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, 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.
Nir’s Note: This guest post comes from Brendan Kane who has built technology for MTV, Paramount, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and the NHL. In this article, Brendan describes how he reprogramed the way he views the world using little more than his iPhone and iPad.
We all have the power to change our lives. I know this because I found ways to reprogram my inner circuitry and change my perspective of the world. A few simple steps inserted into my daily routine dramatically improved my life. Surprisingly, many of my new rituals were made possible using the technology I carry with me every day.
“Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.”
I was trained to think small and seek comfort rather than risk. From an early age, many of us are told to think realistically and to leave the big audacious ideas to people with more experience and resources. But the truth is, as Steve Jobs said, ““Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”
We are all born with the same basic brain hardware and though there are variations in intelligence between people, the differences are relatively minor and show little correlation with life outcomes. However, what does make a difference is how much we believe in ourselves and our capabilities. A much greater determinant of where we will end up in life is whether we have what Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls a “fixed” or “growth mindset.”
Nir’s Note: An edited version of this essay appeared in The Atlantic. Below is my original.
It’s not often an app has the power to keep someone out of a strip club. But according to Bobby Gruenewald, CEO of YouVersion, that’s exactly what his technology did. Gruenewald says a user of his app walked into a business of ill repute when suddenly, out of the heavens, he received a notification on his phone. “God’s trying to tell me something!,” Gruenewald recalled the user saying, “I just walked into a strip club — and man — the Bible just texted me!”
YouVersion recently announced its app hit a monumental milestone — placing it among a rare strata of technology companies. The app, simply called “Bible,” is now on more than 100 million devices and growing. Gruenewald says a new install occurs every 1.3 seconds.
On average, some 66,000 people have the app open during any given second, but that number climbs much higher at times. Every Sunday, Gruenewald says, preachers around the world tell devotees, “to take out your Bibles or YouVersion app. And, we see a huge spike.”
The app was funded and built by LifeChurch.tv of Edmond, Oklahoma. Though Silicon Valley digerati rarely heed lessons from churches in red states, in this case, Gruenewald and his team have something to preach about.
Imagine walking into a busy mall when someone approaches you with an open hand. “Would you have some coins to take the bus, please?” he asks. But in this case, the person is not a panhandler. The beggar is a PhD.
As part of a French study, researchers wanted to know if they could influence how much money people handed to a total stranger using just a few specially encoded words. They discovered a technique so simple and effective it doubled the amount people gave.
The turn of phrase has been shown to not only increase how much bus fare people give, but was also effective in boosting charitable donations and participation in voluntary surveys. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 42 studies involving over 22,000 participants concluded that these few words, placed at the end of a request, are a highly-effective way to gain compliance, doubling the likelihood of people saying “yes.”
What were the magic words the researchers discovered? The phrase, “but you are free to accept or refuse.”
The “but you are free” technique demonstrates how we are more likely to be persuaded when our ability to choose is reaffirmed. The effect was observed not only during face-to-face interactions, but also over email. Though the research did not directly look at how products and services might use the technique, the study provides several practical insights for how companies can influence customer behavior.
Interested in boosting customer desire? A classic study reveals an interesting quirk of human behavior that may hold a clue.
In 1975, researchers Worchel, Lee, and Adewole wanted to know how people would value cookies in two identical glass jars. One jar held ten cookies while the other contained just two stragglers. Which cookies would people value more?
Though the cookies and jars were identical, participants valued the ones in the near-empty jar more highly. Scarcity had somehow affected their perception of value.
There are many theories as to why this was the case. For one, scarcity may signal something about the product. If there are less of an item, the thinking goes, it might be because other people know something you don’t. Namely, the cookies in the almost empty jar are the num-numier choice.
It’s About Context
Classical economic theory starts with two key assumptions: First, consumers are armed with “perfect information.” Second, people behave rationally. However, in the real world, these two conditions are more the exception than the rule. In fact, marketers do their best to trigger cognitive quirks, like the scarcity heuristic, to influence behavior.
Even though it may make no objective difference regarding what is actually being sold, marketers know context matters just as much as the product itself. The near-empty jar with just two cookies left in it conveys valuable (albeit irrelevant) information.
How do products tempt us? What makes them so alluring? It is easy to assume we crave delicious food or impulsively check email because we find pleasure in the activity. But pleasure is just half the story.
Temptation is more than just the promise of reward. Recent advances in neuroscience allow us to peer into the brain, providing a greater understanding of what makes us want.
In 2011, Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, gained unheard of access to sensitive information about the way undergraduates were using the Internet. His study tracked students on campus as they browsed the web. Chellappan was looking for patterns, which not only revealed what students were doing online, but provided clues about who they were.
“We believe that your pattern of Internet use says something about you,” Chellappan wrote in the New York Times. “Specifically, our research suggests it can offer clues to your mental well-being.” Chellappan concluded that there was, in fact, predictive power in the data. He found students with early signs of clinical depression used the Internet differently and he could identify students most likely to face mental health issues simply by looking at how they clicked.
“We identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression,” wrote Chellappan. “For example, participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage.”
Chellappan developed the technology in hopes of creating an early-warning system to identify struggling students. But his study raised another question, why do people with depression check email more?
“Successful entrepreneurs recommend reading this article about the persuasion techniques companies use to drive engagement.”
Scratch that, how’s this? “Tons of people are tweeting this article. Find out why.”
OK, here’s one more. “This article will only be on the TechCrunch front page for a few hours before fading into the information abyss.”
Perhaps your preference for one of the opening lines above is a matter of taste, but for companies leveraging the explosion of personalized data, it’s very big business.
Marketers are increasingly personalizing their products and services to meet their customers’ changing needs. But customization used in conjunction with powerful persuasion techniques is arming marketers with new weaponry to boost customer engagement and drive profits.
The tools of influence, such as authority (seen in the opening line), social proof (second line), and scarcity (third line), have been used to persuade consumers since Edward Bernays launched the public relations industry during the first World War. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, applied his uncle’s theories of the human subconscious to drive consumer behavior. Back then, marketers, including tobacco companies and the CIA, hired Bernays to shape public opinion and influence the masses.
Bernays, and the PR and advertising industries he spawned, sold consumers goods and ideas by tapping deep into the human psyche. For example, Bernays engineered demand for cigarettes among women by associating smoking with the desire for independence and freedom from male domination.