Building habit-forming products: an interview with Nir Eyal

By Spencer Lanoue | September 30, 2015
Building habit-forming products: an interview with Nir Eyal
This is a Q&A interview with Nir Eyal about his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Nir writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He’s also taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. You can find out more about Nir on his blog. Enjoy!

Q: Can you tell us about the latest product that has you hooked? Or do you find you're immune to hooks just because you are so aware of them?

A: No, that’s definitely not the case. I’m just as susceptible to these things as anybody else. There’s a great quote that says, “You teach what you most need to learn.” And that’s definitely been the case in my life. I think that's what drives me to these things. I've had trouble with impulse control, I guess you could say, all my life. I was actually an obese kid. I was clinically obese at one point in my life—up until high school—and had to deal with some food issues. And since then I’ve always been fascinated by how things outside of our body can somehow control us. As Ian Bogost said:

The cigarette of this century is technology.

And I struggle with them as much as anybody. I think the difference is, and what has given me hope over the past several years, that by understanding how these products hook us and what makes them so habit-forming, we can do something about it.

Distraction is nothing new

People have been struggling with distraction forever. The medium has changed. Now it's Facebook and Twitter, but before that it was television and radio and books! At one point books were considered nothing more than a distraction from what we should really be doing in life. So I think the medium changes, but the human capacity for distraction does not. Unless we can understand how these products change our behavior. Then we can actually do something about it.

Q: Can you talk about a product where you found it difficult to define a trigger or reward?

A: Let me step back a little bit. The Hook Model that I describe in the book is a four step process that is built into a product, and includes:

  • A trigger
  • An action
  • A reward
  • And an investment

And it’s going through successive cycles of these hooks that our preferences are changed, that our tastes are formed, and that these habits take hold. (Editor’s Note: If you want to learn more about the Hook Model, we recommend watching this video where Nir breaks down all four steps in detail.)

These triggers come in two types:

  1. External triggers
  2. Internal triggers

External triggers are things in our environment that tell us what to do next. So "click here," "buy now," "play this." These are all things that tell us what to do next with some piece of information. Internal triggers are what a company eventually wants to build an association with: a particular place or situation, a routine, certain emotions: these are all internal triggers. So if we're feeling a particular emotion, like loneliness, we turn to Facebook. Uncertainty? We hop on Google. Or boredom? Maybe we check YouTube, or Twitter, or stock prices, or the news.

Internal triggers are the goal of these habit-forming products

They want to create an association in our brain so they no longer need to message us at all—we just use these products on our own. And so when I work with companies, one of the first things we do is dive into their hook. We try to identify what their trigger is, their action, reward and investment. It’s a diagnostic tool, so we can find out what’s missing in the design of their product when it comes to these four basic steps of the Hook Model.

One of the most frequent things that’s missing is not understanding what the internal trigger is.

It's maddening to me

I meet with so many teams that can tell me all the technical specifications of their product, all the bells and whistles and things their product can do. But when it comes to the psychological requirements—what itch is this product scratching in your user’s day-to-day life on a psychological basis—they haven't a clue. That’s a critical flaw. It’s a big mistake. If you’re building a habit-forming product, you've got to be able to tell me what the user's itch is. And does it occur frequently enough in the day to form a habit?

The Toothbrush Test

At Google, Larry Page has what he calls The Toothbrush Test: that the products they want to build are the kind that get used like a toothbrush—twice a day. This is a man that understands the power of habits. He understands that for a product to build a habit, it has to occur frequently enough in a user's day. That requirement of an internal trigger—an itch, emotion, situation, routine, something that prompts you into action that occurs frequently enough in your day—is the basis of forming these habits.

Q: Can habits be formed if they're not daily? Can they be weekly, or less frequent? What if there's a longer period of time between triggers?

A: So there are a few things we know. There are a lot of myths and rumors circulating on the internet, one of which is that there’s a magic number. That you need to do something for 30 days to make it a habit. It turns out it's all of the above. There’s no scientific evidence that there’s a magic number. There is a range, but what we do know is two things:

Thing #1:

The first thing we know is that the more frequently a behavior occurs, the more likely it is to become a habit. So when you think about how frequently you use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Slack, Snapchat, these are products that can be used many times per day. Stats are telling us that people are checking their phones on average 150 times a day. So these products have a very high habit-forming potential.

Thing #2:

Now the second thing we know is that there’s a precipitous drop-off in the likelihood of forming a habit if the behavior does not occur within a week's time or less. So that week is very special. If your user isn’t doing the key behavior, not doing the action, or not passing through your hook on a weekly basis, or more frequently, you're going to have very, very tough time forming a habit.

So the question is: what do you do?

I was in Las Vegas a couple of months ago, at a convention of real estate agents. There I am in front of 700 real estate agents, and the woman introducing me says, "Now we're going to hear from Nir Eyal. He’s an expert on habit-forming products, and Nir is going to tell us how to make buying a home a habit." And of course, the first thing I said when I got on stage was:

Let's be very clear: buying or selling a home will never be a habit.

That's never going to happen. It doesn't occur with sufficient frequency. It’s the antithesis of the definition of a habit, which is a behavior that occurs with little or no conscious thought. Buying a home is something that we do with a ton of conscious thought. We deliberate, we over-think; it’s the opposite of a habit. So I said, "Look, I'm going to teach you my content, I'm going to teach you how to make a habit-forming product, and let's see what you come up with.” In my workshop I described the four steps of the hook. Then after my talk, a few real estate agents came up to me with their ideas. One of them came up to me and said, "I'm going to attach to this internal trigger of fear around finances. So whenever anyone in my neighborhood stresses about their retirement account, their kids' college education fund, the gyrations of the stock market, I want them to come to me. I want them to call me, open my newsletter, check on my website. I want them to get in touch with me.” And of course the result is that when it comes time to buy or sell a home, guess who those people in that community are going to reach out to? Well, of course it's going to be that real estate agent.

And that's why we see the rise of two phenomena

Content marketing and community building. These are two ways that businesses that aren’t habit-forming on their own (i.e. products that are not used frequently enough), are bolting on habit-forming solutions which do occur with sufficient frequency. People are building content and community around their products because they realize, and this is the phrase that I want everyone to put up somewhere in their office:

Monetization is a result of ENGAGEMENT

You can't lead people to form these habits around buy-buy-buy-buy-buy, that's very self-centered. What you want to do is give them something of value that engages them enough to form a habit using the four steps of the Hook Model. So eventually when they do form this habit, guess who they're going to turn to when it is time to check out, when it is time to buy the product or service. Of course it's going to be your service.

Q: Are you saying that blogs, newsletters, and well-curated content are their own hooks?

A: They can be. You still need the four basic steps, the trigger, action, reward, and investment. When it comes to content in particular, the step I see missing most frequently is that people forget to ask for an investment. "Open the email" is an example of an action to get the reward in the content. Investment is where you ask the user to put something into the product, in anticipation of a future benefit. It’s something they'll receive as a reward “someday.” It isn't about immediate gratification.

But a lot of people don't ask for any investment

Or a user will click on a piece of content and the owner doesn't register that information. You'd better be collecting that data so you can deliver better content in the future. Users implicitly show interest by liking things, registering for things, or commenting on things—these are implicit investments.

The fact that I clicked on something should be changing how you reach out to me after the next trigger. So when you send me something in the future, it’s more tailored to me.

The purpose of the investment stage is to increase the likelihood of the next pass through the hook. If you're not doing that, you're missing a huge opportunity.

Q: Is there an example you can give where someone personalized their hooks? And is it crucial to use personalization?

A: Collecting user data and personalizing the experience is only one form of investment—it falls under the bucket of data. There are these four major ways that I see building investment. They are:

  • Accruing followers — The more followers someone has on a platform, the more likely they are to use that service in the future. The follower count becomes a way to invest in the platform. And the product gets better and better the more followers they have.
  • Data — The more data I give to a product or service, the better it becomes. It increases in value with use.
  • Content — The more content that I add to a service, the better it gets with use. The more content I put into Google Drive, for example, the more it becomes my one and only cloud library.
  • Reputation — This is another form of investment. The better my reputation is on eBay, Airbnb, or any number of other services where my reputation score matters to me, the better the product becomes.

The investment phase is really crucial. The key question you want to ask yourself is this:

Does the product get better with use?

Habit-forming technology should appreciate in value; it should get better and better the more it's used. And there are a number of different ways to do that. The point is: DO IT in some way. Don't just shoot out content without asking people to invest in making it better and better with you.

Q: A lot of people focus on the onboarding of the product because they feel that’s their first, and maybe only, opportunity to hook someone. How do you think about that?

A: When I'm looking at an angel investment that I'm considering, I look for three things—what I call G.E.M.'s:

  1. Growth
  2. Engagement
  3. Monetization

Each of these G.E.M.'s are necessary, but not sufficient by themselves

If your product is growing like crazy, but you can't keep anybody around, then that's called a leaky bucket. And that's no good. You've seen a lot of these products come and go. There’s a new viral channel and they get big, and then because they can't keep people around, they’re toast. And the same goes for engagement. If you've only got 10 engaged users, but man they are really engaged, they’re coming back every single day, that still isn't good enough.

You've got to figure out how to grow. You've got to figure out how to monetize.

So I’d put onboarding into the growth bucket; it’s a growth challenge. Why? Because it only occurs once. That’s got nothing to do with habits. There are all kinds of consumer psychology tactics that you can use to make that key behavior of onboarding more likely, such as the Fogg Behavior Model. But again, it's a one-time behavior, so it doesn't require a full hook.

A critical error that happens all too often

Now, a critical error that I see happening all too often is that companies focus so much on their onboarding, that they forget about the core experience. And even if someone actually registers and goes through the onboarding process, the core product is so crappy that it was all for naught (because the product designers forgot to build it around the Hook Model in the first place).

It doesn’t make any sense to focus on this onboarding challenge until you’re absolutely sure that you’re retaining users.

Why would you put a lot of effort into making the onboarding process super easy, if the product they’re onboarding to loses them eventually anyway?

Focus on engagement first

You really want to focus on that engagement piece first (and habits fit under the engagement bucket), before you start scaling growth.  I think you want to nail your hook with just your friends, your family members, and a small community of users. Once you see that out of the 100 people we put into the product—we held their hand and we made sure they used the product and tested the hook—90 are still using it 30, or 90, days later. Then go focus on your onboarding challenge.

Q: When you only have 100 people on the platform and you're trying to build the community, are there any strategies around retaining users while you’re trying to get the next 100 people to join?

A: I think when it comes to communities there's always this "chicken or the egg" problem where people won't show up to a community unless other people are there. There are only a few ways to fix that “cold start” problem.

Seed the community

The first way is to seed the community. Twitter did this. They went directly to the Technorati of Silicon Valley—the Michael Arrington’s, the Robert Scoble’s, and people who already had an audience—and said, “Hey, would you start using Twitter? This is a great new way to reach your audience.” Even though nobody was really using it, they at least seeded the community.

Make the product useful in single player mode

The only other solution I've seen to the cold start problem is to make the product something that's useful in single player mode—even when nobody is there. To do that, I would look at the variable rewards in your hook. Instead of using social rewards—rewards of the tribe—use a different type of reward that makes the product interesting and useful even when no one is there. Maybe use rewards of the hunt or rewards of the self, so that I can use this product even without other people. And then when people join the product it gets better and better.

Q: Some B2B products are like a "helpline" that’s only used when something goes wrong, or it’s a mandatory step in an employee's workflow. How do these types of products fit into the Hook Model?

A: First of all, I would reiterate, that not every product has to form a habit. There are lots of products that bring people back without habits. There’s search engine optimization, advertising, and heck, you can even have a storefront to bring people back. 

Not every business needs a habit. But every business that needs a habit, needs a hook.

Whether the product is something that’s used by the consumer or used by the enterprise, it really doesn't matter. The distinction is: does it need a habit? If it's a product that’s just not used frequently—let's say it's some kind of protection software that only works when something breaks—that doesn't need a habit. But if it's a product that’s used regularly, then that's something you'd want to form a habit around. So that frequency test we talked about earlier is very important.

Building habit-forming enterprise products

Here’s a presentation on Slideshare I've given where I talk about the four steps of the hook in enterprise applications. What we're seeing today is that many enterprise applications that used to be bought by top-down committees are now being sold from the bottom up. They're bought by front-line employees who are figuring out, “Wow! This is really great software, I need this.” Then they’re justifying it to their managers—up the chain of command. And those products absolutely require habits to be formed. You'll see in the Slideshare presentation above that I give the same four steps of the Hook Model—the same trigger-action-reward-investment—but for enterprise applications, as opposed to consumer web.

Q: One last question: Building hooks into your product isn't easy. How can you convince your team that it’s worth the time and effort up-front to get this right?

A: This is a tricky question. I don't really know. I say that because I'm not an expert in organizational behavior. Psychology plays a huge role in culture—in organizational behavior—and that’s outside my area of expertise. But what I will say is that I hope this tool will give people ways to test these ideas very cheaply and quickly.

The best time to use the Hook Model is very early

When you have the first glimmer of the idea that you'd like to make a habit-forming product, here's what you should do. Instead of coding, wireframing, or doing any of that stuff—take out a piece of paper and answer the five fundamental questions that I raise in the book about whether your product meets the five requirements of having a habit built into it.

You can begin to answer on paper, as opposed to spending a lot of time, money, and energy on coding and wire-framing.

That's the best place to use this tool—very early in the product development cycle.

The next best time to use the Hook Model is very late

What I'd like to recommend in terms of how to convince people to look at the hook, is to bring it up very late in the process. What do I mean by that? I'm often called "the plumber." I'm often called in when a company is leaking users and they can't figure out why. And my job is try to fix the leaks. And so the way that I do that is by diagnosing what's going on, by showing them the Hook Model, and looking for where the product is deficient:

What’s missing in the experience that would cause people to not come back, time and time again?

In terms of getting people to adopt the model, I would tell them, “I know why we’re missing something. I know what's happening here, we're not asking for investment, or we're not giving rewards.” Diagnosing is a great way to start changing minds. And then of course the next step is to tell everybody where they can go get the book for themselves, so they can read and digest it themselves. And then they become allies.

Learn more about Nir & the Hook Model

We’d like to thank Nir for providing such thoughtful answers to these questions! If you’d like to learn more about how to build habit-forming products, we highly recommend picking up his book, as well as checking out his blog. If you have your own questions for Nir, send him an email. And if you’ve read his book and want to talk about your own Hook Model, you can schedule office hours to talk to him one-on-one. Thanks again Nir!

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About the author(s)
Spencer Lanoue

Spencer Lanoue is a marketer who helps UX designers, PMs, and marketers make things people want.