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: 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: 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 this guest post, Sharbani Roy explores techniques she used to change her bad habits related to eating, sleeping and exercising. Sharbani blogs at sharbaniroy.com and you can follow her on twitter @Sharbani.
It’s 2 AM and you’re exhausted, but unable to sleep. You’ve been cycling through Facebook, email, and other online media for hours. You want to stop, but you can’t. This technology-induced insomnia will likely ruin your next day (or two) of productivity — and you’ve really achieved nothing according to your list of to-dos. Late-night surfing has become a bad habit you’d like to break, but just can’t figure out how.
Sound familiar? Let’s take a look at some data, narrated by my inner monologue.
Inner Monologue: “Wow, 12AM, I should get into bed.”
Lights turned off, head on pillow. Check.
Inner Monologue: “Hmm, I’m a little bored. I had those articles I was going to read…and I’m not that sleepy yet.” I reach for my phone. “I love you, smart phone.”
One article later.
Inner Monologue: “What a great article! I should share it.” Switch to Facebook news feed. “Oh, look at Amanda’s adorable baby!” Like. Scrolling down. “Ha! Teslas ARE awesome.” Continue scrolling. “Puppies and kittens AND a baby hedgehog all in one photo!?” Like. “Oh, I should send that Tesla pic to Aleks … and email her to catch-up.” Switch to Gmail. “Hmm, inbox full. I’ll just respond to two.” Mid-response, a new post from TechCrunch pops up. ” Oh, what’s this? Smartwatch?” Click.
Nir’s Note: This guest post by Avi Itzkovitch offers some clues as to why we can’t seem to put our cell phones down. Avi (@xgmedia) is an Independent User Experience Consultant. He is currently working from his Tel-Aviv Studio XG Media.
Do you constantly check your smartphone to see if you’ve received messages or notifications on Facebook? Does your phone distract you from your studies or work? Do your friends, parents, children, or spouse complain that you are not giving them enough attention because of your phone? You may be addicted.
The smartphone has become a constant companion. We carry it throughout the day and keep it by our bedside at night. We allow ourselves to be interrupted with messages from social media, emails and texts. We answer phone calls at times when it is not socially acceptable, and we put our immediate interactions with friends and family on hold when we hear that ring tone that tells us a message is arrived. Something fundamental in human behavior has changed: our sense of phone etiquette and propriety has caused us to get out of whack in our interactions with one another.
So why is it that we allow ourselves to be interrupted? Why do we feel it necessary to answer these calls? Maybe the addiction started long before cell phones even existed, with the advent of the phone itself. Albrecht Schmidt speculates in the Interaction Design Foundation Encyclopedia:
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:
Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Auren Hoffman, the CEO of LiveRamp in San Francisco. This essay is a bit different from the normal subject matter on the blog but I hope it will stir some discussion about which of our personal habits are worth improving. Connect with Auron on Twitter at @auren or on Facebook.
To really differentiate yourself in this winner-take-all world, you should be focusing on improving your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Most people who set out to improve themselves focus on their faults. For example, here’s Bridget Jones’ list:
“Resolution number one: Obviously will lose twenty pounds. Number two: Always put last night’s panties in the laundry basket. Equally important, will find sensible boyfriend to go out with and not continue to form romantic attachments to any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, emotional wits or perverts.”
While I don’t deny that it’s good habit to place your undergarments in the laundry bin, it is not the best way to achieve greatness. People who focus on their faults can eventually improve them to a point where they are no longer obstacles, but doing so will not propel them to success. A better strategy is to focus on one or two of the things at which you excel and hone those skills or talents to the point of excellence. Working on your faults might help you make a living, but honing your talents may help you change the world.
Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Ryan Hoover. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at @rrhoover.
When Snapchat first launched, critics discounted the photo-messaging app as a fad – a toy for sexting and selfies. Their judgements were reasonable. It’s impossible to predict the success of a product on day one, let alone its ability to change user behavior. But hindsight is beginning to prove critics wrong.
Snapchat boasts 5 million daily active users sending 200 million photos and videos daily. That’s an average of 40 snaps a day per user! But why are users so engaged? After all, what real need is the company solving anyway?
Snapchat popularized a new form of expression, using photos and videos as a communication medium. For many, Snapchat is a daily routine – the go-to app for interacting with friends in a playful way. This habit is not a happy mistake but a conscious effort driven by several subtle design choices.
As Nir Eyal describes, habit-forming products must have two things – high perceived utility and frequency of use. In Snapchat’s case, as with most communication services, each individual message isn’t particularly valuable in isolation. But through frequent use, Snapchatters enter the “Habit Zone”, instinctually turning to the product to solve their desire to communicate and feel connected with others. This key insight has enabled the company to craft an experience tailored for high engagement.
Here are five ways Snapchat drives habitual engagement with their product: