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What Makes Facebook and Twitter so Damn Addictive?

What Makes Facebook and Twitter so Damn Addictive?
Published November 12, 2014 by Jake Cook
For all the incredible advances and quality of life mobile technology affords us, it also has a cost. With each buzz or audible ding our brains get a tiny bit of positive reinforcement. Over time we become conditioned to look for ways to seek this out, and in the process we form habits.

If your work is centered around building products or services that require consistent engagement on at least a weekly basis, there are a few key steps in designing the user journey to take into account. The pitch deck might have the hockey stick of growth and engagement, but to make adoption a reality it turns out there are four key parts in the user experience to thoughtfully design around to ensure repeat use. 

Author and researcher Nir Eyal has made a career blending technology and psychology to achieve such results. He helps companies design product experiences that rely on customers forming habits with thoughtfully planned “hooks” centered on ease of use, quick interactions, and ultimately emotionally rewarding loops that encourage a user to return on their own accord. Think about those tiny, but predictable, pleasures you feel from seeing you have Twitter mentions or Facebook notifications after you drop in content.   

The lessons Nir has uncovered are at the core of all sorts of highly engaging apps, websites, and products we use every day like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. His new book is titled, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and covers in detail how to plan and design for such experiences.

We sat down with the author to better understand these promises and the responsibilities of designing for habits. 

The Root of our Digital Habits

It has been said we now carry more technology in our pockets than was used to put a human on the moon. And that’s a tricky paradox—when such power to entertain, educate, and solve problems is a finger tap away, we begin to alter our behavior for good or bad often without little consideration. Eyal describes how these “hooks” work: 

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 up YouTube, Pinterest, check sports scores, or stock prices—there are lots of products that address the pain of boredom.

So, hooks 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.

Use of the product is typically associated with an emotional painpoint, an existing routine, or situation.

This quick and easy access to change our emotional states through a digital experience is at the heart of habit-forming technologies.  

As you design, don’t let the technology and creative work get in front of you. Instead, you want to be empathizing with your user’s emotional state. Are they anxious? Curious? Stressed? Start your prototyping efforts testing these assumptions and how your product will help solve their problem. [Here’s a 99U article that covers this in detail.] 

The Hook Framework for Habits

Eyal goes on to map out four distinct parts in a habit-forming product experience: a trigger, an action, a reward, and finally an investment. If your goal is to build a returning user base for a product then coordinating each one of these experiences is critical for forming ongoing engagement. 

Hooks have four parts: Let’s start with the trigger - which might be boredom. For example, on Twitter as soon as I click on the app icon on my phone I can flick through my tweet stream. I’m no longer bored and the action, to show you how simple it was, was simply hitting the app button and flicking my thumb to scroll.

The reward phase is where that pain of boredom is alleviated a little bit and typically we see in habit-forming products is that it is on a variable schedule. Which means there’s some element of surprise, mystery, happenstance that is associated with the reward that’s not purely functional. If you think about a Twitter stream, there’s good content and bad content mixed together.

Finally, I can add content - an investment in the form of a tweet - and this is very important. If the user doesn’t put something of value into the product, it’s very hard for them to form a habit.  So, that’s the final phase of the hook model - it’s the bit of work the user does that makes the product better for them.

As you map out each part of your experience think carefully through your trigger and making the action as simple as possible. Friction at this phase can prevent users from getting into your reward and greatly reduce the value they’ll derive (and test to make sure you truly offer a reward to the user). Finally, the investment has to not be too big of an ask, especially on mobile - think of Instagram and simply posting a picture and a bit of text. 

Why Companies Fail to Create "Hooks"

Many founders at companies in the consumer technology space lay awake at night trying to figure out how to bring users back to their properties on a consistent basis without paying for advertising or other marketing. Designing for this stickiness is tricky and Eyal states that the product has to be built around a habit that the user is doing frequently usually at a minimum of once a week.

Extensive research has shown that the more frequently a behavior occurs, the higher its habit-forming potential. Your chances of forming a habit around a product that’s used less than once a week is very low, not impossible, but really hard.

So, it’s not for every product and certainly isn’t a bandage for everything. It only works if your ultimate goal is to create those habits with users.

Assuming the product passes the frequency test, there are a couple additional key areas companies fail to deliver on across the Hook model as Eyal explains:

When it comes to why a company’s product isn’t effectively forming a habit -- some products haven’t identified the emotional pain they’re solving for, with others the “action phase” is too difficult, some find their reward isn’t actually scratching the users itch, while others don’t ask the user to invest. 

A lot of the companies I see don’t ask for an investment from the user. The customer comes, they use the experience once, and they don’t put any value into it. So there’s nothing to give them and in short, there’s nothing to prompt them to come back next time.

As you go out to test your solution, pay particular attention to observing frequency of use, the value of the reward you’re offering, and how difficult it is for the user to participate. Cleanly break down each part of the hook experience on a whiteboard to map and test hypotheses and zero in on where the hang ups occur. 

Ethical Considerations

If you venture into designing user behaviors be aware this comes with some ethical considerations. Facebook has recently come under heavy fire for altering its newsfeed in a live experiment to manipulate people’s emotions. In short, they discovered positive or negative emotions could spread to others without their knowledge by simply engaging in their daily habit of checking the newsfeed. 

As these technologies and thus habits become ever deeper ingrained in our lives, those who create and manage these experiences also have a deep obligation to carefully consider the impact they might have for good or bad. 

Nir shared the reaction he commonly gets when explaining these workings:

A reader once told me that something can’t be a called a superpower unless it can be used for good as well as evil. In that respect, designing user behavior is a superpower and must be used responsibly.

Some readers may think I’m teaching people how to manipulate others, teaching sneaky business people “how to make a bomb” so to speak. I think that’s a bit dramatic.

There are two reasons I wrote "Hooked." First, I want to help people build products that create healthy habits. I think there is so much we can do to help our users live happier, healthier, more productive lives, by designing healthy habits.

Second, even if you’re not a product designer, you’re still a consumer yourself and it’s important to understand how products change behavior so that you can break the hooks that aren’t serving you in your own life. Hooked exposes the hidden psychology of all the attention-draining distraction in your life so that you can regain control.

Manages Our Own Habits

We all struggle with habits bad and good. Perhaps by knowing and understanding the deeper workings of how habits with technology are formed we can begin to limit the bad and accentuate the good.

Eyal explains one easy hack he’s implemented in his own life.

I took a look at the hooks in the technologies [my family was] using to try and find ways to break the cycle. The first thing I did was to take our phones out of the bedroom. They now charge in the living room.

Then, I headed over to the hardware store and bought a $10 outlet timer. Whatever was plugged into the timer would turn off at 10 p.m. every night. By plugging my router into the timer, I broke the hook of mindlessly checking the web. Now, every time I felt anxiety about checking my email inbox, I was forced to think carefully about this action, thereby disabling the habit.

Whether you are building a company reliant on an engaged user basis or simply trying to become more aware of removing bad habits in your own life, applying the lessons from the Hook framework can go a long ways to solving both problems.

How about you? 

How do you manage or design around your digital habits?

More about Jake Cook

Jake Cook is an entrepreneur, professor, and writer. A co-founder at Tadpull, he also teaches Online and Social Media Marketing at Montana State University. He’s fascinated by the intersection of design, technology and creativity. Follow him at @jacobmcook.

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