I review Nir Eyal’s Hooked, a 200-page manual for creating habit-forming products. It’s clear that his steps work—examples from several common products readily support them. But I question whether this is being used for good or evil.
Eyal defines habits as “behaviors done with little or no conscious thought.” That sounds reasonable enough.
Businesses that create habits have a competitive advantage over those that don’t, he argues, because habits are wired deeper than your consciousness. Habits can create an unprompted user engagement.
Eyal’s Hooked model is a four-step blueprint to creating habit-forming products.
- Triggers cue a user to take action. These include internal triggers, like feelings of anxiety or boredom, and external triggers, like advertisements or media attention.
- Action happens next. To build habits, it’s important that actions are quick and simple and that they fit within the broader context of a user’s life.
- Variable rewards reinforce the trigger => action link. Why variable? Psychology research finds them to be most addictive.
- Investment in a product compels the user to keep coming back. This can mean personalization (TikTok gets better the more you use it), data (all my group chats are in Facebook Messenger), or time or money (sunk cost fallacies).
Eyal bills this book as a blueprint for product designers; after all, the subtitle is “how to build habit-forming products.” He strongly believes that this is a good thing—
From the introduction, on page 12—
Hooked seeks to unleash the tremendous new powers innovators and entrepreneurs have to influence the everyday lives of billions of people. I believe the trinity of access, data, and speed presents unprecedented opportunities to create positive habits.
When harnessed correctly, technology can enhance lives through healthful behaviors that improve our relationships, make us smarter, and increase productivity.
But what about when it’s harnessed incorrectly?
One of the main concepts I took away from Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing (review coming soon!) was that “attention is the last resource we have to withhold”—that when every product is making plays for our attention, being able to control it ourselves is essential to our well-being.
Because of the scarcity of attention, I believe that products seeking it should have a higher bar of ‘morality’ to clear than others. That’s not to say that products seeking our attention are inherently evil, of course. But I argue that it’s easier for them to be used for nefarious purposes.
Late in the book, after introducing his model, Eyal presents a “manipulation matrix” dividing products into four categories. These are based on (1) whether or not they materially improve a user’s life and (2) whether or not the maker uses it.
|the maker does not use it||the maker does use it|
|improves the user’s life||peddler||facilitator|
|does not improve the user’s life||dealer||entertainer|
The “yes / yes” combination is most laudable; creating something that you, too, would use, which also makes your users’ lives better—well, isn’t that the best? Eyal calls this the ‘facilitator,’ where one solves problems common to them and their users.
In the opposite corner are ‘dealers,’ who produce products which they wouldn’t use and which they don’t believe improve users’ lives. Eyal fairly calls this exploitation, but I think the bar here is still too high.
If the innovator has a clear conscience that the product materially improves people’s lives—first among them, the designer—then the only path is to push people forward. With the exception of the addicted 1 percent and other protected classes like children, users bear ultimate responsibility for their actions.
I cannot disagree more with this statement. It feels as if Eyal is absolving technology of negative impacts on users’ lives so long as the creator didn’t intend to hurt anyone. But the impact matters; I strongly believe that creators are at least partially responsible for the effects of the tools they build.
Seeing this quote so close to the end of the book made it feel like one of Eyal’s key points. That addicting products are fine, so long as you don’t think they’re harming your users. And if they are, well, isn’t that their fault anyway?
The psychological basis for the Hooked model is well-sourced and rigorous. The examples are readily understandable, and anyone with a smartphone can relate to them. The case studies are compelling. And that’s exactly the problem.
I wish more designers would ignore the advice presented here. I wish they would stop competing for our attention and stop trying to build habits of product use. But that’s the world we live in, so what am I to do?
Nir Eyal’s Hooked is absolutely correct in how to create habit-forming products, and I don’t like that. But the book—moral compass of designing addicting products notwithstanding—is well-written and worth reading.