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Last updated on 4/29/20

Get "Hooked" on Habit Forming Products

When you look at your phone in the morning what are the first apps or sites you look at? How would you feel if you stopped opening them? There's a good chance you—or someone you know—is "hooked." But there is a difference between healthy habits and addiction. In this chapter, we will focus on the healthier side of habits.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, uses the work of BJ Fogg to make his case for the "hooked model."  According to Eyal, habits are behaviors, or small actions, done with little or no conscious thought. They are formed through frequency (how often they're used), or attitude change such as changing the perception of the behavior. These habits are usually taken for granted. 

The "hooked" model

Nir Eyal's "hooked model" resembles an infinity sign marked by the flow from triggers to action, rewards, and investment. The experience is designed to connect the user's problem to the created solution done frequently enough to form a habit.

Infinity symbol to represent the
Visualization of the "hooked model" by Nir Eyal. 

Triggers signal what to do first/next. There are obvious external triggers —such as a button that says "click here." Internal triggers revolve around internal associations (emotions such as boredom, uncertainty, loneliness). In order to create solutions that are useful, it is important to understand the user's "itch."

Actions are what you're looking to turn into a habit. Actions are where BJ Fogg's behavioral model (B = M + A + T) comes into play. The level of motivation and ability and the presence of a trigger determine if the action will happen. When designing, you want to consider what is the simplest behavior resulting in anticipation of a reward. (Look at "user flows" and "task analysis" to consider the steps the user takes to accomplish something. How can they be simplified or lend themselves to the next step?)

Simple behaviors such as scrolling, searching, or clicking play result in "rewards" for users. The reward, however, is not always the most important part. The brain is most active when it is anticipating the reward. This stimulates the "stress of desire" which recognizes that the unknown is fascinating. Therefore, "variable rewards," or rewards that are less finite or predictable, can have a larger impact on user behavior. How can you satisfy the user and still leave them wanting more? This is the case with the FitBit step tracking app where you're trying to earn badges without knowing which ones exist or what you're working towards. For more examples revisit the course Create Simple Prototypes with Wireframes.

Rewards can exhibit themselves in different ways. Nir Eyal explores the ideas of tribe, hunt, and self:

  • Tribe – the social factors that give you a sense of belonging, such as the community formed by social media or private groups online.

  • Hunt – the search for something (knowledge or something tangible). This even could be searching for a great deal on Groupon.

  • Self – the desire for personal gratification. This could involve learning a language on Duolingo or getting more work done with the help of a productivity app.

The biggest impact happens when internal triggers result in authentic connections and satisfaction.

The final step in the hook is "investment." It's easy to think that once a goal is accomplished, your job as a designer is done. However, you want your users to form habits and keep coming back! What small thing can you do to help encourage this behavior? Approaches include: loading the next trigger (notifications or reminder alerts), storing value (DropBox and GoogleDrive), considering followers (who will help improve your product), and building a reputation (user satisfaction and how they will remember you).

The hooked model animated and explained by Nir Eyal. [13:00 min]

Simplify the user experience

In order to be effective, Nir Eyal describes the need for behaviors that can be done drunk. No, this does not mean to have a cocktail 🍸 while you design, but rather to work to make every step of the user journey as easy as possible. In other words, remove unnecessary complexity.

Nir Eyal recommends building a narrative to understand the user and the behaviors and habits that come naturally to them. As with BJ Fogg's "tiny habits," it is important to consider what the user is doing right before the intended habit. Are they sitting at their desk after a day of long, boring meetings? Or is it the first thing they do after leaving the gym? You want to understand what problem your user is looking to solve even if he or she can't articulate it.

Your goal in building a narrative is to better understand internal triggers. You may have some hunches, so you'll want to create a hypothesis in order to test if your assumptions are correct. Nir Eyal uses the formula: Every time the user (trigger), he/she (habit). An example could be: Every time Sally hears the sound of a new message, she stops what she's doing to read it (or every time Enrico is bored he opens Pokemon Go).

Habits benefit businesses financially and encouraging them isn't something you do for fun. Most importantly, you want to design a product that is "top of mind," or the first thing that comes to mind when someone is looking to solve a problem. Habits also can increase the long-term, lifetime value of a product. They give companies greater flexibility in pricing, lead to supercharged growth, and make it less likely the competition can do what you do better. Once again, your product is what people think of first.

Let's recap!

  • The book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal can help designers better understand how to encourage behaviors that become habits.

  • Triggers, actions, rewards, and investments make up the "hooked model." Each step is needed in order to continue the motion to form a habit.

  • Keep experiences as simple as possible! Don't over complicate them.


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