Nir Eyal is the author of "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products". In our podcast, he talks about the Hooked model and his next book, and reveals why in his household, the internet is shut off at 10 PM.

Nir Eyal is the bestselling author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”, and his next book, “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life”, coming out on October 2019.

Nir has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His writing on technology, psychology, and business, appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.

Nir blogs regularly, and is also an active investor in habit-forming technologies. 


As the Interface Shrinks, Habits Become More Important

Nir spent many years in the video gaming and advertising industries and has sold two technology companies. His book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” was published five years ago. “At the time,” he tells us, “nobody was thinking that you could design products that would be this sticky, that would be this engaging, you know, that now we have in the public discourse this idea that technology is addictive, right? That was not anybody’s problem back when I got started.

I wrote the book because I couldn’t find the answer for how to do this. I had a hypothesis for what I wanted to do next in my career. I had helped start two tech companies that both got sold, and I had some time on my hands, and I was trying to figure out what to do next with my time, and I had this hypothesis that habits were really going to matter. That as the interface shrinks from desktop to laptop to mobile devices, to now wearables and now to audible devices like the Amazon Echo and Siri and these devices that you can talk to, as the interface shrink, that I believed that habits would become more important.

Because, you know, if the end user doesn’t remember to use your product if you’re not on the user’s home screen, or they don’t remember to ask for the Alexa skill, then the product will not be used, and it might as well not even exist. So I had that hypothesis back then, but the problem back then was not that people are over-using products like Facebook and Instagram and Google, et cetera, the problem back then was that we had all this great technology and nobody was using it. Right? That was everybody’s problem, of, “How do I get people to use my product?” So, that’s why I wrote Hooked. I would argue that’s still the problem. It’s still, for the vast majority of businesses out there, their problem is that nobody uses it.

I didn’t write Hooked for Facebook and Google and the gaming companies. They already know these techniques. They have for years. I wrote the book for everybody else. I wanted to democratize. You know, what if we could use the same psychology to make enterprise software interesting, and something you wanted to use, as opposed to something you felt like you had to use? What if we could help people exercise and save money and live healthier lives, by building these healthy habits? Thankfully, in the past five years, countless companies have used these techniques for good, and I’m really happy about that.”


How to Get Your Clients Hooked

Nir has developed a formula for habit-forming products, called the Hooked Model:

“The Hooked Model is this four-step process designed into the user experience. It’s built in. Remember, growth is something you can buy. You can buy a bunch of users. You just buy a bunch of ads on Google or Facebook or wherever and you can drive traffic to try the product. The problem is you can’t buy retention. You can’t buy engagement. You can’t buy a habit. It has to be designed into the product.

So, if you’re an agency out there and you’re pitching business for one of your clients, this can be a real competitive advantage, because there’s not that many agencies that understand how to build products for their clients in a way that creates a habit. And here’s a secret. In my years of teaching at Stanford, and my years of researching the psychology of habit-forming products, what I found is that we have this model that we see repeated time and time again. If you think of any habit-forming product, you will find these four basic steps of a trigger, an action, a reward and finally an investment, and it’s through successive cycles, through these hooks, it’s built into the user experience. This is how customer preferences are shaped, how our tastes are formed, and how these habits are shaped in our lives.”


Content Consumption Habit as a Way to Sell Your Product

How can you get your potential customer hooked if the product that you sell is not bought out of habit?

“The idea is that if you don’t have a product that’s used frequently enough, so let’s say, for example, you sell website design services, well, that’s not a product that will ever be bought out of habit. Right? Nobody does that with little or no conscious thought, the way you would open Facebook, or Instagram, or YouTube. That’s never going to happen. 

But what could become a habit is a content consumption habit. You could actually, if your product itself isn’t used frequently enough, what you can do is bolt on experiences which are habit-forming, which are used frequently enough, for example, content and community. So, if you create a website, or a newsletter, or something that provides content to your customers, that can become a habit. That can be something that they open with little or no conscious thought, and engage with frequently enough so that the result of that engagement will eventually be monetization.

Buying a car will never be a habit. Because that’s not what we pitch, because it doesn’t occur with sufficient frequency, right? That’s not something that will occur with little or no conscious thought. But if we can design a customer loyalty program for people who are prospective customers, or former customers, that’s a huge opportunity. I mean, I can’t tell you how many car dealerships… It’s funny you should say that… Totally drop the ball when it comes to customer loyalty. Right? Simple, stupid things, like for example, you know, if you lease a car they know. They have the information. They had the investment. We talked about the investment phase earlier, of data around when your lease has expired. Well, there should be a program to proactively reach out to you before your lease is due for renewal.

That’s where you would load the next trigger. You would provide a program to keep them updated. Not the month before, but a good year before. You want to send them content, connect them with the community. Those are two ways. You know, I call them the Two Cs. Content and community are things that you can bolt on to an experience that doesn’t occur with sufficient frequency to be habit forming.

So they’re not going to buy the car out of habit, but what they could do is consume content habitually. I mean, I live in New York City now so I don’t own a car anymore, but when I lived in the Bay Area and I owned a car, I would get these stupid newsletters with nothing interesting or useful. It was all about, ‘Bring your car in for a repair. Here’s yet another stupid coupon that I don’t want to use.’ What if there was information that was actually useful to me? What if they had some demographic information, that I have a little girl, and they could provide me information about here’s fun things you could do in the community this weekend? That would create a habit for me to open these emails, to check a website habitually.”


If It's Facebook Today, It Was TV Yesterday

Nir’s next book, coming out in September 2019, is called “The Indistractable: How To Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Whereas “Hooked” was written for product designers, “Indistractable” is Nir’s own personal journey of how he found himself getting hooked by certain products, and was distracted:

“I went out there and I bought every book on distraction to try and understand, oh my God, how do I break this bad habit that I’ve formed?

Originally I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to write Unhooked. I’m going to write the Mea Culpa of my first book.’ But then the more I researched it, I realized that distraction has been around for a really long time. Facebook and Google didn’t invent distraction. Socrates and Aristotle talked about akrasia, this tendency that we have to do things against our better interest. They talked about this 2,500 years ago.

What I thought would be a book about digital distraction ended up being a book about the psychology of all distraction. Because frankly if it’s Facebook today, it was TV yesterday, it was radio before that, and in the future, we’ll have some different distractions as well. So I really wanted to get to the heart of why we get distracted, and the reason is that these companies are not going away, first of all. Second, every book out there about this topic, about how to be productive, how to stay focused, is written by some professor who doesn’t even have a social media account. Some of them don’t even have email accounts. But that’s, okay, that’s great for you, that’s not the kind of luxury I have. I have to use this kind of products for my livelihood.

Then, third, they didn’t delve into the deeper psychology. And I felt like, when I read the current wisdom on how to deal with distraction, none of them were written by anybody who actually built these products. And my advantage is that I know the Achilles heel. I know how these products are built to hook you. I wrote the book on it. So when I came to it with that knowledge, I realized that I had some special wisdom that I could impart and that I used in my own life, starting with tackling those internal triggers.

So, as well designed as these products are, if you don’t have the internal trigger, if you don’t have that itch, or you’ve figured out a way to deal with it in a healthier manner, there’s nothing they can do to get you. If you don’t have the skills to deal with those internal triggers, those psychological states that are uncomfortable, they are going to get you. So, I think the world is really bifurcating into people who have the knowledge for how to deal with distraction, and who become indistractable, and then everybody else who’s basically going to be at the mercy of letting companies control their behaviors because they don’t control them for themselves.”


In My Household, the Internet Shuts off at 10 PM​

In “The Indistractable” Nir reveals the effect that too much technology had on his sex life:

“Every night, my wife and I would go to bed, and we’ve been married for a long time now. We’ve been married for about 18 years. And every night we would go to bed and we would find ourselves fondling, not each other, not caressing each other, we would be caressing our devices. Her with her iPad and me with my iPhone. So I knew that something had to change. I mean, it was really taking a toll on my marriage, and I think a lot of couples who have been married for a long time have experienced this.

So, we needed to take action. So I figured out one of the tricks that I talk about in the book, is the idea I got to buy an outlet timer that anything you plug into this outlet timer will turn off the electricity to whatever you plug in at a certain time of day or night. So in my household, at 10 p.m., the internet shuts off. Every night. 10 pm Every night. Well, weeknights. On weekends, we can stay up late and watch Netflix or whatever, because that’s time that’s budgeted for that, but on weeknights we made it a priority for our sleep, for our sanity and for our sex life, we have the internet turn off at 10 pm”.