Movers & Shakers
Design Habits, Not Apps
Nir Eyal , Author and Entrepreneur
Habit-forming products are critically important and misunderstood, said author and entrepreneur Nir Eyal. He talked about behaviors that manipulate and motivate users in our recent Soapbox.
Nir said as an entrepreneur, he was frustrated when users didn't follow the prescribed paths his designs laid out. He decided to explore the common design patterns that made social games successful. The prior research he discovered lacked practical application — no way to apply the psychology behind users' behavior patterns. This inspired his book, Hooked, about how to build habit-forming products.
Behaviors Come Into Focus
Nir's interest in habits was first piqued at his last company, which did business at the intersection of gaming and advertising. At the time, neither industry had terminology to describe habit-forming practices. They used certain techniques because they worked, but no one had definite ideas as to why.
I came to the hypothesis that technologies that would change user behavior in the future would really be built around habits. As the interface shrinks from desktops to laptops to mobile devices, and now to wearables, that habits would become more important. … We would start to rely on products that require little or no conscious thought.
We used to define habits, Nir said, based on what the "Hippo" — Highest Paid Officer, HPO — wanted. But over time the need to listen to customers became apparent. Still, customers had trouble articulating what they wanted. They didn't know what they needed, just that they needed … something. Our Design Triggers, Nir said, named those heuristics that influence behavior people were trying to describe.
Nobody 11 years ago was saying, 'oh my God, I wish I had something to update my status!' … Facebook and products like it have changed our habits so that today, when we're without our technologies we feel a little stressed, lost, or hopeless.
Vitamins vs. Painkillers
So what is it that Facebook and others do to instill and reinforce the need to update our statuses?
Two years ago Nir began asking a question that he'd often heard from investors: Is your product a vitamin or a painkiller? How does it help people?
Painkillers are what customers tell us they need, Nir said. But when we look at habit-forming technologies, most begin as vitamins — nice-to-have services like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. None were strictly necessary, and that, Nir said, was the first pattern. Customers started using them as pleasurable behaviors, and through repetitive use he describes as the "hook" model, we begin to use so-called vitamin products to alleviate pain we didn't have before.
A habit is when not doing something causes a bit of pain.
To relieve the bit of stress caused by not acting on a habit, customers simply act on the habit. He said the hook pattern has four steps:
- Trigger: Something that cues a behavior
- External — Trigger that themselves inform people what they should do, such as calls to action or word of mouth from a friend.
- Internal — Associations in users' minds that such as daily routines, certain places, and negative emotions (pain points or, technically, "negative valence states"). Internal itches, as Nir called them.
- Action: The simplest behavior in anticipation of reward. Scrolling in Pinterest, for example, or pushing "play" on a YouTube video.
- Reward: Bits of intermittent reinforcement with a sense of mystery. Variable rewards are those that users anticipate, but don't know when they will occur.
- Investment: The action that customers themselves take to stay engaged. Nir said this is the area that we need to improve the most when building products.
He also said that many companies focus on getting users to use a product and move on when they should focus on making frequent opportunities for users to "check in" and use the product.
Small bits of effort users do that put something of value into a site which increases their likelihood of the next pass. Adding content to a site, for example, or accruing followers or a public reputation, increase the odds that users will return to a product in the future.
Break Down Barriers to Hook Customers
Companies often put barriers between recognized need and the reward for users.
The history of innovation is about shortening the distance between the trigger — the recognized need — and the reward.
Anything that gets between triggers and rewards, Nir said, causes friction. He added that many companies put the investment phase of the hook model too early in the process of creating habits. Twitter's home page in 2009, for example, had lots of friction. Videos, a long description, many buttons to pages describing how great Twitter was, prevented people from actually posting tweets. When they simplified the page, removing anything that distracted from using Twitter itself, they saw incredible growth — pushing investment such as earning social capital until after the reward of posting tweets, Nir said.
It's not about what you ask the user to do, but when. Trigger, action, reward — then investment.
Pinterest, Nir said, was another example. At first glance, there's very little investment in using the site. Maybe users arrive by word of mouth or following links on Twitter — external triggers. The simplest action is to simply start scrolling. "You have to start scrolling because of the variable reward that scrolling offers," Nir explained, such as the occasional photo that piques users' interest.
"You know what we call Pinterest without variable rewards? Google image search," Nir said. He elaborated: Searching for "teddy bear" will show 50 images of brown plush toys. It's built to be accurate. But searching Pinterest for "teddy bear" will show images of teddy bear tattoos, teddy bear paintings, teddy bears made from jelly beans — all random images.
The investment that follows the reward is an invitation to join Pinterest. Although the invitation is always present, it's discrete. Users don't have to pay attention until the actions have them hooked.
Once Formed, Habits Are Hard to Break Into
Nir was careful to point out that not every business needs habits, which are incredibly hard to form. If marketing compels people to use products, for example, then habits may not be worth the effort to create.
But other companies require habits to drive business. Stack Overflow, GitHub, Sales Force and Yammer, for example, use the hook model to keep users engaged. Nir related an anecdote where Bank of America emailed GitHub, claiming that so many of their team used GitHub's service that the bank felt compelled to send them a check.
Mobile games are another example: Nir said that game makers only need about 4% of their customers to pay in-app purchases to keep the business going.
Once built, habits create barriers to entry for competitors. Nir asked the audience how many people used Google Image Search in the last 24 hours. So many hands raised it was hard to see who hadn't raised theirs. Then he asked, "how many of you have used Bing?" No hands. "So Google must be better, right? Well, turns out if you strip away the branding … people can't tell the difference" between Google and Bing. People continue to use Google because we use it with no conscious thought. It's become a habit.
I give you Bing tomorrow, you'd say 'eh, it looks a little weird … it just doesn't work right' — even though the results are the same.
Nir said that Google is so ingrained in people's behavior that they don't even consider there might be an alternative search engine. To make people switch, a competitor must be much, much better than the one that formed the habit. It's hard, but it's been done. Facebook, for example, took users away from Friendster and MySpace — and no one looked back.
Three Pillars Create Successful Products
Monetization, engagement and growth are three things a business needs to have a successful habit-based product. Amazing products without growth or a strategy to earn money will not succeed. "What did Facebook actually replace?" Nir asked. "In the early days, Facebook replaced the face book." In college, he added, everyone had a literal book of faces and names of friends with which to hang out. Facebook, the web service, replaced that — and then became a communications medium and a photo service. Facebook gave a new interface to existing habits.
Whenever we see a shift in interface … that's when new habit-forming technology has potential.
Nir said we're seeing the shift now, as wearable technologies replace mobile devices. This will bring forth many new habits, and is a great chance for new players to enter the market.
Habits Are Not Addictions
"Addictions are always bad," Nir said. "They're always self-defeating." Nir said his book also covers how to prevent the abuse of habit-forming technology. As technology improves and people learn to engage customers with habits, we need to understand how to break those habits. Habits, like super powers, can be used for "evil."
If there was an 'aha' moment for me, it was … when, on a Saturday, I was using my phone as opposed to spending time with my daughter."
We're still trying to figure out, Nir said, how new technologies affect us, positively and negatively. And while benefits outweigh detriments, we shouldn't ignore the bad sides of technology and their potentially addictive natures.
Our discussion with Nir continued as he took questions from the audience. We'd like to thank Nir for sitting down with us and to those who attended the event.