Author of 'Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products' on Customer Engagement

Psychologist Nir Eyal uses brain science to hook the consumer

Kindra Cooper

Hooked How to Build Habit Forming Products

Like any attention-grabbing sales pitch, article lede or comedy set opener, great products are designed around a “hook.”

It’s a cycle of behaviors triggered by the product that convinces people to use it, repurchase it and broadcast rave reviews to their friends and on Reddit.

The oft-quoted suspects like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are examples of habit-forming products because they regiment our daily lives. Social media is often the first thing we check when we awake, our go-to during lulls in conversation or waiting-room purgatory, and the last thing we check at night.   

Hooked How to Build Habit-Forming Products“Right now there is an explosion of companies out there that are using the same psychology that Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat all use to keep people hooked, but they are using it for good,” Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, said at the Qualtrics X4 Summit in Salt Lake City. “They are helping people live better lives by helping them exercise more, save money and be more productive at work.”

Fitness-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal or personal finance assistants like Cleo are two examples of apps that track user behavior and offer feedback through a gamified experience that pushes you to eat fewer calories or forgo needless splurges.

For any product to succeed, Eyal says, it needs to take the customer through the four steps of the hook model, which is designed with brain science in mind.


1. Trigger - why you should respond to negative emotions

According to Eyal, “the first step to forming a customer habit is making sure the user experience contains a clear trigger.” While external triggers are obvious - a call-to-action, pop-up window, signage or a ringing phone, internal triggers are what galvanize customers to use and reuse your product or service on their own.

They are the things we do without much conscious thought when we’re in a particular place, situation, are around certain people or experience a particular emotion.  

“The most frequently occurring internal triggers are emotions, but not just any emotion,” explained Eyal, who writes, consults and teaches about the intersection of psychology, business and technology. “They are specifically negative emotions.”

When we feel bored, lonely, indecisive or tired, we reflexively seek relief. In fact, some of the most addictive apps we use serve as a salve for these discomforts.

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“What app or website do people go to when they’re feeling lonely? Facebook. What about when they’re feeling unsure about something? They Google it. What about when you’re feeling bored between 2-4pm where you have that big project and you don’t feel like working on it right now? You check YouTube, you check stock prices or read the news.”

Unfortunately, most engineers are so product-focused and invested in designing technologically jaw-dropping features, “but when it comes down to identifying what is the consumer itch, the psychological need the customer has, they have no clue.”

“The process starts with identifying what is that frequently occuring emotional trigger you can attach your product’s use to,” Eyal continued.

Take Instagram, for instance. Users load the app when they’re bored, experiencing FOMO (fear of missing out), or fear losing a moment in time and feel compelled to immortalize it. Kodak’s multimillion-dollar ‘Kodak moments’ ad campaigns sought to instill the urge to document important milestones like family events and vacations on a Kodak camera, a foreshadowing of the present zeitgeist: If you didn’t post it on Instagram, did it really happen?

“They would have the ads of puppy dogs running through the grass, the kids who would someday leave the nest,” Eyal mused. “They had that one commercial they always ran of grandma blowing out her last birthday candles.”

As a social network, Instagram capitalizes on these emotions far more than the Kodak camera ever could by being instantaneous, easy to use and free, such that reaching for the app becomes automatic whenever the negative emotion is felt.

“FOMO feels bad, it’s uncomfortable,” said Eyal, “and the solution to the fear of missing out is found with this app right in our pockets.”

2. Action - make it easy for the user to user to get a reward

An action refers to the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward, or to get relief from psychological discomfort, which explains all the perfunctory scrolling we do.

“Something as simple as scrolling on Pinterest, searching on Google - and what could be simpler than just hitting the ‘play’ button YouTube?”

However, in order for a customer to take action, three things have to be present: motivation (the energy for action), ability (how hard or easy it is to do something), and triggers, according to a landmark theory floated by Stanford researcher BJ Fogg.

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These might sound like nice-to-know factoids best left to brain scientists, but it’s the job of the marketer or product designer to create a customer experience that honors these needs. In CX-speak, motivation means a sufficiently enticing value proposition, ability refers to designing a simple and/or cost-effective user experience, and a trigger refers to deploying the right call-to-action or designing a product that responds to an important psychological need.

Bear in mind that motivation is inspired by six levers: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain; seeking hope and avoiding fear; and seeking social acceptance while avoiding rejection. Meanwhile, ability is determined by the time it takes to do something, what it costs, and how much physical or cognitive effort it expends. Finally, we are more likely to do something when we see others doing it or if we’ve done it in the past.

Say you debut a new app, website, or product and the response is lukewarm: it means one of these things is missing: It’s too hard to use, the user doesn’t feel sufficiently motivated or it doesn’t respond to a trigger.

3. Reward - why you should leave them wanting more

Undoubtedly the most important stage in CX, this is where the user gets what they came for. However, habit-forming products are innately addictive, and they achieve this property by giving the user considerable reward but leaving them wanting more. This doesn’t mean you should occasionally skimp on customer service or give your customer half of what they paid for; but you need to dangle a carrot that incites them to return.

“Did you know that I can teach you to manufacture desire?”

Eyal took a long pause, eyeing the audience with a knowing smile.

“I’m doing it right now,” he said, winking. “When I took that long pause and I stopped talking for a second and I asked you a question, some of you perked up. Why did he stop talking? What’s he going to say next? What’s the answer? It turns out that a little bit of mystery and uncertainty causes us to engage and focus and is highly habit-forming.”

It comes from the notion of variable reward, discovered in a research experiment where pigeons were put into boxes and presented with a disc they could peck to receive a food pellet. Psychologist BF Skinner started by giving the pigeon a pellet every time it pecked the disc, but it would only continue to do so as long as it was hungry.

When Skinner started varying the reward by giving food intermittently, the pigeon started pecking more often because each time it engaged it wasn’t guaranteed to receive the reward.

Perusing social media feeds or your Netflix carousel follows the same logic: you keep scrolling in hopes of finding better material. Meanwhile, subscription-based companies like Stitch Fix and Trunk Club that deliver an assortment of sight-unseen items in a box each month profit from this same reflex.

4. Investment - your product should get better with use

These are actions that encourage repeat purchases, loyalty and product reuse. The first example is what Eyal calls “loading the trigger.”

“This is something the user does to bring themselves back, not spammy email messaging or invasive marketing. For example, when you send someone a message on Whatsapp or Slack, you are investing in the platform because you are likely to get a reply.”

Another is building a profile on an online job board, or registering for an event whether paid or unpaid.

The second way customers invest in a product is by storing value. This can manifest in ways like sharing our data and personal information in return for personalized CX, accumulating followers on social media, or building our reputation as a reliable Airbnb host or Upwork freelancer.

“Stored value is why I love working in the digital product realm instead of with physical goods because everything in the physical world depreciates with wear and tear,” Eyal said. “Habit-forming products can actually do the opposite: they should appreciate with use and they should get better and better the more we engage with them.”

Hasbro’s now-defunct, AI-powered Furby toys exemplify this notion of storing value. These furry, owl-like robots used natural language processing to gradually learn English, meaning the more you spoke to them and played with them, the better you understood each other.