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When habits can kill the competitors

Nir Eyal

Expert Where Behavior, Business & The Brain Meet

Lessons Learned

Beat competitors with a hook that is more rewarding, occurs more frequently, or cycles faster.

Habits erect great barriers that prevent competitors from sweeping your users away.

The build phase of a startup is the most expensive. Use habit design to reduce cost & failure.


Lesson: Hooked with Nir Eyal

Step #8 Moment: When habits can kill the competitors

It comes from identifying that moment. That's what they’re going after. I'll give you an example: there's an app called Yahoo! News Digest that I've been using for a while that actually was just named by Apple as one of their top apps. They won an award. It's a very simple app, it's a newsreader app. There are thousands of newsreader apps.

They understood that the moment in time when users use this product is very similar to when you use Facebook. You've got a few minutes and you're bored. Boredom doesn't feel good and this is a boredom alleviator. Makes you feel like you're a bit productive, so you use the app or you use Facebook.

What they discovered was there were some elements of other newsreaders that made that action too difficult, namely time. Users were thinking, “When I open my news app, I might be there for hours, and I don't want to do that. I just want a quick digest.”

What the Yahoo! News Reader does, it only gives you five or six headlines. Then after that, it makes it difficult for you to keep reading. They don't want you to keep scrolling forever. They want a very quick, bite-size solution. They realized that by making that action easier, by reducing the cognitive load of how much time it's going to take me to digest the news, people became more likely to open the app. That's one example.

For Facebook, they might do something similar by making this renaissance design that we have today in Silicon Valley about making things simple and clear and clean. That's all about reducing the cognitive load based on making the behavior easier to do. By removing the clutter, by understanding this is the moment in time, we're tackling boredom.

How can we give the user what they want? If it's boredom, the variable reward has to connect. It has to scratch the user's itch. If the internal trigger's boredom, we damn well better entertain the user. What's in the user's way?

There could be time in their way. It could be this cognitive load of figuring out how to get to the reward, how to be entertained. In Facebook's case, it's a social reward. By clearing the clutter and making that behavior as easy as possible to do, we get to the reward faster.

It starts with understanding that narrative. It starts with understanding, “Okay. This user is in a bus stop. They've got five minutes. Right now, what are they doing? They're reading the newspaper or they're checking email. How do we make a hook that's more rewarding or occurs more frequently or people can cycle through faster than their current solutions?” That's what they've done.

This is a good question because habits are a double-edged sword. The power of habits is that they're very hard to break. If I already have a great solution for a problem and it's my go-to solution for what I need, it's very hard for someone to come in and change that habit.

Great example of this is Google. When I give and I ask a room, “Who's searched on Google in the past 24 hours?” almost every hand goes up. When I ask people, “Who's searched on Bing?” maybe I'll get one or two hands in the room and the rest will be crickets. Does that mean that Google's just a superior search engine? Not really. Studies have shown when you look at these two search engines head-to-head and you strip out the branding, people really can't tell them apart. It's pretty much a 50-50 split, but people don't even consider if Bing is better.

We don't even offer mind-share to think about Bing as a better solution because we've formed a habit around Google. That's just where I go; it's my impulse. With little or no conscious thought, I'm on Google before I even think about a different option.

That's the benefit of habits is they erect barriers for competition to sweep your customer away. That's the promise of habits. This of course makes it very difficult for a start-up to take a habit away from somebody. What's required to create a new habit where one already exists is that the product either needs to be more rewarding, so that reward phase needs to be more rewarding than what the customer currently experiences, or the customer needs to go through the hook cycle faster.

Through trigger-action-reward-investment quicker by making the product easier to use from trigger to action, going through the hook cycle faster, or going through the hook more frequently.

This happens when there's an interface shift. When we go from the old habits, being on old interfaces to some kind of new interface, from desktop to laptop to mobile to now wearable, every time there's that interface shift, the cards get reshuffled.

That's where the opportunities are for start-ups, is to figure out what's the existing behaviors that will now somehow be made more rewarding, more frequent or have faster hooks enabled by this new interface. That's where the cards get reshuffled.

The whole point of the hook model is to offer a design pattern to help product makers fail upwards. They're still going to fail. The build-measure-learn process as proposed by Eric Rees and the Lean Start-up movement, this process is much better than the waterfall process. We're all much more educated about how to elicit customer feedback and go through this loop of building, measuring and learning.

What I propose, though, is that the build phase is the most expensive part. Building is where the blood, sweat and tears and money all go. Measuring and learning, that's fun and easy. Once you set up the process, that's enjoyable. It's the building that costs us all this money and it's building the wrong thing and burning through your cash reserves that kills companies.

What I propose is a design pattern that we can look to before we build to compare and to see if our product requires habits, if it requires unprompted user engagement, does it fit this pattern? Does it look like other habit-forming technologies? Does it have these four parts of a trigger, an action, a reward and an investment? If so, then we can move forward. If not, how can re-engineer the product, re-design the product so that we make sure it has these four critical steps?

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