with Nir Eyal

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The holy grail of habit forming products

Nir Eyal

Expert Where Behavior, Business & The Brain Meet

Lessons Learned

As mobile interfaces prevail and our screens shrink, habits become more critical.

What is the singular behavior that you want to turn into a habit?

The holy grail is when a certain emotion makes a user automatically engage with your service.


Lesson: Hooked with Nir Eyal

Step #1 Habit: The holy grail of habit forming products

A habit is defined as a behavior that's done with little or no conscious thought. It's about 50% of what we do, day in and day out, whether we like it or not. It's done purely out of habit, something that occurred with little or no conscious thought.

And what I study is how do products create these habits so that users come back with what I call "unprompted user engagement." They don't require ads; they don't require some kind of prompting. They engage with the product, with the solution, on their own, unprompted.

After my last company was acquired, I had a lot of time on my hands, and so I had this thesis around habits. And I came to this thesis around habits trying to figure what I wanted to do next. I was dead set on starting my next company. But before I did that, when it comes to be an entrepreneur, you don't have that much flexibility in terms of your career options once you pick what you're going to start. You're going to ride that horse until the horse wins the race or the horse dies. You can't jump off the horse while it's still barreling forward.

So I wanted to be very careful about what I was going to decide to do next, and so I wanted to have a thesis around how I was going to spend my human capital. As entrepreneurs, we don't have the luxury that VCs have, where venture capitalists can spread a little bit of money all over the place. What we have is our human capital, and we can only make one bed at a time. So I wanted to be careful about the decision.

And I came up with a thesis that, and this was back in 2011, as the mobile interface becomes more important, habits are going to be critical. That as the interfaces that we interact with technology shrink, so from desktop to laptop to mobile and now wearable devices, habits matter more. Why? Because the real estate, the simple, physical real estate has shrunk. There's less opportunity to trigger people with messages, with an external trigger that tells them what to do next. So creating internal triggers, creating habits that create unprompted user engagement, people using a product on their own, becomes more and more important. And that's exactly what we've seen when it comes to moving from the desktop interface now to the mobile and the wearable interface, that habits become increasingly important.

So that's really what I wanted to focus on, was what are these principles that make a product habit forming? And can you break them down to learn from this design pattern to use what we know in designing better products that we build ourselves?

For me, it really comes down to figuring out what the core behavior is. When I work with companies and when I do my workshops, I ask people to figure out, "What's the singular behavior that you want to turn into a habit, a behavior that's done with little or no conscious thought?" And what we're seeing with companies that are successful in creating habits, particularly in the mobile interface, is that they bite off one specific behavior. They create associations with these internal triggers. Internal triggers are things that queue our action, where the information for what to do next is provided by an association in the user's head.

So when the user feels a particular emotion, they do a particular routine, they're in a certain situation around certain people, they instantly are prompted to do the next action based on that association. And that's really the Holy Grail, is creating this linkage between every time I feel a certain way or I'm in a certain situation or routine, I automatically do this particular action. That's what we're getting to when it comes to habit-forming technologies eventually. And that can't be done unless we understand what that moment in time is.

Jack Dorsey gave a talk at Stanford a few years ago where he talks about the power of narrative. There has been actually a lot written about the power of narratives. And it's critical in forming habit-forming technologies because if we don't understand that moment in time, if we don't understand the user's itch at that time and place, it's very difficult to create a solution for that itch. We have to fundamentally understand the itch that we're scratching.

Well, I don't know if it's as daring as maybe it might sound. I actually advocate for always looking at existing behaviors that, in fact, when I ask a company that I'm advising or that's thinking about rolling out a new product, I always ask them, "What existing behavior are we displacing? We're not creating a behavior. What existing habit are we migrating to this new solution?" And they need to have an answer. If I ask them, "Hey, what's your competition?" it's never really nobody. It always has to be somebody, even if that something, that other solution that solves the user's problem is a pen and paper, if that's the case, that's fine. But there has to be an existing solution. There has to be an existing habit that someone's currently engaging in, and what we're doing is to make that solution better now by making it digital.

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