The Need for Connection: Building Habit-Forming Open Source Products


With the increasing use of connected devices and the growing presence of online distractions, it’s important to understand the ideas behind habit-forming technologies. Nir Eyal, author of the best-selling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, will be delivering a keynote presentation based on his book at Open Source Summit in Los Angeles.

Eyal is a frequent contributor to publications such as Forbes, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today, where he writes about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. In this interview, he explains more about the concepts and behaviors behind habit-forming products and how they can be applied to open source. What was the inspiration behind writing the book and what are the areas that you will be touching upon in your book?

Nir Eyal: I’ve started two tech companies, one in the advertising and one in the gaming industry. I learned a lot of techniques that are applied today to change people’s behaviors and influence their behaviors and persuade their behaviors. What I wanted to do is to take these lessons from the world’s leading companies who are experts in this process of changing user behavior. Those companies are the usual suspects of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Slack and WhatsApp. I wanted to dive into how those companies do what they do from a psychology perspective.

They don’t need my book, but there are countless companies out there who are trying to influence people’s behavior for good who do need my book. The companies out there that are trying to improve people’s lives, helping them be more efficient at work, helping them connect with people in their lives, helping them exercise more, save more money. All of these folks need to influence human behavior and it would behoove them to understand the psychology behind how we influence behavior. That’s really what my book is about, is the principles around what makes a product habit forming. Then, how can you use those principles to make your own product something that people come back to again and again. What differentiates one product from another?

Eyal: The focus of the book is this hooked model, which is this four-step process from a trigger, an action, a reward, and an investment. What I found in my research was that products that build for habit, the ones that people use time and time again, come back to on their own without spammy advertising, without lots of email spam, are the ones that have this hooked model built into it. Again, the four steps are the trigger, the action, the reward, and investment. It’s through successive cycles, through these hooks, that our preferences are shaped, that our tastes are formed, and that these habits take hold. Is there any difference between habit forming, vendor lock, or addictive products?

Eyal: Can one be seen as bad for a healthy society where others can be good? There’s a big difference between addiction and habit formation. Habits are behaviors done with little or no conscious thought, and we have good habits as well as bad habits. Addictions, however, are always bad. Addictions are persistent, compulsive, dependencies on a behavior or substance and they always harm the user.

My book is really all about how to build habit-forming products, not about addictive products because, frankly, the problem out there is not that a few companies like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram have figured out how to suck us in. The real problem is that far too many products out there suck. That’s my job is to help people out there who are working on products and services that would really improve people’s lives if they only used it. That’s really my challenge. I didn’t write my book for the Facebooks and Instagrams and WhatsApp and Slacks of the world. I wrote this book for people who are struggling to build technology products that people would actually use but it is very difficult to change customer behavior. I wrote this book to educate product designers, entrepreneurs, technologists, who have wonderful, new inventions and solutions, but for lack of good product design, people aren’t using their products. That’s really why I wrote it. Open source is more about people and building communities than the product or technology itself. Does this help in any way in building a successful product?

Eyal: Well, certainly communities are a way to form habits around products that aren’t used as frequently as some other habit forming products. Building on a community, if you think about it. Many communities out there are around technologies. If you think about the Hacker News community or the Stack Overflow community or the open source community, the community itself is the product, is why people like to engage. This is an age old desire that human beings have. For the past 200,000 years, people have needed to connect with one another. That’s what I call a variable reward. It’s called a reward of the tribe. Connecting, cooperating, sometimes competing with other people is what brings people back to an experience. That’s at the core of many habit-forming products. Can you provide some examples of successful habit-forming products versus failed ones?

Eyal: The companies that are able to form consumer habits are the ones that can capture a market. Google has well over 85 percent market share for searches compared to Bing. Why do they have dominant market share? It’s not because the product is so much better. In fact, if you think about Google versus Bing, third-party studies have found the products are the same. People, in fact, can’t tell the two apart once you strip out the branding.

It’s not necessarily the best product that wins; it’s the product that captures the monopoly of the mind — the product that we go to first with little or no conscious thought. That’s the company that is going to capture the market. Habits are super, super important to me. If you think about the success of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Apple. All of these companies depend upon repeat engagement. It’s not the best product that wins. It’s not the best technology. It’s the product that can capture the monopoly of the mind and form that consumer habit. How can open source communities or companies that deal with open source benefit from your advice or talk?

Eyal: My work is really focused around the product level, so the person who is working on the user experience, who is working on how to get people to change a particular behavior, those are the folks that would benefit from my talk. Not just a one time behavior, but how do we get people to change a repeat behavior? How do we form a habit around a particular action so that people can do the things they want to in life, whether that’s in the enterprise setting or in the consumer webspace? Anybody who’s trying to create repeat user engagement would benefit from understanding the psychology of behavioral design.

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