Customer Experience and Design

How to Create Habit-Forming Technology Solutions

Last week, I was at the Connected Health Symposium in Boston. It is with great pleasure that I relay what I was taught during my favorite session by Nir Eyal author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”.

shutterstock_78240940 copyWe know that mobile devices change our day-to-day behavior, but why are mobile devices so good at changing our habits? To understand how, we must understand what habits are and how they are changed. Habits are impulses to do a behavior with little to no conscious thought. When you think about it, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and SnapChat get us to do some pretty bizarre behaviors as habits. Now, over the span of just a few short years, billions are using these social platform as day-to-day habits that require little to no conscious thought.

It goes to say, then, that creating a habit-forming technology solution of any type would require us to speak directly to the unconscious mind. To do this, Eyal advocates what is calls the “Hook Model”. This is defined as using experience design to connect a user’s problem to your solution with enough frequency to create a habit. To do so, it is critical that your solution include the following four components of a hook:

  1. Trigger: A trigger is a cue to action that prompts the user to perform a habitual action. These triggers come in two forms. You have external triggers in the environment that tell us what to do next. Common external triggers include what we call “calls to action” in marketing, which is the “Buy Now” request. A friend telling you to try a certain solution is also a powerful external trigger. However, it is the internal trigger that is the most important. Internal triggers are associations in someone’s mind that inform what to do next. These associations come from emotions, routines, situations, people, and places. Ultimately, this requires you to have an intimate understanding of your user’s painpoints and how they respond to those painpoints. For example, people with depression check email more. The theory behind this association states that people suffering from bad emotions turn to their technologies to feel better. Generally speaking: Lonely = Facebook, Bored = YouTube, Confused = Google. We use these technologies to escape negative valence states. So, how do you make better products and services that help people live healthier lives? You need to understand what internal trigger you are creating an association with.
  2. Action: An action is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of reward. The reward need not be in the form of Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 8.08.31 PMpoints and leader boards. Want examples of the most compelling rewards used by leaders today? Scrolling on Pinterest. Searching on Google. Play button on YouTube. These are all “rewards” in that studies have shown they relieve enough tension in the human mind to create an addiction to our mobile phones. There is a formula you can use to predict the power of reward found in these singular behaviors. That formula is B=M+A+T. According to BJ Fogg, in order for any behavior to occur, we need motivation, ability, and a trigger. Motivation is the “energy for action” (how much we want to do a behavior). Six factors to increase motivation include: seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, seeking hope, avoiding fear, seeking acceptance, and avoiding rejection. Ability is the capacity to do an action (how easy or difficult it is to do). Six factors can increase or decrease ability: time, money, physical effort, brain cycles, social deviance, and non-routine. This is why we are more likely to do something when we see someone we know doing it. We are also more likely to do something we’ve done before . X-Y access that’s Ability (how easy) vs. Motivation
  3. Reward: To get at the heart of reward, we have to start in the brain. More specifically we have to start in a portion of the brain called nucleus accumbens, which has some unusual properties. When they allow lab animals to trigger this portion of the brain by pushing a button, those animals will continue to do so obsessively. In fact, the machines have to be forcibly removed. At first it was assumed that this portion of the brain activated a pleasure center. That was not correct. It actually activated the “stress of desire”. The thing is, there is a way to stimulate this itch that we crave to scratch. Within the premise of “the unknown is fascinating”, variability causes us to increase focus and not let go. If a reward is given on a variable basis, then it spikes activity in the nucleus accumbens. One import variable reward system are “rewards of the tribe”, which are things that feel good that come from other people like empathetic joy, partnership, and competition. Social media is a erasure trove for rewards of the tribe. Rewards of the hunt, like gambling, also provide the variability that we desire. The information rewards we receive from search engines like Google are good examples of a reward of the hunt. The social media activity feed works in the same way (that’s not interesting, that’s not interesting, wait, that’s interesting!). Then there are rewards of the self. A search for self-achievment has an important element of variability, which is why people are happiest when they are trying to reach a goal (as opposed to having already achieved that goal). Mastery, competency, and control are rewards of the self. Ultimately, variable rewards are about scratching the user’s itch but leaving them with the mystery of what will happen next. One of the ultimate examples is the email inbox. The quest to clear your inbox can be seen as a game because the little icon signifying that you have mail told you to do something. Making that little icon go away is an important variable reward that keeps us coming back for more.
  4. Investment: This is a variable of the hook that most companies neglect, and, therefore, presents the greatest opportunity for growth. They receive a variable reward. What’s next? “Investments”are defined as the load for the next trigger. Unlike physical products that deteriorate over time, habit forming technologies appreciate and get more valuable the more they are used because of the investments in stored value. The more content that is collected in iTunes, the more value it has and the better it becomes. The more accounts I connect in Mint, the more valuable it becomes to me. The more followers I have the more interesting Twitter becomes. Users need to be able to store their value in your technology solution. This value is stored as a reputation that a user can “take to the bank”. How likely are you to leave a platform after you have stored value in terms of reputation?

This is how customer attitudes change and habits are formed. If you are building a technology that requires habits, then you need to ask these five questions to know if you have been successful:

  • What internal trigger is the solution addressing?
  • What external trigger gets the user to your solution?
  • What is the simplest behavior in anticipation of reward?
  • Is the reward fulfilling yet leaves the user wanting more?
  • What “bit of work” is done to increase the likelihood of returning?

Eyal ended his talk with a discussion on the morality of manipulation. Designing habit-forming products is a form of manipulation. As a result, engineers of these solutions need to be careful. We need to be responsible for the impact we have on changing user behavior by using this power for the force of good by fixing one of the world’s problems.

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Melody Smith Jones

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