Kevin Garber: [00:00] This week on the "It's a Monkey" podcast.

Nir Eyal: [00:03] Good triggers are well timed that the closer the external trigger -- the message, the notification -- is to the internal trigger, meaning the point in time when the user feels this itch, this need of a sensation like boredom or loneliness or seeking connection or uncertainty, any one of these emotions, that's the best time and place to send them these external triggers that are well timed.

[00:28] One example that I give is, I was in Toronto recently. I gave a talk for a client who had hired me. I came back to my hotel. It was late at night. I was pooped. I was tired but I didn't want to get back to work. Yet, I didn't want to go to sleep either. I was almost restless.

[00:47] I wanted to do something but I didn't know what. Lo and behold, that's the second that the Foursquare app sent me a notification that said, "Did you know that in your hotel, there is a bar on the top floor that is rated one of the top 10 bars in North America?"

[01:06] That was an extremely well timed trigger.

[01:08] [music]

Kevin: [01:08] Thank you for joining us on this week's It's a Monkey podcast. This week, we're replaying an interview that I did with Nir Eyal. He's the author of "Hooked -- How to Build Habit-Forming Products."

[01:30] This interview was originally broadcast in February 2015. Enjoy.

[01:35] [pause]

Kevin: [01:36] You're back with Kevin Garber, It's a Monkey podcast. We talked about everything relating to technologies, startups and social media. You name it, we cover it. We're always looking for interesting personalities to talk with on the show. We try to keep the podcast interesting for you. You are listening to episode number 55.

[01:54] At the end of my Skype line coming to straight from the Bay area, I have Nir Eyal who is the author of a really interesting book called Hooked -- How to Build Habit-Forming Products. The book was on "The Wall Street Journal" bestseller list.

[02:13] Nir has founded two startups, both of which were acquired. I have him at the end of the Skype line to talk about the psychology of notification.

[02:24] Nir, thank you very much for joining us.

Nir: [02:25] Pleasure to be here, Kevin. Thanks for having me.

Kevin: [02:28] What led you to your fascination with notifications, in the sense intersection of psychology, technology and business which has become a very big part of our world? In old days, computers were just the computer department and a very a very technical computational elements of our world.

[02:46] Nowadays, there's this beautiful, interesting, fascinating, crazy intersection where it cuts across all aspects of our life. How did you get into this particular niche?

Nir: [02:57] I spent several years in the gaming and advertising business. Let's face it, these two industries happen to be dependent on mind control. Advertisers don't spend all those billions of dollars for their health. They spend that money because it changes people's behavior.

[03:14] If you want to look at one of the purest forms of consumer psychology to manipulate user behavior, you couldn't start a better place than in the gaming industry where games are designed step by step to change users' behavior along a particular path.

[03:33] Anyway, from the years spent in those two industries, I saw that there were lots of techniques used to change user behavior. Unfortunately, there wasn't any kind of textbook or guide for how to apply these techniques for good.

[03:51] What I wanted to do after my last company was acquired is I wanted to write this this book that could give product makers, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, anybody working on new products designed to change user behavior, this guidebook, these principles so that they could change habits for good.

[04:11] That's really what the core of the book is all about, is how do you change consumer behavior using the deeper principles of consumer psychology so that we can help people live happier, healthier, more connected, more productive lives by creating these healthy habits?

Kevin: [04:26] I do know what you say for good and we'll get into some of the ethics of that just a little bit later. We have a lot of people that listen to the podcast that are either starting their own startups or want to start startups.

[04:39] Let's keep it simple for the moment but if someone's building a product or isn't a product role, what are some of the basics that are well known.

[04:49] Let's assume at the moment, it's all for good in a way and you know what are some of the elements that they should consider in their product when factoring in notifications to add value to their users and hence make their products more compelling.

Nir: [05:05] Notifications are just one part of the equation and they go into the entire product. They're not separate. They're actually part of what keeps users engaged with the product experience or how people use what I call external triggers.

[05:21] The framework that I work from in my book and a lot of my research is centered around is called the Hook Model. The Hook Model is this design pattern that connects the user's problem to your solution with sufficient frequency to form a habit.

[05:38] It's through successive cycles, through these hooks, these four basic steps that user preferences are shaped, that tastes are formed, and that these habits take hold.

[05:48] If we want people to use our product continuously, habitually, if we want them to check in on their own without having to eventually be promoted by advertising or spamming messaging, if we want to create that mental association, we have to run people through these four steps of a hook.

[06:06] These hooks have four basic phases. It's a trigger, an action, a reward and then finally an investment. We can talk about each one of those phases. This is what I detail in the book. The notifications or any kind of messages, they fall into the category of external triggers.

[06:23] External triggers are things that tell the user what to do next, by giving them some piece of information, as opposed to internal triggers which are these associations where the information for what to do next is stored in the users mind. That's where we're eventually going.

[06:39] To create a habit forming product, we eventually want to not even require notifications or any kind of external triggers. We want people to prompt themselves so that when we're feeling bored, we check YouTube or Reddit. When we're lonely, we hop on Facebook. When we're uncertain, we use Google.

[06:55] That's where these products eventually go, but to get there, we have to start with these external triggers. I just published recently this article around what makes good triggers and the psychology of good triggers, so there's a few basic tendons.

[07:09] For example, the closer the external trigger, the message, the notification is to the internal trigger, meaning the point in time when the user feels this itch, this need of a sensation like boredom, or loneliness, or seeking connection, or uncertainty, anyone of these emotions, that's the best time in place to send them these external triggers that are well timed.

[07:33] One example that I give is I was in Toronto recently. I gave a talk for a client who had hired me. I came back to my hotel. It was late at night. I was pooped. I was tired but I didn't want to get back to work. Yet, I didn't want to go to sleep either. I almost was restless. I wanted to do something but I didn't know what.

[07:56] Lo and behold, that's the second that the Foursquare app sent me a notification that said, "Did you know that in your hotel, there is a bar on the top floor that is rated one of the top 10 bars in North America?"

[08:11] Well, that was an extremely well timed trigger. It just happened to coincide.

[08:16] They geolocated where I was, as soon as I walked into my hotel, that's when I got this notification at this time of night when I actually could find this very useful and of course, I swiped, saw more about the bar and then headed upstairs and went to check it out.

[08:30] That would be an example of a well-timed trigger. Other key tendons are that good triggers are actionable. A lot of companies send people notifications, and messages, and emails without an explicit message for what to do next. That is absolutely critical that you tell the user what to do with each notification.

[08:51] Another thing is, finally, the good trigger spark intrigue. That one of the phases of every hook, is a variable reward. We have to make sure that there is this bit of intrigue, this bit of mystery, this bit of the unknown that users come back to want to check these apps because of this bit of intrigue.

[09:11] When we send a notification, there needs to be some bit of mystery, some bit of the unknown that brings users back to the app again.

Kevin: [09:18] Nir, are we moving to a situation or we're probably already in a situation where machines for lack of...big data knows more about us than we know about ourselves, can preempt what's in our own interests even better than we can ourselves.

[09:38] Your bar example is a terrific example of that where it actually knew that it was better than you what you would actually enjoy that fits in with you, that coincides with your needs. There's a little bit of a spookiness to it, isn't there?

Nir: [09:54] Welcome to 2015. [laughs] This is the new reality we live in today for better and for worse. A big reason why I wrote this book, there's two main reasons why I wrote Hooked.

[10:08] Number one reason is because I want to help product makers. I've started two companies. I know how difficult it is to build products that people actually use.

[10:17] I know that the vast majority of entrepreneurs out there, of innovators, people who want to make great products, they're not struggling with overuse. They're not struggling with people using their products too much. Quite the opposite, the vast majority of entrepreneurs are struggling with getting anybody to even care that their product exists.

[10:35] That's who I wrote this book for, is if you're building a product to create a healthy habit in people's lives to make their lives better, by and large, I believe that these technologies do make our lives better. I'm not a Luddite. I love technology. I use it myself, and I'm constantly looking for new ways to improve my life through these technologies. I think they're fantastic.

[10:55] The other big reason I wrote this book was because I believe the world is becoming a potentially more addictive place. It's only by understanding these phases of these hooks, how these hooks work, that these products that bring us back time and time again, these products do not bring us back and create these habits by accident.

[11:18] These guys didn't get lucky. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest and Slack -- these guys didn't get lucky. They either tested into or they very strategically used much of the psychology of what keeps people engaged.

[11:32] I think it behooves us to understand how consumer psychology gets us to keep checking our devices and keeps us coming back so that we can do something about it.

[11:42] It's only by understanding how these products work that we can put technology in its place, make sure that we control our technology habits so that our technology habits don't control us.

Kevin: [11:54] You mention in the article that was in TechCrunch, "The Psychology of Notifications," obviously the Pavlovian example, the very famous Pavlovian example. Facebook obviously is the classic gold standard of getting a lot of this right, in my opinion.

[12:14] I'm interested to know, though, there is a chemical element that reduces down as low as that. Each time there's a Facebook notification, I would imagine there's an equivalent or actual dopamine hit, right?

Nir: [12:32] There is certainly a lot of very interesting things happening in our brains when we hear a ping or a buzz. Some people have an association that's so strong that there's even this phantom ring effect, that echo. We feel the phone vibrating even though it's not because we just happen to be thinking about it for a minute. We instantly check our devices.

[12:56] There's certainly a lot of interesting brain science happening here that gets us to continually check our devices. What I focused on in the book is some of the psychology that product makers can practically use.

[13:12] I was a little frustrated because I found a lot of books around behavioral economics, and consumer psychology, and even interface design, and human-computer interaction, but a lot of it, I found, didn't blend these two fields very well. There wasn't really a guide to how to use consumer psychology to influence behavior for good.

[13:36] I didn't find that guide. I wanted something very practical and very actionable for the product makers. That's why I wrote this book.

Kevin: [13:43] I think there's a huge potential in terms of marrying notifications with the quantifiable self. I would love this intelligent layer that monitors all my internal physical systems and notifies whether I should eat X more of this, X more of that. Sleep more of this, just totally to optimize things.

[14:03] I think there's huge potential in that area, and obviously, wearables are just the absolute first stage of that. I think we're going to see massive developments in that space.

Nir: [14:12] I truly hope you're right. I guarantee you that there will be bad's that come out of these good's as well. I think there's a lot of potential, there's a lot of things that can improve our lives.

[14:27] This is nothing new, this technology cycle of a product coming to market that deals with some human need, some tool that allows us to fix a problem in some way, and as a result creates other problems. I think that's what we're seeing now. We're seeing that we've wholesale adopted many of our technologies and by and large, they're great.

[14:51] I don't want to go back to a world before iPhones and before Facebook and before email and before Twitter. These things are wonderful. I love these products.

[14:58] What we're also seeing is that there's also a downside. There's a price to be paid for many of these products.

[15:05] Part of the price we paid is that our attention is becoming increasingly a scarce commodity that we need to be very careful about, not using these products to excess, that we make sure that we keep our focus when we need it and that we don't allow all these products to interfere with other things we want to do in our life.

[15:25] By and large, these things at times are bad habits for people, but they're not full-fledged addictions. They don't harm people. We're not using Facebook intravenously, like we do with heroin.

[15:35] [laughter]

Kevin: [15:36] They would love us to, though.

Nir: [15:39] Maybe. For most people, these are things they can get under control. I'm very optimistic when it comes to wearables and with biometrics. There's going to be all sorts of interesting ways that we can change consumer habits for good by having all this data about what's happening inside our bodies.

Kevin: [16:00] What worries me a little about said Facebook's not taken intravenously, but I've noticed quite a lot of people comment about their Facebook use and that they can't actually control it. In a word, some of them term addiction, it's just, "I wish I could get off this thing.

Nir: [16:20] I think there's certainly a segment of the population that goes too far. That is actually addicted. By definition, an addiction is a compulsive dependency on a behavior or a substance. It's something that, unlike a habit, which we have good habits and bad habits, addictions are always bad. Addictions hurt the user, and they can't stop.

[16:43] I was very deliberate in that I did not call my book, "How to Build Addictive Products." I entitled the book, How to Build Habit-Forming Products, because habits can be used for good. We would never want to create addictions in our user because, again, addictions hurt people.

[17:01] The good news is, and why I am mildly optimistic, is that we have to remember that addiction is nothing new, that addiction has been around for a very long time and addictive products have been around for a very long time.

[17:15] What's different now is that unlike addictive products of the past, to say alcohol, alcohol has been around for 1,000 of years and people have been intoxicated and even alcoholics for a very long time.

[17:29] If you're a manufacturer of an alcoholic drink, you could throw up your hands and say, "We don't know who the alcoholics are. We don't know who is getting drunk."

[17:38] For the first time, these connected products know, they know how much time people are spending on these products.

[17:47] I think, and this is what I've written about several times for TechCrunch and other publications, that I call upon companies building potentially addictive products to have what I call a use and abuse policy.

[17:59] Some kind of number that they should have, that says, "That's too much." Maybe Facebook should reach out to you.

[18:07] If you're using Facebook 40 hours a week, if you're playing the Kim Kardashian game 50 hours a week, if you're playing Candy Crush up to a certain degree, maybe they should reach out to you and say, "You know what, you match a similar profile to somebody who is using this product to an unhealthy degree."

[18:25] They know how much people are using these products. Whether they actually do something about it, is a whole another story. The fact that they know gives me hope, because for many of these products, they don't need or want addicts. Facebook doesn't need you to be addicted to the product.

[18:41] Now other products like free to play games, that's a different question. There's an ethical dilemma. What happens when a product relies upon addicts? That's a whole other ethical question.

Kevin: [18:52] Are there any products or gaming systems or networks that actually do have any notifications like that of any flags?

Nir: [19:00] Yes, actually there's a company called Stack Overflow. You know Stack Overflow?

Kevin: [19:03] Sure.

Nir: [19:04] I'm guessing every engineer in the world knows Stack Overflow. It's the world's largest technical questions-answers site. 5,000 questions get answered every single day.

[19:13] One of the founders of Stack Overflow, Jeff Atwood, when I talked to him about this policy they have, told me that they have this policy where if you spend more than, I think it's 20 hours a week, on Stack Overflow, you can't earn any more points after a certain amount.

[19:29] The reason he did this, the reason he put this in place is, one, he saw that the community actually suffered when people participated so much and became obsessed about earning more of votes that the quality suffered. Two, he wanted Stack Overflow to be something that enhances users lives as opposed to something that becomes their life.

[19:49] That's an example of a company that has already built in breakers into the system so that people slowed down their consumption of the product, their use of the product.

Kevin: [20:00] Of course, there are use cases in society where that acknowledge its compulsive behavior in a bad way and short circuits. The stock market is one of them. If it drops a certain percentage in a day, they shut the market. Just to factor in that that humans can be this compulsed, get into these compulsive vicious cycles.

[20:21] When gaming, there has been many cases where young kids, there were stories I've read usually in China or Hong Kong, somewhere, have played games for so long that they've actually dropped dead literally.

Nir: [20:35] Right. There is a kid almost every year that this happens to. It's fun to talk about the sensational news that's exceptionally rare. I want to reiterate again that this is on the fringe. That people get addicted to these products. It's a very small minority of people who get addicted to these types of things.

[20:56] Typically, there's a psychographic profile for someone who gets addicted to all sorts of different things, whether it's alcohol, drugs, compulsive gambling, sex addiction or electronics.

[21:07] There's a psychographic profile for that type of person. Again, just because there's the small minority of people who suffer doesn't mean we shouldn't do something about it.

[21:16] Quite the opposite, I think the fact that we can do something for these people to help them means we absolutely should do something to help them. To put it in perspective, it's a very small proportion of the population and for most people, they don't get addicted to these things.

[21:30] Again, we're not using Facebook intravenously. Maybe it's a bad habit from time to time when we're feeling particularly bored or particularly lonely. We find it hard to focus because we find ourselves constantly distracted, but then we get into something that's more interesting and we leave it. [laughs]

[21:46] This is what tends to happen with almost all the addictions. The greatest recovery tool is time. Eventually, people move on from these things. They get tired of them and they move on to the next thing.

[21:59] I think that these products have in their interest to keep people engaging at a moderate degree, but for a very long period of time. I think that's what we're going to start seeing in the future.

[22:08] Again for the vast majority of people building products out there, they're not at all worried about overuse. Quite the opposite, they want to get people hooked to use the product in the first place.

Kevin: [22:18] What do you think of Yo, the app Yo?

Nir: [22:23] Yo is interesting. I don't think Yo raised their million dollar seed round purely because of Yo. In the app reincarnation that we saw, I think there's a bigger play there, in that sending easy to respond notification, within the notification itself was interesting.

[22:49] You could see use cases for sending these external triggers, sending these notifications and then quickly whisking people through these four steps of the hook as quickly as possible. I think that's what Yo actually demonstrated.

[23:02] What's actually interesting about Yo is that you can go through these four steps of the hook without actually entering the app. You can do a lot with this product just through the iOS notification interface.

Kevin: [23:14] I think where I saw app Yo having huge potential is just mainly just a configurable notification system via the API, just all these use cases. I get a Yo when Marc Andreessen starts one of his tweets storms, and I actually quite like that.

Nir: [23:34] That's terrific. That's a great example of a really helpful trigger.

Kevin: [23:37] Really helpful trigger. Marc Andreessen tweets are fantastic. I've spoken about them before in the podcast. I can always go back and look at them, but if I'm sitting on a bus and I happened to get Yo, I'll be like, "Yes, sure, I'll start following them."

[23:50] There was also a product that TechCrunch last year built by Sydney guys. A product called Notivo. It was a really ambitious project to do an app that passively sits on your phone and minds all information that's publicly available.

[24:05] Whether trains, traffic, monitors your Google calendar, and what you've been Googling and your Facebook and matches the two, and tries to get really intelligence at what it notifies you.

[24:18] A very, very bold project that are on the way, but to get that right...if you don't get it exactly right, it lands up being a pain and just painful. They are people that are giving this problem a go at solving.

Nir: [24:33] The market's recent tweet storm thing by the way is an excellent example of intrigue. You get that notification and that if it wasn't interesting, if it wasn't something that you knew you were going to be interested in, then it wouldn't be very useful to you.

[24:46] You're intrigued to figure out OK what's Marc Andreessen going to say next? There's a bit of mystery. What's he going to tackle? What am I going to learn here?

Kevin: [24:54] You almost think that's something that Twitter should get on board with. Twitter's been having problems with user growth. One of the elements I think that Facebook is far better at is the notifications hook you get from all sorts of angles.

[25:07] Whereas, Twitter, there's that intrigue. They struggle to hook you in with an intrigue. You almost got to discover it yourself or create your own list. It leaves a lot of that up to you whereas Facebook somehow guides you along a lot better.

Nir: [25:24] The biggest differentiation is that Facebook can manipulate the algorithm behind what you see and what you don't see. Whereas, you don't see all your friend's posts. Facebook spends a lot of time figuring out whose posts you should see and whose posts you should not see.

[25:45] Why do they do that? Because of this critical third step of the hook, the variable reward phase, they're trying to figure out the right balance to keep the feed variable. If it's too mundane, if it's not very interesting, you're not going to come back.

[26:02] You need to have the right ratio between your Aunt Martha's boring post and your crazy college friends' interesting post. The little ad they put in there is to keep you scrolling and scrolling. They need to find the right ratio of interesting to mundane post.

[26:17] You can't just post everything. They have all kinds of ways to figure out what you should see and what you should not see.

[26:22] Twitter has a problem because what happened over the past few years is that people followed a lot of people without any discretion around who actually tweets well and who doesn't tweet well.

[26:34] Our Twitter feeds have become polluted with a lot of uninteresting tweets and that makes people fade off after time. You see things that Twitter has done recently where they put these little curated blocks of the best tweets from your network that you may have missed.

[26:51] They're doing that specifically because they're trying to increase the ratio of rewarding tweets, interesting tweets, to the not very interesting tweets.

Kevin: [26:59] Is there anything else you think Twitter can do? I think a lot about this problem. Obviously, we've built a product on Twitter and the user growth numbers.

[27:06] In a way, their strength is their weakness. They still own the real time space and the real time space is...Yes, the strength is it's not an algorithm and that's why Twitter owns the real time space.

Nir: [27:20] I think where Twitter is nice is as a consumer. I think that for the vast majority of people, it's the one, nine, 90 problem. That it's one percent of the people create content. Nine percent of people interact with that content or occasionally create content. 90 percent of the population just consumes.

[27:41] It turns out that because of this variable reward problem, this problem with the ratio of interesting to mundane content, that 90 percent of the population falls out pretty quickly, unless you get them to make stuff. The first hump that Twitter had to get over was to get you to follow people.

[28:02] To go through their first hook in the investment is following people so that you can become a content consumer. What Twitter has to do is to get people to start creating content. That's where the magic behind Twitter really takes off.

[28:16] When you become a content creator and you start getting social feedback based on your tweets, I think, then Twitter becomes a very habit forming product. If I were over Twitter, I would try and figure out, how can we get people to tweet more as opposed to just consuming what they're tweeting, or what other people are tweeting?

Kevin: [28:35] It's an interesting point to make because a lot of the people that I've spoken to about Twitter, a lot of them say, "I've registered my account, but I don't tweet. I'm scared of saying something stupid."

[28:44] A lot of them have actually said that exact same sentence, because it's so public and there's all these famous people. They're scared of looking like idiots.

Nir: [28:52] That is a huge, huge barrier. If you look at the second phase of the hook, the action phase, the action phase is all about the simplest behavior done in anticipation of reward. When you think about what blocks action, what blocks a behavior, there's six basic elements.

[29:08] Time, money, physical effort, brain cycles, non-routine and social conformity. The one that keeps coming up and keeps blocking the action for Twitter is this cognitive load aspect. This brain cycles of thinking, "Am I going to be judged? What should I say? Am I going to sound stupid?"

[29:25] That is a huge barrier to action. Twitter's got to figure out ways to make it easier for people to contribute, to tweet in ways that are lower friction. Some examples of that, some things you can do. It's iterated in other products. WhatsApp fixed this problem by making it small intimate groups.

[29:44] Now the social pressure around being judged is reduced because there's just people I feel very close with.

[29:50] Instagram solved this problem by reducing the cognitive load of what to share by just snapping a picture. Right now, I don't have to think about how I can be witty and if it's going to be judged.

[29:59] I can just snap a picture and that's what Instagram is all about. There's other ways to solve that, video actually. Twitter adding video recently tries to solve this problem. I think you're going to see they're looking for other ways to make it easier to create content as opposed to just consuming it.

Kevin: [30:16] I think they really stuck in a corner because there's always the risk of eroding your core value and offering by doing something new. Craigslist still hasn't changed much. It's working.

[30:32] Don't fix what's not broken. In many ways, a lot is right with Twitter. How can you keep what is right right and at the same time, bolt on added value along the way as well?

Nir: [30:46] It's not easy. They've had a tremendous success story so far. I don't know. I'm optimistic about Twitter. I would go long on Twitter, actually.

Kevin: [30:55] I would also. Nir, it's been great talking to you. I know we've taken up a lot of your time.

[31:01] Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked -- How to Build Habit-Forming Products. Fascinating book if you're a product person. Get hold of it. Nir, I really appreciate your time. Thanks for talking to us on the podcast.

Nir: [31:13] My pleasure, Kevin. Thanks so much for having me.

[31:15] [background music]

Kevin: [31:15] Thank you. Bye-bye.

Nir: [31:21] Bye-bye.