Technology Trends: Nir Eyal Discusses the Future of Habit Forming Products

By David Mizne

How can you build a great habit-forming product that customers will return to repeatedly? What does the future of product design look like? How will humans continue to co-evolve with technology?

This is the second installment of my interview with Nir Eyal, nir-eyal-close-up_270x326author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products. Nir writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed him, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology”. Read part one here.

In his best-seller, Nir discusses his Hook Model. The Hook is an experience designed to connect a user’s problem to a company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit (an activity done with little or no conscious thought). The 4 steps of the hook are trigger, action, reward, and investment:

1) Trigger – These can be external triggers like push notifications, or internal ones that are informed through an association or memory in our minds. The most frequent internal triggers are negative emotions. For example, depressed people check their email more. Great products closely couple external and internal triggers.

2) Action – This is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward (like clicking on a button). BJ Fogg created a model for behavior change which states that for any human behavior there must be sufficient motivation, ability, and a trigger present.

3) Reward – A part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens becomes active when we crave something. It becomes most active in anticipation of a reward and less active when we get the reward, essentially creating an itch that we need to scratch. Desire is activated by mystery, the unknown. So variability in a reward really gets us hooked.

4) Investment – This increases the likelihood of the next pass through the hook. What’s interesting is that while all physical products depreciate, habit forming technology appreciates! For example, the more content you have on Google Drive or the more followers you have on Twitter, the less likely you’ll be to leave those service. That’s often true even if a better competing service comes along.

DM: In Hooked you talk about variable rewards. With 15Five, we have two different groups using the product; employees who fill out weekly reports (reporters) and managers who review these reports (reviewers).

Both groups have different needs. Reporters want to feel seen or heard or have their frustrations answered. Some naturally supportive managers are intrinsically driven to respond to employee feedback, but others are only looking for a status update from employees that they can then send up the ladder to their bosses. Their reward ends when they review the report, but they may not realize that if they don’t also respond to employees, those employees won’t fill out their reports again next week. How do we drive engagement for reviewers, when they can’t see the distant problem of reporter disengagement?

NE: I think the problem is that people aren’t passing through their hooks quickly enough. That has to happen very fast. The Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hooks happen every time you interact with the product. For the manager, the trigger is the email that an employee has filled out a 15Five. The action is to open the app, and the variable reward is the curiosity around what someone wrote. But what is the investment? What do I do before I close that app that closes the loop to store value and load the next trigger?

It sounds like what you want the manager to do is to say, “Thanks for the feedback Bill! I’m working on it.” But they’re not. If any single behavior is not occurring, I like to refer people to BJ Fogg’s behavior model which says B=MAT. Every Behavior is the result of Motivation, Ability and a Trigger. You’re probably not going to be able to work on motivation too much, unless you can tell that manager’s boss that they need to boost user motivation by telling people to review and respond to every report or something bad will happen. That’s a more difficult and punitive path.

Instead, I would look at ability and triggers. These are fully in your control. Unlike motivation, you can actually change ability and triggers inside your product. Make the trigger visible (so that the user is cognizant) and make it extremely easy for the user to take a desired behavior. I’m guessing that when Jennifer the manager receives the notification that Bill the employee has a frustration, they get a big open form field to reply. There’s no pre-filled reply option. In Jennifer’s head she is looking at a big open form field and doesn’t know what to write.

That may seem trivial to you, but every time the user has to think, they’re taking on cognitive load. The rule around forming habits is to reduce cognitive load to make doing easier than thinking. So give Jennifer a few options to make it easier for her to execute the intended behavior. If there is a note there that says, “Thank Bill with one of these three written responses”, what would that do to her ability to take the intended behavior?

I bet you Jennifer is sufficiently motivated. She knows that Bill deserves a thanks for sending it to her, but it takes her some time to craft that response. Seems trivial, but you must use technology to save the user from doing every bit of thinking you can. Send her three choices from a pool of a thousand canned responses, and I guarantee that you’ll see an increase in reply-rate.

DM: You talked about software companies removing dashboards to decrease cognitive load. Any predictions for future UI’s that will improve customer experience?

 NE: The Conversational User Interface (CUI) is very interesting. I am eagerly anticipating more of these in the next few years. Some people call them bots, assistants, or conversational commerce. I call it a CUI, which is simply taking complex information and filtering it through a text message. So whether I am communicating via the bot or human being, I simplify the information by making it look like a chat. The beauty is that anybody including my tech-phobic mom can use a chat, because she know SMS.

We’ll see more companies using this interface to expand the use of complex technologies. For example, I see the dashboard as dying. There are certainly shots already being fired, and I can’t wait to see it gone. When most people see charts and graphs and data, they freak out and their brain turns off. The result is that they don’t want to use the app.

That’s where the CUI really comes in handy. We see massive shifts in user behavior when a technology comes along and takes something that the geeks think is easy to do, and everyone else finds impossible to do. That tech moves the ability curve down by orders of magnitude so more people can use it.

Think about the iPad. My mother never touched a computer before the iPad because it was too difficult to use. Suddenly there’s a touch interface with cute little apps and now we can’t take her off it.

We’ll also see something similar with data. Today there’s so much promise around data but the interface sucks. It’s like a C-prompt interface as opposed to a graphical interface. We need that layer of abstraction to make the technology usable, and that’s what we’re going to see with a CUI.

Instead of me looking at Google Analytics and wondering what to do about a spike in traffic, there should be a conversational UI that says, “Hey! somebody posted your article on Reddit. There’s a spike in traffic and here’s something you can do about it. Can I help you get that done?” You won’t have to look at the data, the data will reach out to you when something can be done to meet your goals.

For now, I still want the CUI to show me the graph and make suggestions with a yes or no. If we can get there as a first step, we know where this is going. It’s turning into a conversation over text and eventually over voice.

DM: It’s clear at this point that humanity is co-evolving with technology. The sci-fi geek in me imagines a world not unlike The Matrix. Any predictions, either positive or negative, about the future of techno-human relationships? (Nir agrees to answer on the condition that I do too. I went first.)

 I have a pretty negative prediction about the future. We will see groups emerge like neo-luddites who are vehemently opposed to technology, and they will be attempting to work us backwards to the analog age. People will become more disconnected from each other as a result of tech.  

We will make choices more on the negative side of humanity. For example, we have the ability to alter the genetic makeup of children in a test tube. Why are we choosing to do that? It’s not just to prevent disease and deformity, people want their kids to look a certain way!

We have ancient wisdom about ways to live a life that is more balanced. Science ends up proving these systems after the fact. For example, we know that family trauma gets into our DNA. But in general as a society, we don’t value learning non-violent communication, or optimizing our lives for having healthy relationships over accumulating wealth. It seems to me that while information and knowledge lies ahead of us and is made more easily accessible by technology, all wisdom is already behind us.

NE: 200,000 years ago when the first caveman invented the wheel, there was a guy next to him that said, “Ug! Wheel bad! You ruin our way of life!” That has always happened. I don’t think of our humanity having anything to do with what to me appears to be superficialities.

The fact that people make babies in test tubes has nothing to do with our fundamental humanity. Two days ago I visited a friend of mine who’s been married for over a decade and he is going to have a surrogate child via an egg donor and the sperm of his partner. These are great people who are going to raise a great human being. We are so lucky to live in this age where that can happen, and we need to be cognizant of our technophobia. 

With the perspective of history, it’s almost impossible to stay technophobic. The quality of life that we have today due in whole measure to technology, helps even the most financially struggling person live better than the most exalted kings of the past. It would be ridiculous to think that life was better in any other age in human history than right this second, and particularly in America. We have things better than ever and I don’t see that trend reversing.

I think there are risks. We will have bad things happen that are worse than before. But if you look at the long game, tech helps us live better lives. What scares peopl e when it comes to these entertainment technologies, is that somehow we should be doing something else more in line with our values. Lots of things appear to be distractions ala plugging into The Matrix

Distractions are nothing new, just look at spectator sports. These are a form of entertainment that have existed since ancient Greece. How many hours today do people sit with their eyeballs glued to a flickering box showing a ball going back and forth between hoops or goals?

Take a step back and it’s meaningless, and yet there is something in the human condition that makes us desire distraction. Some people find that distraction in entertainment, religion, politics, or (unfortunately) drugs. It has been with us and will be with us forever. All that’s changed is the medium. What’s interesting is that people have this gut reaction to think that other people’s distractions are stupid, wasteful, and frivolous while justifying their own.

Without these things we are just a blue dot in a huge black vacuum of meaningless nothing. So we need them. That’s what makes us human. Because that same drive to pursue meaning is what helps us cure disease and help our fellow human and make the world a better place. It’s all based on our values that drive us to do the things we do.

The core human need to improve things is at the core of our humanity, not whether we make babies a certain way, eat a certain type of food, or what game we choose to play.

David Mizne is Content Manager at 15Five, employee engagement and feedback software that helps create high performing teams by combining pulse surveys, weekly check-ins, peer recognition, and people analytics all in one platform. David interviews business leaders and entrepreneurs about management techniques and ideas that impact the modern workplace. Follow him on twitter @davidmizne.

Image Credits: VR SmileBrain, Gnome, CircuitFace


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