Much of a news organization’s desire to grow audiences, and particularly subscribers, depends upon getting people to come back, over and over. But what is it that makes products habit-forming?

Hooked by Nir Eyal

It doesn’t happen on its own. It’s not enough just to build a useful product or have a few stories go viral. Forming real habits requires careful planning of a cycle of actions and rewards the user will experience.

Nir Eyal details that cycle in his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Hooked is a framework for creating habits that stick. In the book, Eyal shares behavioral influences used by Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and others to illustrate the four phases of habit-formation: a “trigger” that sparks the user’s attention, an action the user takes, a reward for that action, and finally the user’s personal investment in the product.

While the book is not written particularly about news products, Eyal’s insights are highly applicable to how a news organization might think of building mobile news apps or other products that will create habits for readers — as the morning newspaper did for many.

I talked with Eyal about how habits form and how news products can use this cycle to keep readers coming back, and paying, for more.

What’s the “habit zone”?

Habit-forming products must meet a certain pre-requisite to have a hope of creating a user routine — they must fall into the habit zone. I plot the habit zone on an x and y-axis of perceived utility and frequency of use. Simply having a product that is useful is not good enough to form a habit. The behavior must also occur often. Conversely, just because a behavior occurs frequently, does not necessarily mean it will become a habit — both conditions must be met.

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The kicker here though is that of the two, utility or frequency, the latter turns out to be more important. Behaviors with very little utility can become habits simply because they are done very frequently.

You had a great analogy about turning products from vitamins to painkillers. Can you explain that? How does a product get into the “habit zone” and become a painkiller?

Conventional wisdom says that products must be very useful to gain adoption and that frivolous things are easily discarded. Business school students are told to build “painkillers,” things people really need, not “vitamins,” things that are just nice to have. However, time and again new technologies are dismissed as vitamins and over time become painkillers.

I argue that if people form habits with a product, it’s a mistake to poo-poo it. The PC, social media, heck, even the written word, were all dismissed as passing fads that conventional wisdom said couldn’t be taken seriously. By looking for products that are firmly in the habit zone, we can better understand and predict what technologies will be here to stay. We should be particularly aware of products that follow the Hook Model described in my book. These are the vitamins that over time become painkillers.

For example, no one knew they needed Facebook 10 years ago, but today many people would have conniptions if the site shut down. What started out as a nice-to-have has become a must-have, that’s the nature of habit-forming products.

Can you briefly explain the four phases of “habit forming products”?

nir-hookedHooks are experiences that connect users’ problems to a company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit. Hooks are in all sorts of products we use with little or no conscious thought. Over time, customers form associations that spark unprompted engagement, in other words, habits.

In the four step process I describe in Hooked, I detail how products use hooks to create habits. The four phases of a hook are a trigger, an action, a variable reward, and finally an investment.

Let’s start with the trigger. One of the most obvious ones that come to mind in terms of news products are push notifications.

Habitual use of a product is associated with a trigger, either an existing routine, situation, or an emotion. These kinds of triggers are called internal triggers because what the user should do next is informed through an association or memory in the user’s mind. For example, what product do people use when they’re feeling lonely and seek connection? Facebook of course! What do we do when we feel uncertain? We Google! What about when we’re bored? Many people open YouTube, Pinterest, check sports scores, or stock prices — there are lots of products that address the pain of boredom. Those associations with emotional cues are all internal triggers.

On the other hand, things in our environment that find the user information for what to do next are examples of external triggers. Some examples of external triggers include emails, notifications or anything that calls the user to action.

After a user is “triggered,” what’s next? How do you ensure action?

This is where new technology companies disrupt existing incumbents — they find a new way to make getting to the reward faster and easier.

The action phase of the hook is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. Something as easy as clicking on the play button on YouTube or scrolling on Pinterest or Twitter are examples of these very simple actions users do with little or no conscious thought. The key here is to make these behaviors as easy as possible — reducing the steps and cognitive effort users need to take.

This is where new technology companies disrupt existing incumbents — they find a new way to make getting to the reward faster and easier. The easier a behavior is to do, the more likely people are to do it.

What makes an effective reward?

Turns out that in all sorts of habit-forming products, there is not only a reward — something that scratches the user’s itch — but these rewards tend to have an element of variability, particularly in the early days of acquiring a new habit. The spin of the roulette wheel, the uncertain ending of a good book, or the edge-of-your seat anticipation involved with watching an exciting sporting event, are all examples of variable rewards. Variable rewards give the user what they came for and yet leave them wanting more.

Finally, why is the investment phase so important?

Perhaps the most frequently neglected step in building a habit-forming product is asking for an appropriate investment — it also represents the biggest opportunity companies often miss. An investment is when the user puts something into the product for a future benefit, not for immediate gratification. For example, when the user takes steps to accrue data, content, followers, reputation, or skills by using the product, they are more likely to use the product again in the future. With repeated investments into the product, it actually gets better with use. Investments also load the trigger to bring users back through the hook again.

For example, when users implicitly state their preference for images they find on Pinterest by pinning, liking, or commenting on them, the site can tailor the experience to their tastes in the future by displaying more of that content. Pinterest gets better the more it’s used. These small bits of investment also give the company an opportunity to message users in the future. When someone comments or likes something I’ve pinned, I get a notification, which of course is an external trigger that cues me right back into the hook.

How do product managers or anyone else test for these four phases in their products?

The first step is to ask whether your business model actually requires habits — not every business does. Plenty of companies can create and deliver value to their customers without habits and that’s fine. But if you’re working on the kind of product that requires that users come back on their own, then you need habits.

The four phases of the Hook Model provide a framework to assess whether your product or service matches the pattern found in habit-forming products. If you can’t describe your hook, you’re going to have trouble building one. If your product is already built, you can use the Hook Model to find weaknesses and then build new features to fix where your product’s hook may be deficient.

Is there an example of a news product that you think follows the trigger-action-reward-investment cycle well?

Once upon a time, the newspaper business had a great hook. The internal trigger was fear of not knowing what was happening in the world, perhaps a nagging obligation to not fall behind current events. The action was to go to your front door, pick up the paper, and start reading it. The variable reward was the news content itself — the sensational attention-grabbing headlines. The most important thing about news of course is that it’s “new.” Almost nobody wants to read yesterday’s paper no matter how good the prose, because they already know what happened and there’s no more mystery.

There are a few ways readers invested in the newspaper reading experience. For one, they subscribed. The act of not calling to cancel payment was effectively a daily commitment to ensure the paper was delivered tomorrow. The other form of investment is more nuanced. The desire to follow a developing story, keeping up on gossip, or knowing the home team’s latest stats, are all forms of accruing skill for a future benefit, namely being able to understand what’s going on tomorrow by keeping up with what’s happening today.

Of course, what disrupted the newspaper industry was that over time the Internet made scratching the same itch possible anywhere and any time. Readers no longer had to pay to alleviate their need for news, thereby breaking the old hook. The newspaper habit faded away as people took their reading habits online.

It’s interesting to see that a recent crop of news-reading apps like Yahoo News Digest and others have started thinking of their services as daily habits. Some of these new products have complete hooks that I predict will be very habit-forming.

What’s one last thing you’d tell those working on creating news products?

It’s important to remember that new products don’t form habits out of thin air. When building a habit-forming product, designers should be sure they know what existing habit they’re replacing. There are only three ways to capture your competition’s users’ habits. Either make the reward more fulfilling, send users through the hook faster, or cycle through the hook more frequently. The ability to do one of these three things to capture an existing habit is made possible by some change in interface.

There are only three ways to capture your competition’s users’ habits. Either make the reward more fulfilling, send users through the hook faster, or cycle through the hook more frequently.

Therefore, teams need be careful not to adopt a new technology simply because it is the new, new thing, but to instead think critically within the hook model to understand how a new technology can improve the habit-forming potential of the product by making a better hook.

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