Main Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

How do successful companies create products people can’t put down?

Why do some products capture widespread attention while others flop? What makes us engage with certain products out of sheer habit? Is there a pattern underlying how technologies hook us?

Nir Eyal answers these questions (and many more) by explaining the Hook Model—a four-step process embedded into the products of many successful companies to subtly encourage customer behavior. Through consecutive “hook cycles,” these products reach their ultimate goal of bringing users back again and again without depending on costly advertising or aggressive messaging.

Hooked is based on Eyal’s years of research, consulting, and practical experience. He wrote the book he wished had been available to him as a start-up founder—not abstract theory, but a how-to guide for building better products. Hooked is written for product managers, designers, marketers, start-up founders, and anyone who seeks to understand how products influence our behavior.

Eyal provides readers with:

• Practical insights to create user habits that stick.
• Actionable steps for building products people love.

• Fascinating examples from the iPhone to Twitter, Pinterest to the Bible App, and many other habit-forming products.

Year: 2014
Publisher: Portfolio
Language: english
Pages: 256
ISBN 10: 1591847788
ISBN 13: 9781591847786
File: EPUB, 5.30 MB
Download (epub, 5.30 MB)

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			Published by Portfolio / Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

			Copyright © 2014 by Nir Eyal

			Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

			Hooked was previously published by the author.


			Eyal, Nir.

			  Hooked : how to build habit-forming products / Nir Eyal with Ryan Hoover.

			pages cm

			Includes bibliographical references.

			eBook ISBN 978-0-698-19066-5

			1. New products. 2. Consumer behavior. 3. Consumers’ preferences. I. Title.

			HF5415.153.E93 2014







			If I am ever asked, “What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?” I won’t respond with any of the research studies or company examples you’ve read. Although the topic has captivated me for over two and a half years, there can be only one answer to this question: I never knew how generous people could be.

			I owe a particular debt of gratitude to the following people. This book truly would not have been possible without them.

			Michelle Ahronovitz, Stephen Anderson, Dan Ariely, Jess Bachman, Gil Ben-Artzy, Laura Bergheim, Jonathan Bolden, Michal Bortnik, Vlada Bortnik, Ramsay Brown, James Cham, Tim Chang, Andrew Chen, Sangeet Paul Choudary, Steve Corcoran, Alex Cowan, John Dailey, Tanna Drapkin, Karen Dulski, Scott Dunlap, Eric Eldon, Josh Elman, Jasmine Eyal, Monique Eyal, Ofir Eyal, Omer Eyal, Ronit Eyal, Victor Eyal, Andrew Feiler, Christy Fletcher, B. J. Fogg, Janice Fraser, Jason Fraser, Shuly Galili, Ben Gardner, Kelly Greenwood, Bobby Gruenewald, Jonathan Guerrera, Austin Gunter, Steph Habif, Leslie Harlson, Stephen Houghton, Jason Hreha, Gabriela Hromis, Peter Jackson, Noah Kagan, Dave Kashen, Amy Jo Kim, John Kim, Michael Kim, David King, Thomas Kjemperud, Tristan Kromer, Rok Krulec, Michal Levin, Jonathan Libov, Chuck Longanecker and the team at Digital Telepathy, Jennifer Lu, Wayne Lue, Jules Maltz, Zack Marom, Dave McClure, Kelly McGonigal, Sarah Melnyk, Oreon Mounter and the team at Moment Communications Inc., Matt Mullenweg, Yash Nelapati, David Ngo, Thomas O’Duffy, Max Ogles, Amy O’Leary, Line Oma, Alex Osterwalder, Trevor Owens, Brett Redinger, Sharbani Roy, Gretchen Rubin, Lisa Rutherford, Kate Rutter, Paul Sas, Todd Sattersten, Travis Sentell, Bhavin Shah, Hiten Shah, Jason Shen, Baba Shiv, Paul Singh, Katja Spreckelmeyer, Jon Stone, Nisha Sudarsanam, Lydia Sugarman, Tim Sullivan, Tracey Sullivan, Guy Vincent, Jeff Waldstreicher, Charles Wang, AnneMarie Ward, Stephen Wendell, Mark Williamson, David Wolfe, Colin Zhu, Gabe Zichermann.

			There are two more people who deserve extra recognition: First, Ryan Hoover, the contributing author, was instrumental in helping me turn a jumble of blog posts and writing scraps into a cohesive book. His dedication to this project, writing talent, and dogged persistence made the idea of this book a reality. I am sure the world will be hearing much more from Ryan in the years to come and I feel fortunate to have worked with him early in his career.

			Next, this book is dedicated to my wife, Julie Li-Eyal. Julie assisted with everything, from practical tasks (such as designing the book cover and presentation slides) to serving as a sounding board during the ups and downs of the writing process. However, of all her contributions, the greatest is her unwavering support. Her endless affection leaves me forever in her debt and always wondering how I got so lucky.


			Thank you to the loyal blog subscribers who provided insightful feedback, careful edits, moral support, and gentle prodding.

			The people listed on the following pages donated their time and insights to improving this book. I am in awe of their willingness to contribute to making this book what it is.

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			Yin (not her real name) is in her mid-twenties, lives in Palo Alto, California, and attends Stanford University. She has all the composure and polish you’d expect of a student at a prestigious school, yet she succumbs to a persistent habit throughout her day. She can’t help it; she is compulsively hooked on Instagram.

			The photo- and video-sharing social network, purchased by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, has captured the minds and attention of Yin and 150 million other users like her.1

			The company’s acquisition demonstrates the increasing power of—and immense monetary value created by—habit-forming technology.

			Naturally, the Instagram purchase price was driven by a host of factors, including a rumored bidding war for the company.2 But at its core Instagram is an example of an enterprising team—conversant in psychology as much as technology—that unleashed a habit-forming product on users who subsequently made it a part of their daily routines.3

			Yin doesn’t realize she’s hooked, although she admits she regularly snaps and posts dozens of pictures per day using the app. “It’s just fun,” she says as she reviews her latest collection of moody snapshots filtered to look like they were taken in the late 1970s. “I don’t have a problem or anything. I just use it whenever I see something cool. I feel I need to grab it before it’s gone.”

			What formed Yin’s Instagram habit? How did this seemingly simple app become such an important part of her life? As we will soon learn, habits like Yin’s are formed over time, but the chain reaction that forms a habit always starts with a trigger.


			Habits are like pearls. Oysters create natural pearls by accumulating layer upon layer of a nacre called mother-of-pearl, eventually forming the smooth treasure over several years. But what causes the nacre to begin forming a pearl? The arrival of a tiny irritant, such as a piece of grit or an unwelcome parasite, triggers the oyster’s system to begin blanketing the invader with layers of shimmery coating.

			Similarly, new habits need a foundation upon which to build. Triggers provide the basis for sustained behavior change.

			Reflect on your own life for a moment. What woke you up this morning? What caused you to brush your teeth? What brought you to read this book?

			Triggers take the form of obvious cues like the morning alarm clock but also come as more subtle, sometimes subconscious signals that just as effectively influence our daily behavior. A trigger is the actuator of behavior—the grit in the oyster that precipitates the pearl. Whether we are cognizant of them or not, triggers move us to take action.

			Triggers come in two types: external and internal.


				External Triggers

			Habit-forming technologies start changing behavior by first cueing users with a call to action. This sensory stimuli is delivered through any number of things in our environment.

			External triggers are embedded with information, which tells the user what to do next.

			An external trigger communicates the next action the user should take. Often, the desired action is made explicitly clear. For example, what external triggers do you see in this Coca-Cola vending machine in figure 2?

			Take a close look at the welcoming man in the image. He is offering you a refreshing Coke. The “Thirsty?” text below the image tells you what the man in the photo is asking and prompts the next expected action of inserting money and selecting a beverage.

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					FIGURE 2



			Online, an external trigger may take the form of a prominent button, such as the large “Log in to Mint” prompt in the e-mail from in figure 3. Here again, the user is given explicit instructions about what action to take after reading the e-mail: Click on that big button.

			Notice how prominent and clear the intended action is in the e-mail from Mint? The company could have included several other triggers such as prompts to check your bank balance, view credit card deals, or set financial goals. Instead, because this is an important account alert e-mail, Mint has reduced the available actions to a single click: logging in to view and fix your account.

					[image: Art_5.jpg]

					FIGURE 3



			More choices require the user to evaluate multiple options. Too many choices or irrelevant options can cause hesitation, confusion, or worse—abandonment.4 Reducing the thinking required to take the next action increases the likelihood of the desired behavior occurring unconsciously. We’ll explore this further in the next chapter.

			The Coca-Cola vending machine and e-mail provide good examples of explicit external triggers. However, external triggers can also convey implicit information about the next desired user action. For example, we’ve all learned that Web site links are for clicking and app icons are for tapping. The only purpose for these common visual triggers is to prompt the user to action. As a readily accepted aspect of interface design, these calls to action don’t need to tell people how to use them; the information is embedded.

			Types of External Triggers

			Companies can utilize four types of external triggers to move users to complete desired actions:

			1. Paid Triggers

			Advertising, search engine marketing, and other paid channels are commonly used to get users’ attention and prompt them to act. Paid triggers can be effective but costly ways to keep users coming back. Habit-forming companies tend not to rely on paid triggers for very long, if at all. Imagine if Facebook or Twitter needed to buy an ad to prompt users to revisit their sites—these companies would soon go broke.

			Because paying for reengagement is unsustainable for most business models, companies generally use paid triggers to acquire new users and then leverage other triggers to bring them back.

			2. Earned Triggers

			Earned triggers are free in that they cannot be bought directly, but they often require investment in the form of time spent on public and media relations. Favorable press mentions, hot viral videos, and featured app store placements are all effective ways to gain attention. Companies may be lulled into thinking that related downloads or sales spikes signal long-term success, yet awareness generated by earned triggers can be short-lived.

			For earned triggers to drive ongoing user acquisition, companies must keep their products in the limelight—a difficult and unpredictable task.

			3. Relationship Triggers

			One person telling others about a product or service can be a highly effective external trigger for action. Whether through an electronic invitation, a Facebook “like,” or old fashioned word of mouth, product referrals from friends and family are often a key component of technology diffusion.

			Relationship triggers can create the viral hyper-growth entrepreneurs and investors lust after. Sometimes relationship triggers drive growth because people love to tell one another about a wonderful offer.

			For example, it is hard to top PayPal’s viral success of the late 1990s.5 PayPal knew that once account holders started sending other users money online they would realize the tremendous value of the service. The allure that someone just sent you money was a huge incentive to open an account, and PayPal’s growth spread because it was both viral and useful.

			Unfortunately, some companies utilize viral loops and relationship triggers in unethical ways: by deploying so-called dark patterns. When designers intentionally trick users into inviting friends or blasting a message to their social networks, they may see some initial growth, but it comes at the expense of users’ goodwill and trust. When people discover they’ve been duped, they vent their frustration and stop using the product.

			Proper use of relationship triggers requires building an engaged user base that is enthusiastic about sharing the benefits of the product with others.

			4. Owned Triggers

			Owned triggers consume a piece of real estate in the user’s environment. They consistently show up in daily life and it is ultimately up to the user to opt in to allowing these triggers to appear.

			For example, an app icon on the user’s phone screen, an e-mail newsletter to which the user subscribes, or an app update notification only appears if the user wants it there. As long as the user agrees to receive a trigger, the company that sets the trigger owns a share of the user’s attention.

			Owned triggers are only set after users sign up for an account, submit their e-mail address, install an app, opt in to newsletters, or otherwise indicate they want to continue receiving communications.

			While paid, earned, and relationship triggers drive new user acquisition, owned triggers prompt repeat engagement until a habit is formed. Without owned triggers and users’ tacit permission to enter their attentional space, it is difficult to cue users frequently enough to change their behavior.

			 • • • 
Yet external triggers are only the first step. The ultimate goal of all external triggers is to propel users into and through the Hook Model so that, after successive cycles, they do not need further prompting from external triggers. When users form habits, they are cued by a different kind of trigger: internal ones.

			Internal Triggers

			When a product becomes tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a preexisting routine, it leverages an internal trigger. Unlike external triggers, which use sensory stimuli like a morning alarm clock or giant “Login Now” button, you can’t see, touch, or hear an internal trigger.

			Internal triggers manifest automatically in your mind. Connecting internal triggers with a product is the brass ring of consumer technology.

			For Yin, the young woman with the Instagram habit, her favorite photo app manufactured a predictable response cued by an internal trigger. Through repeated conditioning, a connection was formed between Yin’s need to capture images of the things around her and the app on her ever-present mobile device.

			Emotions, particularly negative ones, are powerful internal triggers and greatly influence our daily routines. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation. For instance, Yin often uses Instagram when she fears a special moment will be lost forever.

			The severity of the discomfort may be relatively minor—perhaps her fear is below the perceptibility of consciousness—but that’s exactly the point. Our life is filled with tiny stressors and we’re usually unaware of our habitual reactions to these nagging issues.

			Positive emotions can also serve as internal triggers, and may even be triggered themselves by a need to satisfy something that is bothering us. After all, we use products to find solutions to problems. The desire to be entertained can be thought of as the need to satiate boredom. A need to share good news can also be thought of as an attempt to find and maintain social connections.

			As product designers it is our goal to solve these problems and eliminate pain—to scratch the user’s itch. Users who find a product that alleviates their pain will form strong, positive associations with the product over time. After continued use, bonds begin to form—like the layers of nacre in an oyster—between the product and the user whose need it satisfies.

			Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.

			A study at the Missouri University of Science and Technology illustrates how tech solutions can provide frequent psychological relief.6 In 2011 a group of 216 undergraduates volunteered to have their Internet activity anonymously tracked. Over the course of the academic year, the researchers measured the frequency with which these students used the web and what they were doing online.

			At the end of the study, the researchers compared anonymous data of students who visited the university’s health services to treat symptoms of depression. “We identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression,” wrote Sriram Chellappan, one of the study’s authors.7 “For example, participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage . . . Other characteristic features of depressive Internet behavior included increased amounts of video watching, gaming, and chatting.”

			The study demonstrated that people suffering from symptoms of depression used the Internet more. Why is that? One hypothesis is that those with depression experience negative emotions more frequently than the general population and seek relief by turning to technology to lift their mood.

			Consider, perhaps, your own emotion-cued behaviors. What do you do in response to your internal triggers?

			When bored, many people seek excitement and turn to dramatic news headlines. When we feel overly stressed, we seek serenity, perhaps finding relief in sites like Pinterest. When we feel lonely, destinations like Facebook and Twitter provide instant social connections.

			To ameliorate the sensation of uncertainty, Google is just a click away. E-mail, perhaps the mother of all habit-forming technology, is a go-to solution for many of our daily agitations, from validating our importance (or even our existence) by checking to see if someone needs us, to providing an escape from life’s more mundane moments.

			Once we’re hooked, using these products does not always require an explicit call to action. Instead, they rely upon our automatic responses to feelings that precipitate the desired behavior. Products that attach to these internal triggers provide users with quick relief. Once a technology has created an association in users’ minds that the product is the solution of choice, they return on their own, no longer needing prompts from external triggers.

			In the case of internal triggers, the information about what to do next is encoded as a learned association in the user’s memory.

			The association between an internal trigger and your product, however, is not formed overnight. It can take weeks or months of frequent usage for internal triggers to latch onto cues. New habits are sparked by external triggers, but associations with internal triggers are what keeps users hooked.

			As Yin said, “I just use it whenever I see something cool.” By thoughtfully moving users from external to internal triggers, Instagram designed a persistent routine in people’s lives. A need is triggered in Yin’s mind every time a moment is worth holding on to, and for her, the immediate solution is Instagram. Yin no longer requires an external stimulus to prompt her to use the app—the internal trigger happens on its own.

			Building for Triggers

			Products that successfully create habits soothe the user’s pain by laying claim to a particular feeling. To do so, product designers must know their user’s internal triggers—that is, the pain they seek to solve. Finding customers’ internal triggers requires learning more about people than what they can tell you in a survey, though. It requires digging deeper to understand how your users feel.

			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.

			First, the company must identify the particular frustration or pain point in emotional terms, rather than product features. How do you, as a designer, go about uncovering the source of a user’s pain? The best place to start is to learn the drivers behind successful habit-forming products—not to copy them, but to understand how they solve users’ problems. Doing so will give you practice in diving deeper into the mind of the consumer and alert you to common human needs and desires.

			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.”

			These common needs are timeless and universal. Yet talking to users to reveal these wants will likely prove ineffective because they themselves don’t know which emotions motivate them. People just don’t think in these terms. You’ll often find that people’s declared preferences—what they say they want—are far different from their revealed preferences—what they actually do.

			As Erika Hall, author of Just Enough Research writes, “When the research focuses on what people actually do (watch cat videos) rather than what they wish they did (produce cinema-quality home movies) it actually expands possibilities.”9 Looking for discrepancies exposes opportunities. Why do people really send text messages? Why do they take photos? What role does watching television or sports play in their lives? Ask yourself what pain these habits solve and what the user might be feeling right before one of these actions.

			What would your users want to achieve by using your solution? Where and when will they use it? What emotions influence their use and will trigger them to action?

			Jack Dorsey, cofounder of Twitter and Square, shared how his companies answer these important questions: “[If] you want to build a product that is relevant to folks, you need to put yourself in their shoes and you need to write a story from their side. So, we spend a lot of time writing what’s called user narratives.”10

			Dorsey goes on to describe how he tries to truly understand his user: “He is in the middle of Chicago and they go to a coffee store . . . This is the experience they’re going to have. It reads like a play. It’s really, really beautiful. If you do that story well, then all of the prioritization, all of the product, all of the design and all the coordination that you need to do with these products just falls out naturally because you can edit the story and everyone can relate to the story from all levels of the organization, engineers to operations to support to designers to the business side of the house.”

			Dorsey believes a clear description of users—their desires, emotions, the context with which they use the product—is paramount to building the right solution. In addition to Dorsey’s user narratives, tools like customer development,11 usability studies, and empathy maps12 are examples of methods for learning about potential users.

			One method is to try asking the question “Why?” as many times as it takes to get to an emotion. Usually, this will happen by the fifth why. This is a technique adapted from the Toyota Production System, described by Taiichi Ohno as the “5 Whys Method.” Ohno wrote that it was “the basis of Toyota’s scientific approach . . . by repeating ‘why?’ five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.”13

			When it comes to figuring out why people use habit-forming products, internal triggers are the root cause, and “Why?” is a question that can help drill right to the core.

			For example, let’s say we’re building a fancy new technology called e-mail for the first time. The target user is a busy middle manager named Julie. We’ve built a detailed narrative of our user, Julie, that helps us answer the following series of whys:

			Why #1: Why would Julie want to use e-mail?

			Answer: So she can send and receive messages.

			Why #2: Why would she want to do that?

			Answer: Because she wants to share and receive information quickly.

			Why #3: Why does she want to do that?

			Answer: To know what’s going on in the lives of her coworkers, friends, and family.

			Why #4: Why does she need to know that?

			Answer: To know if someone needs her.

			Why #5: Why would she care about that?

			Answer: She fears being out of the loop.

			Now we’ve got something! Fear is a powerful internal trigger and we can design our solution to help calm Julie’s fear. Naturally, we might have come to another conclusion by starting with a different persona, varying the narrative, or coming up with different hypothetical answers along the chain of whys. Only an accurate understanding of our user’s underlying needs can inform the product requirements.

			Now that we have an understanding of the user’s pain, we can move on to the next step of testing our product to see if it solves his problem.

			Unpacking Instagram’s Triggers

			A large component of Instagram’s success—and what brings its millions of users back nearly every day—is the company’s ability to understand its users’ triggers. For people like Yin, Instagram is a harbor for emotions and inspirations, a virtual memoir preserved in pixels.

			Yin’s habitual use of the service started with an external trigger—a recommendation from a friend and weeks of repetitious use before she became a regular user.

			Every time Yin snaps a picture, she shares it with her friends on Facebook and Twitter. Consider the first time you saw an Instagram photo. Did it catch your attention? Did it make you curious? Did it call you to action?

			These photos serve as a relationship external trigger, raising awareness and serving as a cue for others to install and use the app. But Instagram photos shared on Facebook and Twitter were not the only external triggers driving new users. Others learned of the app from the media and bloggers, or through the featured placement Apple granted Instagram in its App Store—all earned external triggers.

			Once installed, Instagram benefited from owned external triggers. The app icon on users’ phone screens and push notifications about their friends’ postings served to call them back.

			With repeated use, Instagram formed strong associations with internal triggers, and what was once a brief distraction became an intraday routine for many users.

			It is the fear of losing a special moment that instigates a pang of stress. This negative emotion is the internal trigger that brings Instagram users back to the app to alleviate this pain by capturing a photo. As users continue to use the service, new internal triggers form.

			Yet Instagram is more than a camera replacement; it is a social network. The app helps users dispel boredom by connecting them with others, sharing photos, and swapping lighthearted banter.14

			Like many social networking sites, Instagram also alleviates the increasingly recognizable pain point known as fear of missing out, or FOMO. For Instagram, associations with internal triggers provide a foundation to form new habits.

			It is now time to understand the mechanics of connecting the user’s problem with your solution by utilizing the next step in the Hook Model. In the next chapter we’ll find out how moving people from triggers to actions is critical in establishing new routines.


					Triggers cue the user to take action and are the first step in the Hook Model.

					Triggers come in two types—external and internal.

					External triggers tell the user what to do next by placing information within the user’s environment.

					Internal triggers tell the user what to do next through associations stored in the user’s memory.

					Negative emotions frequently serve as internal triggers.

					To build a habit-forming product, makers need to understand which user emotions may be tied to internal triggers and know how to leverage external triggers to drive the user to action.



			Refer to the answers you came up with in the last “Do This Now” section to complete the following exercises:

					Who is your product’s user?

					What is the user doing right before your intended habit?

					Come up with three internal triggers that could cue your user to action. Refer to the 5 Whys Method described in this chapter.

					Which internal trigger does your user experience most frequently?

					Finish this brief narrative using the most frequent internal trigger and the habit you are designing: “Every time the user (internal trigger), he/she (first action of intended habit).”

					Refer back to the question about what the user is doing right before the first action of the habit. What might be places and times to send an external trigger?

					How can you couple an external trigger as closely as possible to when the user’s internal trigger fires?

					Think of at least three conventional ways to trigger your user with current technology (e-mails, notifications, text messages, etc.). Then stretch yourself to come up with at least three crazy or currently impossible ideas for ways to trigger your user (wearable computers, biometric sensors, carrier pigeons, etc.). You could find that your crazy ideas spur some new approaches that may not be so nutty after all. In a few years new technologies will create all sorts of currently unimaginable triggering opportunities.




			[image: Cover for Youtility for Real Estate]


		Title Page




			1: The Habit Zone

			2: Trigger

			3: Action

			4: Variable Reward

			5: Investment

			6: What Are You Going to Do with This?

			7: Case Study: The Bible App

			8: Habit Testing and Where to Look for Habit-Forming Opportunities




			[image: Art_23_copy.jpg]



			Variable Reward

			Ultimately, all businesses help users achieve an objective. As we learned in the previous chapter, reducing the steps needed to complete the intended outcome increases the likelihood of that outcome. But to keep users engaged, products need to deliver on their promises. To form the learned associations we discussed in chapter 2, the trigger phase, users must come to depend on the product as a reliable solution to their problem—the salve for the itch they came to scratch.

			The third step in the Hook Model is the variable reward phase, in which you reward your users by solving a problem, reinforcing their motivation for the action taken in the previous phase. To understand why rewards—and variable rewards in particular—are so powerful, we must first take a trip deep inside the brain.

			Understanding Rewards

			In the 1940s two researchers, James Olds and Peter Milner, accidentally discovered how a special area of the brain is the source of our cravings. The researchers implanted electrodes in the brains of lab mice that enabled the mice to give themselves tiny electric shocks to a small area of the brain, the nucleus accumbens.1 The mice quickly became hooked on the sensation.

			Olds and Milner demonstrated that the lab mice would forgo food, water, and even run across a painful electrified grid for the opportunity to continue pressing the lever that administered the shocks. A few years later, other researchers tested the human response to self-administered stimulus in the same area of the brain. The results were just as dramatic as in the mouse trial—subjects wanted to do nothing but press the brain-stimulating button. Even when the machine was turned off, people continued pressing the button. Researchers had to forcibly take the devices from subjects who refused to relinquish them.

			Given the responses they had earlier found in lab animals, Olds and Milner concluded that they had discovered the brain’s pleasure center. In fact, we now know other things that feel good also activate the same neural region. Sex, delicious food, a bargain, and even our digital devices all tap into this deep recess of the brain, providing the impetus for many of our behaviors.

			However, more recent research has shown that these two researchers’ experiments were not stimulating pleasure per se. Stanford professor Brian Knutson conducted a study exploring blood flow in the brains of people wagering while inside an fMRI machine.2 The test subjects played a gambling game while Knutson and his team looked at which areas of their brains became more active. The startling results showed that the nucleus accumbens was not activating when the reward (in this case a monetary payout) was received, but rather in anticipation of it.

			The study revealed that what draws us to act is not the sensation we receive from the reward itself, but the need to alleviate the craving for that reward.

			The stress of desire in the brain appears to compel us, just as it did in Olds’s and Milner’s lab mouse experiments.


			If you’ve never watched a YouTube video of a baby’s first encounter with a dog, it’s worth doing. Not only are these videos incredibly cute, but they help demonstrate something important about our mental wiring.

			At first the expression on the baby’s face seems to ask, “What is this hairy monster doing in my house? Will it hurt me? What will it do next?” The child is filled with curiosity, uncertain if this creature might cause harm. But soon the child figures out Rover is not a threat. What follows is an explosion of infectious giggles. Researchers believe laughter may in fact be a release valve when we experience the discomfort and excitement of uncertainty, but without fear of harm.3

			What we do not see in the videos is what happens over time. A few years later, what was once thrilling about Rover no longer holds the child’s attention in the same way. The child has learned to predict the dog’s behavior and no longer finds the pup quite as entertaining. By now, the child’s mind is occupied with dump trucks, fire engines, bicycles, and new toys that stimulate the senses—until they too become predictable. 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 brains have evolved over millennia to help us figure out how things work. Once we understand causal relationships, we retain that information in memory. 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.


		Rewards of the Tribe, the Hunt, and the Self

			In the 1950s psychologist B. F. Skinner conducted experiments to understand how variability impacted animal behavior.5 First, Skinner placed pigeons inside a box rigged to deliver a food pellet to the birds every time they pressed a lever. Similar to Olds’s and Milner’s lab mice, the pigeons learned the cause-and-effect relationship between pressing the lever and receiving the food.

			In the next part of the experiment Skinner added variability. Instead of providing a pellet every time a pigeon tapped the lever, the machine discharged food after a random number of taps. Sometimes the lever dispensed food, other times not. Skinner revealed that the intermittent reward dramatically increased the number of times the pigeons tapped the lever. Adding variability increased the frequency of the pigeons’ completing the intended action.

			Skinner’s pigeons tell us a great deal about what helps drive our own behaviors. More recent experiments reveal that variability increases activity in the nucleus accumbens and spikes levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, driving our hungry search for rewards.6 Researchers observed increased dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens in experiments involving monetary rewards as well as in a study of heterosexual men viewing images of attractive women’s faces.7

			Variable rewards can be found in all sorts of products and experiences that hold our attention. They fuel our drive to check e-mail, browse the web, or bargain-shop. I propose that variable rewards come in three types: the tribe, the hunt, and the self (figure 20). Habit-forming products utilize one or more of these variable reward types.

					[image: Art_24.jpg]

						FIGURE 20




			Rewards of the Tribe

			We are a species that depends on one another. Rewards of the tribe, or social rewards, are driven by our connectedness with other people.

			Our brains are adapted to seek rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important, and included.

			Many of our institutions and industries are built around this need for social reinforcement. From civic and religious groups to spectator sports and “watercooler” television shows, the need to feel social connectedness shapes our values and drives much of how we spend our time.

			It is no surprise that social media has exploded in popularity. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and several other sites collectively provide over a billion people with powerful social rewards on a variable schedule. With every post, tweet, or pin, users anticipate social validation. Rewards of the tribe keep users coming back, wanting more.

			Sites that leverage tribal rewards benefit from what psychologist Albert Bandura called “social learning theory.”8 Bandura studied the power of modeling and ascribed special powers to our ability to learn from others. In particular Bandura determined that people who observe someone being rewarded for a particular behavior are more likely to alter their own beliefs and subsequent actions. Notably, Bandura also demonstrated that this technique works particularly well when people observe the behavior of people most like themselves or who are slightly more experienced (and therefore, role models).9 This is exactly the kind of targeted demographic and interest-level segmentation that social media companies such as Facebook and industry-specific sites such as Stack Overflow selectively apply.

			Here are some online examples of rewards of the tribe:

			1. Facebook

			Facebook provides numerous examples of variable social rewards. Logging in reveals an endless stream of content friends have shared, comments from others, and running tallies of how many people have “liked” something. The uncertainty of what users will find each time they visit the site creates the intrigue needed to pull them back again.

			While variable content gets users to keep searching for interesting tidbits in their News Feeds, a click of the “Like” button provides a variable reward for the content’s creators. “Likes” and comments offer tribal validation for those who shared the content, and provide variable rewards that motivate them to continue posting.

			2. Stack Overflow

			Stack Overflow is the world’s largest question-and-answer site for software developers. As with other user-generated content sites such as Quora, Wikipedia, and YouTube, all of Stack Overflow’s content is created voluntarily by people who use the site. A staggering five thousand answers to questions are generated per day by site members. Many of these responses provide detailed, highly technical and time-consuming answers. But why do so many people spend so much time doing all this work for free? What motivates them to invest the effort into what others may see as the burdensome task of writing technical documentation?

					[image: Art_25.jpg]

						FIGURE 21




			Stack Overflow devotees write responses in anticipation of rewards of the tribe. Each time a user submits an answer, other members have the opportunity to vote the response up or down. The best responses percolate upward, accumulating points for their authors (figure 21). When they reach certain point levels, members earn badges, which confer special status and privileges. Naturally, the process of accumulating upvotes is highly variable—no one knows how many will be received from the community when responding to a question.

			Stack Overflow works because, like all of us, software engineers find satisfaction in contributing to a community they care about. The element of variability also turns a seemingly mundane task into an engaging, gamelike experience. Yet on Stack Overflow, points are not just an empty game mechanic; they confer special value by representing how much someone has contributed to his or her tribe. Users enjoy the feeling of helping their fellow programmers and earning the respect of people whose opinions they value.

			3. League of Legends

			League of Legends, a popular computer game, launched in 2009 and quickly achieved tremendous success. Soon after its launch, however, the game’s owners found they had a serious problem: The online video game was filled with “trolls”—people who enjoyed bullying other players while being protected by the anonymity the game provides. League of Legends soon earned a nasty reputation for having an “unforgiving—even abusive—community.”10 A leading industry publication wrote, “League of Legends has become well known for at least two things: proving the power of the free-to-play model in the West and a vicious player community.”11

			To combat the trolls, the game creators designed a reward system leveraging Bandura’s social learning theory, which they called Honor Points (figure 22). The system gave players the ability to award points for particularly sportsmanlike conduct worthy of recognition. These virtual kudos encouraged positive behavior and helped the best and most cooperative players to stand out in the community. The number of points earned was highly variable and could only be conferred by other players. Honor Points soon became a coveted marker of tribe-conferred status and helped weed out trolls by signaling to others which players should be avoided.

					[image: Art_26.jpg]

						FIGURE 22




			Rewards of the Hunt

			For years, scientists have tried to answer a central question of human evolution: How did early humans hunt for food? Most evolutionary biologists agree that consuming animal protein was a significant milestone that led to better nutrition and, ultimately, bigger brains; however, the tactical details of the hunt remain hazy.12 We know our ancestors handcrafted spears and arrows for hunting, but evidence shows that these weapons were only invented five hundred thousand years ago,13 whereas we’ve been eating meat for over 2 million years.14 How, then, did we hunt during the first 75 percent of our existence?

			According to Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, we chased down our dinner. Early humans killed animals using a technique known as “persistence hunting,” a practice still common among today’s few remaining pre-agrarian societies. One of these groups, the San people of South Africa, hunt for kudu (a large deerlike animal) using a technique similar to the way Lieberman believes humans hunted for the vast majority of our species’ history. The way we evolved to hunt wild game may help explain why we feel compelled to use certain products today.

			In Africa the chase begins when a group of San hunters separate a large kudu bull from the herd. The animal’s heavy antlers slows him down, making him less agile than the female kudus. Once the animal is isolated from the pack, a single San hunter begins the hunt, keeping a steady pace as the animal leaps ahead in fear. At first it appears the man will never catch up to the bounding beast. At times he struggles to keep the animal in sight through the dry brush.

			Yet the hunter knows he can use the animal’s weaknesses to his advantage. The powerful kudu is much faster in short sprints, but the kudu’s skin is covered with fur and cannot dissipate heat like the runner’s skin can. According to Lieberman, “Quadrupeds cannot pant and gallop at the same time.”15 When the kudu must stop to catch his breath, the hunter begins closing in, not to catch it but to run it to exhaustion.

			After being tracked for a sweltering eight hours under the African sun, the beast is finally ready to give up, collapsing in surrender with barely a struggle. The meager hundred-pound San hunter outlasts the powerful five-hundred-pound beast with little more than his persistence and the biomechanical gifts evolution has given him. The hunter swiftly and ceremoniously kills his prize, piercing a vein in the animal’s neck so that he can feed his children and his tribe.

			By running on two feet and lacking the body hair typical of other primates, our species gained a massive advantage over larger mammals. Our ability to maintain steady pursuit gave us the capacity to hunt large prehistoric game. Yet persistence hunting was not only made possible because of our bodies; changes in our brains also played a significant role.

			During the chase, the runner is driven by the pursuit itself; this same mental hardwiring also provides clues into the source of our insatiable desires today. The dogged determination that keeps San hunters chasing kudu is the same mechanism that keeps us wanting and buying. Although it is a long way from bushmen to businessmen, the mental processes of the hunt remain largely the same.

			The search for resources defines the next type of variable reward—the rewards of the hunt.

			The need to acquire physical objects, such as food and other supplies that aid our survival, is part of our brain’s operating system.

			Where we once hunted for food, today we hunt for other things. In modern society, food can be bought with cash, and more recently by extension, information translates into money.

			Rewards of the hunt existed long before the advent of computers. Yet today we find numerous examples of variable rewards associated with the pursuit of resources and information that compel us with the same determination as the San hunter chasing his prey.

			Here are a few examples of products that create habits by leveraging rewards of the hunt:

			1. Machine Gambling

			Most people know that gambling benefits the casino or broker far more than the players. As the old adage says, “The house always wins.” Yet despite this knowledge, the multibillion-dollar gambling industry continues to thrive.

			Slot machines provide a classic example of variable rewards of the hunt. Gamblers plunk $1 billion per day into slot machines in American casinos, which is a testament to the machines’ power to compel players.16 By awarding money in random intervals, games of chance entice players with the prospect of a jackpot. Naturally, winning is entirely outside the gambler’s control—yet the pursuit can be intoxicating.

			2. Twitter

			The “feed” has become a social staple of many online products. The stream of limitless information displayed in a scrolling interface makes for a compelling reward of the hunt. The Twitter timeline, for example, is filled with a mix of both mundane and relevant content. This variety creates an enticingly unpredictable user experience. On occasion a user might find a particularly interesting piece of news, while other times she won’t. To keep hunting for more information, all that is needed is a flick of the finger or scroll of a mouse. Users scroll and scroll and scroll to search for variable rewards in the form of relevant tweets (figure 23).

					[image: Art_27.jpg]

						FIGURE 23




			3. Pinterest

			Pinterest, a company that has grown to reach over 50 million monthly users worldwide, also employs a feed, but with a visual twist.17 The online pinboarding site is a virtual smorgasbord of objects of desire. The site is curated by its community of users who ensure that a high degree of intriguing content appears on each page.

					[image: Art_28.jpg]

						FIGURE 24




			Pinterest users never know what they will find on the site. To keep them searching and scrolling, the company employs an unusual design. As the user scrolls to the bottom of the page, some images appear to be cut off. Images often appear out of view below the browser fold. However, these images offer a glimpse of what’s ahead, even if just barely visible. To relieve their curiosity, all users have to do is scroll to reveal the full picture (figure 24). As more images load on the page, the endless search for variable rewards of the hunt continues.

			Rewards of the Self

			Finally, there are the variable rewards we seek for a more personal form of gratification. We are driven to conquer obstacles, even if just for the satisfaction of doing so. Pursuing a task to completion can influence people to continue all sorts of behaviors.18 Surprisingly, we even pursue these rewards when we don’t outwardly appear to enjoy them. For example, watching someone investing countless hours into completing a tabletop puzzle can reveal frustrated face contortions and even sounds of muttered profanity. Although puzzles offer no prize other than the satisfaction of completion, for some the painstaking search for the right pieces can be a wonderfully mesmerizing struggle.

			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.19

			The experiences below offer examples of variable rewards of the self.

			1. Video Games

			Rewards of the self are a defining component in video games, as players seek to master the skills needed to pursue their quest. Leveling up, unlocking special powers, and other game mechanics fulfill a player’s desire for competency by showing progression and completion.

					[image: Art_29_copy.jpg]

						FIGURE 25




			For example, advancing a character through the popular online game World of Warcraft unlocks new abilities for the player (figure 25). The thirst to acquire advanced weaponry, visit uncharted lands, and improve their characters’ scores motivates players to invest more hours in the game.

			2. E-mail

			You do not have to be a hard-core video gamer to be heavily influenced by gamelike experiences. The humble e-mail system provides an example of how the search for mastery, completion, and competence moves users to habitual and sometimes mindless actions. Have you ever caught yourself checking your e-mail for no particular reason? Perhaps you unconsciously decided to open it to see what messages might be waiting for you. For many, the number of unread messages represents a sort of goal to be completed.

			Yet to feel rewarded, the user must have a sense of accomplishment. Mailbox, an e-mail application acquired by Dropbox in 2013 for a rumored $100 million, aims to solve the frustration of fighting what feels like a losing in-box battle.20 Mailbox cleverly segments e-mails into sorted folders to increase the frequency of users achieving “inbox zero”—a near-mystical state of having no unread e-mails (figure 26). Of course, some of the folder sorting is done through digital sleight-of-hand by pushing some low priority e-mails out of sight, then having them reappear at a later date. However, by giving users the sense that they are processing their in-box more efficiently, Mailbox delivers something other e-mail clients do not—a feeling of completion and mastery.

					[image: Art_30_copy.jpg]

						FIGURE 26




			3. Codecademy

			Learning to program is not easy. Software engineers take months, if not years, of diligent hard work before they have the confidence and skill to write useful code. Many people attempt to learn how to write software only to give up, frustrated at the tedious process of learning a new computer language.

			Codecademy seeks to make learning to write code more fun and rewarding. The site offers step-by-step instructions for building a web app, animation, and even a browser-based game. The interactive lessons deliver immediate feedback, in contrast to traditional methods of learning to code by writing whole programs. At Codecademy users can enter a single correct function and the code works or doesn’t, providing instant feedback.

			Learning a new skill is often filled with errors but Codecademy uses the difficulty to its advantage. There is a constant element of the unknown when it comes to completing the task at hand; like in a game, users receive variable rewards as they learn—sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail. Yet as their competency level improves, users work to advance through levels, mastering the curriculum. Codecademy’s symbols of progression and instantaneous variable feedback tap into rewards of the self, turning a difficult path into an engaging challenge (figure 27).

					[image: Art_31.jpg]

						FIGURE 27




			Important Considerations for Designing Reward Systems

			Variable Rewards Are Not a Free Pass

			In May 2007 a Web site named was born. A flagship feature of the new site was a question-and-answer forum, “Mahalo Answers.” Unlike previous Q&A sites, Mahalo utilized a special incentive to get users to ask and answer questions.

			First, people who submitted a question offered a bounty in the form of a virtual currency, “Mahalo Dollars.” Next, other users contributed answers to the question; the best response received the bounty, which could be exchanged for real money. By providing a monetary reward, the Mahalo founders believed they could drive user engagement and form new online user habits.

			At first Mahalo garnered significant attention and traffic. At its high point 14.1 million users worldwide visited the site monthly.21 But over time, users began to lose interest. Although the payout of the bounties was variable, somehow users did not find the monetary rewards enticing enough.

			As Mahalo struggled to retain users, another Q&A site began to boom. Quora, launched in 2010 by two former Facebook employees, quickly grew in popularity. Unlike Mahalo, Quora did not offer a single cent to anyone answering user questions. Why, then, have users remained highly engaged with Quora but not with Mahalo, despite its variable monetary rewards?

			In Mahalo’s case, executives assumed that paying users would drive repeat engagement with the site. After all, people like money, right? Unfortunately, Mahalo had an incomplete understanding of its users’ drivers.

			Ultimately, the company found that people did not want to use a Q&A site to make money. If the trigger was a desire for monetary rewards, users were better off spending their time earning an hourly wage. And if the payouts were meant to take the form of a game, like a slot machine, then the rewards came far too infrequently and were too small to matter.

			However, Quora demonstrated that social rewards and the variable reinforcement of recognition from peers proved to be much more frequent and salient motivators. Quora instituted an upvoting system that reports user satisfaction with answers and provides a steady stream of social feedback. Quora’s social rewards have proven more attractive than Mahalo’s monetary rewards.

			Only by understanding what truly matters to users can a company correctly match the right variable reward to their intended behavior.

			Recently, gamification—defined as the use of gamelike elements in nongame environments—has been used with varying success. Points, badges, and leaderboards can prove effective, but only if they scratch the user’s itch. When there is a mismatch between the customer’s problem and the company’s assumed solution, no amount of gamification will help spur engagement. Likewise, if the user has no ongoing itch at all—say, no need to return repeatedly to a site that lacks any value beyond the initial visit—gamification will fail because of a lack of inherent interest in the product or service offered. In other words, gamification is not a “one size fits all” solution for driving user engagement.

			Variable rewards are not magic fairy dust that a product designer can sprinkle onto a product to make it instantly more attractive. Rewards must fit into the narrative of why the product is used and align with the user’s internal triggers and motivations.

			Maintain a Sense of Autonomy

			Quora found success by connecting the right reward to the intended behavior of asking and answering questions. In August 2012, though, the company committed a very public blunder—one that illustrates another important consideration when using variable rewards.

			In an effort to increase user engagement, Quora introduced a new feature, “Views,” which revealed the real identity of people visiting a particular question or answer. For users, the idea of knowing who was seeing content they added to the site proved very intriguing. Users could now know, for example, when a celebrity or prominent venture capital investor viewed something they created.

			However, the feature ultimately backfired. Quora automatically opted users in to the new feature without alerting them that their browsing history on the site would be exposed to others. In an instant, users lost their treasured anonymity when asking, answering, or simply viewing Quora questions that were personal, awkward, or intimate.22 The move sparked a user revolt and Quora reversed course a few weeks later, making the feature explicitly opt-in.23

			In this case the change felt forced and bordered on coercion. Although influencing behavior can be a part of good product design, heavy-handed efforts may have adverse consequences and risk losing users’ trust.

			We’ll address the morality of manipulation in a later chapter—but aside from the ethical considerations, there is an important point regarding the psychological role of autonomy and how it can impact user engagement.

			As part of a French study, researchers wanted to know if they could influence how much money people handed to a total stranger asking for bus fare by using just a few specially encoded words. They discovered a technique so simple and effective it doubled the amount people gave.

			The turn of phrase has not only proven to increase how much bus fare people give, but has also been effective in boosting charitable donations and participation in voluntary surveys. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of forty-two studies involving over twenty-two thousand participants concluded that these few words, placed at the end of a request, are a highly effective way to gain compliance, doubling the likelihood of people saying yes.24

			The magic words the researchers discovered? The phrase “But you are free to accept or refuse.”

			The “but you are free” technique demonstrates how we are more likely to be persuaded to give when our ability to choose is reaffirmed. Not only was the effect observed during face-to-face interactions, but also over e-mail. Although the research did not directly look at how products and services might use the technique, the study provides an important insight into how companies maintain or lose the user’s attention.

			Why does reminding people of their freedom to choose, as demonstrated in the French bus fare study, prove so effective?

			The researchers believe the phrase “But you are free” disarms our instinctive rejection of being told what to do. If you have ever grumbled at your mother when she tells you to put on a coat or felt your blood pressure rise when your boss micromanages you, you have experienced what psychologists term reactance, the hair-trigger response to threats to your autonomy.

			However, when a request is coupled with an affirmation of the right to choose, reactance is kept at bay. Yet can the principles of autonomy and reactance carry over into the way products change user behavior and drive the formation of new user habits? Here are two examples to make the case that they do—but naturally, you are free to make up your own mind.

			Establishing the habit of better nutrition is a common goal for many Americans. Searching in the Apple App Store for the word diet returns 3,235 apps that all promise to help users shed extra pounds. The first app in the long list is MyFitnessPal, whose iOS app is rated by over 350,000 people.

			A year ago when I decided to lose a few pounds, I installed the app and gave it a try. MyFitnessPal is simple enough to use. The app asked me to log what I ate and presented me with a calorie score based on my weight-loss goal.

			For a few days I stuck with the program and diligently input information about everything I ate. Had I been a person who had previously logged food using pen and paper, MyFitnessPal would have been a welcome improvement.

			However, I was not a calorie tracker prior to using MyFitnessPal and although using the app was novel at first, it soon became a drag. Keeping a food diary was not part of my daily routine and was not something I came to the app wanting to do. I wanted to lose weight and the app was telling me how to do it with its strict method of tracking calories in and calories out. Unfortunately, I soon found that forgetting to enter a meal made it impossible to get back on the program—the rest of my day was a nutritional wash.

			I soon began to feel obligated to confess my mealtime transgressions to my phone. MyFitnessPal became MyFitnessPain. Yes, I had chosen to install the app at first, but despite my best intentions, my motivation faded and using the app became a chore. Adopting a weird new behavior—calorie tracking, in my case—felt like something I had to do, not something I wanted to do. My only options were to comply or quit; I chose the latter.

			On the other hand Fitocracy, another health app, approaches behavior change very differently. The goal of the app is similar to its competitors—to help people establish better diet and exercise routines. However, it leverages familiar behaviors users want to do, instead of have to do.

			Initially, the Fitocracy experience is similar to other health apps, encouraging new members to track their food consumption and exercise. Where Fitocracy differentiates itself is in its recognition that most users will quickly fall off the wagon, just as I had with MyFitnessPal, unless the app taps into existing autonomous behavior.

			Before my reactance alarm went off, I started receiving kudos from other members of the site after entering my very first run. Curious to know who was sending the virtual encouragement, I logged in, whereupon I immediately saw a question from “mrosplock5,” a woman looking for advice on what to do about knee pain from running. Having experienced similar trouble several years back, I left a quick reply: “Running barefoot (or with minimalist shoes) eliminated my knee pains. Strange but true!”

			I have not used Fitocracy for long, but it is easy to see how someone could get hooked. Fitocracy is first and foremost an online community. The app roped me in by closely mimicking real-world gym jabber among friends. The ritual of connecting with like-minded people existed long before Fitocracy, and the company leverages this behavior by making it easier and more rewarding to share encouragement, exchange advice, and receive praise. In fact, a recent study found social factors were the most important reasons people used the service and recommended it to others.25

			Social acceptance is something we all crave, and Fitocracy leverages the universal need for connection as an on-ramp to fitness, making new tools and features available to users as they develop new habits. The choice for the Fitocracy user is therefore between the old way of doing an existing behavior and the company’s tailored solution for easing the user into healthy new habits.

			To be fair, MyFitnessPal also has social features intended to keep members engaged. However, as opposed to Fitocracy, the benefits of interacting with the community come much later in the user experience, if ever.

			Clearly, it is too early to tell which among the multitudes of new wellness apps and products will emerge victorious, but the fact remains that the most successful consumer technologies—those that have altered the daily behaviors of hundreds of millions of people—are the ones that nobody makes us use. Perhaps part of the appeal of sneaking in a few minutes on Facebook or checking scores on ESPN .com is our access to a moment of pure autonomy—an escape from being told what to do by bosses and coworkers.

			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.

			Whether coerced into doing something we did not intend, as was the case when Quora opted in all users to its Views feature, or feeling forced to adopt a strange new calorie-counting behavior on MyFitnessPal, people often feel constrained by threats to their autonomy and rebel. To change behavior, products must ensure the users feel in control. People must want to use the service, not feel they have to.

			Beware of Finite Variability

			In 2008 a television show, Breaking Bad, began receiving unprecedented critical and popular acclaim. The show followed the life of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who transforms himself into a crystal meth–cooking drug lord. As the body count on the show piled up season after season, so did its viewership.26 The first episode of the final season in 2013 attracted 5.9 million viewers and by the end of the series, Guinness World Records dubbed it the highest-rated TV series of all time.27 Although Breaking Bad owes a great deal of its success to its talented cast and crew, fundamentally the program utilized a simple formula to keep people tuning in.

			At the heart of every episode—and also across each season’s narrative arc—is a problem the characters must resolve. For example, during an episode in the first season, Walter White must find a way to dispose of the bodies of two rival drug dealers. Challenges prevent resolution of the conflict and suspense is created as the audience waits to find out how the story line ends. In this particular episode White discovers one of the drug dealers is still alive and is faced with the dilemma of having to kill someone he thought was already dead. Invariably, each episode’s central conflict is resolved near the end of the show, at which time a new challenge arises to pique the viewer’s curiosity. By design, the only way to know how Walter gets out of the mess he is in at the end of the latest episode is to watch the next episode.

			The cycle of conflict, mystery, and resolution is as old as storytelling itself, and at the heart of every good tale is variability. The unknown is fascinating, and strong stories hold our attention by waiting to reveal what happens next. In a phenomenon termed experience-taking, researchers have shown that people who read a story about a character actually feel what the protagonist is feeling.28 As we step into the character’s shoes we experience his or her motivations—including the search for rewards of the tribe, the hunt, and the self. We empathize with characters because they are driven by the same things that drive us.

			Yet if the search to resolve uncertainty is such a powerful tool of engagement, why do we eventually lose interest in the things that once riveted us? Many people have experienced the intense focus of being hooked on a TV series, a great book, a new video game, or even the latest gadget. However, most of us lose interest in a few days’ or weeks’ time. Why does the power of variable rewards seem to fade away?

			Perhaps no company in recent memory epitomizes the mercurial nature of variable rewards quite like Zynga, makers of the hit Facebook game FarmVille. In 2009 FarmVille undeniably became part of the global zeitgeist. The game smashed records as it quickly reached 83.8 million monthly active users by leveraging the Facebook platform to acquire new players.29 In 2010, as “farmers” tended their digital crops while paying real money for virtual goods and levels, the company generated more than $36 million in revenue.30

			The company seemed invincible and set a course for growth by cloning its FarmVille success into a franchise. Zynga soon released CityVille, ChefVille, FrontierVille, and several more -Ville titles using familiar game mechanics in the hope that people would enjoy them as voraciously as they had FarmVille. By March 2012 Zynga’s stock was flying high and the company was valued at over $10 billion.

			Yet by November of that same year, the stock was down over 80 percent. It turned out that Zynga’s new games were not really new at all. The company had simply done retreads of FarmVille; players had lost interest and investors followed suit. What was once novel and intriguing became rote and boring. The -Villes had lost their variability and with it, their viability.

			As the Zynga story demonstrates, an element of mystery is an important component of continued user interest. Online games like FarmVille suffer from what I term finite variability—an experience that becomes predictable after use. While Breaking Bad built suspense over time as the audience wondered how the series would end, eventually interest in the show waned when it finally concluded. The series enthralled viewers with each new episode, but now that it is all over, how many people who saw it once will watch it again? With the plot lines known and the central mysteries revealed, the show just won’t seem as interesting the second time around. Perhaps this series might resurrect interest with a new spin-off show in the future, but viewership for old episodes people have already seen will never peak as it did when they were new.

			Experiences with finite variability become less engaging because they eventually become predictable.

			Businesses with finite variability are not inferior per se; they just operate under different constraints. They must constantly churn out new content and experiences to cater to their consumers’ insatiable desire for novelty. It is no coincidence that both Hollywood and the video gaming industry operate under what is called the studio model, whereby a deep-pocketed company provides backing and distribution to a portfolio of movies or games, uncertain which one will become the next megahit.

			This is in contrast with companies making products exhibiting infinite variability—experiences that maintain user interest by sustaining variability with use. For example, games played to completion offer finite variability, while those played with other people have higher degrees of infinite variability because the players themselves alter the gameplay throughout. World of Warcraft, the world’s most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game, still captures the attention of more than 10 million active users eight years after its release.31 FarmVille is played mostly in solitude, but World of Warcraft is frequently played with teams; it is the hard-to-predict behavior of other people that keeps the game interesting.

			While content consumption, like watching a TV show, is an example of finite variability, content creation is infinitely variable. Sites like Dribbble, a platform for designers and artists to showcase their work, exemplify the longer-lasting engagement that comes from infinite variability. On the site contributors share their designs in search of feedback from other artists. As new trends and design patterns change, so do Dribbble’s pages. The variety of what Dribbble users can create is limitless, and the constantly changing site always offers new surprises.

			Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter all leverage user-generated content to provide visitors with a never-ending stream of newness. Naturally, even sites utilizing infinite variability are not guaranteed to hold on to users forever. Eventually—to borrow from the title of Michael Lewis’s 1999 book about the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley—the “new new thing” comes along and consumers migrate to it for the reasons discussed in earlier chapters. However, products utilizing infinite variability stand a better chance of holding on to users’ attention, while those with finite variability must constantly reinvent themselves just to keep pace.

			Which Rewards Should You Offer?

			Fundamentally, variable reward systems must satisfy users’ needs while leaving them wanting to reengage. As described, the most habit-forming products and services utilize one or more of the three variable rewards types: the tribe, the hunt, and the self. In fact, many habit-forming products offer multiple variable rewards.

			E-mail, for example, utilizes all three variable reward types. What subconsciously compels us to check our e-mail? First, there is uncertainty concerning who might be sending us a message. We have a social obligation to respond to e-mails and a desire to be seen as agreeable (rewards of the tribe). We may also be curious about what information is in the e-mail: Perhaps something related to our career or business awaits us? Checking e-mail informs us of opportunities or threats to our material possessions and livelihood (rewards of the hunt). Lastly, e-mail is in itself a task—challenging us to sort, categorize, and act to eliminate unread messages. We are motivated by the uncertain nature of our fluctuating e-mail count and feel compelled to gain control of our in-box (rewards of the self).

			As B. F. Skinner discovered over fifty years ago, variable rewards are a powerful inducement to repeat actions. Understanding what moves users to return to habit-forming products gives designers an opportunity to build products that align with their interests.

			However, simply giving users what they want is not enough to create a habit-forming product. The feedback loop of the first three steps of the Hook—trigger, action, and variable reward—still misses a final critical phase. In the next chapter we will learn how getting people to invest their time, effort, or social equity in your product is a requirement for repeat use.


					Variable reward is the third phase of the Hook Model, and there are three types of variable rewards: the tribe, the hunt, and the self.

					Rewards of the tribe is the search for social rewards fueled by connectedness with other people.

					Rewards of the hunt is the search for material resources and information.

					Rewards of the self is the search for intrinsic rewards of mastery, competence, and completion.

					When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing a new behavior. Psychologists refer to this as reactance. Maintaining a sense of user autonomy is a requirement for repeat engagement.

					Experiences with finite variability become increasingly predictable with use and lose their appeal over time. Experiences that maintain user interest by sustaining variability with use exhibit infinite variability.

					Variable rewards must satisfy users’ needs while leaving them wanting to reengage with the product.



			Refer to the answers you came up with in the last “Do This Now” section to complete the following exercises:

					Speak with five of your customers in an open-ended interview to identify what they find enjoyable or encouraging about using your product. Are there any moments of delight or surprise? Is there anything they find particularly satisfying about using the product?

					Review the steps your customer takes to use your product or service habitually. What outcome (reward) alleviates the user’s pain? Is the reward fulfilling, yet leaves the user wanting more?

					Brainstorm three ways your product might heighten users’ search for variable rewards using:


			1. rewards of the tribe—gratification from others.

			2. rewards of the hunt—material goods, money, or information.

			3. rewards of the self—mastery, completion, competency, or consistency.



			Now What?

			Thank you for investing in this book. Now that you have read it, let me hear from you!

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			Also, be sure to visit my blog, Nir and Far (NirAndFar .com), to learn more about habit-forming products and receive my latest essays.

			Finally, please send questions, comments, edits, or feedback to:



			Habit Testing and Where to Look for Habit-Forming Opportunities

			Now that you have an understanding of the Hook Model and have reflected on the morality of influencing user behavior, it is time to get to work. Running your idea through the four phases of the model will help you discover potential weaknesses in your product’s habit-forming potential.

			Does your users’ internal trigger frequently prompt them to action? Is your external trigger cueing them when they are most likely to act? Is your design simple enough to make taking the action easy? Does the reward satisfy your users’ need while leaving them wanting more? Do your users invest a bit of work in the product, storing value to improve the experience with use and loading the next trigger?

			By identifying where your technology is lacking, you can focus on developing improvements to your product where it matters most.

			Habit Testing

			By following the “Do This Now” sections in previous chapters, you should have enough knowledge to prototype your product. But simply coming up with ideas is not enough, and creating user habits is often easier said than done. The process of developing successful habit-forming technologies requires patience and persistence.

			The Hook Model can be a helpful tool for filtering out bad ideas with low habit potential as well as a framework for identifying room for improvement in existing products.

			However, after the designer has formulated new hypotheses, there is no way to know which ideas will work without testing them with actual users.

			Building a habit-forming product is an iterative process and requires user-behavior analysis and continuous experimentation.

			How can you implement the concepts in this book to measure your product’s effectiveness in building user habits?

			Through my studies and discussions with entrepreneurs at today’s most successful habit-forming companies, I’ve distilled this process into what I term Habit Testing. It is a process inspired by the “build, measure, learn” methodology championed by the lean start-up movement. Habit Testing offers insights and actionable data to inform the design of habit-forming products. It helps clarify who your devotees are, what parts (if any) of your product are habit forming, and why those aspects of your product are changing user behavior.

			Habit Testing does not always require a live product; however, it can be difficult to draw clear conclusions without a comprehensive view of how people are using your system. The following steps assume you have a product, users, and meaningful data to explore.

			Step 1: Identify

			The initial question for Habit Testing is “Who are the product’s habitual users?” Remember, the more frequently your product is used, the more likely it is to form a user habit.

			First, define what it means to be a devoted user. How often “should” one use your product?

			The answer to this question is very important and can widely change your perspective. Publicly available data from similar products or solutions can help define your users and engagement targets. If data are not available, educated assumptions must be made—but be realistic and honest.

			If you are building a social networking app like Twitter or Instagram, you should expect habitual users to visit the service multiple times per day. On the other hand, you should not expect users of a movie recommendation site like Rotten Tomatoes to visit more than once or twice a week (because their visits will come on the heels of seeing a movie or researching one to watch). Don’t come up with an overly aggressive prediction that only accounts for überusers; you are looking for a realistic guess to calibrate how often typical users will interact with your product.

			Once you know how often users should use your product, dig into the numbers to identify how many and which type of users meet this threshold. As a best practice, use cohort analysis to measure changes in user behavior through future product iterations.

			Step 2: Codify

			Let’s say that you’ve identified a few users who meet the criteria of habitual users. Yet how many such users are enough? My rule of thumb is 5 percent. Though your rate of active users will need to be much higher to sustain your business, this is a good initial benchmark.

			However, if at least 5 percent of your users don’t find your product valuable enough to use as much as you predicted they would, you may have a problem. Either you identified the wrong users or your product needs to go back to the drawing board. If you have exceeded that bar, though, and identified your habitual users, the next step is to codify the steps they took using your product to understand what hooked them.

			Users will interact with your product in slightly different ways. Even if you have a standard user flow, the way users engage with your product creates a unique fingerprint. Where users are coming from, decisions made when registering, and the number of friends using the service are just a few of the behaviors that help create a recognizable pattern. Sift through the data to determine if similarities emerge.

			You are looking for a Habit Path—a series of similar actions shared by your most loyal users.

			For example, in its early days, Twitter discovered that once new users followed thirty other members, they hit a tipping point that dramatically increased the odds they would keep using the site.1

			Every product has a different set of actions that devoted users take; the goal of finding the Habit Path is to determine which of these steps is critical for creating devoted users so that you can modify the experience to encourage this behavior.

			Step 3: Modify

			Armed with new insights, it is time to revisit your product and identify ways to nudge new users down the same Habit Path taken by devotees. This may include an update to the registration funnel, content changes, feature removal, or increased emphasis on an existing feature. Twitter used the insights gained from the previous step to modify its on-boarding process, encouraging new users to immediately begin following others.

			Habit Testing is a continual process you can implement with every new feature and product iteration.

			Tracking users by cohort and comparing their activity with that of habitual users should guide how products evolve and improve.

			Discovering Habit-forming Opportunities

			The Habit Testing process requires the product designer to have an existing product to test. Where, though, might you look to find potentially habit-forming experiences ripe for new technological solutions?

			When it comes to developing new products, there are no guarantees. Along with creating an engaging product as described in this book, start-ups must also find a way to monetize and grow. Although this book does not cover business models for delivering customer value or methods for profitable customer acquisition, both are necessary components of any successful business. Several things must go right for a new company to succeed, and forming user habits is just one of them.

			As we saw in chapter 6, being a facilitator is not only a moral imperative, it also makes for better businesses practices. Creating a product the designer uses and believes materially improves people’s lives increases the odds of delivering something people want. Therefore, the first place for the entrepreneur or designer to look for new opportunities is in the mirror. Paul Graham advises entrepreneurs to leave the sexy-sounding business ideas behind and instead build for their own needs: “Instead of asking ‘what problem should I solve?’ ask ‘what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?’”2

			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.

			For example, Buffer, a service for posting updates to social networks, was inspired by its founder’s insightful observations of his own behavior.

			Buffer was founded in 2010 and is now used by over 1.1 million people.3 Its founder, Joel Gascoigne, described the company’s inception in an interview.4 “The idea for Buffer came to me after I had been using Twitter for about 1.5 years. I had started to share links to blog posts and quotes I found inspiring, and I found that my followers seemed to really like these types of tweets. I would often get retweets or end up having a great conversation around the blog post or quote. That’s when I decided I wanted to share this kind of content more frequently, because the conversations being triggered were allowing me to be in touch with some super smart and interesting people.”

			Gascoigne continues, “So, with my goal of sharing more blog posts and quotes, I started to do it manually. I quickly realized that it would be far more efficient to schedule these tweets for the future, so I started to use a few available Twitter clients to do this. The key pain I ran into here was that I would have to choose the exact date and time for the tweet, and in reality all I wanted to do was to tweet ‘five times per day.’ I just wanted the tweets to be spread out so I didn’t share them all at the same time when I did my daily reading. For a while, I used a notepad and kept track of when I had scheduled tweets, so that I could try and tweet five times per day. This became quite cumbersome, and so my idea was born: I wanted to make scheduling tweets ‘x times a day’ as easy as tweeting regularly.”

			Gascoigne’s story is a classic example of a founder scratching his own itch. As he used existing solutions, he recognized a discrepancy in what they offered and the solution he needed. He identified where steps could be removed from other products he used and built a simpler way to get his job done.

			Careful introspection can uncover opportunities for building habit-forming products.

			As you go about your day, ask yourself why you do or do not do certain things and how those tasks could be made easier or more rewarding.

			Observing your own behavior can inspire the next habit-forming product or inform a breakthrough improvement to an existing solution. Read on to find other hotbeds for innovation opportunities—think of them as shortcuts for uncovering existing behaviors that are ripe for successful business development based on forming new user habits.

			Nascent Behaviors

			Sometimes technologies that appear to cater to a niche will cross into the mainstream. Behaviors that start with a small group of users can expand to a wider population, but only if they cater to a broad need. However, the fact that the technology is at first used only by a small population often deceives observers into dismissing the product’s true potential.

			A striking number of world-changing innovations were written off as mere novelties with limited commercial appeal. George Eastman’s Brownie camera, preloaded with a film roll and selling for just $1, was originally marketed as a child’s toy.5 Established studio photographers saw the device as little more than a cheap plaything.

			The invention of the telephone was also dismissed at first. Sir William Henry Preece, the chief engineer of the British post office, famously declared, “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”6

			In 1911 Ferdinand Foch, the future commander in chief of the Allied forces in World War I, said, “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”7

			In 1957 the editor of business books for Prentice Hall told his publisher, “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”

			The Internet itself, and each successive wave of innovation, has continually received criticism for its inability to gain mass appeal. In 1995 Clifford Stoll wrote a Newsweek article, “The Internet? Bah!” in which he declared, “The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper.” Stoll continued, “We’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.”8

			Naturally, now we do read books and newspapers over the Internet. When technologies are new, people are often skeptical. Old habits die hard and few people have the foresight to see how new innovations will eventually change their routines. However, by looking to early adopters who have already developed nascent behaviors, entrepreneurs and designers can identify niche use cases, which can be taken mainstream.

			For example, in its early days, Facebook was only used by Harvard students. The service mimicked an off-line behavior familiar to all college students at the time: perusing a printed book of student faces and profiles. After finding popularity at Harvard, Facebook rolled out to other Ivy League schools, then to college students nationwide. Next came high school kids and later, employees at select companies. Finally, in September 2006, Facebook was opened to the world. Currently, over a billion people use Facebook. What first began as a nascent behavior at one campus became a global phenomenon catering to the fundamental human need for connection to others.

			As discussed in the first chapter, many habit-forming technologies begin as vitamins—nice-to-have products that, over time, become must-have painkillers by relieving an itch or pain. It is revealing that so many breakthrough technologies and companies, from airplanes to Airbnb, were at first dismissed by critics as toys or niche markets. Looking for nascent behaviors among early adopters can often uncover valuable new business opportunities.

			Enabling Technologies

			Mike Maples Jr., a Silicon Valley “super angel” investor, likens technology to big-wave surfing. In 2012 Maples blogged, “In my experience, every decade or so, we see a major new tech wave. When I was in high school, it was the PC revolution. I made my career as an entrepreneur at the end of the client/server wave and in the early phases of the Internet wave. Today, we are at the mass adoption phase of the social networking wave. I am obsessed with these technology waves and have spent a lot of time studying how they develop and what patterns can be observed.”

			Maples believes technology waves follow a three-phase pattern: “They start with infrastructure. Advances in infrastructure are the preliminary forces that enable a large wave to gather. As the wave begins to gather, enabling technologies and platforms create the basis for new types of applications that cause a gathering wave to achieve massive penetration and customer adoption. Eventually, these waves crest and subside, making way for the next gathering wave to take shape.”9

			Entrepreneurs looking for windows of opportunity would be wise to consider Maples’s metaphor.

			Wherever new technologies suddenly make a behavior easier, new possibilities are born.

			The creation of a new infrastructure often opens up unforeseen wa