Step 1: Build an app. Step 2: Get users hooked to it. Step 3: Profit. It sounds simple and, given our umbilical ties to cell phones, social media, and email inboxes, it may even sound plausible. Recently, tech entrepreneurs and investors have started to look to psychology for ways to strike it rich by altering user behavior. Perhaps you’ve read essays on how to create habit-forming technology and figured you’d give it a shot?
Well hold your dogs Pavlov! Though I’m an advocate for understanding user behavior to build high-engagement products, the reality is that successfully creating long-term habits is exceptionally rare. Changing behavior requires not only an understanding of how to persuade users to act — for example, the first time they land on a webpage — but also necessitates getting them to behave differently for long periods of time, ideally for the rest of their lives.
The good news is that that companies that accomplish this rare feat are the ones associated with game-changing, wildly successful innovation. Google, Apple, Twitter, and Android come to mind. As we enter a world where, according to Paul Graham, everything is becoming more addictive, the companies that successfully form and control habits in the future will come to dominate the industries of tomorrow.
Habits or Hype?
But claiming that habits are the keys to success is a tall order. If people like me provide ready-made formulas and guidebooks on how to create habits, why isn’t every company that alters user behavior succeeding?
Before you can change the world, before your company can IPO, before getting millions of loyal users to wonder how they ever lived without your service, people need to on-board. Building the on-ramp to using your product is critical in every industry, but few more so than in the ADD world of web and mobile apps. Distractions are everywhere, vying for user mindshare and threatening to pull them off the road to using your products like the donut shops and strip clubs at a trucker’s rest stop.
However, done correctly, the on-boarding process can be the first step in creating strong user habits. Products that create repeat behaviors tend to follow a consistent design pattern of a trigger, action, reward, and investment, which I’ve described as the Desire Engine. This pattern is effective when used to craft behaviors that the designer intends to be repeated regularly. The on-boarding process can be the first of several passes through the Desire Engine.
Pulling the Trigger
The first step is bringing users in. But a successful trigger is much more than just a way to drive traffic, it’s an opportunity to start imprinting new routines. Josh Elman, an early product manager at a string of successful companies, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, describes this as the point of “inception”– yes, like the movie. “Inception is about implanting an idea about why and when the product is useful for someone.” Since a user’s first awareness of a product depends on an external trigger, such as a call-to-action in an email, a link on a social media site, paid advertising, or a word-of-mouth recommendation, the message must be consistent. “People need to talk about your product the same way, each and every time,” Elman says.
We in the design business love when people do what we want. Nothing is more satisfying than when a user intuitively understands what to do with what we’ve built. At the heart of good design, however, is understanding what the user really wants to get done.
But what of designing for behaviors people don’t want to do, at least not right now? We all know we should eat healthier, exercise more, create fewer greenhouse gases, give more to charity, and vote in every local election from city council to school board. But do we? Despite countless organizations and nonprofits encouraging us to do what we know we should, we often don’t. Why is designing for behaviors in the user’s best interests so hard?
Recycling is Trash
Back in school, I remember having lunch with my mother when she came into town for a visit. We sat in the cafeteria at the Stanford Graduate School of Business campus. After our meal, she offered to take our trays to the trash while I cleaned off the table. But what she encountered was not one garbage can, but four.
I watched her as she first stopped and tried to comprehend what to do. She wanted to comply with the recycling instructions but as she stood there, dirty tray in hand, her mind was struggling to figure out what to do. Each bin was color-coded and had a description identifying what could and could not be thrown in.
Do you get the feeling apps are getting dumber? They are, and that’s a good thing. Behind the surprising simplicity of some of today’s top apps, smart developers are realizing that they’re able to get users to do more by doing less. A new crop of companies is setting its sights on changing the small behaviors in your life, hoping to reap big rewards.
They’re using the best practices of interaction design and psychology to build products with your brain in mind. Here’s how they’re doing it:
Be a Feature
Famed venture capitalist Fred Wilson insists that successful mobile products need to do just one thing well.
App designers often forget the speed and attention constraints people experience while using their products. Testing your app in the office, while it’s connected to wi-fi and is the focus of your attention, hardly represents the hectic, real-world conditions experienced by most users. Mobile services not only compete for our attention with the other umpteen things we could do with our smartphones but also have to vie for our focus with the many offline distractions associated with life on the go.
For example, Voxer‘s simple walkie-talkie interface gives new functionality to the smartphone by replicating the “push to talk” experience within the app. Its few options give users limited functionality but focus on the one thing the app is built to do — send short audio messages.
Right now, someone is tinkering with a billion dollar secret — they just don’t know it yet. “What people aren’t telling you,” Peter Thiel taught his class at Stanford, “can very often give you great insight as to where you should be directing your attention.”
Secrets people can’t or don’t want to divulge are a common thread behind Thiel’s most lucrative investments such as Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as several other breakout companies of the past decade. The kinds of truths Thiel discusses — the kinds that create billion dollar businesses in just a few years — are not held exclusively by those with deep corporate pockets. In fact, the person most likely to build the next great tech business will likely be a scrappy entrepreneur with a big dream, a sharp mind, and a valuable secret.
Where are the Secrets?
I believe secrets about human behavior, which provide insights into the way people act even though they can’t tell you why, are levers for creating user habits and competitive advantage. These kinds of secrets are also relatively cheap to uncover but can be the basis of massive enterprises.
Once, only large companies had the resources to discover monetizable secrets. Throughout the twentieth century, companies like GE, Dupont, Chrysler, and IBM specialized in discovering the optimal form of physical goods and their insights lay largely hidden in the discipline of industrial design. For these companies, uncovering secrets required massive R&D investment to find the best way to create a better, cheaper, or faster product.
Today Facebook will sell shares in one of the biggest tech IPOs in history. New investors will gobble up the stock to get a piece of the global phenomenon famously started in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room in 2004. But while owning the stock will have quantifiable value when it trades on the open market, few buyers will be able to say truthfully that they understood the value of the company just a few years ago.
Ask yourself candidly, what did you think of Facebook the first time you landed on its homepage? Were you blown away? Could you see how it would fill a gaping need in the lives of nearly a billion people? If you’re honest with yourself, and you’re not Peter Thiel, your answer is probably, “No, not really.”
Don’t feel bad. Like many of the astoundingly successful web companies of the last decade, it was hard to appreciate the value of Facebook at first glance. But one person who “got Facebook” early on was Noah Kagan, who in October of 2005 joined the company as one of its first product managers. In 2006, Noah was the source for an analysis of Facebook written by Nisan Gabbay. The essay identified one of the most important reasons for the company’s ascent to Internet glory and offers a prescient description of opportunities still to come:
“The Facebook success story is most interesting to me because of how daily offline social behavior drove usage of the site. There are plenty of activities in our daily life that could benefit from a complementary online product … Facebook demonstrates you have a great Internet service if offline behaviors can drive nearly daily usage online.”
The truly great consumer technology companies of the past 25 years have all had one thing in common: they created habits. This is what separates world-changing businesses from the rest. Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter are used daily by a high proportion of their users and their products are so compelling that many of us struggle to imagine life before they existed.
But creating habits is easier said than done. Though I’ve written extensively about behavior engineering and the importance of habits to the future of the web, few resources give entrepreneurs the tools they need to design and measure user habits. It’s not that these techniques don’t exist — in fact, they’re quite familiar to people in all the companies named above. However, to the new entrepreneur, they largely remain a mystery.
I’ve learned these methods from some of the best in the business and put together an amalgamation of them that I call “Habit Testing.” It can be used by consumer web companies to build products that users not only love, but are hooked to.
Habit Testing fits hand-in-glove with the build, measure, learn methodology espoused by the lean startup movement and offers a new way to make data actionable. Habit Testing helps clarify three things: 1) who your devotees are; 2) what part of your product is habit forming, if any; and 3) why those aspects of your product are habit forming.
Rather than using conventional feedback loops, companies today are employing a new, stronger habit-forming mechanism to hook users—the desire engine.
At the heart of the desire engine is a variable schedule of rewards: a powerful hack that focuses attention, provides pleasure, and infatuates the mind.
Our search for variable rewards is about an endless desire for three types of rewards: those of the tribe, the hunt and the self.
In advertising, marketers reinforce a behavior by linking to the promise of reward. “Use our product,” they claim, “and you’ll get laid”; it’s the gist of many product pitches from soap to hamburgers.
But online, feedback loops aren’t cutting it. Users are increasingly inundated with distractions, and companies find they need to hook users quickly if they want to stay in business. Today, companies are using more than feedback loops. They are deploying desire engines.
Desire engines go beyond reinforcing behavior; they create habits, spurring users to act on their own, without the need for expensive external stimuli like advertising. Desire engines are at the heart of many of today’s most habit-forming technologies. Social media, online games, and even good ol’ email utilize desire engines to compel us to use them.