends, that beautiful sunset, your dog, it’ll be lost forever. That internal trigger wasn’t new to Instagram. Kodak spent billions encouraging you to capture “Kodak moments” with your Kodak camera. What it took Kodak a century and billions of dollars to establish, Instagram did with twelve people in 18 months by having users teach each other what the Instagram moment is about.

The next phase is the action phase. Ask: what’s the simplest behavior the user can do to relive their discomfort? It might be scrolling on Pinterest or searching on Google or pressing play on YouTube: incredibly simple behaviors that deliver an immediate reward.

A Stanford researcher, B.J. Fogg, created a formula for predicting the likelihood of a given behavior. Fogg tells us we need three things at once: sufficient motivation, sufficient ability, and the presence of a trigger.

Motivation is energy for action: how much we want to do something. Psychologists believe there are six key motivation levers we can pull on to make someone more or less likely to pursue a behavior. We seek pleasure, and avoid pain. We seek hope, and avoid fear. We seek social acceptance, and avoid rejection. Every TV commercial or web ad you’ve ever seen uses these motivators.

In our industry, ability is even more important, because you’re more likely to get people to do something not by boosting motivation but by making it easier to do. If ability is high, even just a bit of motivation is often enough.

To change ability, you can change how much time a behavior takes, what it costs, or how much physical effort it requires. But also: how many brain cycles it takes. This is big in tech: the harder a behavior is to understand, the less likely it’ll occur. Constantly ask yourself: what’s in your user’s way? What’s causing them to lose the ability to perform that intended behavior? Make it as easy as possible.

Next, there’s social deviance: we’re more likely to do something when we see someone like us doing it. Finally, we’re more likely to do something if we’ve done it before in the past: habits have a powerful repeater effect.

Now that we understand triggers and actions, what about rewards and investment?

When the user gets what they came for, the itch is scratched. That’s the reward. To understand it, we have to start with the Nucleus Accumbens, an area of the brain first studied by Olds & Milner in 1945. They inserted electrodes in lab animals’ brains, and connected them to a button the lab animal could press to stimulate the Nucleus Accumbens. These lab animals wanted to do nothing but stimulate this part of the brain. In later experiments on people, researchers observed similar results.

Well, we don’t need electrodes to stimulate your Nucleus Accumbens, it’s activated every single day with things like luxury goods, junk food, sex, certain chemicals, and our technologies.

For decades, the psychological community believed the Nucleus Accumbens stimulated pleasure. That’s not exactly true: turns out it gets us to act by stimulating the stress of desire. The wanting, the craving, is the reflex that keeps us coming back. In fMRI studies, we see that the Nucleus Accumbens is most active in anticipation of the reward.

How do we do supercharge the stress of desire in our customers? Use the unknown. The technique is called variable reward. It causes us to engage and focus, and it’s highly habit forming.

This comes from the classic work of B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning. Skinner put pigeons in a little box, gave them a little disk to peck at, and whenever they pecked, they received a little food pellet a reward. But he started to run out of food pellets: he couldn’t give one every time they pecked. Sometimes, when the pigeon pecked, no pellet would come out; next time, they’d get one. Skinner observed that the rate of response actually increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement. Why? Variability stimulates this wanting reflex.

In all products we find most habit-forming, you’ll find one or more of three types of variable rewards; rewards of the tribe, hunt, or self.

Rewards of the tribe are variable rewards that feel good and come from other people. For example: the search for empathetic joy, you feel good because someone else does. Partnership. Cooperation. Competition. The best example online is social media. You open Facebook, and you’re not sure what pictures or videos or comments you’ll see, how many likes you got. There’s a high degree of variability associated with it.

Rewards of the hunt are about food and material possessions, and in modern societies we buy these with money. Think about slot machines, where the variable reward is what you might win when you play. The same psychology explains why so many mobile products have a feed. Start scrolling, and the first thing doesn’t interest you, but maybe the third one does. It’s like pulling a slot machine handle: a search for the next reward.

Variable rewards of the self are intrinsically pleasurable: for example, mastery, consistency, competency, and control. The best example online is gameplay: it’s fun to get to the next level, achievement, or accomplishment. You’re a serious businessperson, you don’t play Angry Birds, right? Well, if you’re anything like me, you probably play a game every day: your inbox. The need to open that unread message, finish your To-Do list, clear away that last app notification: these are all examples of varying rewards to the self.

You can’t just toss in points and leaderboards and badges. Variable rewards must address the user’s itch. If it’s loneliness, you need to connect people. If it’s boredom, you have to entertain. If it’s workplace stress, help me feel secure that I’m doing the right thing for my job. There must be a connection between the internal trigger and satisfying that pain point with the variable reward. The point is to give them what they came for and leave some mystery about what they’ll find next time.

Which finally brings me to the last step of the hook, and perhaps the most important and overlooked step: investment.  Here, the user puts something into the product in exchange for a future reward. This increases the likelihood of another pass through your hook.

Investment loads the next trigger. When you send a WhatsApp message, there’s no immediate gratification, but you’ll probably get a reply coupled with that red notification icon, an external trigger that prompts you to the hook once again. It’s not marketing WhatsApp sent: it’s something you did to bring yourself back.

Investments also increase the chances a user will take another pass through the hook by storing value. Physical objects lose value with wear and tear, but in tech, habit-forming products can get better with use. The more content we upload to Dropbox, the more valuable it becomes as our cloud storage solution. The more data we give to, the more we’re co-creating the platform for ourselves in real time, as it works better for us based on that data. Of course, we want to be careful about protecting that data, but also want to use it to improve the product for each user.

Followers are another great way to increase a user’s investment in a product. If, tomorrow, Twitter imposed a price, who’d be more likely to pay: someone with 10 followers or 10,000?

Finally, reputation is stored value users can literally take to the bank. My reputation on Upwork or eBay or Airbnb dictates what I can charge. Even if a better service comes along, how am I going to leave one of these platforms after I’ve collected all this positive reputation?

How do you find a hook when it might not be obvious?

A hook’s only necessary if your business model requires a habit. If it does, start again by asking: what’s the core behavior you want people to perform? That’s your action. In the enterprise, these days, it’s often checking a dashboard. OK, what’s the user’s itch that you want to satiate by checking the dashboard? Stress about completing their work? Uncertainty about what they want to do next? Concerns about their marketing spend? Can checking the dashboard address these?

The reward might be the reward of the hunt for information. Numbers go up or down, it’s uncertain what the dashboard will show: that makes it variable. And the investment becomes doing something about the data. Am I changing my campaign, entering more data, making more connections? What can the user do inside the software to make it better the more he or she uses it?

So what are your takeaways from all this?

First, a cold hard conclusion you won’t like: it’s not the best product that wins. Silicon Valley graveyards are full of those. The product that captures the monopoly of the mind captures the market.

By going through the steps of trigger, action, reward, and investment, you can shape customer preferences, form tastes, and make habits take hold. If your product requires repeat engagement, you need to answer five questions:

  1. What’s the internal trigger you’re addressing: the user’s itch that occurs with sufficient frequency?
  2. What’s the external trigger that gets a user to your product?
  3. What’s the simplest behavior done in anticipation of reward?
  4. Is the reward fulfilling, yet leaves the user wanting more?
  5. What’s the work the user does to make it likelier they’ll take another pass through your hook?

Is all this moral?

Bravo for having this thought. Let’s face it: anytime we’re designing products to change peoples’ behavior, that’s a form of potential manipulation, so we need to be very careful and ask ourselves: what responsibility do we have?

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I encourage you to use the power of habit to help people live better lives by finding these problems we can help them fix, by engaging them in something meaningful and important. To show you I put my money where my mouth is, here’s a company I worked with a few years ago: one I liked so much I invested in them.

The founder of 7 Cups, Glen Moriarty, called me during one of my “office hours,” where anyone can call me, including you, and we can speak for 15 minutes. He’s a psychotherapist, and he told me: I want to help people find the therapy they need, and aren’t getting it because it’s expensive, time consuming, fraught with social issues and stigma.

So he built an app that uses the hook for good. He made the internal trigger the discomfort of loneliness. Someone’s seeking connection – say a parent or child with a disability, or a vet with PTSD, or anyone who needs someone to talk to. The action phase is to open the app, and with one button connect to a human who’s ready to listen. That brings us to the variable rewards phase, where his app offers the rewards of the tribe: you’re connected to someone else who’s ready and willing to help you. And, in the investment phase, whenever you use the service, you’re offered the opportunity to become a trained listener yourself, and learn the skill of listening to others. The app’s been found as effective as traditional expensive psychotherapy. It now serves over 180,000 sessions a week in 140 languages: talk about the amazing power of using habits for good.

With that, I’d like to paraphrase Gandhi, and encourage you to use these techniques to build the change you wish to see in the world.