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, 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.
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: 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: In this last in a series of guest posts on the topic of technology habits, Jason Shah shares practical tips he used to regain control over his devices. Jason is a Product Manager at Yammer and blogs about user experience and technology at blog.jasonshah.org. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonyogeshshah.
“Not long ago, in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Texas, a 17-year-old boy was weathering withdrawal at its worst. His body shuddered with convulsions. He hurled tables and chairs around the hospital.
Had he been hooked on heroin? Cocaine? Jim Beam? Joe Camel?
No, his psychologist said. The teenager had withdrawn cold turkey from the Internet.”
This account of a young man’s struggle with Internet withdrawal is from a 1996 New York Times article. Since then, the Internet has become even more pervasive and habit-forming.
The Internet has much in common with gambling: it’s compulsive; it’s compelling; it’s distracting. Many people find it hard to resist the Web’s grip. Affluent adults in the US spend more than 30 hours a week on the Internet — it’s almost a full-time job!
Indeed, much of the web’s appeal is hardwired in our DNA. Technology companies carefully hone their services to cater to our survival instincts. Over time, we have become conditioned to know where to look on the Internet for rewards, and in the spirit of survival, we return repeatedly to get as much as possible out of a reliable source of pleasure.
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: Is “no” the most powerful word in the English language? In this guest post Chikodi Chima explores what happens when people say, “No.” Chikodi is a former VentureBeat staff reporter who helps startups with their public relations and marketing. His blog is PR Tips For Startups and he is @Chikodi on Twitter.
Sirens were beautiful creatures from Greek Mythology who lured sailors to their death. The power of their song was so irresistible it would cause captains to steer their boats into the rocks and drown. We are also seduced daily by ideas that sound great at first, but may leave us shipwrecked, unless we have the power to say no.
Investor Marc Suster recently warned about the perils of shiny new objects. “Everything you say “yes” to is incrementally one more thing to support and you die a death by a thousand cuts,” he says. “I strongly believe that your success will be more defined by what you choose not to do than by what you choose to do. Of course what you choose to do has be be meaningful, timely, valuable, prescient and high quality.”
Why we say “yes” when we mean “no”
Michael Hyatt says there are three common responses to people who ask us to do things we don’t want to:
- Accommodation: We say Yes when we want to say No. This usually comes when we value the relationship of the person making the request above the importance of our own interests.
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: