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Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products


This is probably the best “business of software” books I’ve read in the last few years.

It focuses on what it takes to build a product (in my case, an app or website) that the users will repeatedly use. Since I write apps that are supposed to be used regularly, “Hooked” covers an area of knowledge that I need to know – and haven’t had much luck with, to date.

The book describes the techniques you can use to keep the users of you programs coming back to it frequently. It does mention how this power can be used for ‘evil’ (see, Zynga) and the questions to ask yourself, in order to make sure that you are doing this for ‘good’.

It was also easy to follow the concepts in it and figure out how to apply them to apps I’ve written – and plan to write. It has a good balance between the theory and the practice.

Now I need to implement what I’ve learned in “Hooked”, and see if the users for my apps start using them more frequently.


Building a habit consists of four parts: the trigger (getting the user to realize they need to take action), the action (must be simple to perform), a variable reward (keeps them coming back), and investment (leading people to use a ‘spent cost’ fallacy, which keeps them coming back).

When building a habit-forming product, start with the source of pain (in emotional terms) – then build the product around it (and not the other way around). Write a story, from your user’s point of view, about what they are feeling, and how your product will fill the emotional need they have.

Use the “five whys” of the Toyota Production System to ask why your users would want to use your product.

Think of a variety of ways you can trigger your user to use your product – including “crazy” ideas.

In order to initiate an action, the user must have sufficient motivation, ability to perform the action, and a trigger to perform the action.

To create an innovate product, figure out the reason someone would want to use it. Then, figure out the steps they would need to perform to fulfill the reason. Finally, remove as many steps as possible.

A task’s difficulty is based on time to complete, financial cost, physical effort needed, brain cycles needed, deviance from social norms, and disruption from the person’s normal routines.

Rewards are based on the tribe (feel more accepted, attractive, important, etc.), the hunt (acquiring the resources or information we were chasing after), and the self (sense of completion or accomplishment).

People tend to highly value the “work” they put into a product. Get them involved (customizing the interface, select color schemes, etc.), fo them to feel “ownership” in the product.

When building your product’s “hook”, determine the answers to these questions:

  1. What pain is your product relieving? (internal trigger)
  2. What brings users to your service? (external trigger)
  3. What is the simplest action your users can take to get to a ‘reward’? (action)
  4. Is the reward fulfilling, but still leaves the user wanting more? (variable reward)
  5. What ‘bit of work’ do users do to get them invested in your product? Does it prep the next trigger and does it store value in the product (which gets the user invested)? (investment)

To determine whether or not your “hook” is moral, ask yourself if your product truly improves the life of its users, and if it’s something you use (or would use, if the product isn’t made for your age/gender/nationality/etc.)


Cognitive psychologists define habits as, “automatic behaviors triggered by situational cues.”

Companies leverage two basic pulleys of human behavior to increase the likelihood of an action occurring: The ease of performing and action and the psychological motivation to do it.

Variable rewards are one of the most powerful tools companies implement to hook users

The investment phase increases the odds that the user will make another pass through the hook.

Habits form when the brain takes a shortcut and stops actively deliberating over what to do next.

Frequent usage creates more opportunities to encourage people to invite their friends, broadcast content, and share through word-of-mouth.

“The most important factor to increasing growth is … Viral Cycle Time.” Viral Cycle Time is the amount of time it takes a user to invite another user

… a behavior that occurs with enough frequency and perceived utility enters the Habit Zone, helping to make it a default behavior.

Habit-forming products alleviate users’ pain by relieving a pronounced itch.

Habits are not created, they are built upon

External triggers are embedded with information, which tells the user what to do next.

In the case of internal triggers, the information about what to do next is encoded as a learned association in the user’s memory.

Fogg states that all humans are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to seek hope and avoid fear, and finally, to seek social acceptance and avoid rejection.

“Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.” – Evan Williams

When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing a new behavior. Psychologists call this “reactance.” Maintaining a sense of user autonomy is a requirement for repeat engagement.

In the Investment Phase, however, asking the user to do a bit of work comes after the user has received variable rewards, not before.

Habit-forming technologies leverage the user’s behavior to initiate an external trigger in the future. Users set future triggers during the Investment Phase, providing companies with an opportunity to re-engage the users.

The Hook Model is designed to connect the user’s problem with the designer’s solution frequently enough to for a habit.

Actions I took, based on this book

I’ve written (and am selling) a Windows Store app to help people build positive habits (going to the gym, learning a new language, etc.). While reading “Hooked”, whenever I saw an idea that would help the users with building their new ‘daily practices’, I wrote it down. Now I have a page full of changes to make to the app – which I’m starting on today.

Since most of the apps and websites I plan to build are the type that someone would need to use on a regular basis, I’ll use many of the ideas I learned from this book in those programs too. I may even see if I can build a framework of ideas and questions to use when building future programs.

I’ve also started thinking about the ethical purpose of programs I write. I haven’t written any ‘evil’ programs, but this book talks about how a designer/developer can use the tactics in it to get people addicted to programs in a way that it becomes something that is a negative in their life (for example, becoming addicted to a game that they feel they need to continue buying ‘upgrades’ in). While thinking about how to use these ideas for ‘good’,

I’ve also decided I need to think about the apps I develop and the clients I do work for – and only create things that add positive value to the world. I know that sounds  a bit hippy-ish, but I’d like to look back over my career and realize that I’ve helped people, and not just made a pile of money for corporations.


To get your copy of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”, click here.


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