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!