Added someone as a friend. Liked a photo. Commented on another one. Retweeted a video. Exchanged emojis with. Swiped left.
These are some of the actions millions of people carry out a total of billions of times on their mobile phones. They are also the basis on which some of the biggest brands in the world thrive. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tinder, Linkedin and the like all became what they are thanks to techniques employed that make users come back to their products multiple times a day. These platforms get their users ‘hooked’ and by doing so, increase the lifetime customer value, achieve higher growth rates, make it more difficult for their customers to shift to other brands and erect an entry barrier for the new players in the market.
In order to shed light on how some products manage to gain a cult-like following while some don’t, Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover dive deep into the mechanics of habit formation in their book Hooked. The authors introduce the Hook Model, which consists of four steps: Trigger, action, variable reward and investment.
Triggers are both internal and external and they refer to the things that cause the itch pushing us to use a product over and over.
Action is the actual behavior itself, which is done in anticipation of a reward. The easier and more fun the action, the higher the likelihood that the user will want to repeat it.
Variable reward is the unpredictability associated with the usage action and this turns every interaction with the product into a new adventure.
Investment involves the user giving the product a bigger place in her life. By bringing in more people, sharing more data with the platform or spending more money to upgrade to a more premium service, she makes it more likely that she will come back and go through the four steps of the Hook Model another time. The fact that we value more the products in which we invested significant time and effort is just one of the tricks our brain plays on us.
However, those tricks seem to be an integral part of marketing, customer acquisition and retention efforts these days. As Eyal and Hoover take us through the stages of the Hook Model and explain the reasoning behind each step, a chilling feeling sets in. Getting people addicted to something always involves taking advantage of particular weaknesses or cognitive biases we as human beings are particularly vulnerable to. Your favorite coffeehouse, for example, is taking advantage of one such bias (called “The Endowed Progress Effect”) when they gift you a punch card with two holes already punched, with the promise of a free cup of coffee when you get to ten punched holes. They could just as well give you a card with eight unpunched slots but the tactic with two pre-punched holes achieved a completion rate 82 percent higher than the other, as Eyal and Hoover quote from an experiment.
The possibility that corporate giants might have figured out all our cognitive biases and have us all wrapped around their fingers is a disturbing one. Ethical conduct on the part of companies is what can shield customers from the harm they are not even aware of. Hooked dedicates considerable space to a precautionary discussion of the role ethics should play in habit formation. Where does marketing end and manipulation start? Does the goal of creating an addictive product justify anything and everything?
Eyal and Hoover bring to the fore two questions for product designers to use as a yardstick in deciding whether they crossed the red line in habit formation: “Would I use this product myself?” and “Does this product improve the user’s life?” Products for which both answers are “yes” are the ones you can get behind. On the other hand, pushing a product that wouldn’t improve the user’s life and you wouldn’t use yourself could simply be deemed exploitation. As legislation catches up with times, one can expect that this sort of exploitation of people’s cognitive weaknesses for material gain will have legal implications, too.
Hooked reveals the magic touch that turns brands into integral parts of our daily lives. It is also a guide for product designers and growth marketers, full of hints on little adjustments you can implement in your funnel and make a big impact on customer usage rates. The questions under the ‘Do This Now’ section at the end of each chapter provide a good way of self-reflection and honest assessment of your product. If you think your product is underachieving, Hooked might be a good starting point to chart a new route.