Hooked - by Nir Eyal


In one of the Distinguished Lecture Series organised by my school, I attended a 1hr session with Nir Eyal to gain some insights on his book - Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. This post documents some of my key takeaways from the session as I thought that he is very knowledgable in understanding consumer behaviour, and the information is useful for us to think about what we can do when creating our next technology product. The essence of the discussion: Uncover patterns on how successful technology companies very quickly, fundamentally change users day to day habits.

What I find interesting - The Hook

Nir Eyal has a model called The Hook which provides a useful framework for us to think through to figure how to connect user problems to our solution with enough frequency to establish patterns to form habits and attitudes. Understanding this is interesting to know why Ian Gogost said that our technologies are quite possibly becoming the cigarettes of this century. We should therefore use this knowledge for good, and as per what Gandhi advised, to "build the change you wish to see in the world".

1. Trigger
The hook canvas starts with a trigger. The itch. Most of the time when we think about triggers, we think of external triggers like a button that says "Post". Though that is something that consumers interact with, a more interesting concept is internal triggers where information of what to do next is automatically associated in the user's minds. To understand this, we can think of how people deal with positive or negative feelings. Negative emotions, in particular, are powerful internal triggers because people will seek to do things to get out of those negative feelings. Some technology solutions have done a pretty good job in easing such emotions. For example, if you are feeling lost, you may reach out to Google to search for information. If you have a fear of missing out or are feeling lonely, you may check Facebook for news from your social network. If you have an itch to hold on to the moment, you may post photos on Instagram, and if you are bored, you may head to YouTube, Netflix, or some news sites.

2. Action
Action can be summarised as the simplest behaviour in anticipation of a reward. Taking reference from BJ Fogg, a researcher at Stanford, Behaviour = Motivation + Ability + Trigger (b = m + a + t). Motivation. According to Edward Deci, father of self determination theory, motivation is the "energy for action". There are 6 levers that can increase/decrease motivation. They are namely: seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, seeking hope, avoiding fear, seeking social acceptance, avoiding social rejection. Ability. Ability is the capacity (how easy/difficult) to do a particular action. 6 factors that make a behaviour more likely to occur: time, money, physical effort, brain cycles (how easy is it to understand something), social deviance (similar to peer pressure), non-routine (repeating a behaviour by practising something makes it easier, and thus more likely to do it again in future). Putting everything together, we have Fogg's behaviour model. This is something useful to think about when you need to figure why is it that people do not respond to your product. Is there insufficient motivation? Is the action too difficult to do? Where is the trigger? Think about why you did not pick up your phone for examples on how this plays out.

3. Reward
Now that an action is done, it is time to scratch the itch. The rewards part of our brain boils down to an area called the Nucleus Accumbens. Experiments from two Canadian researchers, Olds and Milner, found in the 1940s that when that part of the brain is stimulated with electrical currents, experiment subjects would forgo food, water, and danger, just to continue to experience that sensation. The interesting thing from here is that we do not need electric currents to trigger that part of that brain. The nucleus accumbens can be activated whenever we crave for something desirable (i.e. Junk food etc). When there is more study on the purpose of the nucleus accumbens for humans, the findings is that it does not stimulate pleasure, it stimulate the stress of desire. Our reward system activates when we anticipate for a response because the unknown is fascinating. Variability and mystery causes us to focus, engage, and is highly habit forming. When BF Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, introduced variability to pigeons in his experiments, the rate the pigeons press on discs increases in anticipation for food reward.

Bringing the discussion back to highly successful products, there are 3 types of variable rewards that are impactful: Tribe, Hunt, Self. Rewards of the tribe are social rewards, social recognition and cooperation. For example, on Facebook, there is huge variability whenever one opens the app, be it the comments, or the number of likes. On Stack Overflow, there is variability on the up-votes, down-votes, points and badges. Next, rewards of the hunt is the search of resources in the forms of variable material rewards. This can come in the form of money and information, and can explain one of the reasons whey the "feed" is so prevalent everywhere these days. Finally, rewards of the self, intrinsic motivators like mastery, competency, consistency, and control. This can be seen in game play, where one wants to get to the next level to reflect mastery and competency, or when one checks emails to clear the inbox and to-do lists to reflect consistency and completion. All these are some elements of mystery to keep users curious about what they might find the next time they engage.

4. Investment
Finally, the investment phase, a phase where most start-ups neglect. This phase is about future rewards, where one "invests" time, social capital, effort, personal data, money, and emotional commitment, in anticipation of future rewards. This increases the likelihood of the next pass through the hook in two ways: [1] Investments load the next trigger of the hook - when you send a message on WhatsApp, you "invested" time, and anticipate a response. That increases your likelihood to use this technology platform again, to go through all phases of the hook again. [2] Investments store value - unlike physical assets that depreciates in value, habit-forming technology has the opportunity to appreciate with use. For example, building your iTunes library or mint finances software, gaining followers in social networking sites, and gaining reputation that can literally bring value to the bank (i.e. you can price products and services higher at places like eBay and Airbnb when you grow your reputation).

More from Nir Eval -- Q&A Session
Q: When is it useful to use this hook framework?
A: Two situations - 1. At the initial phase of the project when you are generating a habit-forming product idea. 2. A diagnostic tool when your product stops being engaging. Remember to test your ideas frequently (i.e. A/B testing) to gather feedback for validation.

Q: If you are a new market entrant, is there any tips on how to switch a user's habit?
A: There are 4 tips - 1. Increase the frequency of passing through the four steps of the hook throughout the day. For example, change an interface from laptop to mobile. 2. Increase the velocity to allow people to pass through the hook faster and easier. For example, Netflix v.s. Blockbusters, people watch movies at home easier than going to physical theatres. 3. Make rewards dramatically more rewarding. For example, Snapchat v.s. Facebook messenger,  which is more rewarding to open? 4. Make on boarding actions to enter the hook easier. For example, it is easier to use Google Doc than to purchase MS Office though Google Doc has lesser features.

Q: Tell us more about the difference between software and physical products
A: Physical products do not have the Investment phase of the hook. A coffee machine, though habit forming, can be easily replaced when spoilt. The competitive advantage of software products is that when it is built for habits, customers become invested and thus it is harder to take them way. 

Q: With reference to Pokemon Go, what did the game do right or wrong in the Hook?
A: Firstly, note that not all businesses needs to be habit forming. The hook is only useful for those that needs to be habit forming. Next, looking at Pokemon Go, we have to look at the nature of games, and the concept of finite v.s. infinite variability. Similar to FarmVille and FrontierVille, Pokemon Go had the initial hook where it scratches the feeling of boredom. People generally gets excited at the beginning, but when they start figuring what was going to happen next, the knowledge eliminated the excitement that comes with variability. Similar to books and movies, how often do people read the same book or movie twice? Therefore, for products with finite variability, there is a need to keep creating new content. Also, ways that Pokemon Go can re-engage users, is to explore looking at social or tribe rewards in addition to what they currently have.

Q: Is addiction bad? What moral responsibilities should one have on a product?
A: Note that addiction is not the same as habit. Makers of a product (i.e. glue) may not have the intention to harm, but there will always be addicts that takes the product to its extreme. Acknowledging such situations, makers have the ethical need to help, but that does not mean eradicating the product totally. The question here is, what is the alternative? If there is no news feed on mobile phones, addicts can still spend hours on televisions. On the other hand, interactive media allows society as a whole gain knowledge that is more customised to their interests. Finally, if you are interested, there is also another book titled "Unhooked" which talks about how to break unhealthy habits.

More Details
If you are interested to find our more, feel free to take a look at Nir Eyal's book, website, (http://www.nirandfar.com/hooked), or if you have 30 minutes to spare, watch the video below; most of the content in this post is from there:

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