Hooked: The art and science of habit design

Why do some products capture our attention, while others flop? David DeCheser, Executive Creative Director, R/GA, sits down with Nir Eyal, author of "Hooked" to discuss how habits can be used to design successful products and the responsibilities brands face when influencing users.

Nir Eyal, author of "Hooked"
Nir Eyal, author of "Hooked"

David DeCheser: Can you explain the hook model for those who aren’t familiar with it?

Nir Eyal: Sure. The hook model is a design pattern endemic to habit-forming products—specifically, habit-forming technologies.

When we think about companies that are able to dramatically change consumer behavior in a very short period of time, companies like

Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, the question is: "How do these companies do it? What is it about the product design that changes people’s behaviors and habits?"

What I uncovered was this model, composed of four steps—trigger, action, reward, investment—that companies run users through. When consumers experience successive cycles of these four steps, their preferences are changed, their tastes are formed, and habits take hold.

DD: I’m sure every one of our clients wants people to get hooked on their product, but not every product or service requires a habit. What types of products require habits and which don’t?

NE: Some business models require the user to interact with the product frequently. Think about the companies I just mentioned: Their business models crumble if they don’t have frequent engagement. They have to form habits or they go out of business.

A company that’s interacted with infrequently, like an insurance company, doesn’t need a habit, because the business model is just fine with infrequent interaction. So it’s not that every business needs a habit, it’s that every business that needs a habit needs a hook.

DD: You’ve consulted with tons of organizations on the hook model. What have you found to be some of the challenges of implementing it, and how can companies better integrate the model into their design process?

NE: The first step is to recognize that this pattern isn’t an accident. These companies that we find ourselves glued to, they didn’t build their products this way by chance. They have people very well trained in consumer psychology who design these products to be engaging.

Next, look at the four steps of the hook model. First, what’s the internal trigger that your product is addressing? What’s the user’s itch? What’s the external trigger that prompts them to action? Second, consider the action phase of the hook. What’s the simplest thing the user can do to get an immediate reward? Third, the reward phase is about how can we scratch the user’s itch while leaving them wanting more.

Finally, look at the investment phase. What’s the thing the user does to increase the likelihood of the next pass through the hook? What makes these iterative technologies so special is that they store value. Everything in the physical world depreciates with use.

The more wear and tear, the less valuable a thing becomes. But the amazing part about habit-forming technology is that it appreciates: it gets better and better with use. These products always ask us to invest something in them: data, accruing followers, building reputation, contributing content. And our investment increases the likelihood we will make another pass through the hook.

So it’s really about looking at the hook model, putting your business in that framework, and then very quickly you’ll figure out where the deficiencies are.

DD: Clients tend to fall into a very feature-centric view of their products or services. How can the hook model help companies define a product’s mission?

NE: I can’t tell you how many times I get into a client engagement and they start doing the feature talk. "Our product can do this! Look at this technical specification, look at this amazing whiz-bang thing that we can do." But they’re stumped when I ask, "What are the psychological requirements of your product? What itch occurs frequently in your user’s life that you’re addressing to form this habit?"

When I’m bored, I use Facebook. When I’m uncertain, I check Google. When I’m feeling lonely, I check Tinder. Whatever it might be, that internal trigger guides us and helps define which features do or don’t go into your product.

DD: You mentioned that new habits are really hard to form. How realistic is it for a company with a new product or service to form a habit?

NE: The response I always get is: "Fantastic, I know my internal trigger, but another company owns it. Whenever consumers feel a certain way, they use their product."

There are four ways to capture an incumbent’s consumer habit.

First, you can increase velocity through the hook. Send your user through the four steps of the hook with greater speed: trigger, action, reward, investment. Shorten the distance between the recognized need and the reward, making it easier to do the intended behavior. The second way is to increase frequency through the hook.

This typically happens when we shift from one interface to a new one. When we went from desktop to laptop to mobile and now to wearables, every time there’s an interface shift, the habit deck gets reshuffled. Oftentimes, the incumbents can’t make that transition, allowing new entrants to capitalize on emerging interfaces. As these technologies become increasingly portable, we can use them more frequently, and these new habits on these new interfaces stick. The third strategy uses the reward phase.

If you can deliver a much greater reward than your competitor, you can bring in new customers. Take Snapchat versus Facebook. If a user gets a message or notification from Snapchat at the same time as a notification from Facebook, which one are they going to open first?

Where is the reward most rewarding? The Facebook message from Aunt Matilda? Or the snap from someone they’ve been flirting with? It’s going to be Snapchat. It’s better at scratching the itch.

The final way is to make it easier to enter the hook in the first place. Look at howGoogle Docs took on Microsoft Office. Google Docs was not a great product at first—nowhere near the features of Microsoft Office—but it was free and required no software to install. So it was easier to get into in the first place, and that’s how they captured the user.

DD: Shifting gears, what are your thoughts on products, like activity trackers, that aim to help people change their behavior?

NE: I think there’s a lot of promise. But many times these companies design their products and services in a suboptimal way that actually hurts users. The biggest danger around what I teach is that people use these techniques with the best of intentions to change the wrong behavior.

For instance, fitness apps to date have focused on the wrong thing. The science of losing weight, or being healthier, is not exercise first. It’s diet first. There are all these psychological phenomena that we don’t consider. For example, there’s this idea of moral licensing—we’ve seen this effect documented time and time again:

When I’m good in one area of my life, I tend to cheat in another. It’s why people go to the gym, sweat on the treadmill for an hour, then go get a Jamba Juice with 60 grams of sugar. So, if we don’t create these behavior change programs for the right behavior, they tend to backfire.

DD: On that note, it seems like every week I’m reading an article about our unhealthy relationship with technology. Do you see grounds for concern?

NE: There’s a lot of commentary along the lines of, "Oh, Facebook is ruining our lives, the Internet is making us dumb, and Google is melting our brains." But I think it’s overhyped. Whether I’m learning to play tennis or the piano, everything changes the brain over time. That’s nothing new. The real problem is not that companies have mastered habits; it’s that far too many of their products and services don’t suck us in—they just suck.

DD: Then how do we unhook from products that suck?

NE: If you read my blog, 50 percent of what I write about is how to make products more engaging, how to hook users with healthy habits. The other half is about how to get unhooked. It’s a conversation we need to have, because we’ve adopted technology wholesale—the good and the bad. The bad side of the information revolution is, of course, that it depletes our attentional resources.

That doesn’t mean we need to stop using these technologies altogether; we just need to be more conscious of how we use them.

A big part of what I teach is how to use the hook model, the same four steps of trigger, action, reward, investment, to break unwanted habits. To break an unwanted behavior, simply remove one of the steps. Take out the trigger, make the action more difficult, delay the reward, or don’t invest.

DD: You touched upon consciousness. As marketers trying to capture new audiences, what kind of responsibility do we have when using these types of behavioral hooks?

NE: We have to think very carefully about how we apply the techniques. The test I propose for any product developer or marketer who’s creating a habit-forming experience is to ask two questions: "Am I the user? And does this materially improve people’s lives?" If you can answer these questions in the affirmative, you’re in a really good spot from an ethical perspective as well as from a pragmatic perspective for designing a better product or service.