6 mins | 10 Feb, 2021

Building habit forming products

What is a habit?

James Clear (author of best-selling book, Atomic Habits) will tell you, a habit is a small decision you make accompanied by an action you take every day. According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for around 40% of our daily behaviours.

What is a habit forming product?

A habit-forming product, is a product that triggers you in some way to form new habits around its use. If you stop and think for a while, there are likely many of these in your life. Scholars have argued that habits and rituals were critical in the formation of civilisation.

A habit is just a learned behaviour that lets us do things more quickly (often on auto pilot). We pick up a cue of some kind, which wakes up a part of the brain where that learned behaviour is stored, and before we know it we’ve started doing that thing we instinctively know how to do…

A cue could be a time of day, a visual or auditory reminder or anything else that grabs our attention, even in the smallest way.

In the digital world, a good example of this is email, or SMS (or any other kind of messaging service). Most people check their messages at least once a day. Think about how you check yours:

  • Do you check them at a certain time?
  • Do you review them in a certain order?
  • Focus on any particular folders over others?
  • Do you always have a coffee at the same time?
  • or the news on in the background?
  • or something else that's consistent…

I’m willing to bet you’ve ritualised your message checking in some way. For good reason too. It helps you be more efficient with your time and resources. Of course, app developers know you do this too, and they design their features to tap into this need for habitual regularity.

How products hijack our emotions

In recent years, the idea of designing products (especially digital products) around habit formation has become mainstream. Product designers and psychologists have started working together to understand the human mind like never before, and then use that knowledge to get users hooked on their software.

When you understand humans, and what triggers our emotions, you can take advantage of that to nudge users towards using your product. Here are a few examples.


You may check your messages every day, but you also check them when you get a notification of a new message too don't you? You can’t resist can you? When that little notification alert pops up on your phone, your amygdala (a part of the brain involved in emotional response) jumps up like a little excited puppy.

Notification counts are usually red. That's because red is an exciting colour that grabs our attention (your heart rate literally increases when you see red). It is the colour of alertness and warning. It creates a sense that something must be done now.

The new message notification is the trigger for your ‘check message now’ habit.

Like buttons

The like button was a simple feature added by Facebook that's had a huge impact and been adopted by many platforms since. Designed to stimulate engagement, what it really does is tap into our deep rooted insecurities around attachment to others.

We need to feel appreciated (liked), and when we post something on social media we can’t help but check back and see how many people have noticed it. The higher the number of likes, comments or shares we’ve generated, the better we feel (it's all about creating a dopamine hit to the brain).

The like, comment and share features found on social platforms are the triggers that keep you coming back to check your feed.

Hooked, a short review

‘Hooked - How to build habit-forming products’ is a book by Nir Eyal, who spent years working in the video gaming and advertising industries where he learnt to create engagement, motivation and influence.

From that experience, he developed ‘The Hooked Model’ which outlines the 4 basic steps users go through when forming a habit around a product. It is this concept that the book explores. It is essentially a step-by-step guide to building your own habit forming features and provides detailed explanations on what is going on in a person's mind at each step and how to take advantage of that.

He explains that habit formation is good for business in several ways:
• Increasing customer lifetime value
• Providing pricing flexibility
• Supercharging growth
• Sharpening the competitive edge

And that:

The ultimate goal of a habit-forming product, is to solve the users pain, by creating an association so the user identifies the product as a source of relief.

He also takes some time to discuss the ethics of using the hooked model to increase the chances someone will engage with your product and introduces ‘The Manipulation Matrix’, a method of identifying if your reasons for adding habit forming features are inherently selfish or for the greater good.

The Hooked model

The hooked model is built around 4 phases:

  • Trigger
  • Action
  • Variable reward
  • Investment

A trigger can be external or internal and come in many different forms. Internal triggers are gold, they manifest inside the users mind. External triggers are more plentiful and come embedded with information which tells the user what to do next.

An action is the doing part and can be influenced by one of 3 core motivators: seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, seeking hope and avoiding fear, seeking social acceptance while avoiding social rejection. The key is to make the action easier to do by aligning it with the right motivator.

The variable reward is what we seek (for completing the action). Only by truly understanding a user, can you create a product that correctly matches the right reward with the desired behaviour.

The Investment phase concerns the anticipation of rewards in the future. It increases our attachment to a product by building a store of value (typically in the form of; Content, Data, Followers, Reputation or Skill). It is also an important step in prompting the user to start the cycle again.

By understanding the hooked model, you can build habit forming features into your own products and increase the chance users will engage more. If this interests you, I would highly recommend reading the book for yourself. The above is merely the highest-level explanation and does not include a wealth of detail from Nir Eyal which you will need to fully implement his ideas.

A word of warning

Powered by the rise in big data, where large cognitive experiments can be undertaken to see which button is more likely to be clicked or which colours are more appealing to different groups, technology companies have been piling more and more resources into building one thing… Engagement!

Ultimately, they are taking your time and attention and turning that into profit. They use the techniques outlined above to form habits in your routine that pulls you back to their product as often as possible. This is powerful stuff. As a great web designer once said… “With great power comes great responsibility”.

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