Nir’s Note: Parts of this article are adapted from Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit-Forming Products.
On February 8, 2014, an app called Flappy Bird held the coveted No. 1 spot in the Apple App Store. The app’s 29-year-old creator, Dong Nguyen, reported earning $50,000 a day from the game.
Then, the Vietnamese developer sent a shocking message. In a tweet many dismissed as a publicity stunt, Nguyen wrote, “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird‘ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird‘ down. I cannot take this anymore.” And as promised, the game disappeared the next day.
This is not the way success typically ends.
Flappy Bird was downloaded over 50 million times and unleashed a digital tsunami of players and pundits dissecting what turned into a global fixation. Players’ only goal in the game was to pilot a pixelated bird through gaps of pipe. Yet the app seemed to have a mysteriously seductive power. In a TechCrunch article titled Confessions Of A Flappy Bird Addict, Josh Constine wrote, “It humiliates me, but I like it. It’s the dominatrix of mobile games.”
What is at the heart of today’s digital juggernauts and why do they seem to disappear as quickly as they rise? What is it about the things that capture our attention in a mental vice grip, only to be ridiculed as faddish whims later?
Given the meteoric success and subsequent decline of other games like Candy Crush Saga, Angry Birds, and FarmVille, perhaps the death of Flappy Bird was more than a rash decision. Perhaps it was a mercy killing?
Nir’s Note: This article is adapted from Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit-Forming Products, a book I wrote with Ryan Hoover and originally appeared on TechCrunch.
Earlier this month, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone unveiled his mysterious startup Jelly. The question-and-answer app was met with a mix of criticism and head scratching. Tech-watchers asked if the world really needed another Q&A service. Skeptics questioned how it would compete with existing solutions and pointed to the rocky history of previous products like Mahalo Answers, Formspring, and Aardvark.
In an interview, Biz articulated his goal to, “make the world a more empathetic place.” Sounds great but one wonders if Biz is being overly optimistic. Aren’t we all busy enough? Control for our attention is in a constant tug-of-war as we struggle to keep-up with all the demands for our time. Can Jelly realistically help people help one another? For that matter, how does any technology stand a chance of motivating users to do things outside their normal routines?
We hope a few insights gleaned from user psychology may help the Jelly makers improve their jam and provide some tips for anyone building an online community.
Lesson 1 – The Right Reward
In May 2007, entrepreneur and Internet celebrity Jason Calacanis launched a site called Mahalo. A flagship feature of the new site was a Q&A forum known as Mahalo Answers. Unlike previous Q&A sites, Mahalo utilized a special incentive to get users to ask and answer questions.
Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover, contributing writer of my book Hooked, describes how nostalgia is used to drive attention and build an engaging product. Follow @rrhoover or visit his blog to read more about startups and product design.
Remember Nickelodeon GUTS?
How do you feel right now? Did reading those words stimulate any emotional reaction? Did it bring back memories? Excite you? Make you smile?
Nostalgia is powerful. Simply mentioning the names of childhood toys, old TV shows, classic video games, and other pastime activities often instigate an emotional response, reminiscence. But why? Why is nostalgia so compelling and how can product creators use this to build more engaging products?
The Influence of Nostalgia
The term nostalgia was coined by 17th century physician, Johannes Hofer, based off the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain). He prescribed nostalgia as a mental illness, attributing it to Swiss soldiers’ symptoms of anxiety, homesickness, insomnia, and anorexia. Hofer believed “continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibers of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling,” was the cause of these ailments.
Nir’s Note: This guest post comes from Stephen Wendel, Principal Scientist at HelloWallet and the author of Designing for Behavior Change. Steve’s new book is about how to apply behavioral economics to product development. Follow him on twitter @sawendel.
It can be extraordinarily difficult to stop habits head-on. Brain damage, surgery, even Alzheimer’s disease and dementia sometimes fail to stop them. But why are they so difficult to change? First, it’s because habits are automatic, and not conscious. The conscious part of our minds, the part that would seek to remove habits, is only vaguely aware of their execution; we often don’t notice habits when they occur and we don’t remember doing them afterwards. Across dozens of studies on behavior change interventions, researchers have found that the conscious mind’s sincere, concerted intention to change behavior has little relationship to actual change in behavior.
Second, it’s because habits never truly go away – once a habit is formed (i.e. the brain is rewired to associate the stimulus and response), it doesn’t normally un-form. It can remain latent or unused, but under the right circumstances, that circuitry in the brain can be activated and cause the habitual behavior to reappear.
Another way of thinking of habit cessation is this: if stopping bad habits were easy, we wouldn’t need so many darned books on everything from stopping smoking to dieting. Nevertheless, we can draw lessons from the literature on habit formation and change – which can save product teams needless pain and suffering. Three strategies for handling an existing habit include:
Nir’s Note: Lyle McKeany is an entrepreneur writing and working on an early-stage startup. In this essay, he shares his experience using lean methodologies with my Hook Model at the Lean Startup Machine conference. This article also appears today on Pando Daily. Follow Lyle on Twitter @lylemckeany.
The conventional view of lean startup ideation methodology is to identify a problem, test your riskiest assumption with a certain success criterion, talk to potential customers before coming up with a solution. Then pivot or persevere until you validate a solution. But it turns out that this conventional view isn’t always the appropriate approach. Here’s how my experience at a Lean Startup Machine(LSM) event in San Francisco earlier this month proves it.
The Lean startup movement is not hurting for attention these days. There are plenty of advocates who write and speak about it almost daily, some of them even make their living doing so. According to Wikipedia,
As of 2012, there are lean startup meetups in over 100 cities and 17 countries as well as an online discussion forum with over 5500 members.
And I’m sure those numbers have grown considerably throughout 2013 since the popularity of Lean Startup certainly hasn’t wained.
My lean startup experience
LSM is a roller coaster of an event. I’ve attended two of them, one in March in Mountain View and one in December in San Francisco. They are three days of long hours, getting out of the building to talk with strangers, and deep thinking about the problem you’re trying to solve.
Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover describes the design decisions and strategies used to build a habit-forming product, largely influenced by the learnings on this blog. Follow @rrhoover or visit his blog to read more about startups and product design.
Recently, Nathan Bashaw and I launched Product Hunt, a daily leaderboard of the best new products. As two product enthusiasts, we wanted to create a community to share, discover, and geek out about new and interesting products. But to make it a success, we knew we had to make it a habit, a product people would use every day.
Early feedback suggests it’s been working, as gauged by several tweets and our own site traffic analysis. Qualitative feedback is great, of course, but what people actually do is more important.
- 60% of daily active users (DAU) are returning visitors
- 32% of unique visitors in the past week have visited the site 5 or more times
- 52% of subscribers open daily email digest (yes, daily!) and 23% click-through
This is especially encouraging, considering the site’s minimalism and lack of obvious re-engagement features. Here are the design decisions and strategies used to build a habit-forming product, largely influenced by Nir Eyal’s work.
Build for Existing Behaviors
In a recent interview, Ev Williams, founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, shared his strategy for building a billion-dollar business:
Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.
Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Abhay Vardhan, discusses how to measure the strength of user habits with cohort analysis and retention rate. Abhay is a founder of Blippy.com and blogs at abhayv.com. Follow Abhay on Twitter @abhayvardhan.
Imagine an entrepreneur showed you the graph to the right for his new app called, “PinterestForDogs.”
You would think PinterestForDogs is doing quite well, right? Well, it depends.
A common mistake entrepreneurs make is to focus too much on user growth. Instead, it is often more important to ask: “Is the product creating a habit so users keep coming back?” and “How do we measure the strength of such a habit?” These questions are crucial because without establishing user habits, it is impossible to sustain a healthy user base. Eventually, all user acquisition channels saturate.
I learned this the hard way with our first product, a walkie-talkie app called blip.me that allowed users to record and share audio clips. Initially, we saw good viral growth as users invited others. User retention, however, was not so great; people were excited initially but dropped off within a few weeks. So how did it end? The app was downloaded by millions, but used by few.
Given the importance of establishing a user habit, how do we track it? In my experience, the best way to do this is by measuring retention rate through cohort analysis. Let us define these terms.
A few minutes before his helicopter touched down in a covert military base just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tommy Thompson reached for his secret weapon. He was about to meet with top Afghan officials and he needed to ensure he hit his mark. But Thompson’s mission to the war-torn region in 2004 did not involve delivering guns and bombs. As the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, the diplomat was there to win hearts and minds.
To accomplish his directive, assigned to him by the President of the United States, Thompson relied upon information delivered at exactly the right time and place. Minutes before each meeting with dignitaries, he was handed a top-secret intelligence briefing.
The CIA-prepared binder contained the most vital, and at times trivial, information on who the Secretary was going to meet. A quick glance provided the context for the meeting, notes from previous encounters, and often times contained personal information.
“Speaking to Secretary Thompson after he read his briefing gave you the feeling you were the most important person in the world,” said Bhavin Shah, who traveled with Thompson to Afghanistan. “You understood that he cared about you enough to mention the things that were on your mind.”
Thanks to his dossier, Thompson was never without a piece of information, which when used in the right context, served to ease the conversation. His meetings were never awkward, he was never dull, and somehow, it always appeared the Secretary was, in Shah’s words, “conversationally refreshed.”
Nir’s Note: In contrast to last week’s post on the power of saying “no,” Eric Clymer shares how a creative attitude helped his team build a #1 ranked app. Eric was the lead developer of the “A Beautiful Mess” app and is a Partner at Rocket Mobile.
In improv comedy, there are really only two words that matter: “Yes, and.” You share a premise, form a scene, create a character, and if everything works out right, kill the audience. Then, you try and do it again with another, “Yes, and.”
Before I began developing for iOS, I performed stand-up and improv as a hobby. I never thought “Yes, and” would apply to the development of software and how to work with clients. But, in my best Louis CK voice, “It TOTALLY did.” This essay is about what I learned working with the artists who hired my company to create “A Beautiful Mess,” an app that went to #1 in the App Store 15 hours after its release (it’s still near the top of the app store).
Elsie Larson & Emma Chapman, the creators of the do-it-yourself blog ABeautifulMess.com are amazing at what they do. Over the past six years, their mix of recipes, photography projects, and other fun arts and crafts ideas, have amassed them a following of over 1.5 million visitors per month.
Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover takes a look at Tinder, a red hot dating app. Ryan dives into what makes the app so popular and engaging. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at rrhoover.
Tinder, a hot new entrant in the world of online dating, is capturing the attention of millions of single hopefuls. The premise is simple. After launching the mobile app and logging in with Facebook, users browse profiles of other men or women. Each potential match is presented as a card. Swipe left if you’re disinterested and right if someone catches your fancy. Once both parties express interest, a match is made and a private chat connects the two potential lovebirds.
The app has become a fixture in the U.S. App Store as one of the top 25 social networking applications, generating 1.5 million daily matches as more than 50 percent of its users login multiple times per day.
This isn’t luck. It’s smart design based in part, on game mechanics and an understanding of user psychology.
Here are four ways Tinder engages its calloused-fingered users: