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Book Review – Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Last updated on 2017-12-03

Hooked Book CoverHabits are we do without thinking, things we do with little or no conscious thought, which take minimal mental effort, and simply happen.

From a product development perspective, managing to make a product a habit, is winning. How many times do you check Facebook every hour? (I stopped counting, just too many times). How about Twitter? Instagram? “favorite” news site? They have us hooked.

I’m not going to delve on whether creating habit-forming products is either good or bad, because it depends on the product itself. Research has shown that being grateful improves your overall well being, so creating an app that increases your gratefulness is something good, right? Great, then having left that behind use, let’s talk about the book.

Hooked tries to describe a methodology to create products that keep their users engaged, and… hooked :-). Based on research an experiences, Nir Eyal defines a 4 step process that creates a self-feeding circle of customer engagement: Trigger -> Action -> Variable Reward -> Investment -> GOTO Trigger:

  1. Trigger: the act that starts the process. This can be an external trigger – a friend telling me of this awesome gratefulness app that has changed his life – or an internal trigger – a notification from the app telling me to write something for which you are grateful right now.
  2. Action: the behavior that the product wants from you – in my example, writing down a thing I am grateful about (I’m writing a book review!).
  3. Variable Reward: this is the basis for the “hooking” in the model. The reward must be something unpredictable, satisfying, intriguing. “Research shows that levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire” [my emphasis]. Wow!
  4. Investment: as a last step, the user does something that reinforce his need for the habit – inviting friends to the app, adding more personal information. As we spend more time and effort in something, we give it more value. See the Ikea effect and the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

The Hook Canvas

And so the loop goes on and on.

Great book, a lot of great ideas for product design and development. As a consumer I also learned to identify ways in which products are trying to hook me and break them (well… sometimes). You can buy it from Amazon (using Kindle to save the rain-forests) and if you do so through my link, I may be able to buy a beer from their affiliate program in 10 years, give or take.

Yea, I’m hooked 🙂

I decided to start including in the book review all my highlights, not only because it will be a good place for me to find them later, but also because I think they give a glimpse into the book that complements the review.

  • Cognitive psychologists define habits as “automatic behaviors triggered by situational cues”: things we do with little or no conscious thought. The products and services we use habitually alter our everyday behavior, hust as their designers intended. Our actions have been engineered.
  • Variable rewards are one of the most powerful tools companies implement to hook users… Research shows that levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.
  • Habits are one of the ways the brain learns complex behaviors. Neuroscientists believe habits give us the ability to focus our attention on other things by storing automatic responses in the basal ganglia, an area of the brain associated with involuntary actions. Habits form when the brain takes a shortcut and stops actively deliberating over what to do next. The brain quickly learns to codify behaviors that provide a solution to whatever situation it encounters’
  • Products fail for a variety of reasons: companies run out of funding, products enter markets too early or too late, the marketplace doesn’t need what companies are offering, or founders simply give up. Just as failure has many causes, success too can be attributed to a variety of factors. However, one aspect is common to all successful innovations – they solve problems.
    • Painkillers solve an obvious need, relieving a specific pain, and often have quantifiable markets.
    • Vitamins, by contrast, do not necessarily solve an obvious pain point. Instead they appeal to users’ emotional rather than functional needs.
    • Efficacy is not why we take vitamins. Taking a vitamin is a “check it off your list” behavior we measure in terms of psychological, rather than physical, relief. We feel satisfied that we are doing something good for our bodies-even if we can’t tell how much good it is actually doing us.
  • Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are two key motivators in all species
  • The ultimate goal of a habit-forming product is to solve the user’s pain by creating an association so that the user identifies the company’s product or service as the source of relief.
  • As Evan Williams, cofounder of Blogger and Twitter said, the Internet is “a giant machine designed to give people what they want.” 8 Williams continued, “We often think the Internet enables you to do new things . . . But people just want to do the same things they’ve always done.”
  • There are three ingredients required to initiate any and all behaviors: (1) the user must have sufficient motivation; (2) the user must have the ability to complete the desired action; and (3) a trigger must be present to activate the behavior.
  • All humans are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain; to seek hope and avoid fear; and finally, to seek social acceptance and avoid rejection.
  • In 1975 researchers Stephen Worchel, Jerry Lee, and Akanbi Adewole wanted to know how people would value cookies in two identical glass jars. 8 One jar held ten cookies while the other contained just two. Which cookies would people value more? Although the cookies and jars were identical, participants valued the ones in the near-empty jar more highly. The appearance of scarcity affected their perception of value… In the second part of their experiment, the researchers wanted to know what would happen to the perception of the value of the cookies if they suddenly became scarce or abundant. Groups of study participants were given jars with either two cookies or ten. The people in the group with ten cookies then suddenly had eight taken away. Conversely, those with only two cookies had eight new ones added to their jars… The group left with only two cookies rated them to be more valuable, while those experiencing sudden abundance by going from two to ten actually valued the cookies less. In fact, they valued the cookies even lower than people who had started with ten cookies to begin with. The study showed that a product can decrease in perceived value if it starts off as scarce and becomes abundant.
  • The mind takes shortcuts informed by our surroundings to make quick and sometimes erroneous judgments.
  • People often anchor to one piece of information when making a decision.
  • Without variability we are like children in that once we figure out what will happen next, we become less excited by the experience. The same rules that apply to puppies also apply to products. To hold our attention, products must have an ongoing degree of novelty.
  • Our habits are simply the brain’s ability to quickly retrieve the appropriate behavioral response to a routine or process we have already learned. Habits help us conserve our attention for other things while we go about the tasks we perform with little or no conscious thought. However, when something breaks the cause-and-effect pattern we’ve come to expect— when we encounter something outside the norm— we suddenly become aware of it again. 4 Novelty sparks our interest, makes us pay attention, and— like a baby encountering a friendly dog for the first time— we seem to love it.
  • Variability increases activity in the nucleus accumbens and spikes levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, driving our hungry search for rewards.
  • Our brains are adapted to seek rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important, and included.
  • The rewards of the self are fueled by “intrinsic motivation” as highlighted by the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Their self-determination theory espouses that people desire, among other things, to gain a sense of competency. Adding an element of mystery to this goal makes the pursuit all the more enticing.
  • Only by understanding what truly matters to users can a company correctly match the right variable reward to their intended behavior.
  • Unfortunately, too many companies build their products betting users will do what they make them do instead of letting them do what they want to do. Companies fail to change user behaviors because they do not make their services enjoyable for its own sake, often asking users to learn new, unfamiliar actions instead of making old routines easier. Companies that successfully change behaviors present users with an implicit choice between their old way of doing things and a new, more convenient way to fulfill existing needs. By maintaining the users’ freedom to choose, products can facilitate the adoption of new habits and change behavior for good.
  • The more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that our labor leads to love.
  • The more effort we put into something, the more likely we are to value it; we are more likely to be consistent with our past behaviors; and finally, we change our preferences to avoid cognitive dissonance.
  • Instead of asking ‘what problem should I solve?’ ask ‘what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?’. Studying your own needs can lead to remarkable discoveries and new ideas because the designer always has a direct line to at least one user: him- or herself.
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