Habit-Forming UX: Nir Eyal’s Tips To Keep Users Coming Back For More

by Patrick Faller

posted on 03-22-2017

Nir Eyal is a close observer of the way our personal technology is changing rapidly. The author and behavioral designer says shrinking screen sizes and more and more competition for users’ time and attention has upped the ante in product design. Now, he says, screen-based interfaces are disappearing altogether, and it’s become more important than ever to create a ‘habit-forming’ product that gets users to come back on their own, without visual triggers or sound notifications.

Earlier this year, we asked Nir about the morality of manipulation, and how product designers can use their powers for good. With moral standards in check, we’ve asked him to share his tips for creating highly-successful, habit-forming products.

How can designers create ‘habit-forming’ products that keep users coming back on their own?

I follow the ‘hooked’ model: a four-step path we are taken through as users. Through these hooks, companies no longer need to trigger us with external triggers on screens – we trigger ourselves. We come to their products on our own and this is very powerful when used right.

Think about Super Bowl ads: you didn’t see any ads for Facebook, or Instagram, or Slack, or Google, or YouTube. You didn’t see ads telling you to come back to Facebook like Budweiser Beer. These companies are worth just as much as these big manufacturing companies, but it’s not the ads that bring us back, it’s habits. Here’s how it works:

  1. There’s a trigger. Things in our environment that tell us what to do next. Click here, buy now, play this, hearing a notification going off.
  2. Then, an action. The user does an action in anticipation of a reward. It can be the simplest thing: pushing a play button, opening an app, scrolling a feed.
  3. Then comes a variable reward. Mysterious, unknown uncertainty in rewards: that’s what keeps us coming back. When we keep pulling to refresh our social media feed and searching, for example, that’s all about the uncertainty of what we might find. It’s just like pulling on a slot machine.
  4. Finally, an investment. The user puts something into the product in anticipation of some future reward: putting in content, accruing followers, skill acquisition; anything I’m putting in that makes the app better and better with use. What’s special about this phase is it’s fundamentally different from any way we’ve made products before. When we put things into the product, it is custom-tailored for us in real time. If you logged onto my Pinterest or Facebook account, it would be completely different from your account and not very interesting.

But this process still requires a notification on a screen or a sound?

Yes, but when we go through these four steps often enough, we condition our brains to associate the product’s use with an internal trigger. It’s something in our head, a painful emotion like uncertainty, fatigue, or loneliness for example. The ultimate goal of these products is to attach themselves to these emotions. If I’m uncertain, I google. If I’m lonely, I go to Facebook or Tinder. If I’m bored, I go to YouTube.

It’s this association with an uncomfortable emotion that causes us to instantly turn to these products or services with little or no conscious effort (or external triggers). That’s where we get hooked.

Does every product need a ‘hook’?

There are a lot of products out there that will never been used enough to be habit-forming. They’re not necessarily bad products or services, but they need to bring customers back in other ways (SEO, advertising, physical storefront). But if you have the type of product that requires unprompted engagement, then you need to form a habit.

Ask yourself these questions to know if your product needs to be habit-forming:

Many times these questions work as a filter. You may see your product can’t be habit forming because it doesn’t have the criteria. If you discover that, move on and figure out some other way to bring people back. Or if you have to make your product habit-forming, figure out what you need to do to change it.

How long does it take for a product to ‘hook’ a user?

The cut off seems to require repeat use in just a week’s time or less. Remember, every product doesn’t need a habit to succeed, but every habit-forming product needs a hook. If you can create an internal trigger (habit) in that amount of time, you and your product are on the road to success.

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

Products: Creative Cloud