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13 / Product Design Driving Positive Behaviors

Hosted by Sean Flaherty




Nir Eyal

Author, Consultant, Educator

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.”

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 best-selling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.

In addition to blogging at, 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), (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), Product Hunt, Marco Polo, Presence Learning, 7 Cups, Pana, Kahoot!, Byte Foods, and

Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.

Product people possess the creative and ethical wherewithal to persuade users to behave in ways that materially improve their lives – using our powers for good. The secret is to understand that, if we want to connect our product’s use to a repetitive consumer habit, we must identify the internal trigger that drives consumer behavior. Understanding this crucial piece can explain how software products become so habit forming, Nir Eyal explains.

In this episode, Sean and Joe chat with Nir Eyal, a keynote speaker at ITX’s Product Momentum: Beyond the Features product conference (June 19-21), whose work on Behavioral Design has brought him and us to the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The goal of his work is to help product people design the products and services that consumers want to use and that drive positive, habit-forming behaviors. Nir combines a gift for observation with an uncanny awareness to convert life experiences into problem statements that ultimately lead to research, learning, and discovery.

Listen to this episode to hear more from Nir about:

  • The rationale behind his two books, Hooked and Indistractable
  • How human tendencies play into habit and distraction
  • How to ensure your product is creating a positive impact in the world

Read our blog post here

Joe [00:02:12] Alright Sean, well today we’ve got someone we’re super pumped to talk to. We’ve got Nir Eyal.

Sean [00:02:19] One of the founding fathers of the whole field of behavioral design, at least one of the guys that have certainly popularized it in recent years and we’re excited to have you.

Nir [00:02:28] Great to be here. Thank you.

Joe [00:02:30] If you wouldn’t mind for everyone just if you could introduce yourself, talk about what kind of work you do, where you work, what your books are that we all should know and have read.

Nir [00:02:39] Sure. Absolutely. So let’s see… So my background is I helped to start two tech companies, the last of which was in the gaming and advertising space and at that vantage point at my last company I saw a whole lot of companies kind of come and go. This was back in 2007 back when apps didn’t mean mobile apps because the Apple App Store didn’t exist. Apps back then meant Facebook apps. And so this was back when, if you remember the days when people were throwing sheep and doing silly games like that. And so we had this really interesting vantage point where I saw these apps kind of come and go and some of them would engage millions of people overnight and others would kind of burn out. And so from that vantage point, I became very curious as to why that was happening, and what I wanted to do was to really understand the deeper psychology of how companies like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and WhatsApp and Slack and Snapchat, what is the deeper psychology behind how these companies build their products to be so habit-forming? So I started blogging about what I was learning and then that turned into a course that I taught at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. Later I taught for several years at the design school there. And then that turned into my book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which five years ago now it came on the market. We’ve just passed two hundred fifty thousand copies so it’s done really well. And since that time, since publishing Hooked, I’ve been working on my next book which is called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, which is coming out in September 2019.

Joe [00:04:05] Very cool. So you’re hooking people and then you’re unhooking them. I get it; it makes sense. Smart.

Nir [00:04:10] Not really. But it makes for a good story. We didn’t call the book Unhooked for a reason. My publisher wanted me to call it Unhooked and I didn’t want to call it Unhooked because I didn’t want to negate anything in Hooked. I truly believe that the power of writing about these tactics that so many companies use to build habit-forming products, that power still remains. And what I wanted to do with Hooked was to democratize that power, right. What if we could use this deeper psychology that Facebook and the gaming companies use to get people hooked, why can’t we use that for good? And that’s exactly what Hooked is all about. But of course, you know, the question came up over the past several years of, how do we make sure that we don’t overuse these things? Why do we keep getting distracted? And I actually saw that in my own life I was getting distracted by various technologies. So the book really became a study not just about technological distraction but about the psychology of distraction.

Joe [00:05:00] Yeah, I mean it’s definitely becoming more noticeable in society. I mean companies like Apple are releasing features for digital well-being: limiting time on devices, showing you how much time you’re spending on apps…so it’s definitely a real thing. I’m curious, how did this all kind of start for you? Was there some kind of a moment or something, you know, in your past where you were just like, “I need to understand why people’s brains work this way and what creates habits and how this all works.”.

Nir [00:05:24] Yeah. Let’s see, so my first fascination with this field probably came out of my childhood. So I was clinically obese up until about halfway through high school. You know, my parents took me to fat camp and I remember going to the doctor’s office and they had a big chart there on the wall and it said, you know, here’s your BMI, here’s your age, etc.; and I was definitely in that red obese category on the edge of the chart. And I remember food having control over me and in that time I became really fascinated by how it was that this external thing seemed to control me. And, you know, getting my my weight under control (and it’s something I still struggle with today) revealed a lot to me around the psychology of why we do things that we don’t intend to do, things that harm us. And this turns out to be an age-old problem. You know, Socrates and Aristotle talked about the nature of acratia, this tendency to do things against our better interest. And so I became really fascinated by how it is that products and services can persuade us to do things that can either harm us or can be very helpful. And so the idea was, you know, how can we use these techniques for good? How can we use products and services to build healthy habits in people’s lives? Because a problem that I saw when I got to Silicon Valley back in 2006 was that there was lots of technology out there that nobody knew how to apply to change behavior in a positive way. The problem was, “hey I’m building a product and nobody cares,” right, haha. The problem back then was not what it is today of people overusing, the problem back then, and still is for the vast majority of companies out there, is nobody cares about your product. The problem is not overuse, it’s underuse. It’s that people’s lives will be so much better if they just used the product. And so the goal of my work is to really help people design the kind of products and services that people want to use as opposed to feeling like they just have to use because their boss demands it or because they receive some spammy advertising once again telling them to, “please please use our product.” What if we could design our products and services in a way that could help people form these healthy habits in their lives?

Joe [00:07:18] Yeah I think it’s totally relevant. It makes a lot of sense with all the saturation occurring. But our audience is a lot of product managers and UX designers and people building software and they’re regularly thinking about, you know, “how do we get people to notice our product? How do we get people to use our product in a way that’s positive and not negative or manipulative?” So just maybe at a really basic level, what do you consider to be a healthy habit versus an unhealthy habit?

Nir [00:07:40] It’s really about intent. It’s really about, are you doing what it is you said you wanted to do? And so that’s really the core thesis of this next book, Indistractable. Being indistractable does not mean that you never get distracted. It means that you are the kind of person who is as honest with themselves as they are with other people, right. So we’re all taught in school, “don’t lie.” One of the things that you never want someone to call you, one of the worst put downs is if someone calls you a liar. You would never book a lunch with your mom and not show up, right. You would never do that to people, and yet we lie to ourselves all the time even when we know when we want to do the right thing. We know that chocolate cake is not as healthy as a healthful salad. We know we should work out. We know when we sit down at our desk we should do that big project as opposed to getting distracted with emails or Slack channels, and yet we don’t do what we know we should do. And that’s the big question I wanted to answer in Indistractable, is why don’t we do the things that we know we should do? And is there a fix?, And thankfully, after five years of research, it turned out that there is a solution and that the problem, it turns out, is not technology. Technology is what’s called the proximal cause, it is not the root cause at the heart of why we get distracted.

Sean [00:08:52] That’s interesting. So what is at the root cause? I think you baited me into that one.

Nir [00:08:57] Well you have to buy the book. No, I’ll give you a sneak peek. So here’s what happened to me. So after I wrote Hooked, I was sitting with my daughter and we had this time together, this daddy-daughter time that we have several times a week. And on this particular day we were reading this book of activities that daddies and daughters could do together, and one of the activities was to ask each other, “what super power would you most want?” You know, would you want us fly like Superman, would you want to be incredibly strong like the Incredible Hulk, whatever. And I wish I could tell you what my daughter said in that moment but I can’t because I was busy. I was distracted on my phone and I didn’t hear what she said. And the next thing I knew, I looked up from my phone and I looked around the room and she’d left. And so that was kind of a moment in my mind that I said, “Geez, I know the deeper psychology behind why these products are designed the way they are, and look, here I am unhealthfully hooked to some silly thing on my phone.” And so I decided to really take the bull by the horns and figure out this problem for myself. So I do what I always do when I have an interesting book idea. I bought every other book on the topic. And nine times out of ten when this happens, I read the seminal book on this topic and I say, “okay, somebody else has answered this question, no need for me to write the book.” That didn’t happen in this case. I literally bought every book on the topic of distraction and focus and all of them said basically the same thing: “Tune out, stop using the distraction so you can be focused.” And I tried all that. I got a 1990s word processor from eBay. I got myself this feature phone with no apps on it that I bought from Ali Baba, this twelve dollar feature phone that did nothing but send texts and receive calls. And so I got rid of all the technology, because that was the problem, right. Technological distraction is caused by technology, right. No. Because when I’d sit down to write, when I’d sit down to do something that required focus and concentration, I said, “Oh you know what, there’s that book on the bookshelf behind me that I’ve been meaning to check out, you know, let me just read that for just a minute or two right, that’s kind of related to my job.” Or, “I should probably take out the trash real quick because my workspace is kind of dirty, I should take care of that,” or, “you know, I should probably fold some laundry, the laundry needs folding.” So what I found was that I constantly got distracted from something because I was looking for distraction. So the first step, and this is something that took me a long time to discover and once I tell it to you you’re gonna say, “Yeah of course that’s the answer,” but it’s this icky sticky truth that we don’t want admit to ourselves which is that distraction starts from within. We have to ask ourselves, “what painful sensation are we trying to escape?” We used to abide by Freud’s pleasure principle that all humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s the masters of human motivation, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. Turns out that neurologically speaking, it’s all pain. All human behavior is motivated by the desire to escape discomfort. It’s called the homeostatic response, and so if all behavior is motivated by the desire to escape discomfort, even positive behavior, even wanting something good, the desire is painful, is uncomfortable, right. This is why love hurts, right. So if all behavior is motivated by the desire to escape discomfort, then distraction, being a behavior, is also motivated by the desire to escape discomfort. So the first step is to understand what is that discomfort that we’re trying to escape. Is it boredom, loneliness, fatigue, uncertainty…what’s that itch that we seek to escape? Which by the way, the reason I had this insight is because the most important step in the Hook Model, which I describe in the book Hooked, says that if you are going to attach your products use to a consumer habit you also have to find what’s called the internal trigger. You have to find that itch that occurs throughout their day that they solve that problem, they scratch that itch, with your product. That’s your goal is to create that habit between the internal trigger and the use of your product. And so that’s the first place that we start as well with breaking a bad habit, with breaking a habit that’s not serving us, is finding a healthier way to deal with that discomfort. So a good chunk of the book Indistractable talks about how to master internal triggers. Then we move on to these other techniques that I provide. But that’s really the starting place. But we can go further in depth and I want to talk and talk here so I’ll let you chime in.

Sean [00:13:03] That’s what you’re here for. Good stuff. Earlier Joe asked about healthy habits versus unhealthy habits and your response was about intent. I want to talk a little bit about the teams that are building these products that hook people, or unhook in some cases. We hear a lot about this manipulation versus inspiration thing. And you’ve got a really cool model out there called the manipulation matrix.

Nir [00:13:25] Right.

Sean [00:13:26] Which deals with the teams and it really deals with the intent, what is the intent of the team? Do you want to talk about that a little bit? I’d love for the audience to hear about that.

Nir [00:13:34] Yeah absolutely. So when Hooked was published more than five years ago now, ethics and how to use this stuff ethically was of course top of mind for me. So there’s a chapter in the book that’s devoted to how to apply these techniques for good, how to apply these techniques ethically. And so I give this test, this two part test that I call the manipulation matrix. As a former consultant I love good two-by-twos. So if you can think of a two-by-two where you have two questions that you need to answer. And so the answer to those questions puts you into four different buckets. So on one axis is yes/no on the other axis is also yes/no. And the two questions are this: the first question, if you ask yourself, “Okay I’m going to apply these techniques; I’m going to design a product to manipulate consumer behavior,” not in the pejorative sense of manipulation, but all design: good design, bad design, all design seeks to manipulate consumer behavior. That’s what good design is all about is helping people do things that they want to do but for lack of good design don’t do, and there’s a big difference between these two types of manipulation. There is coercion and there is persuasion. Persuasion is perfectly ethical. Persuasion is helping people do things they want to do. Coercion is unethical. Coercion is getting people to do things they don’t want to do. So if you’re asking yourself, “okay how do I use these techniques for good, how do I be on the right side of this ethical test?” There are two questions you need to answer. The first question is, “is what I’m working on, is the thing that I’m going to apply these behavioral techniques to, materially improving people’s lives?” So this is a question that you have to ask yourself. It’s not something that you use to judge other people or that other people use to judge you. You have to ask yourself, look in the mirror, “is what I’m working on materially improving people’s lives?” But that’s not good enough. OK. The second question you have to answer is, “am I the user?” OK. “Am I the user?” Now why do I want people to ask themselves that question? Do you guys know the first rule of drug dealing? What’s the first rule of drug dealing?

Joe [00:15:29] Stuff your face in a pile of cocaine like Scarface.

Nir [00:15:33] No but close. The first rule of drug dealing, I’ll give you another shot, is never get high on your own supply. So why is that the first rule of drug dealing?

Joe [00:15:43] I was close.

Nir [00:15:43] Right very close, almost. And don’t be like Scarface. So the first rule of drug dealing is never get high on your own supply. And I want you to break that rule. I want anyone who is thinking about using these techniques to get high on their own supply, to use their product. Why? Because if there are deleterious effects to this product you are going to be the first one to know about it. So if and only if you can pass those two questions of, “is what I’m working on materially improving people’s lives?” and “am I the user?” are you what I call a facilitator. Now that doesn’t mean that you can’t make money, so to speak, on saying no to those two things. Right. This is not about, “can I be successful?” This is about, “can I apply these techniques with a clear conscience?” And so I think if you are building something that materially improves people’s lives and you yourself are the user, that to me puts you in this special category of someone who is a facilitator, who is using these things ethically. It’s also really really good for business. If you think about it, the hardest part about designing a product that people want to use, that people love, the hardest part is understanding your users’ needs. That’s the hardest part of product design is getting inside users’ brains to understand their inarticulatable needs, what they want but they can’t tell you they want. And so you have a huge leg up, a huge competitive advantage, if you yourself are the user.

Joe [00:17:01] I love that. It’s what we struggle with every day is how do we figure out what these people need but they won’t tell us? We do all these observations and interviews and look at data and analytics and try to figure it out. It’s awesome.

Nir [00:17:12] Right. And so if you are the user that’s a huge competitive advantage. Now we don’t always have that luxury. Sometimes we’re building something for somebody else, but, you know, if we want to do it ethically, I think that’s the best position to be in. This is a call also for diversity right, if you’re building a product and nobody on your product team looks like your user, that’s a problem. That’s a big problem.

Sean [00:17:33] Yeah that’s interesting. What this pulls on to me is the concept of empathy and how I think empathy is, it’s the most important skill set going into the next century really. And we have to figure out how to learn, how to become more empathic, and there’s different parts of empathy right. So the one part of empathy is the one that you talked about earlier, it’s this manipulation thing. The buzzword that we hear a lot these days is emotional intelligence. How capable are you as a leader of influencing other people in the world to change their behavior, so to speak, or to persuade them? And they say that that’s a larger predictor of success than IQ. But how you measure success is about way more than just that because you can influence a lot of people to do really bad things. Hitler did it well, right. And like you said, drug dealers do it well, call them what you will. They influence people to these behaviors that are not necessarily good for the world or good for…your first question, “will this for this product improve people’s lives? in the broader sense, right?

Nir [00:18:26] Right. Right.

Sean [00:18:27] The other side of empathy is what scientists call affective empathy, right, which is our capacity for actually caring. I believe that the difference between inspiration and manipulation or persuasion and coercion is really how much you care about the people that you’re leading, you know, through rote leadership or through a software product that you’re building. So I think this capacity for caring and this increasing of the capacity of our teams for caring for their users, this building of empathy for the actual users is really really important.

Nir [00:18:55] Yeah absolutely, absolutely. I would add to it that a good test…so the manipulation matrix that is in Hooked is really a test for the individual. It’s for singular product designers to ask themselves this question of, “am I applying these techniques ethically?” Now the question I got after I wrote the book was, “well, what about for teams?” How do we as an enterprise decide if a technique that we want to use is ethical or not? Because what we see is that for many of these design patterns, for even what we call dark patterns in the industry, what we find is that in some cases the same exact technique that some people call manipulative and coercive turns out to be persuasive and helpful in other circumstances, right. So I’ll give you a good example: streaks. So on Snapchat there’s this design pattern called a streak where it basically says, you know, you don’t wanna break the chain. If you message a friend you get like this little number icon for every day that you consistently message back and forth with your friends. That’s called a streak. And it can be a very effective technique to keep people doing a behavior day after day after day. Now some people say this… What’s that?

Nir [00:20:06] My kids know it well.

Nir [00:20:08] OK. There you go.

Sean [00:20:09] My son just went on a week-long camp where he couldn’t have his phone so he actually gave his phone to his sister to make sure she kept his streaks.

Nir [00:20:18] That’s amazing. Perfect example, perfect example. So some people decry this as coercive. But of course the same exact technique is used by Duolingo, is used by many meditation apps, to keep people doing a behavior they wanted to do day after day after day so they won’t break that chain. So they’ll keep up their streak. So it’s not the persuasive technique itself; it’s not the psychology that’s being used. It’s how it’s applied. And so this becomes very confusing for us as product designers knowing, “hey how could it be that the same technique in two different circumstances one is ethical one is unethical, how does that work?” And so a few years ago I really wanted to come up with an ethical test that we in the product design community could use. And I wanted to replace what Google used to use which was, “don’t be evil,” which is silly, right. Evil is completely subjective. It’s something that if you squint hard enough you can make something that’s evil look not evil. So it just didn’t work for me and of course now it doesn’t work at Google either. They don’t have that as their official motto anymore. So what replaces this test? As a team what can we point to? How can we raise our hand and say, “hey boss, I’m not sure if this is such a good idea?” So I came up with what’s called the Regret Test and I published about this on my blog, Nir and Far. The idea behind the regret test is that’s the ultimate way that we tell the difference between persuasion and coercion. Coercion is when someone regrets doing the thing we’ve designed for them to do, right. So we can actually test for this in a way that we as product designers have been testing all sorts of features for decades now. What do we do? When we have a new feature, we bring people into a room, we do some user testing, and we see what the usability looks like, right. We gain feedback from people interacting with it. Well we can do the same thing when it comes to these design patterns. We can bring people into a room and by using this Regret Test, which means, we ask people, “knowing everything that we as the designer know, would you do what you just did?” Just such a simple question of, “hey, here’s what’s going to happen next; do you regret having done that thing?” And I’m being a little amorphous here but it’s hard to speak in terms that apply to every situation. But I think you get the basic idea, right. “Here’s the bearable design pattern; would you regret this behavior?” And the idea here is if we just bring in 10 people and run these kind of tests, we get the kind of insights that help us prevent making terrible mistakes later on because if we don’t understand it people are going to regret using our product now, we are going to kick ourselves later. Right. That’s gonna be horrible when people stop using our product. You know, people aren’t cheap. When a product is not helpful, when they regret using a product, they stop using that product. So unless you’re a child when children are protected class in our society there’s certain things that children should not cannot do by law. And then there’s another class of people who are addicted and addiction is a pathology; we’re not talking about people who just like to play apps a lot. We’re talking about people who are pathologically addicted. For everyone else, when a product isn’t good, you stop using it. You regret using it. You stop. So again, not only is it an ethical imperative, it’s a business imperative to make sure that you are not building the kind of products that your customer or user would regret using.

Joe [00:23:20] That makes a lot of sense. I’ve got to think about that more and how to use that within our teams. Something we hear a lot because we’re talking about consumer apps now like Snapchat and everything and when we talk about gamification or habits or triggers with clients, is, you know, “our product isn’t used a lot; we have tax software; we have something that, you know, they don’t log into every day or even every week.” So are these principles or these ideas or anything like that something they can still use and apply or is it more for these kinds of like social networks and just things you might use day-to-day?

Nir [00:23:49] Yeah. So the line of demarcation is not enterprise versus consumer. There are lots of consumer examples and there are a lot of enterprise examples of companies that use the Hook Model. So you can see the Hook Model in all sorts of enterprise products from Salesforce, GitHub, Stack Overflow, lots of enterprise products. Slack is a great example. You see the Hook Model in all of these products and services. By the way, not that they use the Hook Model, but you can see that the Hook Model postdates many of these companies when they were designed, but you can see examples of the Hook Model built into these products and services all the time. And so the line of demarcation is not enterprise versus consumer. The line of demarcation is frequent versus infrequent. If your product is not used with sufficient frequency… This is the number one reason why I will tell a company, “hey sorry, you’re not going to create a user habit,” is if the behavior does not occur with sufficient frequency. The test, at Google, Larry Page says that it’s a toothbrush test. He wants to build the kind of products that people use twice a day like a toothbrush. The studies show it’s actually not quite that frequent. It’s about a week’s time or less. Products that are used in a week’s time or less of the ones that are most likely to change a consumer habit, but if your product is not used within a week’s time or less, it’s very very hard to change that consumer habit. So what do you do? So first thing: not every product needs to be habit-forming. Let’s be very clear here, right. My agenda is not that every product needs to be habit-forming, it’s that every product that needs a habit needs a hook. Lots of businesses can deliver value to their customers, to their stakeholders, without becoming a habit. The problem is, if you don’t have a habit, you need to find some other competitive advantage because if you don’t have some kind of other competitive advantage then you are constantly fighting on price and features, price and features, price and features. So let’s take insurance, right. Insurance is not a product that you use habitually, right. You know, you buy it, and then God forbid something happens, then you call and say, “oh my gosh I had fender bender and I need to call my insurance company,” but that’s never going to become something that you use habitually. But the problem is if you don’t form a consumer habit or have some other kind of sustained competitive adantage, you’re constantly fighting on price and features, so that, you know, today Geico says, “hey 15 minutes will save you 15 percent on car insurance,” tomorrow somebody else says, “hey guess what 12 minutes saves you 20 percent on car insurance.” So to get out of that cycle of constantly competing over price and features, habits can be a huge competitive advantage. So what you can do if you have a product that is not used with sufficient frequency is you can actually bolt on a habit-forming experience, for example consuming content would be something that you could bolt on. Williams-Sonoma did a great job of this. Williams-Sonoma, you know, they make cookware. Buying cookware is never going to become a habit. It’s just not something that people do with sufficient frequency, but consuming content around cooking and recipes and famous chefs, that actually is a habit. That’s something that people do habitually. So what did they do? They made this website called which is constantly creating new content so that, and here’s the keeper, you know, tweet-able phrase here, the result of engagement is monetization. Particularly when it comes to e-commerce companies, we are so focused on getting people to check out and we spend no time trying to figure out how to get them to check in. And that’s a mistake. We have to figure out how to get people to engage with us more frequently by bolting on these habits. So one direction is content. Another is community, right. If you can build some kind of community around your product, even if it’s not used all that frequently, the community aspect of that product can keep people engaged so that, again, the result of engagement is monetization at some point.

Joe [00:27:18] I love that. I mean just for people to hear that not everything has to be habit-forming. You know, I remember back when Foursquare came out they had badges and they did it well. Everyone wanted to add badges to everything and it was like, “oh God, this is badge overload.” So I think that’s really helpful. And, you know, what you’re saying about basically keeping people’s attention whether that’s through content or community is also very important. I think that’s one of the really underutilized things that companies who have infrequently used products do nowadays.

Nir [00:27:45] Yeah and more of them should do it. Just to be clear, what I’m talking about here is not gamification, right. Gamification I’m not a big fan of. Gamification, you know, using game-like mechanics in non-gaming environments: badges, points, leaderboards… It was hot for a few years and then it kind of fizzled out because it was misapplied. What happened was that people put badges on everything but they forgot that the reward has to scratch the user’s itch. We talked about those internal triggers earlier. If the internal trigger is boredom, well then badges and points and leaderboards can make the experience more entertaining. But what if the internal trigger is something else? What if it’s workplace anxiety? I don’t want your freaking badges.

Sean [00:28:26] Right.

Joe [00:28:26] Right.

Nir [00:28:26] “That doesn’t solve my problem, get that out of here!” And so that’s why we have to start with these internal triggers. That’s the most important question you have to ask yourself as someone who’s building a habit-forming product is, “truly what is that user itch and does it occur with sufficient frequency for me to build a habit around?”

Joe [00:28:40] It’s kind of like, you know, when people, they see one of these new tools or techniques or anything…It’s almost like a hammer and they see everything as a nail.

Nir [00:28:46] That’s right.

Joe [00:28:47] So that’s the concern.

Nir [00:28:48] Gamification does work in certain circumstances, particularly when the internal trigger is boredom. But there’s a lot of circumstances where that is the wrong answer.

Sean [00:28:56] Or where competitiveness is important, you know. We’ve seen it work while in academia, for example, and in the social science publishing space. There are certain places where it has a role in others where it simply doesn’t.

Nir [00:29:08] Yep.

Sean [00:29:08] So to pull on that and go a little bit more tactical, in Hooked you talk about rewards of the tribe, the hunt, and the self. And I’m fascinated by that model. So I’d love to talk about it a little more. And how do you know when do you use each and how do you know, or how might you experiment with, those different types of rewards?

Nir [00:29:25] Yeah absolutely. So let me give you kind of a picture of the four steps of the Hook Model. So the Hook Model has these four steps of a trigger, an action, a reward, and an investment. So we talked about those internal triggers there’s also external triggers: the pings, the dings, the rings; all the things that prompts you to action in your environment, those are the external triggers. The internal triggers, which we talked about earlier, are these things inside of us, right. It’s these uncomfortable emotional states that we seek to escape: boredom, loneliness, fatigue, stress; any of these things that we seek to escape by using a product, which leads us to the next step of the hook: the action phase. The action phase is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of reward. The simplest thing we can do in anticipation of reward. It’s opening an app, scrolling a feed, checking a dashboard; these simple things that we do habitually. Then comes the reward phase and the reward phase is where the itch is scratched. This is where that internal trigger is satiated a little bit and there are three types of these variable rewards: rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt, and rewards of the self. Rewards of the tribe are things that feel good, that have an element of variability a bit of mystery to them, and come from other people. So, you know, social media is all about these rewards of the tribe. Then you have rewards of the hunt which is all about the search for material possessions or information rewards, right. What makes scrolling a news site habit-forming is that uncertainty around what information you might find. Our jobs use variable rewards in terms of a year-end bonus, right. There’s uncertainty. What might you get if you stick around? It’s a retention device. So anytime people are hunting for information rewards, money, material possessions; that’s rewards of the hunt. And then finally rewards of the self are things that feel good, have an element of variability, but don’t come from other people and aren’t about these information or material rewards. These are things that are intrinsically pleasurable. They feel good in and of themselves. Best example there is gameplay, right. When you play Angry Birds or Clash of Clans or any number of other games that you might play, getting to the next level, the next accomplishment, the next achievement is all about the search for mastery, competence, and control. And so that’s rewards of the self. Probably the mother of habit-forming technology is email. If you think about email, email incorporates tribe hunt and self. You’ve got rewards the of tribe: it comes from other people. You’ve got rewards the hunt: there’s uncertainty around the information that you might find right, what’s going to be in the emails, is it good news? Is it bad news? Is it something urgent that I need to reply to? And then finally: rewards of the self. There’s this mechanism of, you know, every time you get a notification, every time you see an unread message, there’s this sense of competency and control over checking that message, getting it done, with getting it processed. Those are all rewards of the self. So every habit-forming experience uses one or more of these three types of variable rewards. So it’s not that you have to have all three, but you have to have at least one of them.

Sean [00:32:12] Awesome. So what product at the moment do you think does a good job of that?

Nir [00:32:17] There’s so many. You know, since the book came out I’ve been very fortunate that people will write to me and show me, “hey we used your Hook Model, here’s how we’re using it,” and I love it because, you know, the companies that I see are really improving people’s lives. I’ll give you a few examples. So one company that just went public is called Kahoot. If you have kids, your kids will most likely know this company Kahoot. They are the world’s most widely used educational software and it uses the Hook Model to make classroom learning more engaging and more fun for kids to build this habit in the classroom. Oh and full disclosure I liked it so much I invested in Kahoot. I had these office hours and anybody can call me and ask me questions about the book. So the founder Johann called me up several years ago and said, “hey here’s how we’re using your Hook Model, what do you think,” and I loved it so much that I invested. A company I didn’t invest in but I wish I would have; there’s another company called Fitbod which is changing people’s exercise habits. Brilliant use of the Hook Model that’s helping people make a habit of exercising regularly in the gym. There’s a company called Paga that I’ve worked with in the past. They are bringing millions of previously unbanked people in Africa online for the first time and giving them bank accounts because they’re in these rural areas where getting to a physical bank location is too difficult so they’re doing it through their phones. Again this healthy habit around money and saving. So there’s lots and lots of examples of companies that are using the Hook Model for healthy habits.

Joe [00:33:37] Awesome. It’s amazing. I want to kind of go through a quote I was seeing the other day and this will be maybe a bit of a stream-of-thought and hopefully you can see where I’m going. But I saw this quote from J.R. Tolkien and it said, “not all who wander are lost.” And I was thinking about that with this interview coming up and your book that you’re coming out with. And I always think about how there can be value in letting your mind wander whether it’s riding a bike, taking a shower… So is that kind of like a good distraction or is that not distraction at all because maybe you’re focused on something valuable and not looking at your phone, for example? I was just trying to think through that little bit more.

Nir [00:34:15] No, it’s a terrific question. So in my book I define distraction in a special way. So distraction is anything that moves you off track from what you want to do. The opposite of distraction is traction. So traction moves you towards what you want to do. Distraction is anything that moves you away from what you want to do. So there’s traction and the opposite is distraction. They actually both have the same Latin root which means to pull, trahare. At the end of both words is action. Distraction and traction both end in the word action. So they are both actions. They are both things we do, not things that happen to us. Now I think what you’re describing, you know, what you call like a healthy distraction, I would call a diversion. A diversion is just rerouting our attention to focus on whatever it is we want to focus on. And that’s wonderful. There’s nothing unhealthy about getting diverted, you know, engaging in a diversion I should say, as noun, or engaging in a diversion. That’s totally fine if and only if it’s what you intended to do. So for example, if I showed you my calendar, you would see that every evening I have for an hour and a half from 8:00 to 9:30 I have social media time. Now I took something that used to be a distraction that I used to engage with when I was with my daughter or when I was supposed to be doing work. When I meant to do one thing I was using social media as a distraction. It took me off track, right. It limited my traction. Now, by scheduling the time that I make for social media, it’s no longer a distraction. It’s traction. That is exactly what I wanted to do with my time. I wanted to engage in a diversion. So whether it’s watching sports on TV, whether it’s taking a long walk, whether it’s doing nothing, whether it’s meditating, whatever it is that you want to do is totally fine. I’m not one of these people who somehow believes that playing video games is morally superior to watching a basketball game on TV. They’re both diversions and there’s nothing wrong with that. Getting out of your head and relaxing and, you know, letting your mind wander is wonderful. What I advocate for is doing so with intent. None of these technologies are evil. I know people in the press tell you it’s evil and it’s rotting your brain, it’s hijacking, that’s a bunch of crap. If we use them with intent, they’re perfectly fine, they can be perfectly healthy. But the keyword here is to plan ahead. It’s with intent.

Joe [00:36:35] That’s a great distinctinction.

Sean [00:36:35] I like that.

Joe [00:36:36] Yeah. I saw this tool the other day it’s called Not that the tool itself matters, but it’s basically trying to build artificial intelligence to, instead of manually thinking of ways to build habits for people, you know, automate it, essentially. And someone on Twitter called that behavioral engineering with a super negative tone, if you can read into the tone on Twitter. But I was thinking about that, I was like, “well this depends how you look at it, it’s all about how you frame it.”

Nir [00:37:00] It’s about how you apply it, I think. And I don’t know about the specific company. It’s a little bit difficult for me to understand how you could algorithmically do that. The idea behind the Hooked Model is to help people come up with better hypotheses, right. Today a bunch of us product designers sit in a room and we kind of, you know, in most cases we wait for orders. “What should we build? Oh, what does the boss say we should build? What does the loudest customer say we should build? What do our investors say we should build?” This is the big problem in product design is what do we build? Right, what features come next? We’ve got a huge backlog. How do we prioritize? So the idea behind the Hooked Model is to give a little bit of rhyme and reason to this to understand through some very old, very established consumer psychology research, you know, if our product needs repeat engagement how do we make sure that we have the key pillars: the trigger, the action, the reward, and investment, to make sure that our product is designed in such a way that it is built for repeat engagement, that it is designed for habits as opposed to just guessing and hoping that we build the right thing.

Sean [00:38:00] I love that. So the core message here around indistractability is to be purposeful with your decisions around how you’re spending your time.

Nir [00:38:06] Right. It’s to do what you say you’re going to do. And frankly I don’t care what it is that you decide to do, right. I’m not one of these moralists that says, you know, “this diversion is good and that one is bad.” How you spend your time should be done to align with your values. That’s what’s important. The problem is we all talk a good game, right. We say our health is important to us but then we don’t exercise and eat right. We say family’s important to us but we only make time for our family when it’s leftover in our day. So it’s really about how do we live our values by doing what it is we say we’re going to do?

Sean [00:38:37] One question a little bit off the reservation here. Where do you think innovation comes from? You started to touch on that a little bit and how the Hook Model can help to create more of those micro, sort of more tactical, innovations but where do you think big innovations come from? Any advice for the audience on where we might get more ideas.

Nir [00:38:52] Yeah, so this actually isn’t as far off the reservation as you might think. One of the chapters in my book… So about half the book Indistractable is about things that we can do as individuals. But then, of course, you know, while I was writing this section I had this nagging doubt about what I was writing because the fact is, you know, I can tell you how to be indistractable, but if your boss calls you at 10 p.m. with an urgent request you’ve got to pick up the call and do what they say or you might lose your livelihood.

Nir [00:39:18] So what I realized in this study of distraction is how influenced we can be by the culture of our companies. And what I learned was is that the correlation between which companies are the most distractable, where people feel like they’re running around like crazy, where they have this always on, always responsive culture which burns people out, that has been shown to be correlated with depression and anxiety disorders, are companies with really crappy culture. It turns out that distraction at work is a symptom of dysfunction. And the companies that have the kind of culture where people have what’s called psychological safety, meaning that they can have healthy disagreements, they can bring up issues without fear of getting fired, those are the companies incidentally that don’t struggle with distraction because somebody says, “hey guys I find I can’t work because people keep interrupting me, can we talk about this problem?” versus the companies where if you said something like that someone would think you’re just being lazy and you might get fired. The companies who can talk about their problems, just like a healthy family, if you can talk about those problems, those are the companies that not only don’t struggle with distraction, those are also the companies that have the best ideas, right. I profiled two companies in the book. I profiled BCG and I profiled Slack, and it turns out that when these companies built a mechanism to build psychological safety, to create the kind of culture where people can talk about their problems without fear of retribution, not only did they solve their distraction challenges, they also had all these great ideas bubble up. They learned from the frontline employees about these wonderful ideas that turned out to be substantial innovations because they had this environment of open dialogue and healthy disagreement. So that’s where I think good ideas come from. They come from an environment where people have the psychological safety to bring out their ideas, to discuss their ideas without fear of someone saying, “ah that’s a dumb idea” or “who are you to say,” or whatever.

Sean [00:41:13] Awesome. So we’re talking about building indistractable companies.

Nir [00:41:16] That’s right, that’s right. That’s actually the name of one of my chapters.

Sean [00:41:19] And indestructible team,s for sure. All right. Well one last question for you and then we’ll wrap up: other than Indistractable, your latest book, what’s the book you’ve been recommending to others to read recently?

Nir [00:41:33] There’s so many good books. I’m looking at the book case behind me and there are sooo many good ones. I’m going to answer the question of what book did I read recently that kind of blew my mind. And I’ll give you two and neither of them are product-related. They’re just great books that I really enjoyed. So one is called Suggestible You. The author’s name is Vance and it’s all about the placebo effect, and I had no idea how powerful the placebo effect was, so that was a great book. The other book I read that I really liked is Lost Connections, which was written by Hari, Johann Hari, and this is a book that explores the true nature of addiction. We talked about the difference between habits and addictions. You know, addictions are always bad, they’re always harmful. So you may want to check those out if you’re interested in the real cause of addiction and why addiction is not as simple as many people think. Many people think that addictive technology is caused by technology, right. Technology addiction is caused by technology. Well it turns out that there’s much, much more going on than most people realize.

Joe [00:42:29] Love it. Haven’t heard those before, going to add them to my list. Cool, well Nir, thank you so much. Really enjoyed this, I think it’s really super valuable for everyone who listens. Is there anything else you’d like to mention or plug before we end?

Nir [00:42:42] Oh thanks I appreciate it. So my website is It’s Nir spelled like my first name, N-I-R and far,, where you can find a lot more depth about what we just talked about. And if you’re interested in the books, my first book is called Hooked: How to Build Habit-forming Products and my next book is called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. And that is coming out in September.

Sean [00:43:04] Can’t wait to read it.

Nir [00:43:05] Thank you.

Sean [00:43:06] All right.

Joe [00:43:07] Nir, again, thank you so much. Appreciate it and can’t wait for everyone to get to listen to this.

Nir [00:43:12] Thank you guys.

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