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Nir Eyal’s simple yet profound book is a must read for everyone invested in the digital world. While we generally believe that technology helps us better our lives and increase productivity, this book sheds light on the dark underbelly of technology - the addictive nature of tech, and the impending danger of losing ourselves in the vortex of increasing dependence on technology. Some facts stated by the author really drive home the point - over one-third of Americans would rather give up sex than their smartphone, or, over 80% of smartphone users look at their device within 15 minutes of waking up.
Such findings really bring home the shock and realization of the fact that our lives are overly dependent on technology. However, the author does not intend to just shock and awe - the book goes deep into the psyche of the technology addict. Why do we form such habits? How do product designers and developers get us addicted to their products? How should products be designed in order to produce a habit? Why are product designers faced with a moral dilemma each time they design a product? Such are the questions that Nir Eyal answers in his book, giving readers insights into fields such as psychology, behavior science, economics, user experience design, and marketing among others.
A central aspect of the book is the Hook model - a simple reinforcing model of how habits are created and maintained. The Hook model consists of four steps - Triggers, Action, Reward and Investment. All habit-forming products (especially those in the digital medium) follow the pattern of the hook model in their own way. Also, one of the largest contributing factors to turning customers into addicts is human emotion - it is what essentially drives people on in the hook model, inducing triggers and the urge to act on them.
Triggers can be of two types - internal and external. A new product in the market will have to depend on external triggers to bring users on board, but eventually, all successful products produce internal triggers. The urge to use google search is a completely internal trigger - google does not need to advertise or market it’s search engine because millions of people already have an internal trigger that will get them to use the search engine every time they are confronted with something they don't know about.
The author uses the example of Instagram - some people just cannot admire a beautiful moment or object on their own; they have to Instagram that particular moment and every other subsequent moment worth Instagramming. External triggers are expensive, not a guarantee to success, and often do not work, whereas internal triggers require no spending, are almost guaranteed to get people to use your product and are reinforcing in nature.
These triggers drive us to the next step, which is action. While triggers create an urge (or an itch), an action is a response to that urge (the act of satiating the itch). Getting a user to enter the action phase requires motivation and ability - users must feel motivated to commit to the action and also have the ability to do so. Many new products or services offer the option of facebook/google logins - these keep people motivated (so they don't need to sign up separately for the service/product) and also count on their ability (the fact that they use, or can log in to either facebook or google).
The next step is for the product/service to provide ‘rewards’ to the user - a mechanism to compensate users for their time and effort. Rewards can often be variable (it is even recommended), but even the allure of variable rewards will eventually fade away. habit-forming products generally offer multiple variable rewards.
The final step in the hook model is an investment - this is when users either share their details, or create an account, or in some way ensure that they will want to come back to the product or service. Investment requires users to do a bit of work that depends on consistency with past behaviours; it sometimes requires users to “change preferences to avoid cognitive dissonance leading to rationalization” (simply put, to change our attitudes and beliefs to adapt to a product or service psychologically). The stored value after committing to investment can come in many forms: content, data, followers, reputation or skill etc. All these investments eventually cause triggers (internal triggers, generally) and pull the user back to the product, creating a self-reinforcing cycle that makes the product more and more habit-forming as time passes.
While the author could have ended the book with the hooked model and how to design habit-forming products, he chose to put in a section on the ethics of product design. This brings to mind a famous line first put forth by the French thinker, philosopher and writer, Voltaire - “With great power comes great responsibility”. Habit forming products, therefore, have a responsibility to reinforce positive habits rather than get users addicted to negative habits. By implication, product designers must think about this responsibility when designing their products and implement methods and strategies that produce positive outcomes and weed out negative possibilities.
Unfortunately, many products use means of manipulation to create habits or form dependencies. For example, some products facilitate the belief that they make the user’s life better, some peddle or advertise the product extremely aggressively, some are marketed with the idea of providing entertainment or fun, while some are even promoted by the idea of dealing with or making money. However, the effect of these products on behavior and the outcomes of the habits thus formed require further investigation on a personal level by the users.
Nir Eyal also focuses on the concept of a habit - how to test a habit, how they can be modified (and even removed), how to spot habit forming opportunities and thus, how nascent behaviours can be made mainstream.
Yet, one of the major reasons I would highly recommend ‘Hooked’ is that it does not advocate a total reversal of our dependence on technology, but rather a modified, intricate and controlled utilization of technology that allows our lives to be better and at the same time, hold on to the pleasures of life that existed before technology did.
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