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Author Interview: Nir Eyal

1. To start with perhaps you could tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I study, write, and consult at the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. I write for TechCrunch, Forbes, Psychology Today, and am a frequent speaker at industry conferences and Fortune 500 companies.

I’m the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and I have Lectured at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Design School and have sold two technology companies since 2003. For most of my career I’ve worked in the video gaming and advertising industries where I learned, applied, and at times rejected, the techniques used to motivate and manipulate users.

I write to help companies create behaviours that benefit their users, while educating people on how to build healthful habits in their own lives. Although I received most of my education earning an advanced degree from the The School of Hard Knocks, I also received an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

2. What inspired you to write Hooked?

At my last company I worked at the intersection of gaming and advertising and I saw all kinds of tactics used to change customer behaviour. I noticed that many people in the industry didn’t know why certain things worked or the psychological principles driving behaviour — they just knew they were effective.

As an entrepreneur, I spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall trying to figure out why people were or were not engaging with the products my company built. Many business people experience this same frustration. Some products fly while others flop and we are never quite sure why.

When my company was finally sold, I decided I needed to understand user behaviour better before starting another venture.

I wanted to find out what made some experiences habit-forming and that’s really been the central question with my work — how do products create habits? How do some companies draw users back again and again without wasting money on expensive advertising or spammy marketing tactics?

I spent years pouring over consumer psychology texts, behavioural economics books, and human-computer interaction research but didn’t find practical tools for building repeat engagement. So I decided to write the book I couldn’t find.

3. Could you tell us a little about the Hook model and it’s four steps/phases?

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Hooks are experiences that connect users’ problems to a company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit. Hooks are in all sorts of products we use with little or no conscious thought. Over time, customers form associations that spark unprompted engagement, in other words, habits.

Use of the product is typically associated with an emotional pain point, an existing routine, or situation. For example, what product do people use when they’re feeling lonely and seek connection? Facebook of course! What do we do when we feel uncertain? We Google! What about when we’re bored? Many people open YouTube, Pinterest, check sports scores, or stock prices — there are lots of products that address the pain of boredom.

In the four step process I describe in Hooked, I detail how products use hooks to create these powerful associations.

Hooks start with a trigger, then an action, then a reward, and finally an investment. Through successive cycles through these Hooks, user habits are formed.

4. How can this model be used by start-ups who require habit forming in their business?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that not every business requires habits to be successful. All sorts of companies do just fine without forming customer habits. Companies can bring users back with advertising, search engine optimisation, and even physical store fronts. However, many business models simply could not survive without forming habits. Think of some of the biggest success stories of the past decade. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Instagram and WhatsApp could not survive without forming strong user habits.

If your business model requires habits, then you need to make sure you have a sound Hook. Many products fail to create a user habit because the designer or entrepreneur doesn’t realise that there is a formula for forming new habits.

5. Why is it that the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, WhatsApp etc. have been so successful in getting people hooked whilst other companies have failed to engage their customers properly? Why do you think people become more hooked on some products than others?

There are of course many factors that go into the success of a business. One of many considerations is the company’s ability to keep customers coming back. Habit-forming products fundamentally have to give their users what they want — scratch their “itch” so to speak. There are several examples of products failing or succeeding based on the soundness of their Hooks.

6. You talk about hooks as being something that acts as a solution to user pains/problems, do you feel that this is ethical practice for businesses?

In my book, Hooked, I give a framework for helping readers figure out how to allocate their human capital. It is a tool for helping professionals decide how to spend their time. It helps answer the critical question, “what is worthy of working on?”

I believe that when someone works on something that they believe materially improves people’s lives and they themselves use, they are what I call a “facilitator.” People can be successful without meeting this test, but by being a facilitator, they can’t fail. A facilitator works for a higher purpose (benefiting others) and they closely understand the user’s needs (since they are themselves the user). Incidentally, they also have the best odds of achieving material success.

7. And finally, could you suggest/recommend another business book for us to use on the site please? 

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.

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Follow Nir on Twitter at @nireyal and check out his blog, Nir and Far.

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