Type the name of almost any successful consumer web company into your search bar and add the word “addict.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. Try “Facebook addict” or “Twitter addict” or even “Pinterest addict” and you’ll get a slew of results from hooked users and observers deriding the addictive properties of these websites.
How can these companies seemingly control users’ minds with little more than bits of code displayed on a screen? Why are these sites so addictive and what does their power mean for the future of the web?
We’re on the precipice of a new era of the web. As infinite distractions compete for our attention, companies adopt new tactics to stay relevant. Today, just amassing millions of users isn’t good enough.
Companies increasingly find that their economic value is a function of the strength of the habits they create. But as some companies are just waking up to this new reality, others are already cashing in.
A company that forms strong user habits enjoys several benefits to its bottom line. For one, this type of company creates associations with “internal triggers” in users’ minds. That is to say, users come to the site without any external prompting.
Instead of relying on expensive marketing or worrying about differentiation, habit-forming companies get users to cue themselves to action by attaching their services to the users’ daily routines and emotions, forming “cemented habits.” A cemented habit is when users subconsciously think, “I’m bored,” and Facebook comes instantly to mind. They think, “I wonder what’s going on in the world?” and before rational thought occurs, Twitter is the answer. The first-to-mind solution wins.
But how do companies connect with the internal cues that are the foundations of habits? The answer: they manufacture desire.
Madison Avenue’s golden era, when the ad industry literally created consumer desire, is long gone. A multiscreen world, with ad-wary consumers and a lack of ROI metrics, has rendered Don Draper’s big-budget brainwashing useless to all but the biggest brands.
Instead, startups manufacture desire by guiding users through a series of experiences designed to create habits. I call these experiences “Hooks,” and the more often users experience them, the more likely they are to self-trigger.
I wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products to help others understand what is at the heart of habit-forming technology. The book highlights common patterns I observed in my career in the video gaming and online advertising industries. While my model is generic enough for a broad explanation of habit formation, I’ll focus on consumer internet applications for this post.
The trigger is the spark plug in the engine of habit. Triggers come in 2 forms: external and internal. Habit-forming technologies start by alerting users with external triggers like an email, a link on a website, or the notification on your smartphone. By cycling continuously through successive desire engines, users begin to form associations with internal triggers, which become attached to existing behaviors and emotions. Soon users are internally triggered every time they feel a certain way. The internal trigger becomes part of their routine behavior, forming a habit.
For example, suppose Barbra, a young lady in Pennsylvania, happens to see a photo in her Facebook newsfeed taken by a family member from a rural part of the state. It’s a lovely photo and since she’s planning a trip there with her brother Johnny, the trigger intrigues her.
After the trigger comes the intended action. Here, companies leverage two pulleys of human behavior—motivation and ability. To increase the odds of a user taking the intended action, the behavior designer makes the action as easy as possible, while simultaneously boosting the user’s motivation. This phase of the Hook draws upon the art and science of usability design to ensure that the user acts the way the designer intends.
Using the example of Barbra, with a click on the interesting picture in her newsfeed, she’s taken to a website she’s never been to before called Pinterest. Once she’s done the intended action (in this case, clicking on the photo), she’s dazzled by what she sees next.
What separates Hooks from a plain vanilla feedback loop is their ability to create desire.Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire. The predictable response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again. However, add some variability to the mix—say, a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time you open it—and voila, intrigue is created. You’ll be opening that door like a lab animal in a Skinner box.
Variable reward schedules constitute one of the most powerful tools companies can use to hook users. Research shows that levels of dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, activating the parts of the brain associated with wanting and desire. Although classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards are prevalent in habit-forming technologies as well.
When Barbra lands on Pinterest, she sees not only the image she expected, but a multitude of other glittering objects. Most relate to her current interest—namely, things to see during a trip to rural Pennsylvania—but some others catch her eye also. The exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward. Now she’s spending more time on the site, hunting for the next wonderful thing to find. Before she knows it, she’s spent 45 minutes scrolling in search of her next hit.
The last phase of the Hook is where the user is asked to do bit of work. This phase has 2 goals for the behavior designer:
- Increase the odds that the user will make another pass through the Hook when presented with the next trigger
- Asking the user to give some combination of time, data, effort, social capital or money. Now that the user’s brain is swimming in dopamine from the anticipation of reward in the previous phase, they’re much more likely to make such a contribution.
But unlike a sales funnel, which has a set endpoint, the investment phase isn’t about consumers opening up their wallets and moving on with their day. The investment implies an action that improves the service for the next go-around.
Inviting friends, stating preferences, building virtual assets, and learning to use new features are all commitments that improve the service for the user. These investments can be leveraged to make the trigger more engaging, the action easier, and the reward more exciting with every pass through the Hook.
As Barbra enjoys endlessly scrolling the Pinterest cornucopia, she builds a desire to keep the things that delight her. By collecting items, she’ll be giving the site data about her preferences. Soon she will follow, pin, re-pin, and make other investments, which increase her ties to the site and prime her for future loops through the Hook.
A reader recently wrote to me, “If it can’t be used for evil, it’s not a superpower.” He’s right. And under this definition, habit design is indeed a superpower. If used for good, habits can enhance people’s lives with entertaining and even healthy routines. If used to exploit, habits can turn into wasteful addictions.
But, like it or not, habit-forming technology is already here. The increased access to the web our devices give us also gives companies greater access to us. As companies combine this greater access with the ability to collect and process our data at higher speeds than ever before, we’re faced with a future where everything becomes more addictive. This trinity of access, data, and speed creates new opportunities for habit-forming technologies to hook users. Companies need to know how to harness the power of Hooks to improve peoples’ lives, while consumers need to understand the mechanics of behavior engineering to protect themselves from unwanted manipulation.
What do you think? Hooks are all around us. Where do you see them manufacturing desire in your life?
The increased access to the web our devices give us also gives companies greater access to us.
Here’s the tl;dr
- The degree to which a company can utilize habit-forming technologies will increasingly decide which products and services succeed or fail.
- Habit-forming technology creates associations with “internal triggers,” which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging or other external stimuli.
- Creating associations with internal triggers comes from building the four components of a “Hook”: a trigger, action, variable reward, and investment.
- Consumers must understand how habit-forming technology works to prevent unwanted manipulation while still enjoying the benefits of these innovations.
- Companies must understand the mechanics of habit-formation to increase engagement with their products and services and ultimately help users create beneficial routines.