• How do successful companies create products people can't put down? (Hooked / Penguin)Source: Hooked / Penguin
Our favourite websites and apps are designed to keep us online. Nir Eyal has found a way to beat all the digital distraction and create better consumer habits.
Mark White

12 Jan 2016 - 11:34 AM  UPDATED 12 Jan 2016 - 11:53 AM

We all know the feeling – going online to scan the headlines and before knowing it, an hour has passed in a blur of cat videos, Facebook updates and emails.

The programs we use to navigate daily digital life have a suite of psychological tricks designed to capture and keep our attention with endless swiping and tapping.

The 2013 IDC/Facebook study "Always Connected" reported 80 per cent of smartphone owners checked their devices within 15 minutes of waking up.

Another US survey found 22 per cent would give up their toothbrush for a week rather than their gadget, and 21 per cent of smartphone owners would rather give up wearing shoes for a week.

US entrepreneur Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, wants to teach companies how to build healthy digital habits – and help people deal with a world becoming potentially more addictive.

“My antidote to areas of our lives where technology is too persuasive is that by understanding how they work we can put them in their place,” he says.


He's identified four constituents – trigger, action, variable rewards and investment – which form habits, and shows how they can be broken.


1. Trigger

Triggers make us reach for our devices. Eyal said only eight per cent of people customise the notifications settings on an app.

“It drives me nuts how many people don't change them,” he says. “That means you're getting the triggers on the app makers' schedule as opposed to yours – don't let them disrupt you with another ping and ding, do it on your schedule.”


2. Action

Action refers to using the app, the easier the better; Snapchat's opening screen is the camera, for example, making taking a pic on it simple.

To break the habit, Eyal deliberately makes the technology harder to use. He has a device that automatically disconnects his internet at 10pm each night. If he wants to go back online, he has to physically unplug the timer – it's easier to stay unplugged.

He now sends the content he's interested in to an app called Pocket and consumes it offline at a time and place he chooses – usually when he works out.

3. Variable rewards

Variable rewards is the result of the action. Something like the Facebook feed, where there can always be something more interesting round the corner, keeps us engaged.

Eyal admits he struggles with being sucked into the “internet vortex of more articles and more content and more YouTube videos and more and more and more” when all he wants is to read one article.

He now sends the content he's interested in to an app called Pocket and consumes it offline at a time and place he chooses – usually when he works out.

That gives him the motivation to step on a treadmill – a good habit – by bundling it with a reward that he's removed from a bad habit  the vortex.


4. Investment

The final phase, investment, is what makes us want to return. Eyal doesn't watch any original online series on Netflix: “They go on and on and on. They're manufactured to make us binge watch. I love movies, because they have a finite end. Anytime we adopt a new technology we want to make sure we're using it with some kind of end in sight.”


Building habit-forming products

Eyal won't work with industries such as pornography, gambling or alcohol, but said his "hook" model can enhance badly designed websites and technology as well as helping us recognise their manipulative potential.

Not all habit-forming products are unhealthy, he says, naming one he's invested in called 7 Cups of Tea, which connects people who need counselling to therapists.

But he's concerned by some aspects of the information revolution, such as business meetings or dinner parties where someone is engrossed in their phone instead of paying attention to their surroundings.

“The only way we can do that is call them out,” he says, “establish new social norms like we did with cigarettes.

“In the span of one generation cigarettes went from being totally normal to something only deviants did. Our manners changed. That is what I think will happen with technology.”

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