The Psychology of Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal

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As a Product Manager, you understand how to conduct research to get an accurate sense of who your customer is. You know how to apply this knowledge to create an MVP, how to communicate this knowledge to your team, and how to use it to advance as a PM and create personalized products that people connect with.

Now, let’s take things a step further and look at how to use neuropsychology to design habit-forming products that people will use again and again. The undisputed guru in this field is Nir Eyal, the author of the hugely successful book Hooked.

The Formula Behind Any Behavior

Nir introduces a simple yet essential formula the forms the basis for understanding how, when and why people will use – or nor use – your product.

According to BJ Fogg of Stanford, for any human behavior to occur, we need motivation, ability, and a trigger.

Let’s break that down:

Motivation is the energy for action. It is composed of six elements that motivate all human beings:

  • Seeking pleasure
  • Seeing hope
  • Seeing social acceptance
  • Avoiding pain
  • Avoiding fear
  • Avoiding rejection

Ability is the capacity to do a particular action. It’s a measure of how easy or difficult something is. The harder something is to do, the less likely someone is to do it. The elements of ability break down as:

  • Time
  • Money
  • Physical effort
  • Brain cycles (do we understand it?)
  • Social deviance (do we see others doing it?
  • Non-routine (have we done it before?)

Understand Your Customer’s Internal Trigger

Colorful pills on a metal surface

What feeling, state of mind or desire happens inside the mind of your customer that triggers them to use your product, and does it occur with sufficient frequency in order for you to build a viable business by satisfying this need? How is this internal state of mind triggered externally, for example through a notification, an external need, an interaction?

Understand the Action Phase

What is the simplest thing a customer can do to relieve that psychological tension? For example, popular digital products require only very simple actions in order for that psychological need to be met:

  • A scroll on Pinterest
  • A search on Google
  • A Click on YouTube

If People Aren’t Using Your Product…

Guy with a confused expression

They lack sufficient motivation, and/or your product is too difficult to use, and/or the trigger that drives someone to use your product fails to occur. You need every element in the formula to be present in order for your product to become habit-forming.

Example: Your Phone is Ringing

Think of the last time your phone rang BUT you did not pick it up. What was happening then? Was your phone far away? Were you in a meeting? Maybe you did not recognize the number and didn’t answer. In all these cases, the trigger was there, but you either lacked the ability or motivation to answer the phone.

Understanding Rewards

“Rewards” for responding to the trigger and using your product happen in the brain. Specifically, in the area called the Nucleus Accumbens. When lab rats could stimulate that part of the brain with an electrical current, that was all they wanted to do from then on. Likewise with people – when people could trigger this part of the brain by pushing a button in a laboratory, some had to be physically removed from the experimental setting as they enjoyed triggering this part of the brain so much!

Sex, movies, junk food… and using good products all stimulate the same part of the brain! But this is not the brain’s pleasure center. It is the stress of desire, the reflex of desire. It becomes most active in anticipation of a reward, but less active when the reward is delivered.

It is not about pain or pleasure, it’s about pain FOR pleasure.

How to Supercharge the Stress of Desire

There is a simple way to manufacture desire.

Do you want to know how it’s done?

Do you?

Pay attention to your state of mind now.

Are you perking up?

Are you curious?

Mystery is highly engaging.

It stimulates the stress of desire.

And it is habit-forming.

Variability Stimulates The Nuclear Accumbens

Girl with an umbrella

If rewards are sometimes given in response to a certain behavior but not always, then desire will increase!

There are three types of variable rewards, at least one of which you will notice in all addictive products:

  • Rewards of the tribe: Rewards that come from other people. Empathetic joy. Partnership. Competition. For example, social media! You’re never quite sure what form these rewards will take.

  • Rewards of the hunt: These rewards stem from our primal search for resources. A slot machine or game of chance is a classic example of a variable reward. The exact same psychology works online. Notice LinkedIn on mobile. When you scroll through your feed, you may not enjoy the first story, but you will keep scrolling in anticipation of what you might find. It’s the same psychology that makes gambling addicts pull again and again on the lever of a lot machine.
  • Rewards of the self: The search for competence, control or mastery. These things are intrinsically pleasurable. The best example online is game play. Angry birds gives no tangible or external rewards, but it gives you internal satisfaction when you get to the next level. Another example: your to-do list, your email inbox, that notification on Slack!

Scratch user’s itch. Give users what they came for… and yet have some mystery associated with the next time they will use your product.

The Investment Phase

Wall with art pieces

The investment phase increases the habit-forming nature of your product by getting people to come back through the hook. It does this in two ways:

  1. Loading the next trigger. The user does something to bring themselves back. For example, sending someone a message on Slack or email. Nothing immediate happens, but you have invested in the platform and loaded the trigger in anticipation of the reply, the external trigger that pulls you through the hook once again.
  1. Storing value. The product improves with use. Unlike physical tools, digital products get better with use. Clothes, laptops and cooking implements depreciate with wear and tear. Software appreciates. It does this by adding content. The more content you upload to Google Drive, the more you are invested in it and the better and more personalized the product becomes. The more followers you have on Twitter, the better it becomes for you.

Reputation is a form of stored value on sites like Airbnb, eBay, and Upwork. If you have stored value in a product, you’re unlikely to leave it even if a better product comes along.

Building Habit-Forming Products in Five Steps

  1. What is the internal trigger the product is addressing?
  2. What is the external trigger that gets the user to the product?
  3. What is the simplest behavior in anticipation of reward?
  4. Is the reward fulfilling, yet leaves the user wanting more?
  5. What “bit of work” is done to increase the likelihood of returning?

Meet Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal

Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The MIT Technology Review dubbed Nir, The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology. Nir founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is the author of the bestselling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

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