How To Build Habit-Forming Products
We've all seen how the products we use change our behaviors, particularly over the past few years when we think about the rise of our personal technologies these products in our pockets like Facebook Twitter snap chat slack and good old email these products they keep us checking again and again. How do they do it. These companies have mastered the art and science of habits these behaviors done with little or no conscious thought about 40 percent of what we do day in and day out whether we like it or not is done purely out of habit. I'm about to show you a design pattern companies use to build habit forming products. It's a model I uncovered in my years in the video gaming and advertising industry and it's called the hook a hook is an experience designed to connect the user's problem to the company's solution with enough frequency to form a habit. Hooks have four parts a trigger an action a reward and an investment. Every hook starts with a trigger a trigger tells us what to do next. These triggers can be things in our environment like buttons that say click here by now or play this. These are called external triggers. There are things that tell us what to do next by giving us some piece of information contained in the trigger itself. We see these things every day and you're likely familiar with these external triggers but what you're likely not as familiar with and turns out to be absolutely critical to forming long term habits are the internal triggers. Internal triggers are things that tell us what to do next.
But where the information is not contained in the trigger but instead informed through an association or a memory in the user's brain. So what we do when we're in a certain place situation around particular people taking part in a routine and most frequently when we experience certain emotions dictates what we do next. The action that we turn to with little or no conscious thought it turns out the most frequent internal triggers are these emotions but not just any emotions. They are specifically negative emotions. So what we do when we're feeling bored or lonesome or lost or fearful are uncertain or confused dictates the technology that we turn to next with little or no conscious thought. In fact research has shown that people suffering from clinical depression check email more. So what's going on here. Well it turns out that people suffering from depression experience what psychologists call negative valence state. They feel down more frequently than the general population. And what are they doing to boost their mood to get out of that negative valence state while they're going online. They're checking e-mail more often than most other people. But of course we all do this to some extent don't we. We all use products to change our mood in fact think about it what app or website do we turn to when we're feeling lonely while we open up Facebook of course. And what about when we're feeling uncertain before we scan our brains to see if we know the answer well we Google it. And what about when we're feeling bored. Well that's a great time to go to YouTube check sports scores read the news stock prices Pinterest.
There are so many solutions to alleviate this painful internal trigger of boredom. So after the trigger tells us what to do next. Now it's time for the action itself. The action phase of the hook is where the habitual behavior occurs. The definition of the action phase is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. It's something as simple as a scroll on Pinterest or a search on Google or what could be simpler than pushing the play button on YouTube. These very simple actions done in anticipation of a reward. It turns out there's actually a formula to predict the likelihood of these singular behaviors and it comes to us from a researcher at Stanford by the name of B.J. Fogg who hypothesized that for any human behavior B three things are necessary. The user must have sufficient motivation. The user must have sufficient ability and the trigger must be present. That's the t we just talked about the triggers. So let's dive into motivation and ability motivation is the energy for action it's how much we want to do a particular behavior while the ability is the capacity to do that behavior. How easy or difficult something is to do so far gives us this chart showing motivation on the y axis and ability on the X. If something is easy to do it's on the far right. If a behavior is hard to do it's on the far left when the user has sufficient motivation and sufficient ability.
They crossed that threshold and if the trigger is present that behavior will occur online off line your behavior your significant other's behavior kids behavior your user or customer's behavior always requires these three elements of sufficient motivation ability and a trigger for any action to occur after the key behavior. Let's say opening the app scrolling on the page or whatever the habit may be. Now it's time for the reward to give the user what they came for. But when we talk about rewards we need to talk about the brain and in particular we need to understand a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens the special air the brain becomes active when we crave something luxury goods sex junk food certain chemicals and of course right there in the center technology what's most interesting about the special air of the brain is that it becomes most active in anticipation of a reward. But when we actually get the thing we think we want the thing that's going to make us happy. Well, that's when that's part of the brain becomes less active. So the way that brain gets us to act is by creating this itch that we seek to scratch. And it turns out there is also a way to supercharge that itch to stimulate a craving. Do you want to know what it is? Are you curious? Do you want to know how to activate desire? Well, of course, I'm doing it to you right now because the unknown is fascinating and so when I took that long pause and I asked you a question I'm guessing you perked up you wonder what am I going to say next what's happening. And so in all sorts of things that we find most engaging, you will find an element of mystery a bit of the unknown what B.F. Skinner called a variable ratio of reinforcement.
And if you consider the products that we find most engaging most habit forming the things that capture your attention and won't let go you will find one or more of these three types of variable rewards of the tribe rewards of the hunt and rewards of the self-rewards of the tribe are things that feel good that have an element of variability. Like for example seeking empathetic joy feeling good because someone else feels good cooperation competition partnerships all of these are things that are examples of rewards of the tribe. The best example I can think of online is, of course, social media when you open the Facebook app you never know what you're going to see what photos might you find what are the comments going to say. How many likes does something get? There's a high degree of social variability. Next, comes the rewards of the hunt which is all about the search for resources. When many people think of variable rewards at the hunt they think of gambling slot machines where the variable reward is the money. You might win when you play a game of chance. It's part of what makes gambling so habit forming. If not all out addictive. Interestingly enough we see the exact same dynamic online. Consider the feed. Have you ever wondered why the feed is so prominent today? Why do so many products have a feed? Well, let's consider the Twitter timeline as an example. When you open up the Twitter app perhaps the first thing is a very interesting and maybe the second isn't all that interesting but how about the third or fourth.
And to get more of this reward of the hunt What do you have to do. Well, all you have to do is to continue to scroll and this scroll and use the exact same psychology as pulling on a slot machine searching and searching and never done searching for the next reward of the hunt. Finally, there are the rewards of the self. These are things that feel good have an element of variability but don't come from other people and aren't about the search for material or information or rewards. These are things that feel good in and of themselves they're intrinsically pleasurable. They're about the search for mastery competency control and completion. The best example I can think of online is gameplay. So I might not be playing with other people or even winning anything on Candy Crush or angry birds but there are something fun and habit forming about getting to the next level the next accomplishment. And even if you say to me Look you know I'm not a gamer. This doesn't apply to me. I bet you you play this game every day. Think about checking those unread e-mail messages. Finishing the to do on your to do list or the thing that always gets me is checking that one notification on my phone home screen just so I can clear it away. These are all examples of rewards of the self. The purpose of these variable rewards is to give the user what they came for to scratch their age and yet have a bit of mystery some uncertainty around what they might find the next time they engage with the product.
And finally the investment phase of the book The Purpose of the investment is to increase the likelihood of the next pass through the hook and investments do this by storing value. Now this is a big deal because unlike products in the physical world which depreciate they lose value. Think about it your chair your table your clothing everything in the physical world loses value with wear and tear they depreciate. But habit forming technology should do the opposite. It should all freesheet it should get better and better with use. And it does this because of this principle of investing in stored value. So for example the more content I add to google drive the better it gets. As my one and only cloud storage solution. The more data I give to Mint.com personal finance software the more I can do with it it becomes better and better with the data I invest in the service. Each time I pass the hook the more followers I have for example on a site like Twitter the better the service becomes for a way to reach my audience. And finally reputation reputation as a form of stored value that users can literally take to the bank because my reputation on platforms like up or eBay or Air B and B determines what I can charge for my goods and services and how likely am I to leave on these services after I've accrued this positive reputation. Not very likely. Even if a better competing service comes along which brings me to the conclusion and the cold hard truth that there is no written rule anywhere that I know of that says the best product necessarily wins.
Instead it's the company that holds onto the monopoly of the mind the habit that wins because it's through successive cycles through the hook that customer preferences are shaped that tastes are formed and that habits take hold. Now at this point I know many of you have a question in your mind and that question is likely is this ethical. And if you're thinking is this right you know is this kosher or is it OK to use people's hidden psychology to change their behavior. I say bravo because I think that is the appropriate response to learning about the power of habit forming products. Let's face it anytime we are designing user behavior to meet our ends in mind that my friends is a form of manipulation and we need to be very careful about how we apply these techniques because we're building the products that people take to bed with them every night. The first thing they reach for in the morning before they even say hello to their loved ones. And as Ian Bogost warned technology quite possibly may be becoming the cigarette of this century. So what responsibility do we have as product designers innovators as entrepreneurs. Well I believe we can use behavioral design for good for too long these techniques have been used for mindless frivolity but there's so much more we can do. Firstly as consumers and users ourselves by finally understanding how we get hooked we can break unwanted habits in our own lives and as people who make these products I believe we can help people live happier healthier more productive more connected lives. To borrow from the words of Gandhi I encourage you to build the change you wish to see in the world. By using habit forming products for good.
March 27, 2018