How do you create compelling triggers that “hook” users back into using your products over and over again? Just the other week, DT hosted an engaging workshop on the power of positive habit creation for your users. Nir Eyal, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, presented strategies and considerations for habit-forming product design. Guests from the community and DTers learned from Nir’s explanations and examples, and the audience periodically took breaks to critique and work on their own product ideas.

So the big question he tackled is the one that we all want to answer: How do we create these positive triggers and strategize “hook” cycles that bring users back to our products?

In his “Hooked” workshop, Nir built his discussion around “the hook,” which is the iterative cycle of:

  1. A trigger to prompt
  2. the user’s action, which gives the user
  3. a reward that encourages
  4. a user investment in the product.

Today I’ll break down several points from Nir’s talk for you to implement in your product design and also discuss those tech itches that demand a good scratching.

Identifying Triggers

dtblog_hooked_workshop_image1Let’s return to the question above: How do we prompt users to keep coming back?

You start with great care and cognizance. After all, it’s important to incorporate both the well-being of your user (rather than exploiting their psychological tendencies) and the understanding of why your user seeks out your product repeatedly.

Now, to put the idea in Nir’s terms: What itch is your user trying to scratch? Answering this question sounds like a simple task, but simple isn’t always easy — particularly when you’re deeply involved in your own product.

You can start by brainstorming use cases and sketching preliminary personas to understand what internal triggers (i.e., when what to do next is inside the user’s head, e.g., feeling bored) and external triggers (i.e., when what to do next is within the trigger, e.g., a notification message) are prompting your user to engage your product.

Realizing that Novelty is a Liability

dtblog_hooked_workshop_image2Though a new product can capture a user’s curiosity, you run some real risks with regard to new habit formation. Why? Because new habits are built upon old habits. Similar to how a pearl builds layers upon itself (as Nir mentioned), or how a tree builds annual layers of bark, a user’s previous experiences form layers of habits, which in turn make new experiences easier or harder.

And don’t forget this tip: to increase the difference is to increase the difficulty. To create a successful, useful, habit-forming product, it’s key to minimize your user’s learning curve and the “I’m lost!” sensation by building atop those well-worn layers — like the composition of a pearl or a tree.

After you meet your preliminary goal, which is to make your product easy to usethen you can work on motivating and rewarding users. Nir views your product’s ease of use as the necessary foundation for your startup’s success.

Rewarding Users

dtblog_hooked_workshop>image3Nir introduced three types of variable rewards that are psychologically habit-forming. Receiving rewards in an unpredictable pattern taps into our deep desire to comprehend cause and effect, but that’s not all: Our brains keep craving the dopamine that releases when we anticipate rewards. Therefore we repeat our (well-designed) action indefinitely.

Here are the three types of rewards that Nir identifies:

  1. Tribe: These rewards are constantly changing, and we can’t help but keep checking what new things our friends are up to. For instance, your strong instinct to check Facebook — perhaps multiple times each day.
  2. Hunt: Looking for food, money, or information (hopefully) results in hunting rewards. For instance, scrolling down Pinterest until you hit upon a winning pin.
  3. Self: When we pursue mastery of a topic or completion of a task, we’re looking for self rewards. For instance, a self reward is earned when a user gains a top reputation on Stack Overflow.

Storing Value

dtblog_hooked_workshop_image4The user investment in a product is Nir’s favorite part: What does the product have that is substantial enough to inspire another iteration through the hook? He says that it’s a critical step for startups, but it can be easily overlooked.

Here are four methods of storing value in a product:

  1. Content: Storing files and assets. For example, photos on Instagram or Facebook.
  2. Data: Keeping vital info you need to refer back to later. For example, to-do lists on Clear.
  3. Followers: Feeling responsible to your audience and wanting to connect with them. For example, tweeting at followers on Twitter.
  4. Reputation: Building your expertise and credibility. For example, a colorful star and feedback percentage on eBay.

When you put time into a product, you’re likely to continue putting more time into it because of the following logic: This must be a valuable, worthwhile pursuit. Otherwise, why have I put so much time/money/investment into it alreadyAnd so the loop continues…

Concluding Thoughts

Building a product that hooks users — in a positive way — is a big project. That said, if you strategize the hook as you build your business model, you can craft a product that makes peoples’ lives better through repeated use.

If this looks like an event for you (and you’re itching to learn more), check out Nir’s next “Hooked” workshop on October 10 in San Francisco and also Nir’s blog.

So, Readers, what apps, games, and sites are the most trigger-happy for you? Share with us what brings you back to them (e.g., Clear, Facebook, etc.), and we can all learn from their hooks!

  • Robert

    The Nike+ app is my trigger-happy app. The problem is that even though I have recently discovered a run-tracking app with more responsive GPS support, I have already invested several hundred runs into the Nike+ app and am nearing the second to last level. Not only that, the friends I currently compete with use it, and I am midway into my marathon training. I guess the pros outweigh the cons, plus the Nike+ app has that coolness edge.

    • Hey Robert, Appreciate your comment! That’s a spot-on example, with both tribal rewards and stored value. Haven’t used Nike+, but the UI that I’m seeing in the screenshots at the app store looks awfully enticing. . . How have you found the Nike+ UX? Curious how it’d compare to the ease of use in running apps with more responsive GPS support.

      • Robert

        Hi Julia, thank you putting together this thought-invoking article! The Nike+ UX is good. No major complaints, though it would be great to be able to see my friends’ runs (seems logical to me, at least). Maybe this is just on Android, but it seems like I can only see their overall mileage for the month and general stats.

        The other running app I was talking about in my first comment is called RunKeeper. I think it just communicates better with the phone’s Google Maps/GPS. Nike+ recommends restarting the app or the phone itself if the GPS is not responsive. This almost never works for me and becomes frustrating when it means putting my run on hold for several minutes while I wait for my phone to restart. If Google Maps [another app] can locate me, then so should this app, especially considering how mature this app is. However, it is a free app, a very polished one at that, and does offer tons of other features, so I’m not complaining 🙂

        Since we’re on the topic of UI, I did not see a ‘Reply to this comment’ link underneath your response. Is this because you are the original author? I got around this by pasting the reply link from another comment and then swapping out the ID with your comment’s ID. It could be intentional, I suppose, having to do with general user permissions. Either way, thought I’d share.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article! Interesting that friends’ runs aren’t that accessible–maybe Nike would add a privacy setting to allow if it’s not an Android-based difference? And Nike would be smart to get that GPS fixed! The UI between RunKeeper and Nike+ is interesting too. While the RunKeeper screenshot I saw had a bunch of great information packed in, the Nike+ UI looks so bold and simple. Either way, I think I’d try out the free one first 😀

      Regarding comment section UI, it’s limited to replying to the original comment without the option to reply to replies. Great question! I’ll ask the DT dev team more about why it’s limited this way.

    • Julia Larson

      Hi there–The DT dev team got back to me about the comment nesting, and they went with the current format when doing the latest blog redesign for the sake of comment cohesion–and replying to replies on a wide variety of devices and viewports would be some tricky UI too. Thanks for asking 😀 As I’m using various blogs I’ll also keep surveying what are some best practices!

  • Arunas

    So many different names (again) for some well known things. Doesn’t “onboarding” (f.e.x. check Coursera course on Gamification) ring a bell? Internal and external motivation (f.ex. check D. Pink’s Drive), “user investment” = the principle of consistency (f.ex. check R. Cialdini’s Persuasion) and also a reference to cognitive dissonance. It is easy to oversimplify some major psychological concepts f.e.x. by referring to them as “internal triggers” and without giving a more solid understanding of what this is.
    I agree with Robert that Nike has done an awesome job with their app. Check their onboarding process. It is relatively easy to attain two three levels..0, 50 and kilometers, by the time you reach third (250km) you are hooked, – too much data stored on their system, you want to be consistent with your choice, etc. I am not sure if I am trigger happy, but I am hooked (or was rather.. I managed to smash my phone during one of those runs, so I said “to hell with the results and all, I will be running to enjoy”).
    Another example of a trigger happy site for me is coursera courses. Easy onboarding, strong internal motivation to learn something meaningful (a kind of meaningful joy), progressing level of difficulty keep me hooked.

    • Hi Arunas, Thanks for your insights and further resources to check out! Especially regarding the psychology of creating hooks, Nir’s blog ( or attending his next workshop will provide a lot more nuanced detail.

      Good point–the onboarding process is key to even get your user to reach the fine-tuned UX of the product. From both these comments, Nike sounds like they’ve got the process down! Will check out Coursera–cool to hear that you’ve had success with it. Sounds like a great way to keep learning–with a nice nudge of motivation.

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