Nir Eyal on Habits, Experimentation, and Becoming Indistractable
Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, a bestselling guide to using behavioral psychology to inform product design and development, and the forthcoming Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir is the keynote speaker at our upcoming virtual Test & Learn conference, which will be broadcast
Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, a bestselling guide to using behavioral psychology to inform product design and development, and the forthcoming Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir is the keynote speaker at our upcoming virtual Test & Learn conference, which will be broadcast live on May 22. Register now for free.
We recently sat down with Nir to discuss behavior design, consumer psychology, and product experimentation, to preview his session for the conference.
Robin Pam, Optimizely: You’ll be talking about habits and the “Hooked” model in your Test and Learn keynote. Can you tell us why product teams should care about habits and behavior design?
Nir Eyal, Test & Learn Keynote Speaker: Understanding what brings people back is a crucial skill. If you don’t build a product that is habit-forming, if you don’t design into the user experience a way to bring people back on their own, you’re missing a huge opportunity. Many companies are leaky bucket businesses, where they spend so much time getting customers to try a product, only to lose them when they don’t stay engaged. If we can’t get those customers to use our product regularly, then they just leak out and we’ve wasted all that money on customer acquisition.
However, if you can find a way to keep people coming back, that is a huge competitive advantage. My talk is about the secrets and techniques that companies like Google, Slack, Twitter, and the gaming companies use to create the most habit-forming, engaging products in the world. What can we all learn from those products?
Robin: Since you’ve published “Hooked,” there’s much more widespread recognition that behavior design is a key component of building digital products. How have you seen other product teams beyond Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the gaming companies using the habit model since you first published this?
Nir: When I first published “Hooked,” we had to convince people behavior design was important, that design was something that they had to think about, as opposed to just a bunch of engineers coming up with a great new technology.
The fact is the best product doesn’t necessarily win. Product graveyards are full of companies that had the best technology. The company that we turn to first out of habit is the kind of product that can capture the market. And that’s really what’s changed today. People believe that behavioral design works. That’s a sea change.
We had to convince people that there was underlying psychology behind how companies like Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp and Slack designed their products to be so engaging. Most people thought those companies just got lucky. And it’s not [that]. The people designing those products understand what makes you click and what makes you tick better than you understand yourself. And we can apply these techniques for good. I didn’t write “Hooked” for Facebook and Google. I wrote this book because I imagined a future where we could make all sorts of behaviors just as habit-forming.
One example is a company called Kahoot! They called me up and told me they were using the “Hooked” model and I invested right away. They are the world’s most widely used educational software and they make classroom learning more engaging. I work with a company called Paga, which brings millions of unbanked Africans online by creating these new habits around effectively saving and spending money. That’s a very positive habit. Companies like Fitbod are using the Hooked model to help people form healthy habits in the gym. Now I consistently go to the gym because of this wonderful app that gets me in the habit of exercise.
The idea behind “Hooked” is to use the same habit techniques for good to help people exercise more, or eat healthier, be more productive at work, and make the kind of products that people use because they want to, not because they feel like they have to.
Robin: So you talked about the companies that are trying to use the habit model for good. Is there a specific product that you’ve been using lately that’s implemented the “Hooked” model that really has you hooked?
Nir: There are many. I mentioned Fitbod, that product has been fantastic. I reached out to the founders because I saw that it was so well-designed. I wrote an article a few years ago titled, “Why your fitness app is making you fat.” I was so frustrated by how poorly designed most of these apps in the health and wellness space are. And they’re run by the most altruistic people that really want to help people live better lives. The problem is they don’t build the product in a way that is conducive to forming a consumer habit.
One of the crucial elements of the “Hooked” model is called the variable reward. But what so many of these apps do is that they don’t reward you. They remind you how you’re failing. You’re still broke and you’re still fat. That’s really demotivating. That’s not a variable reward. That’s a variable punishment. When I saw Fitbod, I saw that they had done so many things right. And I called them and said, “You know, this is uncanny. You really nailed the Hooked model here.” And they said, “Funny you should mention that. We actually read your book before we designed our product.”
That’s a great example of a product that I use, and for the first time in my life I actually exercise regularly because of this app.
Robin: So the conference that you’re speaking at is called Test and Learn, and we’re focusing on adopting a mindset of rapid experimentation as you’re building new products. How do you think about the intersection of habits in behavioral design and experimentation?
Nir: Experimentation is absolutely critical when it comes to product design. One of the seminal books in product design over the last decade is “The Lean Startup,” where Eric Ries talks about this build, measure, learn loop. In order to design products people want, you have to iterate. You have to build something, you have to measure how effective your product is at changing the consumer behavior you’re looking for, and then you learn from that in order to iterate the next time and improve the product with use. Testing is absolutely critical.
Instead of just building whatever the customer says we should build or whatever the highest paid person in the room says we should build, my contribution is that we should look to consumer psychology to tell us what’s missing. We still have to go through build, measure, learn. We still have to test and iterate, but the idea is that we should look at consumer psychology research to tell us where our product is missing some crucial element that could otherwise make it much more engaging.
Robin: On that note, do you have a favorite consumer psychology principle or experiment to share?
Nir: One of my favorite principles is this idea of an internal trigger. For decades we believed that the motivator of human behavior was seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. This is called Freud’s Pleasure Principle. And it turns out that’s actually not true, that neurologically speaking we’re not motivated by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. In fact, if you dig deeper, it’s all pain.
All human motivation comes from this desire to escape discomfort. Even wanting, craving something, desiring pleasure is itself painful. Think about all the songs that have been written about how love hurts. Neurologically speaking, love does hurt, wanting something hurts. This provides an opportunity for people in the design community because our seminal job is to identify people’s pain, to understand how we can solve their problems. And we do that by looking for internal triggers: uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to satisfy.
That’s a big mind shift when people say, “Why are we focused on the pain? Why not about the desire for pleasure?” Because if I’m in a pleasurable state, leave me alone. There’s no problem. Don’t bother me. So we want to look for that uncomfortable emotional state. Where is the customer dissatisfied? Where do they feel emotional discomfort? Where do they feel that itch, that internal trigger that our product can satiate for them?
Robin: One issue that comes up on our product team is that Optimizely is a B2B company selling enterprise software, and we have many customers who are also in the enterprise software business. How do you think about adapting your principles for behavior design and habit-forming products to an enterprise context?
Nir: That’s a fantastic question. So the line of demarcation is not between enterprise or consumer web. The line of demarcation is frequent or infrequent. If you have the kind of product that is not used frequently, you don’t need habits. Habits are behaviors done with little or no conscious thought and they require sufficient frequency—the threshold seems to be about a week’s time or less. But if your key behavior doesn’t occur within a week’s time or less, it’s almost impossible to form a product habit.
What that means is that you’ve got to identify the behaviors that occur at a sufficient frequency to build a habit around. Let’s say, for example, you sell car insurance. Car insurance is not something that you use frequently enough to form a habit around. It never will become a habit. And that’s fine.
There’s lots of businesses that are perfectly sustainable that don’t form a customer habit. It’s just that those businesses require constantly fighting with your competition on price and features. But a product that forms a habit is something that we do with little or no conscious thought. We Google something without really thinking, “Hey, is there a better search engine out there?” We use Salesforce or Slack. We’re not constantly shopping for the competition to see, “Hey, are we getting the very best product out there?” No, we use it out of habit and we don’t even consider the competition. That’s a huge competitive advantage.
There are plenty of examples in the enterprise realm: Slack and GitHub and Stack Overflow, that require a frequent user behavior that they have turned into a habit. And so it doesn’t really matter about consumer web or enterprise. What really matters is whether it’s frequent or infrequent.
Robin: That’s a great answer. So your next book is coming out this fall, right?
Nir: That’s right. My new book is called, “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.”
Robin: Tell me a little bit about why you chose to focus on that topic.
Nir: Five years ago nobody was thinking that product psychology could help you make a product more engaging, and today we see people saying, “Oh, my God. These products are too engaging.” I noticed in my own life that I was using products in a way that I got hooked. I remember sitting with my daughter one day and I found myself on my device as opposed to being fully present with this person I love a great deal. That’s when I decided I need to figure this out.
I bought every book I could find on the topic of tech distraction and technology overuse and technology addiction, and they all said the same thing: put away your device. Stop using your phone. And the more research I did into the psychology of why we overuse our devices, I realized that that advice was utterly wrong. It was counterproductive. It backfired. When I dug into the psychology of what causes us to get distracted, I discovered that it was far different than I expected—and far more interesting. The root cause of why we get distracted is the real problem. It’s not our gadgets.
Robin: Interesting. I can’t wait to hear more about that. I have one more question. I want you to put on your future predictions hat and tell me what you think is the next big trend that’s going to influence the way that product teams build and test products at scale.
Nir: I think ubiquitous computing in one form or another. What we’re seeing is that the interface is shrinking. Over the past decade we’ve gone from desktop to laptop to mobile devices now to wearable devices. Think about the Apple Watch or the Nokia watch. And now the interface has completely disappeared.
When you think about the Amazon Echo, it has disappeared. Now we just talk to our devices. And I think that’s a really big opportunity. Every time there’s an interface change and computing becomes more ubiquitous, that’s where new market entrants, new products have an opportunity to gain a foothold because new habits are formed.
Think about the Amazon Alexa. If you don’t have the habit of knowing what to ask then you don’t know those skills even exist. So if you don’t form a habit with the product, if the customer doesn’t know to look for you on their own without spamming, marketing, and messaging that pollutes their inbox, if you can’t get them to act on their own then your product might as well not even exist. So I think habits become increasingly important because of this megatrend of ubiquitous computing.
Want to hear more from Nir? Tune in to his talk from the May 22 Test & Learn, the Product Experimentation Virtual Summit! You can also follow his work at nirandfar.com.