Nir Eyal teaches companies how to hook customers. When he says hook, he doesn’t mean entice or engage — he means designing products that are habit-forming.
“Habit-forming products change user behavior and create unprompted user engagement,” Eyal explains. “The aim is to influence customers to use your product on their own, again and again, without relying on overt calls to action such as ads or promotions. Once a habit is formed, the user is automatically triggered to use the product during routine events such as wanting to kill time while standing in line.”
Eyal first got interested in habit-forming products in 2008, as cofounder and CEO of AdNectar, a platform for advertisers trying to reach social gamers. In the process of launching the company, he became intrigued with the behavioral influence that gaming sites and other social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, exerted on users.
After AdNectar was acquired by Lockerz in 2011, Eyal took a deep dive into the nuts and bolts of habit formation. He taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. He invested in and consulted with companies seeking to hook customers. Eyal encapsulated his findings in the best-selling book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (Portfolio, 2014), which details the Hook Model, a four-step cycle for creating habit-forming products.
When I reviewed Hooked a couple years ago, it raised a few eyebrows: The ethical line between creating a habit and creating an addiction seemed too thin to some readers. It’s a common response and one that Eyal, like other influence experts such as Robert Cialdini and nudger Cass Sunstein, takes pains to address. “Let’s admit it: We are all in the persuasion business…[but] the power to build persuasive products should be used with caution,” Eyal warns.
One of Eyal’s motivations for developing the Hook Model and writing Hooked was his own frustration with the lack of information on the topic for product designers. When I asked him about the books that had influenced him, he shared the following four titles.
“Let’s admit it: We are all in the persuasion business…[but] the power to build persuasive products should be used with caution.”
Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, by Natasha Dow Schüll (Princeton University Press, 2012). “Schüll spent more than a decade documenting the lives of compulsive machine gamblers in Las Vegas. She tells heartbreaking stories of addicts bewitched by the call of slot machines they can’t stop playing despite their desire to quit. She exposes the inner workings of an industry and state governments that are as dependent on gambling addicts as the addicts on gaming machines. It’s a chilling portrait of the complex psychology driving a multibillion-dollar industry and it raises important ethical questions about the uses of behavioral influence.”
The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing, by Michael J. Mauboussin (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). “How should your strategy change when winners are determined by luck versus skill? In this classic, Mauboussin elucidates how players in business and sports should alter their strategies based on how the game is played and won. He advises that being the best matters in games of skill, but process tends to win where luck is involved. This book goes a long way toward explaining why companies win or lose in fast-changing industries.”
Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games, by Ian Bogost (Basic Books, 2016). “I’m a sucker for books with counterintuitive insights. In Play Anything, Bogost, who is a game designer and theorist at Georgia Tech, provides unconventional advice for prospering in business and life by turning mundane experiences into gameful ones. For instance, he warns against trendy techniques like mindfulness because they distract us from reality, and instead advises us to learn to enjoy the process of solving tough challenges the way we enjoy games. Bogost forces his readers to rethink what a game is and to overturn limiting beliefs and assumptions by looking at the world through a ‘gaming lens.’”
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper, 2015). “I can’t get enough of Harari’s writing. In Sapiens, he argues a simple point: Humans are unique in our ability to share myths. ‘You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death, in monkey heaven,’ the historian writes. ‘Only Sapiens can believe such fictions.’ This is the kind of book that makes you see the world a bit differently and I think about it often. Harari’s insights into how abstract concepts like religion, ideology, and even the nature of money form habits of mind are hard to shake.”