Products’ economic value is a function of the strength of the habits they create. Companies that form strong user habits attach their product to internal triggers. As a result, users show up without any external prompting.

📍 Habits: the brain’s ability to quickly retrieve the appropriate behavioral response to a routine or process we have already learned.

📍 Trigger: the actuator of behavior — the spark plug in the engine. Triggers come in two types: external and internal.

Habit-forming products start by alerting users with external triggers. Then by cycling through successive hooks, users begin to form associations with internal triggers, which attach to existing behaviors and emotions — i.e. over time, Barbra associates Facebook with her need for social connection.

📍 Action: following the trigger comes the action: the behavior done in anticipation of a reward.

What distinguishes the Hook from a plain vanilla feedback loop is its ability to create a craving through variable rewards (dopamine surge). Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire.

📍 Investment: the mechanism that increases the odds the user will make another pass through the Hook cycle. She puts something into the product of service such as time, data, effort, or social capital. It is not a one-off isolated payment, but an action that improves the service for the next go-around.


Unprompted user engagement: I’m waiting in line, then, I open this app. Many of our daily decisions are made simply because that was the way we have found resolution in the past. The brain automatically deduces that if the decision was a good one yesterday, then it is a safe bet again today and the action becomes a routine.

As consequence of customers forming routines around a product, they come to depend upon it and become less sensitive to price.

In free-to-play games, delaying asking users to pay money until they have played consistently and habitually. Then converting users into paying customers is much easier.

📍 Viral Cycle Time: the amount of time it takes a user to invite another user. User habits are a competitive advantage and hooked users become brand evangelists. Megaphones for your company, bringing in new users at little or no cost.

Products that require a high degree of behavior change are doomed to fail even if the benefits of using the new product are clear and substantial.

A habit is when not doing an action causes a bit of discomfort.

Habits as moats: the nontransferable value created and stored inside services discourages users from leaving.

Companies that succeed in building a habit-forming business are often associated with game-changing, wildly successful innovation.

Behaviors are LIFO: the habits you’ve most recently acquired are also the ones most likely to go soonest. This helps explain that people rarely change their habits for long. Hence the enemy of forming new habits is past behaviors, old habits die hard.

For an infrequent action to become a habit, the user must perceive a high degree of utility, either from gaining pleasure or avoiding pain.

Habit-forming technologies seem at first to be offering nice-to-have vitamins, but once the habit is established, they provide an ongoing pain remedy.


Following the path of least resistance: reducing the thinking required to take the next action increases the likelihood of the desired behavior occurring with little thought.

Relationship triggers drive growth because people love to tell one another about a wonderful offer.

While paid, earned, and relationship triggers drive new user acquisition, owned triggers prompt repeat engagement until a habit is formed.

Internal triggers manifest automatically in your mind. Connecting internal triggers with a product is the brass ring of habit-forming technology.

Emotions, particularly negative ones, are powerful internal triggers and greatly influence our daily routines. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.

Users who find a product that alleviates their pain — validating our importance (or even our existence), checking to see if someone needs us, or providing an escape from life’s more mundane moments — will form strong, positive associations with the product over time.

New habits are sparked by external triggers, but associations with internal triggers are what keeps users hooked.

Product people must know their user’s internal triggers — that is, the pain they seek to solve. Hence, the ultimate goal of a habit-forming product is to solve the user’s pain by creating an association so that the user identifies the product as the source of relief.


An action is the simplest behavior in anticipation of a reward.

Common needs are timeless and universal. Even on the Internet, people just want to do the same things they’ve always done.

Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time. Then, identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.

People do not know what they want. Hence, talking to users to reveal these wants will likely prove ineffective. What they say they want — is far different from their revealed preferences — what they actually do.

  • What would your users want to achieve by using your solution?
  • Where and when will they use it?
  • What emotions influence their use and will trigger them to action?

To initiate action, doing must be easier than thinking. The more effort required to perform the desired action, the less likely it is to occur.

📍 B = MAT => Behavior = Motivation x Ability x Trigger

For any behavior to occur, a trigger must be present at the same time as the user has sufficient ability and motivation to take action.

(M) The core human motivators:

  • Seek pleasure and avoid pain.
  • Seek hope and avoid fear.
  • Seek social acceptance and avoid rejection.

(A) The “steps” to create a product:

  1. Understand the reason people use a product.
  2. Lay out the steps the customer must take to get the job done.
  3. Remove steps until you reach the simplest possible process.

Critics first discounted Twitter’s 140-character message limitation as gimmicky and restrictive; little did they realize the constraint actually increased users’ ability to create.

Focus on simplicity as a function of the user’s scarcest resource at that moment.

Ability is influenced by six factors:

  • Time — Is the user short on time?
  • Money — Is the behavior too expensive?
  • Physical effort — Is the user exhausted after a long day of work?
  • Mental effort — Is the product too difficult to understand?
  • Social deviance — Is the user in a social context where the behavior could be perceived as inappropriate?
  • Non-routine — Is the behavior simply so far removed from the user’s normal routine?

Identify what the user is missing; what is making it difficult for the user to accomplish the desired action?

Motivation or ability, which should go first? The greatest return on investment comes from increasing a product’s ease of use.

📍 The scarcity effect: in 1975 researchers Stephen Worchel, Jerry Lee, and Akanbi Adewole wanted to know how people would value cookies in two identical glass jars. One jar held ten cookies while the other contained just two. Although the cookies and jars were identical, participants valued the ones in the near-empty jar more highly.

A product can decrease in perceived value if it starts off as scarce and becomes abundant.

The group left with only two cookies rated them to be more valuable, while those experiencing sudden abundance — by going from two to ten — actually valued the cookies less. In fact, they valued the cookies even lower than people who had started with ten cookies to begin with.

📍 The framing effect: The mind takes shortcuts informed by our surroundings to make quick and sometimes erroneous judgments.

  • Remove an well-known artist from the concert hall, put him on a metro station, and few pay attention.
  • Increase the price of a given wine in a blind test and so will the participants’ enjoyment of the wine.

📍 The anchoring effect: People often anchor to one piece of information when making a decision.

📍 The endowed progress effect: if you provide some type of artificial advancement toward a goal, a person will be more motivated to complete the goal. In other words, having a status bar pre-filled at 25%, will make you more likely to reach 100%.

Variable Rewards

The nucleus accumbens — which has a significant role in the cognitive processing of motivation, aversion, reward — does not actually activate when the reward is received, but rather in anticipation of it.

What draws us to act is not the sensation we receive from the reward itself, but the need to alleviate the craving for that reward.

Variability increases activity in the nucleus accumbens and spikes levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, driving our hungry search for rewards.

Without — or finite — variability, in that we figure out what will happen next, we become less excited about the experience. To hold our attention, products must have an ongoing degree of novelty.

However, for companies like Google and Uber, adding more variability to an inherently variable user experience makes no sense. Variability is only engaging when the user maintains a sense of autonomy.

To change behavior, products must ensure the users feel in control. The most successful consumer technologies are the ones that nobody makes us use. Researchers believe the phrase “but you are free” disarms our instinctive rejection of being told what to do.

🔖 Researchers believe laughter may in fact be a release valve when we experience the discomfort and excitement of uncertainty, but without fear of harm.

Variable rewards come in three types:

  • The tribe: our brains are adapted to seek rewards that make us feel accepted, attractive, important, and included — i.e. getting upvotes or likes from recently published content, accumulating points representing how much someone has contributed to his or her tribe.
  • The hunt: the same mental hardwiring that drives San hunters chasing kudu (the pursuit itself) is the same mechanism that keeps us wanting and buying. The need to acquire physical objects, such as food and other supplies that aid our survival, is part of our brain’s operating system.
  • The self: we are driven to conquer obstacles, even if just for the satisfaction of doing so. Pursuing a task to completion can influence people to continue all sorts of behaviors — i.e. checking email: we want to gain a sense of competency, plus, adding an element of mystery to this goal makes the pursuit all the more enticing.

When dealing with difficult tasks — such as learning — gamification, points, badges, and leaderboards can prove effective. But only if they scratch the user’s itch. When there is a mismatch between the customer’s problem and the assumed solution, no amount of gamification will help spur engagement.

Rewards must fit into the narrative of why the product is used and align with the user’s internal triggers and motivations.

Good storytelling is variable in its nature: the cycle of conflict, mystery, and resolution is as old as storytelling itself, and at the heart of every good tale is variability.


The last step of the Hooked Model is the investment phase, the point at which users are asked to do a bit of work.

  • The IKEA effect: the more effort we put into something, the more likely we are to value it. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that our labor leads to love.
  • Little investments, can lead to big changes in future behaviors. Instead of demanding “the big thing” up front, ask first for smaller commitments.
  • Cognitive dissonance: we tend to irrationally manipulate how we see the world when we can’t deal with a reality that is too uncomfortable or doesn’t fit our wants. We can even change our preferences to avoid cognitive dissonance.

These three tendencies ☝️ lead to a mental process known as rationalization: in which we change our attitudes and beliefs, giving ourselves reasons to justify our behaviors.

The timing of asking for the investment is important. We humans evolved the tendency to reciprocate kindness because it improved our species’ ability to survive. Asking after the reward there is an opportunity to leverage a central trait of human behavior.

Investments increase the likelihood of users returning by improving the service the more it is used. They enable the accrual of stored value in the form of content, data, followers, reputation, or skill.

First published on May 09, 2020