SparkNotes for Entrepreneurs: 'Hooked: How to Form Habit-Forming Products' by Nir Eyal

Every day without fail, when I get on the bus to work, I open up Pinterest on my phone. I scroll past images of living rooms, crock pot dinners, and art projects. I may finally settle on a picture of creatively decorated cupcakes, which I pin to my “cake decorating’’ board.

In Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,[1] Nir Eyal explains why so many of us are addicted to certain apps and digital services (of which my Pinterest usage is a prime example). He theorizes that habit-forming digital products utilize what he calls the ‘Hook Model,’ a process of habit-formation that has four stages. Here’s a breakdown:

Step 1: Trigger:A trigger is an external or internal cue prompting the user of a product to take an action. An external trigger is something in users’ environment that tells them what action to take, such as when my phone chirps to tell me I got a text message. An internal trigger is a mental prompt created through learned associations. For example, it may happen once or twice that looking at Pinterest alleviates my boredom on the bus; before long, every time I get on the bus my first impulse is to open Pinterest.  If you are trying to get people hooked on your technology, you definitely want to go for that powerful internal trigger! Once a product has become people’s response of choice to a particular feeling (such as fear of boredom on the bus), they reach for the product on their own and don’t need external prompting.           

Step 2: Action: Internal and external triggers are used to prompt users to engage with the product—perhaps by swiping, pinning an image, or playing a game. Whether or not users perform the desired action will depend on whether they are sufficiently motivated to pursue a promised reward, and whether the action required to earn the reward is effortless enough. Users are more motivated to engage if it doesn’t take a lot of time, money, or mental exertion to acquire the reward. Pinterest doesn’t make me log in each time, so it is more likely that I will absentmindedly open the app and start scrolling.

STEP 3: VARIABLE REWARD: Rewards are what motivate a person to take action. Eyal says people are motivated by three major types of reward: social rewards, such as likes and comments on my post; tangible rewards, such as discovering a cool image or a funny video; and intrinsic rewards, such as clearing the badge showing the number of notifications on an app, or completing a level in a game. The key factor that determines whether a reward will keep on motivating over the long term is whether or not it is variable. The fact that the images I see on Pinterest are constantly changing makes me want to return to the app to see what new and shiny thing has appeared on my screen.

STEP 4: INVESTMENT: If developers want to keep customers loyal, they must get them to give back something of value. When users “invest,” they are more likely to keep using the product rather than switch to a competitor’s program. For example, if an app came along with a better interface or a wider variety of content than Pinterest, I probably wouldn’t switch—I’ve spent a couple of years uploading images and curating Pinterest boards, and I wouldn’t want to lose all that content, or feel like my effort had been wasted.

What can entrepreneurs do with this information about the building blocks of digital addiction? Just because we know how to get people “hooked,” should we? Is it ethical to contribute to our society’s growing problem with technological addiction? Eyal’s litmus test for deciding whether it is ok to create an addictive product is to ask whether it is a product that we ourselves would use, or that materially improves users’ lives— if the answer to either question is yes, then go ahead!

I think any entrepreneur attempting to build a digital service should read Hooked—it is filled with useful advice for creating platforms that engage people and keep them coming back for more. As a bonus, you will also find fascinating takeaways from the psychological research that you can apply to other endeavors—or even to your own tech habits.

[1] Eyal, Nir, and Ryan Hoover. Hooked How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Princeton University Press, 2014.