Popforms Leader Of The Week is a feature on our blog where we highlight an outstanding leader and share their insights on leadership, career, and being awesome at your job.
Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. He is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. 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.
Nir is also an advisor to several Bay Area start-ups , venture capitalists, and incubators. In addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir is a contributing writer for Forbes, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.
What’s your job title?
Author of Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products.
What do you actually do every day?
I mostly keep myself entertained by learning, teaching, and writing about the psychology of products.
What was the last thing that inspired you?
I’m inspired whenever I see someone taking joy in their work. Making a living from something you’d do for free is the ultimate career hack.
What were you like growing up?
I was always a bit of a dissident. I never had the typical teenage rebellious phase most people go through but I liked challenging people’s beliefs and uncovering hidden truths even as a little kid.
For example, I grew-up in central Florida where many people still believe in a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. I remember shocking my first grade class by telling everyone that humans evolved from apelike animals. I think I saw a National Geographic special about evolution on television. Taking on creationism in grade school didn’t make me very popular among my peers whose parents taught them that Adam was made from mud but apparently 6-year-old me thought everyone should know.
In your mind, what does it take for someone to be crazy successful?
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.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Be your own boss. (However, that doesn’t necessarily mean start your own business.)
What’s one of your favorite techniques for getting things done?
Persistence is more important than intensity.
You’re an expert on habit-forming products, and just published a new book on the topic called Hooked. How did you get interested in studying habit-forming technology? Why did you write this book?
At my last company I worked at the intersection of gaming and advertising and I saw all kinds of tactics used to change customer behavior. I noticed that many people in the industry didn’t know why certain things worked or the psychological principles driving behavior — they just knew they worked.
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 designers 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 behavior 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, behavioral 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.
I also believe that as interfaces have shrunk from desktops, to laptops, to mobile devices, and now to wearables, habits become more important because there just isn’t the screen space to trigger people to action the way software once could. There just isn’t the space and so habits matter more than ever.
What’s makes today’s technology so habit-forming?
In my book, I describe “Hooks” as 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.
You write, “habits are good for business.” How so? Why are customer habits important?
Habits are good for the bottom line for a number of reasons. Sustained engagement yields higher customer lifetime value, greater pricing flexibility, and can supercharge growth.
In addition, customer habits defend against encroaching competitors. When users form routines and dependencies around using a particular product, the company can create tremendous value — just think of how habit-forming products like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Instagram are.
You offer insights on the morality of manipulating consumer behavior. What are your thoughts on the ethical implications of user manipulation?
A reader once told me that something can’t be a called a superpower unless it can be used for good as well as evil. In that respect, designing user behavior is a superpower and must be used responsibly.
Some readers may think I’m teaching people how to manipulate others, teaching sneaky business people “how to make a bomb” so to speak. I think that’s a bit dramatic.
There are two reasons I wrote Hooked. First, I want to help people build products that create healthy habits. I think there is so much we can do to help our users live happier, healthier, more productive lives, by designing healthy habits.
Second, even if you’re not a product designer, you’re still a consumer yourself and it’s important to understand how products change behavior so that you can break the hooks that aren’t serving you in your own life. Hooked exposes the hidden psychology of all the attention-draining distraction in your life so that you can regain control.
Do you find some technology too habit-forming? How do you fight bad habits?
Well, I’ll let you in on a very personal example of how I manage my own habits.
Many people I know in Silicon Valley have trouble powering down. A few years ago, my wife and I found ourselves scrolling and tapping on our gadgets late into the evening and as a result, we were neglecting our *cough* romantic needs. Our digital devices were so engaging that we were checking Facebook and email instead of spending “quality time” together.
So here’s what we did: I took a look a the hooks in the technologies were were using to try and find ways to break the cycle. The first thing I did was to take our phones out of the bedroom. They now charge in the living room.
Then, I headed over to the hardware store and bought a $10 outlet timer. Whatever was plugged into the timer would turn off at 10pm every night. By plugging my router into the timer, I broke the hook of mindlessly checking the web. Now, every time I felt anxiety about checking my email inbox, I am forced to think carefully about this action, thereby disabling the habit.
More Nir Eyal:
Where do you live/work?
Silicon Valley, CA, USA
Where is the best place for people to learn more about you?
Where can people connect with you?