Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed Nir, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.”
Nir founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is the author of the bestselling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.
In addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir’s writing has been featured in The Harvard Business Review, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.
Nir is also an active investor in habit-forming technologies. Some of his past investments include Eventbrite (NYSE:EB), Refresh.io (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), Product Hunt, Marco Polo, Presence Learning, 7 Cups, Pana, Kahoot!, Byte Foods, FocusMate, and Anchor.fm (acquired by Spotify).
Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.
Buy Nir's book "Indistractible" (September 10th) at www.nirandfar.com/
Introduction: (00:43) Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The MIT technology review, dubbed Nir the "prophet of habit forming technology." He's the author of the bestselling book Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, and Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, in addition to blogging at nirandfar.com. Nir's writing has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Tech Crunch and Psychology today. Nir attended the Stanford graduate School of Business and Emory University.
Mary Drumond: (01:16) The book Hooked was my personal favorite read from 2018. Nir, I know I read it a little bit late and I apologize.
Nir Eyal: (01:24) That's okay! Hey, I'll take it. That is catnip for us authors, somebody saying it was their best, but you know, it doesn't matter what comes after. It was my "favorite book of..." That's great.
MD: (01:36) It really was. And it's what motivated me to reach out to you and invite you onto the show. So I'm really glad you're here.
NE: (01:42) My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
MD: (01:44) So for our listeners who like me, maybe took a little bit longer to find out who you were or maybe who don't know who you are yet. What's like a quick rundown of what your favorite things to do are, what you've dedicated your life to and what you're trying to do to make the world a better place, I guess.
NE: (01:59) Yeah. I love behavioral design. I call myself a behavioral designer, and this is someone who uses the principles of consumer psychology to design experiences, to help people build healthy habits in others through products ,and also to design our own behaviors so that we can make sure that we have good habits and we can get rid of our bad habits. So that's really what I study and teach about. I come at it from a little bit of a different angle in that even though I taught for many years at Stanford at the graduate School of Business, and at they Hasso Plattner Institute of design, I was first a business person. I helped start two companies, and then I went into more academic research and writing field. So I've been in the trenches. I know how hard it is to build products. So very, very much part of the design community from a firsthand perspective.
MD: (02:47) And your book Hooked has kind of become like a Bible maybe to a lot of startups and startup founders, hasn't it?
NE: (02:55) You tell me. Thank you for saying that.
MD: (02:59) Well, it's talking about designing habit-inducing products, right? So that's kind of what everybody wants, I think when it comes down to it.
NE: (03:07) Yeah, I mean it's not that every business has to be habit forming. It's that every business that needs a habit needs a hook. So there are lots of businesses out there that, for example, have one time interactions that don't require a habitual behavior. They don't require repeat engagement. Products that aren't used frequently, for example. So you know, let's take car insurance. Okay, car insurance, you don't use car insurance habitually. Once you make that sale, you don't need people to use car insurance every day. The problem, of course with a product that doesn't have a habit or some other competitive advantage is that you're constantly competing based on price and features and price and features and price and features. Whereas when a product builds a habit, people use it instinctually. They use it without prompting. They use it with little or no conscious thought. Kind of the same way. You know, if when I do these, uh, presentations to large audiences, I'll ask, you know, how many people in the room have used Google in the past 24 hours? Everybody's hands go up. And then I say, how many of you have used Bing, the number two search engine in the past 24 hours? One hand will go up. And why is that? Is it because people are evaluating that Google is so superior? No. It turns out that in head to head comparisons, when you strip out the branding and show people just the search results, they can't tell the difference between the two. And what that tells us is that people are using the product out of habit. They're not asking themselves, Hey, I wonder, who makes the best search engine? No, they just use it out of habit. They Google it. And so that is a huge, huge competitive advantage to have the kind of product that people use habitually.
MD: (04:37) But at some point everybody has to become a habit, right? Because you don't start off like that unless it's like learned behavior from when you were in kindergarten or something like that. At some point we have to develop that habit. So at some point we all developed the habit to go to Google.
NE: (04:52) Right, exactly right. So habits are nothing more than learning in the brain. We're not talking about addictions, by the way. The book is not Hooked: how to build addictive products. The book is about how to build habit-forming products and there's a big difference there, right? We would never want to create an addiction. The definition of addiction is that it has to, by definition, do harm. We would never want to do that. What we want to do, however, is to make the kind of product or service that people use on their own, right, so that they don't require the external triggers that prompt them to action. The pings, the dings, the rings, these notifications that tell them what to do. That's how we get people through the hook in the first place. We start with the external triggers, but the ultimate goal of a habit-forming product is to attach itself to what's called an internal trigger. An internal trigger is some kind of negative psychological state, some kind of feeling that people seek to get out of. When we are lonely, we check Facebook. When we're uncertain, we Google. When we're bored, we check YouTube or the news or Pinterest or stock prices or Reddit or sports scores. There's lots of things we do to get rid of that feeling of boredom. And so the idea really here is if you need to create a business that is habit-forming, that's how your business model is structured, well then you have to figure out how to get people to come back. And of course this is all in the context of doing it for good, right? It's doing it in a way that can help people exercise more, eat healthier, be more productive at work, connect with friends and family. We can do all this stuff by building healthy habits in our users' lives.
MD: (06:17) Well, I think that that's kind of an angle that a lot of people are looking at now where you know, all of a sudden maybe the, I'm not going to say addiction, the habits that we have with certain apps are being looked at as addiction. But I'm going to talk about that in a second when I talk about your new book that's coming out. So before that, why is it that it's negative emotions that tend to trigger habits?
NE: (06:44) Mm. Yeah. Really good question. I get this question sometimes of Nir, you know why is it the negative emotions? Why not the positive stuff, right? Isn't wanting to share with people a positive emotion or wanting to connect with loved ones. That's a positive emotion. Certainly, no?, No. All human behavior is driven for one reason only, and that reason is to modulate our mood. All human behavior. The only reason people use your product or service is because they want to feel something different. We used to believe in the psychological community that human behavior is motivated by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is called Freud's...
MD: (07:22) That's exactly what I was going to say!
NE: (07:24) This is called Freud's pleasure principle. It turns out that's not true. That neurologically speaking, all human behavior is driven by the desire to escape discomfort. The discomfort, the feeling of something we don't like to feel, drives us to action. That's how the brain gets us to act. Even positive sensations, right, desire.That feeling of wanting in fact is uncomfortable. There's a reason we say love hurts, right? That's how desire works in the brain. Wanting something, even something positive, is itself uncomfortable. And this comes from a physiological sensation. You know, when you think about if you're cold, that's not comfortable, you put on a coat. You feel hunger pangs that hurts, that doesn't feel good, so you eat. Those are physiological sensations. The same exact things apply to psychological sensations. Now why is it so important to focus on those pain points? Because if we reach out to people, if we send them external triggers, when they are not coupled with the internal triggers, we annoy the hell out of them. And I'll give you a perfect case study. I was on a plane on a Transcon flight from, from New York to San Francisco. And I was sitting in the aisle, and across from me, there was this guy who was asleep and the flight attendant walks by with a cart and she says, sir, and he's sleeping. Everybody around can see he's sleeping. He's got a pillow under his neck, very clearly asleep. And she says it again a little louder. She says "sir." Still doesn't wake up. Finally the third time she kind of yells at him. She says, "sir!." And he wakes up, "Whoa, Whoa. What is it? What is it?" And she says, "what would you like to drink, sir?"
MD: (08:55) Oh, come on.
NE: (08:58) This is a perfect example. Ridiculous, right? We would never do that to our customers. Uh uh, people do this to our customers all the time. We send them pings, dings, rings, all these notifications constantly, on our schedule, as opposed to on their schedule. Would that guy have liked a drink? Yes. When he was thirsty, when he had the internal trigger of thirst, not when he's sleeping. And so the rule about when do we send people external triggers that feel like magic versus external triggers that feel like spam. The difference is one word, and that word is context. And that's why it's so important to start with these internal triggers because the closer together you can couple the internal trigger with your external trigger, the more likely the user is to respond and to form an association that the solution to their discomfort is found with the use of your product. But you can't do that until you start with that psychological pain point. The internal trigger.
MD: (09:54) Well we can do that by like, I don't know, journey mapping or you know, somehow storytelling to try to understand the context and all of that. But truth be told it's still an educated guess.
NE: (10:07) Right, right. So there's lots and lots of techniques that I described in the book for how to do that and a lot of them will be familiar to your listeners. This is what good research is all about, is understanding what is that pain point. I guess the thing we have to avoid, and I see a lot when it comes to tech companies in particular is, 'well our product is so good. It's the best in the market. It's just gotta win, right?' Like that's enough. And it's not enough. We have to understand the customer's pain point, not just on a functional level, but on a psychological level. What emotional state do they want to change from? And that's where we have to start.
MD: (10:41) Does that mean that companies now have to become involved in very deep behavioral research and kind of mapping out their customers a little bit more deeply? Is that what would allow companies to understand this better and provide better experiences for their customers?
NE: (10:56) Yeah, I mean, good research. It's hard to make a good product without good research. It's very, very difficult to do. And it's so hard because we have to essentially get inside their heads. I mean, one hack, one thing that you can do sometimes, especially in the very, very early stages is to be the customer yourself. And so in, in Hooked, you probably saw this section where I talk about the morality of manipulation, and I give this two part test. I want people to ask themselves in terms of how do they apply these techniques ethically. And the two part test is number one, is what I'm working on materially improving people's lives? But that's not good enough, right? The second question you need to ask yourself is, am I the user? And the reason I want you to ask yourself that question is that I want you to break the first rule of drug dealing. Do you remember what the first rule of drug dealing is?
MD: (11:47) I don't because, no, I've never drug dealed, so I don't know.
NE: (11:52) The first rule of drug dealing is never get high on your own supply.
MD: (11:55) Oh yeah, there you go. I actually heard that one.
NE: (11:58) So the reason I want you to break that rule is because if there are any deleterious effects to using your product or service, you're going to be the first one to know about it. I want you to get high on your own supply. Right? I want you to be the consumer. Not only does that put you in a good ethical position, it's also a huge competitive advantage. And if you do that, if you're working on a product that you believe is materially improving people's lives and you're the user, you are what I call a facilitator. And we don't always have that luxury, right? Sometimes it's hard to get into our customers' heads. But if you can get into your customer's heads by being the customer, that's a huge, huge competitive advantage. So if you had that opportunity, not only are you on the good ethical side of using these techniques, but you're also giving yourself a huge leg up in terms of a business advantage as well.
MD: (12:44) Hmm. Well, if I were to nerd out a little bit and present biases and how that would affect that perception. Like if I'm testing out my own product, right, wouldn't I bring a ton of bias to the table that would totally affect my perception of that product?
NE: (13:01) Sure you would, but there's nothing wrong with that. If fundamentally you are building a product, and again this isn't, you know, this is more appropriate in some circumstances than others, right? There are some industries where you know, if you're making a product that's for a very niche audience that has a special health situation that not everybody has, well you know, that doesn't always apply. But the beauty of building a product where you are the user is that you can't fail. Because the worst case scenarios, and this is really relevant to very early days for people who are just getting started when it comes to product design. If you build a product for yourself, the worst case scenario is that you had succeeded in bringing a product into the world that you yourself want. And you are, you know what I, the common mistake that I see way more often than, than biases around what you want in the product is this problem of not understanding what your customer really wants or even worse building for everybody and designing fundamentally for no one. So again, this is a hack, this isn't the proper way to do things, but a great hack is to at least design for a market of one hoping that Hey, other people have this same exact problem because the problem I see much more frequently is not, Hey, I built a product I love and nobody else does, that happens pretty rarely. What I do see much more often is, we built a product. Who's the market? Everyone in the world! And if you design for everyone, you end up building solutions for no one.
MD: (14:52) Yeah, I totally agree with you. Especially because what I do, the company that I work for, tries to solve exactly that pain of companies, which is having no idea what it is that their customers want, or being horribly mistaken about what it is that their customers want. Thinking that it's one thing and it's actually something entirely different. And the customers never get a chance to tell the company because the company's always stuck in the questions that they want answered because of their internal processes, because of their executive boards and because of their agenda, and they never stopped to actually listen to what it is that the customer wants, what it is that the customer is looking for and what it is that the customer needs. So I'm with you on that one.
NE: (15:29) Absolutely. And this is why I built the Hook model, is to try and fix this problem that I think every product-led company struggles with, and that is how do you prioritize your backlog? It's such a pernicious problem. Everybody struggles with this. We've got, you know, 40 things we could change about our product. What do we do first? Do we do what the boss says we should build? Should we build what the investors says we should build? Should we build what the loudest customer said we should build? And so I think what we should do as opposed to just listening to who's loudest, what we should do instead is to use this model, to use a model of consumer behavior that's based on decades old research on how people behave to help us prioritize, so that we can filter out and say, Oh, is my product deficient when it comes to the triggers? Is the action phase not very good? You know, have we defined the rewards correctly? Is there an investment there that we're asking for properly? So it's a model to help you decide what to build for a second, third. Which features to prioritize and which to not.
MD: (16:29) Yeah, I think it's an amazing model. But getting back to it, so after you have that initial trigger, right, which can be either internal or external, then we'd go into the action, right?
NE: (16:38) That's right. Right. So the action phase is defined as the simplest behavior done in anticipation of reward. The simplest thing that user can do to get relief from that psychological discomfort. So open an app, scroll a feed, push a play button, check a dashboard. Any of these very simple behaviors that give the user psychological relief.
MD: (16:58) So, I mean in this case we're talking about, you know, tech and digital and apps and everything.But it can be applied to every single aspect of human behavior and human life, right?
NE: (17:07) Absolutely. Yeah.
MD: (17:09) I'm thinking here, like you can even get into relationships, when people are, wanna call that one person, or you feel tempted to contact someone that you're supposed to not have in your life anymore or anything like that. And you feel that itch. You want to provoke an action to try to get a reward for it. Right. And it's kind of across the board.
NE: (17:28) Even if your product isn't habit forming, you can use the four steps of the Hook model on their own. Right? You can use them separately to change behavior for any type of user. It's only if your business requires a habit, then you have the added bar of having to engage all four steps or you won't build a habit. So yeah, making something easier. I mean this goes back to Lewin's equation a hundred years ago. The psychologist Lewins said that people's behavior as a function of the person and their environment, right? I mean it's really an articulation of customer experience at its core, that we can shape an environment to change people's behaviors. And one of the cardinal principles is the easier you make something to do, the more likely people are to do it.
MD: (18:10) Sure low effort, right?
NE: (18:10) Exactly. So we can change these six factors of ability. This comes from the work of BJ Fogg, of time, money, physical effort, social deviance, non-routine. All of these things can change our likelihood to do a particular behavior based on how easy or difficult the behavior is to do.
MD: (18:26) So that means that once we have the trigger and we decide to perform the action, the more readily available that action is, or the easier it is to perform it, it increases the likelihood of us actually taking that action?
NE: (18:38) Yeah, exactly. So the easier you make the behavior, the more likely it is to occur. And this is why habits are so important, because habits have this repeater effect. The easier something is to do, the more likely we are to do it. So this is called practice, right? The more we do a behavior, the easier it gets. And so that's why, you know, somebody who's very tech literate, they find using the product very easy. They're very fluent in it because they have gotten into that habit of repeat use.
MD: (19:02) And with the advancements of the smartphone, all of a sudden it became so much easier because the device is constantly on us. So actually getting to our phone, it takes a split second. It's reaching into your pocket.
NE: (19:13) Right, so increased availability of these devices, the fact that we have ubiquitous access to them means that the habit forming potential of these products is very, very high. We know the average user checks their smartphone screen 150 times a day. So we have very high potential for changing people's habits when the behavior occurs with such frequency.
MD: (19:33) So then after that initial action, we're looking for the reward, right?
NE: (19:38) Right. So the reward is where the itch is scratched. This is where the user gets what they came for and it's typically what's called a variable reward, some kind of intermittent reinforcement. So some bit of mystery, some bit of uncertainty around what they might find when they engage with the product. And this isn't necessarily gamification, by the way. I'm not a huge fan of gamification.
MD: (19:56) I actually have that written here. How much gamification is this?
NE: (20:00) I'm not a huge fan of it typically because people don't know how to apply it correctly and it tends to be a huge mess. It's what some folks call chocolate covered broccoli. We take something people don't want, we take something people do want, put it on top and we make an unholy mess and expect them to like it. So variable rewards, the rule is, that the variable reward has to scratch the user's itch. So there has to be a link between the internal trigger we talked about earlier and the reward. So if the internal trigger is loneliness, well then connect people together. If it's workplace stress, well then we have to give them certainty around what to do next. And so where I see gamification going off the rails is, gamification is great when the internal trigger is boredom because gamification makes things entertaining. But if I don't really want to be using your software in the first place because it's just annoying enterprise software that my boss makes me use and I'm stressed out and that's my internal trigger. Well, points, badges, leaderboards are not going to help with that.
MD: (20:58) There is nothing worse than forced gamification.
NE: (21:01) Oh man. Because it doesn't scratch your itch.
MD: (21:05) The Apple watch is trying to give me badges for standing up like no don't, don't do that.
NE: (21:10) Exactly because they haven't thought through what really is the user's internal trigger. That's why that's such an important place to start. What is the pain point? The psychological itch. If you just assume that you know what users like without understanding their pain point, you're going to get exactly what you're describing.
MD: (21:28) Right. Is that it? Does the hook end there?
NE: (21:32) No. The most important step is the investment phase. The last step of the hook, which is probably the most overlooked of the four steps of the hook. The investment phase is where the user puts something into the product to make it better with use. So this can be in the form of data, content, followers, reputation, anything that makes the product better and better with use to store value. So habit forming-products do something amazing. They appreciate with use. You know, if you think about things in the physical world, your desk, your table, your clothing, everything made of atoms as opposed to bits, all of these things depreciate. But a habit-forming products should appreciate and value. They should get better and better the more they're used.
MD: (22:11) And that way people will want to come back.
NE: (22:13) Exactly. They store value. And so that's really, really important. It's really a missed opportunity. Most companies don't have an investment phase of the hook. They just think, well, give people what they want. That's it. It's not good enough.
MD: (22:23) Which year did you write Hooked?
NE: (22:25) 2014, it came out.
MD: (22:27) 2014, look at that. So I mean we've got five years there, and five years in today is like a whole century ago. Right? So things have changed ridiculously, even since this book came out. Maybe because people read this book and other books of other either scholars or academics, etc., that were kind of talking about the same thing. And the market kind of reacted, right? So like nowadays when I open my app on a Sunday morning, my iPhone says, Hey Mary, you're five hours over your normal user time because you spent three extra hours on Instagram per day for the past three days. And I'm like, ughhh.
NE: (23:06) You know, that's such a great point. You know, variable rewards. It's interesting, I see this all the time happening when it comes to these products where the makers are really altruistic, they're trying to help people. The problem is they don't understand that they're giving people, not variable rewards, they're giving people variable punishments by telling people, you know, I see this with fitness apps or apps that try and help you save money. But by telling people, Hey, guess what, you're still fat and you're still broke, they don't want to use your product anymore. And that's a huge mistake. I see this happening all the time. It's a big, big mistake, again, because they haven't thought through the internal triggers.
MD: (23:44) But do you think they're doing it for some sort of compliance or like pressure from the market? Because you know, at this time, Facebook has been through all these scandals and phones are becoming almost negative. Like you have these like special phone user lanes cause people are getting hit by incoming traffic 'cause they're not looking up. Right. So you think that's what it is. Don't you think that the market is kind of pressuring these companies to break these habits or curb these habits somehow?
NE: (24:12) Well I think, I think that there is market pressure, but because better products are used for longer, right? People want their products to be better. And I haven't worked with Apple, but I have worked with Google on their digital wellbeing initiative and I can tell you they are very sincere from the people I've met there. They are very sincere about helping people want to use their phones as opposed to feeling compelled or addicted to their phones. That doesn't benefit anyone because you know, people, as good as this behavioral design stuff is, it's not good enough to get people to do things that hurt them. Right. That people, we're not stupid. We're not puppets on a string that most people, unless you are in a special protected class, like someone who is a child or pathologically addicted, right? Those are special categories of people that I do believe deserve special protection. But for the rest of us, if a product doesn't serve us, if a product sucks, if it hurts us, well we change our behavior, we moderate how we use it, we use it differently, we adapt, we buy different technology that that is better. And so I think what we see happening in the industry is that products are doing exactly what the car industry did by putting seatbelts in cars. Well, you'd say, well, didn't seat belts, wasn't that regulated? No. It turns out the first car seatbelts appeared 19 years before any law mandated it. Well, why? Because they knew that cars that were safer, were more valuable to their customers. And I think that's what we see right now. There's thousands of apps in the Apple app store and the Google play store that help you curb your technology usage. And that's a healthy thing. And so they are doing exactly what they've always done. They look at which apps are most popular and they incorporate them into their operating systems. We've seen this happen dozens of times and so that's exactly what what's going on. They, they want you to use your phone for the rest of your life, not in these addictive spurts and crashes and you know, they don't want people to die when they are using their phones on the street, because a dead customer is not a very good customer. They want you to keep using your phone in a healthy manner.
MD: (26:10) And is this maybe what inspired you to write your upcoming book Indistractable?
NE: (26:14) It's definitely part of it. I mean, I think number one, I wrote this book because I wanted to figure out for myself, how do you break bad habits? How do you break unwanted behaviors? Fundamentally the question of indistractable is why don't we do what we say we're going to do? That was the big question. And I also saw that, you know, in our field and in the wider discussion of society, I think that this tech lash has a real risk of creating ignorance. That because we see only the negative and because we believe this line, that technology is addictive and it's hijacking our brains, we believe it. And I think that's really unfortunate for two reasons. One, it makes it less likely that people will go into this beautiful field and this beautiful opportunity that we have to improve people's lives through technology, through good design. And two, it turns out there's a lot of data that shows this, that if you believe that you are powerless, if you believe that the technology companies are hijacking you and they're manipulating your brain and all this rubbish, it becomes true. It's called learned helplessness. And so what I wanted to do was to create a tech positive approach. You know, we're not going to stop using these technologies. They're here to stay. They're not going away. And waiting for regulators to do something about it, you know, if you hold your breath waiting for these companies to change and for companies to make their products less engaging, if you hold your breath, you're gonna suffocate. It's not going to happen. So instead, what are the things that we can do today to put technology in its place to make sure that we get the best out of technology without letting it get the best of us. And so that's why I wrote Indistractible.
MD: (27:45) Wonderful. When does it come out?
NE: (27:46) It comes out September 10th.
MD: (27:48) And how can we buy it? Cause I'm going to be there to buy it since Hooked was my favorite from last year. Maybe it'll be my favorite from this year.
NE: (27:53) Thank you, yeah. So you can go to nirandfar.com/indistractable. And you want to go there, because if you buy the book, and you could buy wherever you want, if you buy the book and then you put in your order number, there is a ton of free goodies that I'm going to give out associated with Indistractable, all kinds of tools and resources, all kinds of stuff that you're going to want to get to make sure that you can become Indistractable yourself.
MD: (28:23) Wonderful. I look forward to it and thanks so much for coming on. Really appreciate it. I know that our listeners would definitely find this talk as useful as I did.
NE: (28:31) I appreciate it. Thanks so much for having me.