The Nir Eyal Hypothesis: Products That Create Desirable Habits Win in the Long Game

Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how to make sticky products that keep users coming back for more, the difference between ethical and unethical manipulation, and the impact of passing the regret test on the business’s bottom line.

Subscribe for the full episode on Apple, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, and more. Love what you hear? Leave us a review, it means a lot.

Resources

Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Nir Eyal Hypothesis: Products That Create Desirable Habits Win in the Long GameWhat experiences lead Nir to write Hooked? How did Nir’s experience starting two companies inform his writing? Why are customer habits so important to create? How do you make products that people want to engage with? How do you ethically change people’s habits and make changes they want in their lives?

What are the two types of manipulation, and what are some examples of people paying for the privilege of being manipulated? Why does Nir distinguish between persuasion and coercion? What are some examples of products using the Hooked model to create positive change? What questions can you ask yourself, as a designer or product person, to know if you’re applying these techniques ethically? What is the “regret test” and when do you use it?

What are the four steps of building a habit? What is a hook? What are the two types of triggers? What is are some examples of an action we want to design around? Why is it important that a reward is variable? How do you reset the cycle by getting the user to load the next trigger with an investment? What is stored value, and how does that make habit-forming products appreciate in value the more that you use them?

Why don’t the best products always win? Why does Nir use Google search as a good example of this principle? What does research show about search engine preference? How do you make the business case for using the Hooked model as a product manager? What are some examples of how design and psychology can intersect to create sticky products?

How do you combine the Lean Startup model of build/measure/learn with the Hooked model? How do most companies decide what to build? How does the Hooked model provide a framework to make the build decisions easier?

Why does Nir say that all human behavior is driven by pain? What is the problem with most fitness apps, and how do they illustrate the difference between variable reward and variable punishment? What are some examples of poorly defined behavior design, and how do you get specific and find something that works? How can you learn how to get the timing right on trigger design?

Quotes From This Episode

The best product does not necessarily win, it's the product that captures the monopoly of the mind, the thing we turn to first with little conscious thought, that's many times the product that captures the market. - Nir Eyal Click To Tweet What I wanted to add to the conversation among the product design community is some kind of framework we can look at and say, ah, if we are designing for customer engagement, where is our product efficient? - Nir Eyal Click To Tweet The way we tell the difference between persuasion and coercion is regret. So if you use my product, if you did what I designed for you to do, are you sorry that you used it? - Nir Eyal Click To Tweet So in this day and age, if you screw people over, if you make a product people regret using, guess what? Not only are they going to stop doing business with you, they'll tell all their friends to stop doing business with you. - Nir Eyal Click To Tweet

Transcription

Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to The Product Science Podcast where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly: So Nir, I’m so excited to have you on the Product Science Podcast. I imagine a lot of our listeners will already be familiar with your work. But in case they’re not, why don’t you tell us a little bit about Hooked and how you came to write a book about that?
Nir Eyal: Absolutely. Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I basically wrote the book I was looking for. I started two tech companies. And when the last one was acquired, I had some time on my hands. And I had this hypothesis that the companies of the future that really make an impact in the world would be the ones who mastered habit. And the reason I had this hypothesis was that I was looking at what was happening to interfaces that interfaces were going from big hunk and desktop screens to smaller laptops to mobile phones, which are even smaller screen interfaces to then wearable devices like watches, smart watches, which are even smaller.
Nir: And now we’ve reached a point where the screen interfaces all but disappeared. When you think about Amazon Echo or the Google home, there is no screen interface anymore. And so what that meant, what I saw happening, and this was back in 2012 or so, the hypothesis I had is that if you don’t create a customer habit, then in a customer’s mind, you might as well not even exist because there just isn’t the real estate anymore to trigger people with what’s called an external trigger, with something on their screen that tells them what to do next. They have to remember. So if you are not, the first to mind skill on the Amazon Echo or even on a smartphone, if you’re not the first app on their home screen page, if you’re on page five, six, seven, if they have to swipe through to get to, then they’re going to forget about you.
Nir: You might as well not even exist. And so it became imperative in my mind at that point to figure out how to form customer habits. And I believe that the promise of this is that we can make the kind of products that people want to use, Twitter and Google and then the gaming companies because they’ve known these techniques for ages. I didn’t think it was fair these companies could keep these techniques to themselves, I really wanted to bring it out to everyone else. And the idea being, if you think about it, most products out there don’t use these techniques anywhere near enough. We talk about products being almost too good and some people even call it addictive. That’s clearly not my goal in writing the book is to make anything addictive.
Nir: But the real problem is that most products out there, they don’t suck us in the way Facebook and Instagram and Google might. No, no, they just plain old suck. If you think about your public services or small businesses or even the kind of software we’re forced to use in the enterprise, these products are horrible, they’re terrible. These products would be way better if the designers who were making them knew the principles of behavioral design in order to make the kind of products that are sticky and engaging and that people actually want to engage with on their own volition not because they feel like they’re forced. That’s why I wrote Hooked.
Holly: That’s awesome. That is music to my ears because I am very driven by creating products that people want to use and very against conversations where we talk about trying to force people to use things. I’m curious, I always kind of like to go a little bit further back. I’m curious if you could tell us a little more about how your experiences with the startups that you were doing encountered this either habit formation or a lack of habit formation because the book wasn’t out yet. You hadn’t written it.
Nir: Yeah. Well, I will tell you that we spent a lot of our time banging our heads against the wall trying to figure out why people weren’t using our products. I make it sound easy in the book, but I’ve been in the trenches, I’ve helped start two companies. It is so hard to change people’s behavior, people are not puppets on a string. And so you really have to understand what you’re doing if you’re going to change people’s behavior. Even when you’re changing it, and this is the only way to do it ethically, is to change people’s behaviors in ways that they want. The big reason why I wrote this book is because I believe that we can build healthy habits in our customers’ lives. We can use these techniques.
Nir: It doesn’t have to be just used for frivolity like video games and social networks. We can use this very same psychology to help people exercise more or save money or eat healthier or be more productive at work. Behaviors that we want to do, but for lack of good product design, for lack of good behavioral design, people don’t do. And so that’s the real promise of these techniques is that we can help people do the things they really want to do if they only had a product designed in a way that encouraged them to do those behaviors.
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. So walk us through, how did they do that? How do we get somebody to do the thing we want them to do?
Nir: How do you get someone hooked? So it starts from understanding what they themselves want to do. So just to be very clear on the ethics perspective of this, there’s two types of manipulation. Manipulation isn’t always, the word sounds kind of sinister. But we in fact pay for the privilege of being manipulated if you think about it. In many circumstances, if you go to a movie theater, you know that’s just flickering light on a screen. That’s not reality, right? That’s not real people up there. And even the people who are portrayed up there are actors. Brad Pitt isn’t actually feeling those things and saying those lines from his heart, he’s paid to trick you into thinking that that’s really happening because you pay for the privilege to have your emotions manipulated.
Nir: There’s nothing necessarily unethical with manipulation. What we should do is couch them into two sides of the ethical spectrum. So one form is persuasion, which is helping people do things they want to do. The opposite of persuasion is coercion, which is getting people to do things they don’t want to do. So coercion is never ethical, we should never do that. We should never get people to do anything they would ever regret. So the first thing is to make sure that we are helping people do things they themselves want to do. So once we know that, we construct into the user experience, into the flow of our product design. We need to make sure that we have built in a hook. Now, a hook is this experience that connects the user’s problem with your product with enough frequency to form a habit. And every hook has these four basic steps.
Nir: It starts with a trigger, to an action, to a reward, and finally an investment. So I’ll walk you through a very quick example just to kind of illustrate these four points. So there are two types of triggers, the first kind is called the external trigger. An external trigger is something in our environment that prompts us to action. It tells us what to do next. It’s a ping, a ding, a ring, something that gives you information for what to do next. So let’s say, what’s a habit forming product that you use a lot? Give me an example.
Holly: I use Trello a lot.
Nir: Trello, okay. So let’s try Trello, I’ve never done Trello here. But let’s see if Trello, it meets the requirements.
Holly: Let’s see if we can make that work.
Nir: Let’s see if we can make it work. So what would be the external trigger for Trello? What would be a notification, a ping, a ding, something that tells you what to do next with Trello?
Holly: Well, I definitely get emails when somebody that I’m working with on a team has updated something that we were working on together.
Nir: Perfect. So you get that notification that gives you some piece of information. It tells you log into the site because something just happened. So that’s the external trigger. The action is the behavior to get a reward. And that simple behavior is to log in, to click that button and see your Trello board. That’s the action, very simple. It could be something, a quick search on Google. It could be pushing the play button on YouTube, it could be scrolling the feed on Instagram. The simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. Now, comes the reward phase, and it’s typically a variable reward. There’s some kind of uncertainty, some kind of mystery, some kind of unknown which keeps you engaged.
Nir: And this comes from the Skinnerian school of intermittent reinforcement. So Skinner took these pigeons about 50, 60 years ago and he put them in a little box and he gave them a disk to peck on. And every time they would pick at the disk, they would receive a reward. They would get a little food pellet. And so very quickly, Skinner found that he could train these pigeons to peck at the disk on a fixed schedule. So he would give the pellet, the pigeon would peck at the disk and receive the reward. So that would happen every time. That’s called operant conditioning, great. But then Skinner had this little problem, you see Skinner started to run out of these food pellets. Literally, he didn’t have enough in his pocket.
Nir: And so he started to give the reward every once in a while. So sometime the pigeon would peck at the disk and no reward would come out. The next time the pigeon would peck at the disk, they would receive a reward. And to Skinner’s amazement, what he found was that the rate of response, the number of times that these pigeons pecked at the disk increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement. So we find variable rewards in all sorts of things, both online and offline. If you think about what makes a slot machine so engaging if not addictive to some people is the variability. You’re uncertain of what you’re going to win. Now, we see the same exact mechanic online when you scroll your Facebook feed, when you are looking through videos on YouTube. You have this mechanic of a variable reward keeping you engaged.
Nir: Now, it sounds sinister to some people, it’s absolutely not. I mean, what makes a book interesting, and you want to get to the end because you want to figure out how things are going to play out, variable rewards. If you want to watch a football game or basketball game. And what keeps you engaged, the uncertainty of who’s going to win, variable rewards. If you go on a date and you find this person interesting and you want to know more about them and they intrigue you, variable rewards. Variable rewards are built into anything that is engaging. So back to our Trello example, the variable reward is when you take that key action, now there’s this uncertainty. There’s this mystery about what you might find. Is a project coming along? Is it behind schedule? What does the note say? There’s all this variability around what you might find when you engage with Trello. And that’s part of your motivation to check the site and start engaging with it.
Nir: And then finally, the last step of the hook is the investment phase. And this is where people put something into the product to improve it with use. It makes it better and better. If we think about most products in the physical world, and this is why I love working in digital so much, working with things that are made out of bits as opposed to things made out of atoms is that everything in the physical world depreciates with wear and tear. Your desk, your chair, your clothing. Everything in the physical world, the more you use it, the less valuable it becomes. But habit forming products have this amazing ability to appreciate in value. They should get better and better with use. And they do this through this principle of stored value. So the more you invest with data, content, followers, reputation, skill, the more you put into the product, the more valuable it should become for you.
Nir: So on Trello for example, when you make a new item on your Trello board, when you communicate with somebody and send them the message, anytime you do any of those actions on Instagram, it might be liking something. On Facebook, it might be friending or commenting. Any of those actions that give the company data, followers, reputation, skill, any of these things increase the value of the product over time. And they also load the next trigger, So if you add a new task to your Trello board and somebody comments on that item, you’re going to load the next trigger and send yourself a new notification when somebody acts on that item. So you’ve loaded the next trigger prompting you through the hook once again. Now, this leads me to the ultimate goal of the habit forming product. Eventually when you’ve really formed a habit is when you no longer need those external triggers at all.
Nir: So when you can take someone from needing an external trigger, one of these notifications, a ping, a ding, a ring to no longer needing the external trigger to relying upon an internal trigger, that’s the promised land. That’s when you know you’ve formed a habit. And the way to do that is by attaching your products use to what’s called an internal trigger. An internal trigger is typically a negative valence state. It’s an emotional state that feels uncomfortable, that to get relief, we use some kind of product. So when we’re feeling lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re uncertain, we Google. When we’re bored, we check Reddit or the news or stock prices or sports scores. All of these things cater to uncomfortable sensations.
Nir: By the way, all human behavior, everything you do is motivated by the need to escape discomfort, all products. There is nobody out there, there is no product that is used for any other reason other than to escape psychological or physical discomfort. So that’s the ultimate goal of habit forming products is to no longer need the spammy messaging, the expense of advertising, but to have people use the product on their own every time they are internally triggered, they automatically use your product and service. So that’s it, that’s the 30,000-foot view of the Hooked model. I go into a lot more depth in the book as well [inaudible] more here.
Holly: Yeah. Awesome. Well, that is perfect. And the truth is, the reason why Trello was my answer is because Trello is that habit for me now. And I don’t know how many other Trello users … Well, avid Trello users, I’m sure I say this. I use it because it gets the things off my mind. I’m like, oh, I have all these things, this list in my mind, I can’t forget to do that and I can’t forget to do that, and I can’t forget to do that. And then I’m like, nope, I’m going to put it all in Trello and then I’m going to forget about it until I come back to work tomorrow.
Nir: Beautiful. So that’s amazing. So now you no longer require the external trigger telling you to come back. Now every time you feel the fear of forgetting a task, boom, you’re on Trello. This is an amazing competitive advantage. You see, because if there’s another product out there that’s even better than Trello, it almost doesn’t matter because it’s such a competitive moat to have a customer habit that even when a better product or service comes along, I know that in the product designing community many people are taught, and I was definitely told this, just make the best product, the best product wins. That’s bullshit, not true.
Holly: I totally agree.
Nir: The best product does not necessarily win, it’s the product that captures the monopoly of the mind, the thing that we turn to first with little or no conscious thought, that’s many times the product that captures the market.
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something I’ve found myself telling people more lately. I think I’m sort of a dyed in the wool kind of product person, but I’ll tell people, look, it saddens me to say this, but it’s not always the best product that wins. There’s so many other things.
Nir: I mean, look at Google. Sometimes I give talks and I’ll speak in front of 500 people and I’ll say, okay, let me prove the power of habits to you when it comes to a product design perspective. And I say, how many people in this room have searched with Google in the past 24 hours? Almost every hand will go up. Then I say, okay, how many of you have searched with the number two search engine? How many of you searched with Bing in the past 24 hours? And maybe like one or two hands would go up, typically it’s a former Microsoft employee who’s hand is up. And so I say, well, why is that? Why does the number two search engine fall so far behind? Why do people just Google things?
Nir: Is it because the product is better, those geniuses in Mountain View, California have a product that no one else can replicate? No, it’s rubbish. In fact, they’ve done studies where they’ve had a side by side comparison of the search results of Google versus Bing. And when you strip out the branding and people don’t know which search results they’re looking at, it’s actually a 50/50 preference split. People can’t tell the difference in terms of which one they prefer. So the only reason people keep searching with Google is because it’s a habit. They don’t even ask them, when’s the last time you searched on Google? And before you did, you said, is Google the best search engine? No, we don’t even ask ourselves. We just do it purely out of habit with little or no conscious thought.
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. There’s something else you said in there that I just want to pick on. So I have a chemistry or chemical engineering background, and I noticed that you talked about atoms and negative valence states. And I’m just super curious, do you have a love for chemistry? How did you end up talking about negative valence states?
Nir: Actually, we use the same term in psychology when it comes to emotions. We call them negative valence and positive valence emotions.
Holly: Interesting.
Nir: But you’re actually smart, that’s a hard science. That’s like real smart, I’m just making it over here.
Holly: No, you’re not. Like with everything else, there’s just what has gotten the credit so far and what hasn’t. But truthfully, understanding psychology and behavioral economics, I mean, that is so, so valuable. So I guess the other thing that I was thinking about is how do product managers who are trying to build the Hooked model into their products, how do they make the case for it? Because a lot of times, I know some mid career product managers occasionally struggle with being told to do certain things and maybe needing some help with the pushback. And I’m curious, how do you make the business case? What are the best ways that people do that?
Nir: Yeah. Things are definitely changing, which is great. When I first started out, there was this perception that just build the best product. When I got started in the industry, designers didn’t play the role they play today. Designers today have a seat in the table. But when I got started, that was definitely not the case. I mean, designers were considered if you talk to the management of a company, typically a designer was just seen as like a graphic designer. There was really no conception about the power of design when it comes to building great product experiences. You need great designers. But at the time, design was like an afterthought. And so we were really fighting an uphill battle trying to convince people that it’s not good enough just to have the best technology, that you need more than that.
Nir: You need to understand what makes people tick so that you can understand how to make them click. Thankfully, it’s become a much easier argument to win these days when you look at companies who make products that you look at on the surface, you’re like, big deal, I don’t get it right. Think about the first time you saw Facebook or the first time you saw Instagram, the first time you saw Pinterest, like, big deal. Or slack, another example, okay, big deal. But these companies really understand consumer psychology. I mean, it’s no coincidence that Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram was a symbolic systems major at Stanford. Symbolic systems is this intersection of computer science and psychology.
Nir: Mark Zuckerberg, everybody knows that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and that he was a computer science major before he dropped out. Nobody knows that he was also a co-major in psychology. So this is not a coincidence, these folks understand what makes people tick better than people understand themselves. And they have psychologists on staff now, they have behavioral designers on staff. And they use these techniques to make their products more engaging. I mean, that’s a big part of why I wrote this book. And so the easiest thing you could do, and I’m not just plugging my book, but the easiest thing you can do is don’t make the case yourself. The book is super cheap, I don’t even care if you go pirate it somewhere, just get your hands on it. And show your manager, show your colleagues that there’s a principle here, there’s a model.
Nir: So what really bugged me at the past two companies that I founded and that I see still is the predominant way of building product today is there’s this age old question of what do we build. At my former company, we bought the lean startup methodology, hook, line, and sinker. And I’m still an advocate for lean startup because it’s way better than the way we used to do things with the flowcharts, waterfall charts, sorry. Where we would just stick a bunch of engineers in a room and say, “Hey, go build something.” And then six months later, they’d bring something out to market and 9 times out of 10, it flopped. Well, today we do customer development. We use lean startup methodologies, we talk to our customers, awesome.
Nir: But we still have this huge problem of deciding what do we build. If you think about the build, measure, learn, loop, you build something, you measure this impact and you learn from it and you continue the cycle. The measuring and the learning is easy, that’s fun. The hard part is knowing what do we build? So most companies answer this question in a few ways. Some companies, well, most companies still to this day, the answer to the question, what do we build is go ask the HiPPO. You know who the HiPPO is the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.
Holly: Oh, yes.
Nir: And that’s how most companies do it, like, hey, we’ve got 16,000 feature requests, which one do we actually build? Okay. Well, what does the boss think? And then that’s what we built. Okay, well that’s obviously dumb. Another way we do it is we’re really progressive here, we do customer interviews, we do customer development. Terrific. Well, which customers do you listen to you? Do you listen to the loudest customers? Who should we listen to? So that’s also suboptimal, you still have to do that. But I think that’s not enough. You have to do that along with having some kind of frameworks, some kind of model to decide what do we build next.
Nir: So what I propose and what I wanted to add to the conversation among the product design community is some kind of framework that we can look at and say, ah, if we are designing for customer engagement, where is our product efficient? What’s missing in the user flow that’s not making it engaging enough? Is our trigger not clear enough? Is the action too difficult? Is the reward not rewarding? Is the investment too much or are we not asking enough for the investment phase? So asking yourself these fundamental questions of the hook model can save you a ton of time, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that doesn’t need to be wasted simply by running your product through this model.
Holly: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s definitely something I come across a lot too is people saying there’s so many different things we could be testing, but we have to pick which test, and how do we do that? And so I love that you have a framework that you can look at each of these elements and see which one is the most efficient, what should we work on? I’m curious if you could tell us a little bit more. I find I also talk a lot about finding the customer or the user’s pain and addressing that pain, solving that, driving them towards the outcome they want. But it’s definitely one of the areas that I do notice sometimes people ask, well, is that really the only thing that drives people? Don’t they seek things without pain? And I want to hear more about why you say that.
Nir: Well, what do you think? I have a very strong opinion on this, but you want me to go first or you want to go first?
Holly: I mean, I can tell you my perspective is kind of that anything that you think is somebody driving for something they aspire to is there’s still a pain of about whatever is lacking. There is still I want to be seen as successful, I want that connection because I’m lonely, there’s still a pain there. But I don’t put it in psychologist terms the way you do. So tell me more.
Nir: Yeah, yeah, I totally agree. So there used to be this idea that came from Freud called the pleasure principle, which says that human motivation is driven by the desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Bunk, it’s not true. Turns out that what we know now from modern neuroscience is that it’s pain all the way down. That all human behavior is driven by what’s called the homeostatic response that we seek escape from discomfort. So think about it physiologically. You go outside, it’s cold. You put on a coat because it feels uncomfortable to be cold. You go back inside, now you’re hot. That doesn’t feel good, you take your coat off. You’re hungry, you feel hunger pangs. You eat, you’re stuffed. Oh, that’s too much, you stop. So those are physiological sensations and actions we take to stop those uncomfortable physiological states.
Nir: The same exact thing is true when it comes to psychological states. So we talked about earlier how you’re lonely, you go on Facebook. You’re bored, you check the news, Reddit, whatever. Everything we do, everything we do is to quell an uncomfortable sensation. And so it doesn’t make sense to look for states when the customer isn’t in pain. I’ll give you a great example. I was on a Transcon flight, and I was sitting in the aisle seat. And across from me in the aisle, there was a gentleman who was sleeping. And it was very clear, he was sleeping. I mean, he had a pillow tucked under his neck and he had his blanket pulled up to his chin. And the flight attendant came by and she said to him, “Sir.” And he didn’t wake up. And so she says it again, she’s a little louder.
Nir: She says, “Sir.” And again, this guy is stone cold out, he’s out and everybody can see it, but she doesn’t wake up. So she says it even louder. She says, “Sir,” and he wakes up. He says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is it?” And she says, “Sir, would you like a drink?” [inaudible] example. And we do this all the time, we’re like, “Oh, that’s so rude. Why would the flight attendant do that?” We do this to our users all the time. We send them these notifications all goddamn day on our schedule as opposed to their schedule. And all it takes, the reason companies do this, and the reason it’s so annoying and people are pissed off at us in the product design community is because we don’t even consider their internal triggers. Don’t send an external trigger when the customer, the user doesn’t feel the pain to need your product.
Nir: So with a few minutes of introspection of, hey, when do they feel the internal trigger? That’s when you want to send the external trigger. The moment they’re most likely to feel that discomfort, that’s when they’re most likely to respond to an external trigger you send. So send these external triggers on their schedule not on your schedule. And that’s why it’s so important to find the pain. If a customer is not in pain, leave him alone. They’re good. It’s like the guy on the airplane, he’s sleeping, he’s happy. Leave him alone. Would he like a drink? Yes, but not right then when he’s sleeping, he wants the drink when he’s thirsty, when he’s in discomfort. So that’s why I want product designers to not think about the pleasure, it’s about the pain. It’s always about the seeking to satiate discomfort.
Holly: That’s a really good example. It’s easy to sort of easy to follow along and think, yeah, why would you wake him up for that?
Nir: Exactly.
Holly: But then of course the flight attendant, she has the ability to see that he was sleeping. Typically our product designers are not in the same room as the person using the product. So tell me more about how can they tell, how can they design the product to know when the internal trigger will be there or when the discomfort will be there and not when it won’t?
Nir: Yeah. Absolutely. So some of it is some common sense stuff. Some of it is actually sitting down. and most people have not done this, sitting down and saying, when and where is my user when they would most likely feel the internal trigger? So you’ve got to define what that internal trigger is. Is it boredom, loneliness, anxiety, fatigue, uncertainty. What is it that they’re feeling that your product will satiate for them? What’s the itch that you are going to scratch? That’s the first step. And then ask yourself when and where are they when they’re most likely to feel the sensation? Trello, so what are you most likely to have a task that you fear forgetting unless you put it on Trello? Is it first thing in the morning when you get to your desk?
Nir: Yeah, that’s a pretty good hypothesis. That’s when you’re starting to get your day together, I gotta do this, I gotta do that. Maybe that’s a good time to send an external trigger. Well, how do you know someone is in the office? Well, there’s some obvious stuff like time of day. There’s also all kinds of things we can ask in terms of permission to collect data on when they’re most likely to need our product. We can look at their calendar information, we can look at geolocation information. We can look at all kinds of stuff if we ask, of course, in the appropriate way and we’re fully transparent about it. And it’s a way that enhances the product’s use and the customer knows why we’re asking for it. These are some simple things that we can do to ascertain when users are most likely to need these product by understanding when are they going to feel this internal trigger?
Holly: Yeah. All of a sudden, you’re making me wish that it actually did prompt me. For me, it’s the end of the day is the big one too. It’s like, oh, I’m going to go home, I got to write these things down, come back to it tomorrow.
Nir: Yeah. Exactly. And a lot of it is trial and error, right? I don’t want to give anybody the impression that, hey, just build your hook model, you’re going to get it right the first time. You still have to build, measure, learn. I’m still a big proponent of the lean startup methodology. You still have to iterate, but you have to iterate with the right questions in mind. You might discover, oh, we thought it was the morning, that’s when you feel these internal triggers. Actually, it’s on the way home from work, which helps inform the product. This is why understanding the internal trigger is so important because it’s not some marketing veneer that we put on top of the product after it’s built. No, no, no.
Nir: It defines what is the product, right? So for example, if Trello, heard that like you, customers are on their way home from work, that’s when they have this fear of forgetting something that they don’t want to forget. Well, then maybe what you want to do is to design a voice activated app that you could use in the car without crashing into somebody. There’s all kinds of things that you could develop, informs the features that you build into the product based on the internal trigger that you’re trying to scratch.
Holly: Yeah. That’s awesome. It’s been kind of fun to walk through it with my own case and with Trello. I’m curious to hear about, are there cases out there that you’ve witnessed since you put the book out into the world that you’re really proud to see, like, oh, they’re using the hooked model for good?
Nir: Yeah. Oh, thank you for asking this question. This is my brag board. There’s tons of companies, and I’m so excited that so many of them have used this model for good. I mean, the thing that’s top of mind right now is the news of Anchor. Anchor just yesterday announced that they’ve been bought by Spotify, and that’s a company that I invested in. And they actually reached out and told me they were using their hook model. I was so excited for them and and I invested what, like two and a half, three years ago now when they were just getting started. So that’s one example, they’re revolutionizing the podcasting space. And they just had a beautiful exit by Spotify. Another company I invested in called Kahoot is the largest education software in the world.
Nir: It’s a Norwegian company that just went public a few months ago. They’re making the classroom more engaging, more habit forming, more fun, which is terrific. I have a soft spot for education. I have a 10-year-old kid, and I know how unbelievably boring education is today. The typical model of a teacher standing in front of a class and teaching them by just lecture. So Kahoot is this software that’s making teachers’ lives easier. It’s making kids’ educational experience more habit forming, more engaging, which is awesome. There’s a company called Paga, which is a client of mine. They are a company based in Nigeria, and they are bringing millions of people who have been previously unbanked, people who don’t meet the threshold to have a bank account.
Nir: They are using this habit forming technology to help people finally become banked through this online app. And they’re just doing unbelievably well, they’re really changing people’s lives for good. They’re empowering people to finally save money in a way that’s never been possible before. So that’s amazing. I’ve worked with them on their hook model. There’s a company that I did invest in, but I actually used and reached out to called Fitbod. And I’ve tried every health and diet app out there because they all claim to change habits, and most of them are awful. In fact, I wrote an article a few years ago called why your fitness app is making you fat. I’m pretty hard on the industry in general, but I found this app called Fitbod, and I just loved it.
Nir: It actually changed my workout habits. I was so impressed and I thought, “Wow, this is really good. I mean, there’s a hook model in here.” And so I called them, and they say, “Oh, Nir Eyal. Hooked, we actually read your book like three years ago and we designed the product based on your Hooked.” And I didn’t even have any contact with them. They just bought the book and used it. And they’re doing amazingly well, they’re profitable and doing great. So the list goes on and on. I mean, I’ve invested in these companies, I’ve taught these companies. And many companies I’ve never heard from, they just read the book, but I get an occasional a message on Twitter or Facebook that says we’re using the hooked model, which is terrific. So it’s really been in all sorts of industries, across industries, across function. But it’s been terrific to see these habit forming techniques used for good.
Holly: Yeah, that is so wonderful to hear. Personally, I’ve worked a bit in wellness. And I’m always amazed at, I mean, to be honest, there’s a lot of people who’ve been in wellness for a long time that maybe haven’t caught up with the latest in behavioral science and behavioral economics. And I’m kind of curious to hear what you think, why are fitness apps making you fat? Why are they not using the hooked model? What’s the challenge here?
Nir: Yeah. This is this article I wrote a few years back. But the basic gist of it is that they don’t provide variable rewards, they provide variable punishments. So what do I mean by that? So many fitness apps, the founder’s heart is in the right place. I see this a lot with other apps that are trying to do altruistic stick things like help people save money. And the problem is that most of these apps, every time you use them, they say, hey, guess what buddy, you’re still broke and you’re still fat. And they don’t give you a sense of progress. They don’t give you a variable reward. They just tell you what is the current state, but there’s no variable rewards, it’s a variable punishment. And when people feel punished, they do what all of us do, they stop. They delete the app and say, “Screw you, I hate this product.”
Nir: And so even though your heart is in the right place when you design these products, if you don’t consider the hook model, if you don’t build it appropriately. And this doesn’t mean cheesy gamification techniques like points and badges and leaderboards, I hate all that stuff for the most part. What it does mean is figuring out genuinely, what is the customer’s itch? What do they really want? So for example, take Fitbod, but they do really well. They try to scratch this very particular itch. When I talk to a lot of companies that are trying to help people live better lives. I’ll talk to a fitness company or a bank that’s trying to help people save money.
Nir: And I say, what’s the habit? What’s the discrete behavior that you want people to do with little or no conscious thought? They’ll say, we want people to live a money conscious lifestyle or we want people to form a habit of eating right. Well, that’s not a habit, that’s an aspiration. A habit is a discreet behavior. Think opening an app, scrolling a feed, pushing the play button. Very simple actions. So Fitbod didn’t try and make this very overarching highfalutin aspiration, they had a very discreet internal trigger. And the internal trigger was the uncertainty you feel when you get to the gym and don’t know what to do. So it’s for the kind of person who’s in the gym who gets there, it’s like, there’s a bunch of meatheads all over the place and they look like they know what they’re doing. And meanwhile, I’m standing here in everybody’s way and I have no clue.
Nir: So what they did is to just scratch that itch. The action was, so when you get to the gym, you feel that internal trigger, that uncertainty of what am I supposed to do? The action is to open the app and the app has prepopulated the exact exercise you should do. So what exercise, how much weight you should lift, and how many repetitions you should do. Like just do what the app tells you, no thinking involved. This is where the habit is, something done with little or no conscious thought really comes in handy. Just do what the app tells you. The variable reward is of course, finding out what should I do, what exercises, and also how many can I do? It’s can I do what the app tells me to do? There’s variability, there’s uncertainty, there’s mystery there.
Nir: The investment is, every time I do those reps I’m putting in, I’m entering data into the app to tell the app how well I did compared to what the APP assigned me. Did I do the assigned number of repetitions at the right weight all that stuff so that the next time, the next day, the app uses that data to build my next workout. So for example, if I do one exercise that works out one muscle group, it knows that already and says, well, don’t do that muscle group today because you exercised it yesterday, I want you to work out a different muscle group. So it know that automatically. So in this way, it becomes essential for the user, it becomes a habit. Now, I’m invested in the service because it became better and better with use and I’m storing value the more I use it. So it’s a really nice look. I think they’ve done a really nice job with it.
Holly: Yeah, that sounds great. It reminds me too, I was talking to somebody about wellness behaviors and they told me about their Garmin app, and they had a similar story. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Garmin app, but they were doing running and it was telling them what running routines use. And they said, I felt like I was a pro at my running routine. And when I told my friend who’s a competitive runner, he does like triathlon what my routine was, he actually said, “Wow, that’s a pretty solid plan.” And this person said to me, “It made me feel like an expert.” And I was like, “Yeah.”
Nir: Yeah, very cool. Yeah, that’s awesome. So understanding these very discreet behaviors is really critical. That’s a common mistake that people try and chew off way more than that they’re capable of doing in one discreet habit.
Holly: Yeah. Something so much smaller than that aspirational live a money conscious life.
Nir: Right. Exactly.
Holly: Oh, man, that’s amazing. Well, another thing that I wanted to ask you about while I have you is the regret test. So I remember reading an article you wrote about that, and I thought it was pretty helpful. And so I’m curious if you could tell us a little more about how that came to be and how you teach it.
Nir: Yeah, absolutely. So for many years, I struggled with the ethics of how to use this stuff. And so before I wrote Hooked, there’s a chapter in the book called the morality of manipulation. So I’ve always thought about ethics, and it’s always been part of kind of the curriculum that I’m teaching out there. And so there’s always been this morality test for you as an individual designer. And that’s what I’ve put in Hooked, which is this very simple two part test. Let me go through that first, and then I’ll go into the regret test. So the two part test in the morality of manipulation chapter asks you as an individual designer, if you want to know, are you applying these techniques ethically, then you have to ask yourself two questions.
Nir: The first question is, does this product materially improve people’s lives? So you have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself this question, is what I’m working on materially improving people’s lives? And that’s not something for you to judge others and others to judge you. No, no, no. This is just you to judge yourself, is this materially improving people’s lives? But that’s not good enough. There’s another test I want you to pass. And that test is, I want you to break the first rule of drug dealing. Do you know the first rule of drug dealing by chance?
Holly: No.
Nir: I don’t know why you would, but the first rule of drug dealing is never get high on your own supply, never get high on your own supply. And so I want people to break that rule by asking themselves the second question, which is am I the user? And so if and only if you answer in the affirmative to both those questions, yes, I’m building something that materially improves people’s lives. And, yes, I am the user, then you are what I call a facilitator. Then you can apply these techniques for good. Now, that doesn’t mean there might be unforeseen negative consequences. This always happens, what Paul Virilio said when you invent the ship, you also invent the ship wreck. So there many times are unforeseen consequences. But I think you are on the right side of the ethical spectrum when you are building a product that you yourself use and that you believe materially improves people’s lives. Why? Because if there are any deleterious consequences to using the product, you’re going to be the first person to know about it.
Nir: So that was this manipulation matrix that I put in the book, Hooked. But then I got this question of, okay, well that’s my personal test, but what do we do on a team? What do we do if somebody, what if my boss wants to use one of these design techniques and I think that they’re using them for coercion as opposed to persuasion? We talked about that in the very beginning of our conversation how persuasion is helping people do things they want to do, coercion is getting them to do things they don’t want to do. So what if my boss looks at one of these techniques and finds what’s called the dark pattern that gets people to do something they didn’t want to do, so what do I do then?
Nir: And so that’s why I came up with this regret test. I looked for all these mantras that we use in the design community as an ethical guide. So the first thing that came up that a lot of people referred me to was Google’s slogan of don’t be evil. I don’t even know if they use it anymore, I don’t think it’s their official slogan anymore. But it used to be don’t be evil. But that’s so squishy, what is evil? That’s a very subjective term, that’s not really defined anywhere. And so you can weasel your way out and say, it’s not really evil, is it? So I didn’t like that, that wasn’t a high enough bar.
Nir: The next thing that I came to was the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But that doesn’t really fit either because who says that your way is the right way. What if you’re okay with something being done to you but your user is not? Well then what makes you the arbitrator of what should be done to your user? That’s not a very good test either. Then I came across this idea of, well, disclosure. If we just tell people what’s being done to them. If we put in writing and disclose what’s going to happen, well then that’s enough. But I don’t think that’s enough because what that leads to is what we see today, these terms of service agreements that nobody reads, and companies know that nobody reads.
Nir: There was some jokester at a gaming company put into a terms of service agreement, I agree to sell my mortal soul to Satan forever. And we wanted to see if anybody saw it. And, of course, out of thousands and thousands of people, one person wrote in and said, “What the hell is this?” So these companies know that nobody reads this. So that’s not ethical, that’s not good enough either. That’s just a cover your ass move. So here’s what I came up with. What I came up with was the regret test. And the regrets test says, back to this idea that persuasion is helping people do things they want to do, coercion is getting people to do things they don’t want to do. The way we tell the difference between persuasion and coercion is regret. So if you use my product, if you did what I designed for you to do, are you sorry that you used it? Are you sorry you went through the design pattern that I designed for you?
Nir: That’s the test is regret. And the beauty of this is that we can test this just like we would test anything else we do when it comes to UX. We bring a bunch of people into a room. And individually, we show them a design pattern, we show them a user flow and we see if they can get through it. We see what they think about it. That is a very well known technique around user testing that we’ve been doing for ages. So if you come to a situation, what I want the industry to adopt is this method for if there’s a questionable tactic, if somebody says, hey, we should totally use this technique that is a potential dark pattern. Somebody in the room raises their hand and says, “I think we should probably run a regret test on this.”
Nir: What’s a regret test? Well, we bring a bunch of people in a room, we sit them down and we say, “Hey, here’s what just happened, here’s what you just did.” And assuming that they know everything we know so we have to disclose right then and there, here’s everything that I as the designer know that you just did. Fully transparent. Now, that I’m telling you what just happened, do you regret what you just did? That’s a regret test. And this is something we can absolutely run in the confines of a UX lab. We know how to do this. And so now I don’t think we’ll have to do this very much because this has a chilling effect on using dark patterns. Because when someone raises their hand and say, I think we should probably run a regret test on that and then explains what the regret test is.
Nir: Meaning, does the user have regret doing that behavior we designed for them to do if they knew everything we knew? That’s what the regret test requirement is, that has a chilling effect. The boss then says, “I’m not really sure we should do this then.” So 99% of the potential dark patterns out there won’t ever have to really be tested because people will see obviously that this is not going to pass the regret test. But if it’s a question, and if you have one side that says, no, people will totally love this. And the other side of the table says, no, I don’t think they will. I think they’re going to regret it. Well, test it, run a regret test. If people are happy to do the technique, if they’re like, “Oh yeah, I fully expected that, and that sounds great, improve my experience,” then go for it.
Nir: Because what we find is it’s not the behavior design tactic. People like to point fingers and say, “Well, this behavioral design tactic is bad.” For example, one tech critic likes to hate on Snapchat because they use the streaks technique. The streaks technique is basically, if you use the app every day, you get a little check mark. You don’t want to break the chain. You want to keep using the app every single day. And in that context, the critics say, “Oh, they’re hijacking teenager’s brain by this technique.” Is that technique a dark pattern? Well, not really. My friends over at Duolingo use the exact same technique and they’ve been using it for longer than Snapchat to help people learn a language.
Nir: The difference is which one do you regret? The difference is which one enhances your life versus which one controls your life? And can ask people this because at the end of the day, it’s not only an ethical imperative, let me be very clear. This isn’t about goody two shoes passing some kind of ethical tests. I think that’s a good thing, but a lot of times people need brass tacks. They need to know, well, how does this affect our bottom line? The fact is you can’t keep screwing people over for very long. If people don’t like using your product, if people feel bad after they use your product, you know what they do, they use it less or they quit. And so we want to prevent that, we want people to use our products forever, hopefully. But in order to do that, you have to give them a good value exchange. They have to want to use your product as opposed to regretting having used your product.
Holly: Yeah, that is awesome. I’m reminded, I read this amazing article today by Tim O’Reilly. I don’t know if you would’ve seen it yet. It’s about the blitz scaling and two sided marketplaces and companies that start cannibalizing themselves because they’ve read such a scale that then they can start not servicing both sides of the marketplace anymore. And I’m thinking about, well, I guess inside those companies, like, for example, Google has a growing number of no click search results where people are just satisfied from the page itself and they don’t need to go anywhere. But I’m thinking, what if you apply the regret test to both sides, like to the contributor and the user, the end user?
Holly: And eventually you would have to imagine that the content creators that are creating the content that gets used by Google without ever going to their own site, if they knew that was going to happen, they would stop doing it. They would regret that. Somebody in there if they said we’ll just pass the regret test would hopefully say no because it’s not good for their bottom line in the end if they don’t look out for it.
Nir: It’s better to know that sooner rather than later because it’s going to happen anyway. That’s what’s so important about this regret test. People will eventually figure out what you’re doing and say, “This sucks.” I’ll give you an example that happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I had a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, the paper subscription, and I wanted to cancel it. And to sign up, it was incredibly easy. You go online, like three clicks later, you’ve got a subscription coming. I don’t even think you have to put in your credit card information. It’s like literally just give us your address and you’re going to start getting The Wall Street Journal and we’ll bill you later. Super easy, it took me 30 seconds. That’s not how easy it is to cancel. To cancel, I mean, I had to call this 1-800 number between the hours of 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM Central Standard Time.
Nir: You get on the phone and you have wait music. And then somebody gets on the phone and says, how can I help you? And then they try and sell you for literally half an hour of what if we offered you this? And what if we offer that? No, I just want to cancel, goddammit. So they use a technique called the roach motel. This is known dark pattern called the roach motel. People come in and nobody goes out. But if I would have known that it was this difficult to cancel, I would have never signed up. I regretted doing business with this company. And now here I am telling everybody, don’t do business with The Wall Street Journal because it’s impossible to cancel. So in this day and age, if you screw people over, if you make a product that people regret using, guess what, not only are they going to stop doing business with you, they’re going to tell all their friends to stop doing business with you.
Nir: So isn’t it better to know that they would regret a design pattern early now in the confines of a UX lab versus later when it’s out in the market and they tell everybody how much you suck?
Holly: Absolutely. So that’s the kind of business case making that a lot of the product managers I work with need help with because they’re like, “In my gut, this doesn’t feel right. But how do I convince the boss?”
Nir: That’s how, that’s how. It’s going to come back and bite us no matter what.
Holly: Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re almost out of time and I have really loved this conversation. I always like to ask people at the end just final words of advice for the product leaders, the startup founders, the designers that are out there, what will you tell the ones who are trying to make a bigger impact?
Nir: Yeah. Oh, this is a great question. I think the best, well, some of the best advice I ever heard of is built for you. Especially when it comes to the startup community, I know a lot of folks out there who work for small companies that they bet on personally, maybe they took a pay cut on in terms of their cash compensation so they could make it big with some kind of big equity payout at some future state. I made this mistake earlier in my career where I started a company because I saw a great financial opportunity, and I think that’s a really bad reason to do anything professionally if it’s just for a financial payout. In particularly when it comes to startups if you’re building a startup or working at a startup to get rich, then you’re just bad at math because the odds are not in your favor.
Nir: The chances of getting big with a startup are so minuscule that you’re just bad at math if that’s your reason. The real reason should be that you are building something that you yourself see value in, that you yourself want. I see way too many people, and I made this mistake, so I’m pointing the finger at myself here, go into ad tech. Well, have you ever been a customer of an ad tech product? Could you see how it improves your life? No, not really, but the benefits are great. That’s a shitty reason, you should build a product that you yourself see value and because in that case you can’t fail.
Nir: If you build something that you find personally useful, then even if the company is not financially successful, the worst case scenario is that you worked on a product that benefits you. That means something, that you build something that you find personally valuable to you, that product is now in the world and you helped bring it to fruition. I think that’s a much better imperative than just saying, oh, this sounds like a good financial opportunity, and they might hit it big. That’s not good enough. It should be, build something that you yourself want to see in the world.
Holly: That’s awesome, I love it. Well, thank you so much for your time Nir. I really appreciate it. And we’ll share this soon, ironically through Anchor, another company using the Hooked model. So thank you so much for your time, and I hope to talk to you again.
Nir: My pleasure, thank you so much.
Holly: Product Science Podcast is brought to you by H2R Product Science. We teach startup founders and products leaders how do you use the product science methods to discover the strongest product opportunities and lay the foundations for high growth products, teams, and businesses? Learn more at h2rproductscience.com. Enjoying this episode? Don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss next week’s episode. I also encourage you to visit us at productsciencepodcast.com to sign up for more information and resources from me and our guests. If you love the show, a rating or a review would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.