Building Products: The Art of Hooking Users

On January 25th, we hosted Nir Eyal, a prominent tech and product expert, for a fascinating talk based on his bestselling book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”. Nir, who writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of tech, psychology and business, shared with us how he believes founders can use psychology as they develop their products. 

One of the key themes that emerged was the need for entrepreneurs not to focus blindly on increasing the number of users for their product, but rather focus on the habits associated with it. These habits are a key driver to influencing critical product metrics such as engagement, retention and activation, forming the base for a successful business.  For early stage startups, showing these metrics on a small subset of users is key to getting to product-market fit.

The Psychology of Tech
In his talk, Nir offered a design pattern called the ‘Hook Model’, which describes how products eventually become things we turn to, with little thought, day after day.

For any human behavior, Nir maintains that Behaviors = Motivation + Ability + Trigger.

This Trigger can either be internal or external, but it always requires a call to action. Interestingly, triggers often work best when there’s a persistent, recurring negative emotion. In other words, if a product provides relief, albeit brief, from that emotion (i.e pain), then a habit is formed. In most cases, users then translate the trigger to an action – the behavior exhibited in anticipation of a reward. If the user then puts something of their own intro the product such as time, data or effort, then the Hooked Model is completed.

A couple of the most well known success stories are Facebook and Pinterest.  They both effectively use FOMO, as users constantly feel the need to see what is happening,and feeling relieved knowing that they are up to speed.  In order to continually feel this sense relief, users constantly re-check their feeds, thus continuing the process of content consumption and validation.

The Variables in Behavior

As Founders and product enthusiasts, how can we increase the odds that our solution leads to a habit forming behavior?

Going back to the three variables in the Behavior equation (Behaviors = Motivation + Ability + Trigger), we should try and increase one or all of the three.  According this model, increasing motivation can be done by offering some sort of solution or value to people’s most basic instincts, in a way that helps them on their mission of seeking pleasure, hope or acceptance, or alternatively, avoiding pain, fear or rejection. This also creates a competitive advantage of retaining loyal users, as products that become part of the user’s routine are less susceptible to attacks from their competition.

Interestingly, when new technology interfaces emerge, users are often forced to look for new solutions. The same four basic steps of the hook — a trigger, action, reward, and investment — can be used to form new routines and establish new habits, no matter how loyal the users are to products on the old platforms. 

The Business of Product

As programmed behaviors are extremely influential in guiding the everyday actions of users, those who are able to program these habits increase their chances of building great products

This isn’t like the mind-manipulation seen in the movie Inception, but rather the creation of irresistible user experiences. It’s about knowing how people feel, and what changes those feelings can have on both a temporary and transient basis. 

If you are aiming to change people’s lives, you have to create a product that will become an integral part of their daily routine. Moreover, if you would like the users choose your new product over the incumbent product, it has to provide them value that is significantly greater than what they are getting now. “Nice to have” is just not good enough. 

For us Product folks, we are not in the business of coding, nor are we in the business of pitching investors. Rather, we are in the business of creating sustainable, and lifelong hooks using technology, design and what we know about human psychology. 

— by Moriya Kassis, Product Management Consultant and Senior Venture Associate at UpWest Labs