Design Podcast |

Nir Eyal on designing healthy habits – and the psychology behind them

The products with the best technology aren’t always the ones that win. Often, it’s the products that are first to mind. The products that create habits.

Some habits, however, are much healthier than others, so what’s the secret to designing healthy patterns of behavior? As author Nir Eyal has learned, it requires a rigorous commitment to ethics – and empathetically questioning even your best intentions.

Nir’s studies sit at the intersection of technology, business and psychology. A veteran of the advertising and video gaming industries, he has started (and sold) two technology companies and has taught at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His best-selling book Hooked explores how to design habit-forming products, and you can keep up with his writing and research at NirAndFar.com.

I hosted Nir on our podcast to learn how to create healthy habits, how to avoid bad ones, what questions thoughtful product designers should be asking themselves, and much more. If you enjoy the conversation check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. We have good habits and bad habits, which are very different from addictions. If we can help build healthy habits in people’s lives, we can help them live better.
  2. The best product doesn’t always win; the first product that comes to mind does. Case in point: a study Nir cites comparing Google and Bing.
  3. Well-designed products should answer five fundamental questions: What is the internal trigger? What is the external trigger? What is the user’s action? What is the reward? How do we get the user to engage again in the future?
  4. Nir suggests a new Golden Rule in product design: “Don’t do unto others what they would not want done to them.”
  5. Product design typically starts with the problem a user is trying to solve. Nir thinks we can go one step further and build for needs our users don’t yet know they have.

Adam Risman: Nir, welcome to Inside Intercom. Can you give us a brief rundown of your career to date? How did you come to focus on behavioral design?

Nir Eyal: I spent a lot of time in the gaming and advertising industries, and I helped start two companies. Advertisers don’t spend money for their health. Gaming companies understand what makes you click, and what makes you tick, better than you understand yourself. At the intersection of those two industries, I learned a whole lot about how to change people’s behaviors online. That’s where I learned many of the techniques that I described in my book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

I wrote the book because I wanted to take these techniques, which have been in the realm of social networks, games and advertisers, and unlock them. Anyone building a product that improves people’s lives – that helps them build healthy habits – can use the same psychology to help people do the kind of things they want to do. I didn’t find where that book existed, so I decided to write it myself.

What makes a habit?

Adam: Habits are at the foundation of Hooked. Are habits naturally beneficial to users?

Nir: We have good habits and bad habits, which are very different from addictions. Addiction is defined as “a persistent, compulsive dependence on a behavior or substance that harms the user”. We would never want to build for addiction; why would we want to harm our users? That would be horrible. However, habits can be very beneficial. We have lots of habits that help us live our day-to-day lives. About 40% of what we do is out of habit. Of course, we have some bad habits that we can learn to break through.

You can’t improve people’s lives if they don’t use your products

From a design perspective, if we can help build healthy habits in people’s lives, we can help them live better. There are so many products out there built with the best intentions that users just never use. You can’t improve people’s lives if they don’t use your products.

Adam: In the years that have passed since the book originally came out in 2014, how has your thinking about habits evolved?

Nir: The basic model hasn’t changed because it draws upon very old psychology and the work of people like B.F. Skinner and Albert Bandura – folks who have been around for decades. It’s not new science. I think the application is what’s new, as well as the fact that we carry around devices that can so profoundly change our behavior. Who hasn’t found their behavior altered by their cell phones these days? The opportunity we have as product designers is to use new habits for good.

There haven’t been any changes since the book came out in 2014. However, I think that the conversation has definitely changed. There’s a greater awareness now that this is for real. When I started writing about this in 2011, the general sentiment was these companies just got lucky, right? That Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Slack just got lucky.

I think we all know now that these companies were built by people who really understand consumer psychology. In fact, if you look at the background to every single one of them, the people who founded these companies come from psychology backgrounds. Everybody knows Mark Zuckerberg was a computer science major before he dropped out of Harvard, but his other major was psychology; Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, was a symbolic systems major at Stanford; Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix – the list goes on. These folks understand psychology very, very well, and they’ve used that psychology to build the kind of products that keep us engaged.

The “best product” myth

Adam: One observation you often make is that it’s not necessarily the best product that wins, but instead the first one that comes to mind. Are there examples where the best products actually did lose?

Nir: Silicon Valley graveyards are full of companies that had the best product, the best technology. It’s absolutely a myth we’re taught in the product design community that if you just build the best product, then that’s all you need to do. That’s just not true. There are dozens of examples of companies that didn’t make it even though they had the best product.

When I teach a workshop, I ask folks to raise their hand if they’ve searched with Google in the past 24 hours. Ninety-nine percent of the hands will go up in the room. Then I ask who searched with Bing in the past 24 hours. Maybe one hand will go up, and that’s it. Third-party studies have taken the search results from Google and Bing and stripped out the branding so that people in the study couldn’t see which was which. And the participants’ preference was perfectly split. They literally couldn’t tell the difference between the two. And yet, Google has 90% market share?

That’s not because they have a better product. It’s simply because there is a habit: with little or no conscious thought, you just Google it.

Adam: When you’re consulting, where do you draw the line on whether or not people should adopt this approach?

Nir: A lot of times, people will ask if this only applies to consumer web. But the line of demarcation is not necessarily enterprise or consumer web. The exact same four steps of trigger, action, reward and investment apply to the enterprise as well. The line is frequent or infrequent. That’s really the key criteria. Not every business needs to form a habit to be successful.

The same four steps of trigger, action, reward and investment apply to the enterprise

There are lots of business models where it’s a one-time transaction, and that’s it. For example, buying car insurance is never going to become a habit. And that’s fine. You can have a very good business not requiring repeat engagement. Of course, the problem is that you are competing tooth and nail. Geico comes out and says, “Fifteen minutes will save you 15% on car insurance.” And then the next company figures out a way to say, “Call us, and we’ll save you 16% on car insurance.” When there isn’t repeat engagement to a particular company, people fight it out over features and price. But owning the customer’s habit is a huge, huge competitive advantage.

Adam: Have you been using apps that are doing this new or interesting way?

Nir: I think that there are a lot of products that are creating healthy habits. One app I use quite a bit is called Pocket. The Mozilla Foundation (which also makes Firefox) bought it a few years ago.

Pocket eliminated an unhealthy habit that I certainly had, and I know many people like me have too. You’ll be on the web, reading an article, and then halfway through you see a link to another article, so you’ll click that – and another and another – and then 30 minutes later you catch yourself and say, “Oh my god, where did that half hour just go?”

For me, that was a bad habit. So now I use Pocket, and whenever I see an article I want to read online, I save it for when I go to the gym or I’m taking a walk. I use it as a reward that incentivizes me to accomplish my goals. This is a known technique called “temptation bundling”. Using the audio function, I can listen to these Pocket articles while I’m working out instead of wasting time during the day.

Five fundamental questions for good product design

Adam: Where are your clients getting stuck, and why? How can we help someone get to the finish line?

Nir: The first step is to look at the model. The traditional method is asking the “hippo”: the highest-paid person’s opinion. We used to ask, “What should we build next?” But now we use startup methodologies: we talk to customers and listen to what they say. That’s another way to figure out what we should build, but I think there’s an even a better way because both of those techniques have problems.

There are so many things that customers will say they want but in actuality don’t use. What people say and what they do are completely different. So, we need to look at good consumer psychology to help inform what features we need.

The first step is to ask yourself five fundamental questions to make sure you have a hook.

  1. What’s the internal trigger? What’s the itch? That’s what we’re going to attach the habit to.
  2. What’s the external trigger? This is the prompt in their life that tells them what to do next.
  3. What’s the action? How could it be made simpler?
  4. What’s the reward? How can we give the user what they want? How can we scratch that itch, and yet leave them wanting more?
  5. Finally, how do we increase the likelihood of the user engaging with the product in the future?

These questions make up the outline of my book. They require a lot more explanation – there’s a whole book about it of course – but it starts by asking those five questions.

Nir Eyal's Hooked framework

And there isn’t one of those questions that’s always the challenge. It tends to be very contextually specific to the companies. Some companies can’t tell me what the internal trigger is, or they can’t figure out a good way to prompt with an external trigger, or the action is too difficult, or the reward isn’t rewarding, or they can’t find a way to get the user to invest in a way that makes sense.

Now, where teams are deficient depends on your specific product. A product needs to be used within about a week’s time or less. The research shows that’s really the cutoff. If your product isn’t used within a week, it’s almost impossible to form a new consumer habit around it. When I work with clients, the very first step is to figure out whether the behavior they want to create in their users is something they would expect to occur within a week. If so, great. Now, ask those five fundamental questions.

The morality of manipulation

Adam: Often, this framework can tilt too far in a way that isn’t positive for long-term users. Of course it starts with the best intentions, but where do things go wrong, and how should people check themselves to avoid going off the rails?

Nir: In Hooked, I wrote a chapter on the morality of manipulation. We need to be honest with ourselves here: all design is a form of manipulation. Whether you’re successful or not is a different story. I almost never hear from a company that says, “People are using our products too much!”

The vast majority of people tell me,“Our product is awesome, but nobody cares. Why aren’t people actually using it?” Let’s put this in perspective: few companies can build the kind of products that people use to an extent that they might ever harm themselves. But on the other hand, we need to zoom out and ask how we ethically use this stuff. You have to ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Do you think what you’re working on materially improves peoples’ lives? Only you can answer that question; it isn’t a way for you to judge other people or for people to judge you. But for you yourself, is what you’re working on materially improving people’s lives?
  2. Are you the user? The reason I want you to ask this question is because I want you to break the first rule of drug dealing: never get high on your own supply.

I want you to break this rule because if there are any deleterious effects to using these products, you’re going to be the first to know about it. It doesn’t mean that your product won’t have negative effects; it’s that you will know first. And we’re seeing this today with how many people worked at Facebook but are now saying,“This isn’t very good for me.” We are all waking up to some of the negative consequences of these devices that are too persuasive in some ways. I think that’s a good thing. You should be the user.

I want you to break the first rule of drug dealing

It also gives you a huge competitive advantage. If you care about ethics, you should do these things. You’ll have a tremendous impact on your likelihood of success if you yourself are the user, because the hardest thing in product design is figuring out what the user wants.

And if you look at the archetype of who built all these companies I just talked about – Slack, Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter – all of them were built by people who passed that two-part test. I think they believed they were building something that materially improved people’s lives, and they themselves were the users. I call those folks “facilitators,” and if you can put yourself in that category you can use these techniques full tilt.

Again, you may have some consequences in your product that you didn’t foresee. I think we’re seeing that right now with some aspects of social media use, but you can do it with a clean conscience going forward by knowing that these techniques are tactics and passing that two-part test.

We can also use regret as a test. I talked earlier about the manipulation matrix and asking yourself those two questions about what you’re working on. But we can go to an even finer level of granularity for each specific tactic we might use. So, when it comes to a bunch of designers sitting in a room trying to figure out how we can get people to do a certain thing, we need to make sure we don’t use tactics that people would not appreciate.

Revising the golden rule to avoid dark patterns

Adam: You wrote a blog post about the regret test, in which say, “Don’t do unto others what they would not want done to them”. Can you expound on that?

Nir: Right – which is different from the Golden Rule. This is about what they don’t want done to themselves. That’s a very important distinction, and it’s also very good business. Because in the short term, you can trick people. You can use techniques (“dark patterns”, for example) to get people to do things. But in the long term, that never works. Eventually, people figure out: “I don’t like using this. This is not helping me in my life.” And then of course they stop using the product.

I think we have to ask the regret question with every technique we implement: if the user knew everything we know about what’s about to happen, would they still do this behavior? And you can test that, just like we do user testing with all sorts of different design ideas.

Adam: Have you ever seen companies correct the overuse of dark patterns?

Nir: We see companies crossing the line all the time. If you go to DarkPatterns.org, there’s a hall of shame of all these companies that have used some of these patterns. Today, the benefit of the fact that we’re so connected is that when somebody dares to use one of these dark patterns – and gets someone to do something they later regret – people don’t just stop using the product. They tell all their friends about what a jerk you are for using these techniques.

Now the good news is that once they’re shamed, almost all of them stop. A company can be shamed into changing their ways. I think that’s a very good thing.

But I do want to mention that it’s not the technique itself. A technique that is scammy and sketchy in one application can be perfectly welcomed in another. For example, Snapchat has been getting a lot of grief lately because they use this “streaks” technique. If you send a message for X number of days, you get a little reward that says,“Hey, you have been consistent over X number of days.”

Adam: Which is exactly what Duolingo has used to great effect to help people learn.

Nir: Exactly. Many times it’s the end, not the means. The means are often neutral. It’s about regret because in one application it’s something people would say is manipulative. But in another application it’s, “Wow, that was fantastic. It helped me stay on task. It helped me learn this language.”

The implications are bigger than behavior

Adam: What’s the most important takeaway you want to leave product builders with when it comes to creating habits in the right way? What’s often missed or not considered enough?

We need to understand that deeper design starts inside the user’s brain

Nir: I think the entire field of consumer psychology and behavior design is not considered enough. It used to be that product design was engineer-led. It was first and foremost about what technology could do, and then we figured out the problems it would solve. Now, the product design community has shifted into more of a design-led process, by which we figure out the problem first, then what technologies we can use to solve that problem. I think we need to go even a step further and understand that deeper design starts inside the user’s brain. It’s not just what problems users can articulate to us, but what needs they have that they don’t even know about.

Because it’s bigger than just changing behavior. This is about fundamentally helping people live better lives. This is why the work we do is so important. In our profession, we can help improve the way people live. That’s amazing; how many jobs can do that? We can never forget that’s our mission. When we build our products we are finding ways to help people live better lives, and part of that requires us to understand them in ways that they might not understand themselves.

Adam: You mentioned a new book coming soon. Where can our audience go to follow along with your research and writing?

Nir: My blog is at NirAndFar.com. My first book is available wherever books are sold; it’s called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. And my new book, which will be out hopefully sometime this year, is called Indistractible: How to Master the Skill of the Century. The title might change a little bit, but it’s all about how to deal with a world full of distractions.

In Hooked, I talked about how to build habit-forming products, and the question I always got was about how to put those products in their place. So, Indistractible is about not just technological distraction but all sorts of distractions and how we can get ourselves to do the things we want to do by designing our behavior.

Adam: I’m guessing that’s based on the talk you gave at Habit Summit, which I’d encourage our audience to check out; it’s a great one. I can’t wait to read the book. Nir, thank you so much for joining us today.

Nir: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.