The Morality of Manipulation: Nir Eyal on Creating Habit-Forming Products That Do Good

by Patrick Faller

posted on 03-01-2017

You could call Nir Eyal a ‘master of manipulation’ – after many successful years in the gaming and advertising industries, he’s become an expert in designing products that keep users coming back for more (think Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and that mobile game you just can’t put down). In his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, he gives designers practical advice for building a successful product in the digital age. He’s also an advocate for responsible design; passionate that designers use their powers for good and create products that do no harm.

We’ll hear more from Nir in the next few weeks about great product design, but first we asked him to share his advice on how designers can make highly-successful products that manipulate users, morally.

How can a designer judge if their product is ‘moral’ in how it manipulates the user?

There’s actually a two part test I give product designers to determine what’s worthy of their human capital when it comes to building persuasive products. The question isn’t ‘CAN I build these products?’ the question is, ‘SHOULD I?’

This has nothing to do with ‘can I make money?’ It’s only for people who want to give themselves some kind of moral test. If you can pass this test, I think you should go for it. That’s when you’ll be able to improve people’s lives through the thoughtful use of habit-forming products.

And if you pass the test, what kind of power do products have to ‘do good?’

The world would be a much better place if we made exercise, managing your money, interacting with people you love, and being more productive at work, as engaging as using Facebook, Twitter, etc.

That will be the future. More companies will realize to build good, profitable products you need to understand what makes people click, and tick.

Do designers have a responsibility to stop their products from doing harm (for example, through overuse)?

Any sufficiently good product, used by a sufficiently large amount of people, will addict someone. That means that anything that is good and popular enough, someone will get unhealthily addicted to.

For the first time in history, companies like social gaming studies or social networks know how much people are using their products. The silver lining of all this data is that these companies can and should do something to help.

I want companies who see people using their products unhealthily to reach out to them and say, ‘We see that you’re using this product in a way that may indicate a problem. Can we help you dial it back?’ That’s pretty simple to do, all companies need to do is have the will to do it.

There’s a big reason I didn’t call my book how to build ‘addictive’ products. A ‘habit’ is an impulsive human behavior with little or no conscious thought. You have good habits and bad habits, but an addiction is a consistent, compulsive dependency that harms the user. There are ‘healthy habits,’ but there’s no such thing as a ‘healthy addiction.’

Does the user have a responsibility here too?

That’s part of why I wrote my book. I want people to also realize, ‘Hey, that’s happening to me, I’m being manipulated.’ I think that’s a good thing. Whenever there’s technological innovation, there’s always bad that comes with the good.

Now people are beginning to realize they love these technologies, but not all the time. I think that’s the process I want to accelerate: I want people to stop and think when do these products serve me, and when am I just serving the product.

Why has this become such a big passion for you?

I’m fascinated with how things influence us. I think technology in a positive light has the possibility to do tremendous good. I think we see the world getting better and better because of technology. I’m very hopeful.

When change occurs at a pace we can keep up with, we can self-correct. Humans are very adaptable, and that’s what we’re seeing now. We’re assessing what’s happening and figuring out the bad. We are clearly a ‘guinea pig’ generation, figuring how technology fits in our lives, but we’re going to figure it out very quickly…until the next big technological innovation!

For more information on Nir Eyal and his book ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,’ check out his website.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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