How do you create a habit-forming product? That question is more important than ever, says Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Create Habit-Forming Products. As we’re bombarded with information and new products and apps, it’s increasingly hard to capture consumers’ attention. But if you can make your product habitual, they’ll continue to use your product, regardless.

Habit formation is governed by a four-step process Eyal calls the “hook model.” It’s great to optimize an individual element, but to create a truly addictive product, all four – trigger, action, reward and investment – need to be in place. In the case of email, which Eyal calls “one of the most habit-forming products out there,” the trigger takes the form of anxiety: Who needs to reach me? What important messages might I be missing? The action is opening your mail app, and the reward is an interesting, variable stream of messages. Finally, you invest in the platform by sending messages to others, making it likely you’ll receive messages back and keeping the cycle going.

Facebook, which has grown to well over a billion users, is clearly an addictive product. So how could you overthrow its dominance? “I don’t have to make it up,” Eyal says. “Look at Snapchat. Why did Zuckerberg offer these college kids, straight out of college, $3 billion dollars, reportedly?…Because Facebook is threatened by Snapchat just as Facebook was threatened by WhatsApp, which they paid $22 billion dollars for, and Instagram that they paid a billion bucks for. The reward was more rewarding. Snapchat is a perfect case in point. What makes Snapchat special is that the messages that I send through this platform explode. So I send someone a message and then it’s gone.” The upshot? You’re more likely to send risqué or envelope-pushing messages that, of course, are more compelling for their recipients.

Another threat to popular habit-forming products is the transition to new delivery channels, “like when we went from desktop to laptops, and now to mobile and wearables,” says Eyal. “Every time that interface changes, the habit deck gets reshuffled.” You may be using an app on your smartphone all the time, but if there’s a broad shift to smartwatches or a product like Google Glass, the triggers will look very different. “That’s about to happen here in a few months with the wearable technology revolution, which I think is going to be very big,” he says.

Of course, when you’re creating a habit-forming product, it’s critical to be mindful of the ethical implications. Pushing heroin (or its digital equivalent) is a lucrative business, but one that ultimately preys on others’ vulnerabilities. “I have this two-part test that I give entrepreneurs regarding when it’s morally OK to create a habit forming product,” says Eyal. “I tell innovators that if it’s something that you believe materially improves peoples’ lives and you, yourself, use it…go ahead.” The reason creators have to use their own product, he says, is that “if there are any negative effects to this product, you’ll be the first to know.”

Not every product needs to be habit-forming, of course. Eyal recently spoke to a group of real estate agents; except for a few oligarchs, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone whose home buying was habitual. But, Eyal says, “There’s still a lot to be learned by understanding users’ deeper psychology. A lot of business that aren’t necessarily habit-forming can read a chapter of the book and say, ‘Oh, OK. Here’s the action phase of the hook. What can I learn about how to make behaviors easier? How do I boost user motivation to make my key behavior more likely to occur?’”

But everyone, Eyal believes, can benefit from a greater understanding of habit formation. “In order to gain control over these habits and not let them control us, we have to understand what’s going on,” he says. “It’s not a coincidence, it’s not chance. These companies didn’t get lucky. [Their products] are designed to be engaging. I think that there’s going to be this critical skill that we’re all going to have to learn, which is: How do we focus? How do we mindfully use our attention spans to do what we want to do? Our attention is a scarce commodity, and we need to figure out how to manage it.”

In his own life, Eyal became frustrated that he and his wife – largely out of habit – were using the Internet late at night to check email and social media, rather than spending quality time together. Using his understanding of the hook model, he broke the habit “by going to the hardware store, buying a $10 timer, and plugging my [Internet] router into that timer. Now, every night at 10pm, it disables the Internet.” Now, he says, “the hook is broken. I created some space to be mindful about the behavior as opposed to mindlessly doing the behavior. So that made a huge difference. I think I’m as much of an advocate for building hooks that help people live better lives to form healthy habits as I am figuring out how to break the bad hooks we don’t want in our lives and the unhealthy habits that are hurting us.”

Today, he says, “The bar to create new products and services is lower than ever. The amount of technical skill that you need is all there. You can learn this stuff. Yeah, you may not be the best in the world, but you don’t have to be the best in the world…I’m hoping that outside Silicon Valley, people will use this toolkit, use this model to build smarter. To fail less, so that they can succeed more.”

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and the forthcoming  Stand Out. You can subscribe to her e-newsletter and follow her on Twitter.

 

This article was written by Dorie Clark from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.