Nir Eyal On Product Excellence

By Gale Stafford

The Product SummitAs part of the team organizing The Product Summit (Nov 20–23, 2014) in San Francisco, I got a chance to talk with one of our keynote presenters, Nir Eyal. Nir shared his ideas on product design. And he talked about what motivated him to write his new book. Hope you enjoy it.

Nir, could you start off and tell us about why you’re excited about product excellence and why you are participating in The Product Summit this month in San Francisco?

Nir: I think anytime product professionals — be it designers or engineers or entrepreneurs or innovators or anybody who’s touching product — come together, share best practices and learn from each other, they will benefit. And to learn from people who have expertise to share — that’s a great thing. That’s something that I’m very supportive of. As a two-time entrepreneur, I know how difficult it can be to figure out how to design products that people really want.

So that’s why I’m excited to participate. I’m particularly excited to share the subjects of my new book—Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products  which is all about how you can build products to bring people back.

What is it about habit-forming products that cause users to come back on their own without needing expensive marketing and aggressive messaging?

What else can we do to keep people to come back on their own products and build higher needs that meet higher retention products?

So, rather than having to invest heavily in marketing, you’re trying to shift the focus to investing in excellent products, so that the marketing does not need to be overdone.

Maybe you could elaborate on the design of “high retention” products, and how people can approach it?

Nir: Yes. So there’s two types of triggers that I discuss in the model in my book.

Let me back up, actually. You need to think about the hook for your product. And the hook is based on a framework of a four-step pattern that we see in all sorts of habit-forming products. This hook has four basic parts – trigger, action, a reward, and an investment. There are nine patterns that help product people build these hooks into their products, so that they can help form habits that improve people’s lives.

Now we can help people live happier, healthier, more connected lives by building these healthy habits. If you have the kind of business model that necessitates habits that require people coming back on their own, well then, you need a hook.

The goal of these hooks is to take customers from a point in the beginning where they are dependent on these external triggers, which trigger the user on what to do next — like an ad, or call the action button, or “buy now.” So we’re taking users from a point where they first need those external triggers. But over time, they begin to form associations with internal triggers. Now internal triggers are things that prompt the user to action where the information is stored to a memory in the user’s mind. So, what we do in response to a certain emotion or situation or being around certain people. What we do in response to these internal triggers can dictate the technology we turn to. In particular, negative emotions turn up very frequent triggers. When we feel lonely, we log onto Facebook. When we feel bored, we will maybe check YouTube or news or sports.

So the idea is, over time with a hook, we begin to not require as many of these external triggers. As we form habits, users prompt themselves whenever they encounter these internal triggers.

That’s the long-term goal of these habit-forming products: to be attached to these internal triggers and you just realize you don’t need the external prompting anymore.

As you talk about triggers there, it reminds me of this model from BJ Fogg. Is that someone that you have consulted or worked with at all? I think he’s at Stanford.

Nir: Right. So I’m kind of a disciple of BJ. I bring BJ’s work to a lot of people. BJ’s model is his behavior model that is a very nice formula of B = MAT, behavior equals motivation plus ability plus the trigger. I use that as a framework to think about the action phase of the hook, which is the second step of the hook. After the trigger is the action.

So Fogg told us that for every human behavior we all see the development of motivation, ability, and trigger. The whole point of the action phase is to figure out what the simplest action the user does in anticipation of a reward.

So in the book, I give exercises for how you can figure out, how you can reduce the effort that the user has to do to get to the reward. Of course, the reward is the third step of the hook. After the trigger comes the action, then the reward.

The reward is something that gives the user what they want, and yet leaves them wanting more. It tends to have some element of variability, some kind of variable reward. Some kind of mystery that keeps people engaged. Something that scratches their itch, gives them what they want, and leaves them wanting more.

To finish up, the fourth and final step of the hook is the investment phase. The investment phase is where the user puts something into the product, which increases their likelihood of returning to the hook in the future. So it’s something like data, or content, or accruing followers, or accruing skill, or reputation. All of these makes it more likely that the user will return by storing values so the service gets better with use. That’s a very important aspect of habit-forming products. Finally, the investment phase also loads the next trigger.

So it’s something the user does that brings the user back in the future like sending a message on WhatsApp, for example. It brings you back in the future by loading the external trigger of a reply when someone sends a message back to you. Now you’re likely to capture the hook once again. Through these successive cycles, our preferences are formed, our beliefs are changed, and our habits take hold.

It seems like you have been successful in bringing applications of behavioral science into product management and product excellence, maybe more than other authors. Could you tell us what drove you to write this book?

Nir: So I really wrote the book I wanted. I spent many years having a blog trying to figure out why users weren’t doing the behaviors I designed for them to do when I was at my last company. That’s a very difficult place to be. I think all of us have been in that place at one time or another. If you’re building products, if you’re a designer, if you’re building an experience, sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t.

It’s not always clear why because it turns out there’s a whole lot that drives human behavior that people aren’t able to articulate. So that’s where this book comes in.

I couldn’t find a guidebook that helps business people who help people designing products and services figure out how to build better products using the psychology behind our habits. I found lots of pop psychology stuff that is great for a dinner party. But I wanted kind of an instruction manual for, “what do I do?”, “how do I apply?”, and “why do these principles of user psychology build better products?” So that’s the book I wrote.

Looking more broadly, why do you think more people should care more about product excellence? What’s in it for them?

Nir: The idea is to fail a lot. That’s the vehicle here. We’re still going to fail. Anytime there’s innovation, there’s going to be failure. It’s a horse and carriage. They go together.

We now have a lot here. Building great products is becoming more of a science now with Eric Ries and Steve Blank’s contribution around creating start-ups and customer development. We’re getting better at building what people want. Better than how we used to do things when we used to get locked up in a room, and have to create something, and then unleash them throughout into the world. Most of the time we get what we wanted if we have spent our time building, but now we’re wearing white.

Now we talk to customers. We hear user feedback, and we incorporate what we learned into the product. Well, I think we can actually go a step further. I trust what customers tell us what they want. But it’s also these things that they aren’t able to articulate, and yet drives their behavior.

Just as predictably with things they say they want, sometimes even more predictably. So I think that’s why this work is important. Because if we could look to these deeper insights that we get from consumer psychology, we can build the right things sooner, which means we fail less. That’s the whole goal of this book that if we can spend more time building the right things by looking into these patterns that we see repeated time and time again in some of the world’s engaging products. We can spend more time building the right thing and less waste, less time, money, and effort building the wrong stuff that people don’t want.

These things don’t happen by mistake. I think a lot of people look at Twitter, and Facebook, and such. They think, “Wow. Those kids got lucky.” I think that’s not true.

There’s some very deep psychology behind why these products are so engaging. These things aren’t by accident. Whether it’s by design or through trial and error, the reason these things keep bringing us back is because of this deeper psychology.

So your book was just something that you needed, and the world needed, and that motivated you to write it?

Nir: Yes. That’s exactly right. I was looking for the book that I couldn’t find. I’m a two-time entrepreneur and I couldn’t find an instruction manual I’m looking for that provided not only the academic research – I wanted the research.

I wanted the science. I just didn’t want that to be all that it was. I wanted the practical application of this stuff. How do I build better using this information? So we still need the rigor in fact more so, but now we can guide what we build based on some founding principles of how to change user behavior.

If we are trying to help someone get into product management and understand the disciplines of product management, how could we properly guide them to understand the importance of behavioral science, and the importance of being pragmatic and very practical? It seems like your book helps and integrates those two worlds.

Nir: Right. I’m not sure why for some reason the design schools don’t teach much psychology. They teach Gestalt. They teach a lot of the psychologies of “I,” if you will — like why things catch our attention and our eye. They don’t really talk about the holistic experience. They don’t really go into BF Skinner. They don’t talk about the deeper psychology behind experience. They talk about interfaces or layouts. That’s so great. We need that.

I think we make our life so much easier when we understand what drives behavior at large. So now the designers have a much bigger role inside product development. It’s not just doing the graphic interface. They’re not just graphic designers anymore. They’re more becoming behavior designers.

So this is a new discipline. I think product people are going to need to understand it if they want to increase their odds of success.

Nir_Eyal2_400x400About Nir

Nir Eyal is a keynote presenter at The Product
in San Francisco, Nov 20–23, 2014. Nir’s book is Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. HookedbookHis blog is


About the Author

GaleStaffordGale Stafford is a management and HR consultant for technology companies and IT organizations. gettingstartedinITHe’s the author of Getting Started in the Information Technology Field

Gale is on the team for The Product Summit, a 4 day product community driven event on product excellence, November 20-23, 2014 at General Assembly in San Francisco.



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