How do some products become habit-forming?
How many new ideas and innovations succeed? Maybe one out of 100. Or even less. Why is it that such few new ideas succeed, even among the ones that are supposed to, much to the disappointment of the innovator and early adopters? A paper by John Gourville, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, explains the cold hard truth about new ideas: “Many innovations fail because consumers irrationally overvalue the old while companies irrationally overvalue the new.” In other words, hooking people onto something new is extremely difficult.
Readers may recall that I had reviewed The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, just a few issues back, which explored the same theme. It was from the users’ angle: how to get rid of bad habits and inculcate better ones. Hooked, by Nir Eyal, is for businesses like Contagious (also reviewed here) and Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. It methodically explains how to create habit-forming products.
It’s not easy. Only a few like Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc, achieve this because, for new entrants in any field to make a mark, says Professor Gourville, it is not enough for them to be just better; they must be nine times better. Newcomers need to cross this high bar because ‘old habits die hard’ and new products, or services, need to offer dramatic improvements to our lives to shake us out of our existing routines.
To all young entrepreneurs dreaming to make it big with viral applications, Gourville has a grim sermon: products that require a high degree of behaviour change are doomed to fail even if the benefits of using the new products are clear and substantial.
Nir Eyal offers the most obvious example from our day-to-day life, to prove this point. All of us use the QWERTY keyboard which was first developed in the 1870s for the typewriter with commonly used characters spaced far apart. The rationale was that typists should not jam the metal type bars (of the early machines). This physical limitation is an anachronism in the digital age; yet QWERTY keyboards remain the standard despite the invention of far better layouts.
Indeed, Professor August Dvorak’s created a keyboard design, patented in 1932, which increased typing speed and accuracy, by placing the vowel in the centre row. The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard was a grand failure. QWERTY survives because, once we get over the initial problem of handling the keyboard, we get used to it. Soon, we instinctively know where the letters are. The bad design of then becomes effortless to use. We don’t want to switch again.
This is why Google is the default search engine—not Bing or Yahoo. In a head-to head comparison, there is not much difference between Google and Bing. So why haven’t more Google users switched to Bing? People don’t want to change their habit.
“If a user is familiar with the Google interface, switching to Bing requires cognitive efforts. Although many aspects of Bing are similar to Google, even slight change in pixel placement forces the would-be user to learn new ways of interacting with the site.” This makes Bing look inferior, not the technology itself.
“Internet search occurs so frequently that Google is able to cement itself as the one and only solution in the habituated user’s mind. Users no longer need to think about whether or not to use Google: they just do.”
What comes in the way of forming new habits is past behaviour. This is also why two-thirds of alcoholics, who complete a rehabilitation programme, will pick up the bottle within a year. Research shows that nearly everyone who loses weight on a diet gains it back within two years. “Even when we change our routines, neural pathways remains etched in our brains, ready to be reactivated when we lose focus. This presents an especially difficult challenge for product designers trying to create new lines or businesses based on forming new habits.”
If proven cases—of changing long-term user habits—are exceptionally rare, how do new companies’ products come from nowhere, once in a while, and become immensely popular, especially those using technology? How are Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter able to muscle into our lives even though we are more hard-pressed than before? “Altering behaviour requires not only an understanding of how to persuade people to act,” writes Eyal “but also necessitates getting them to repeat behaviours for long periods.” This can be done if you follow certain rules.
Firstly, since new behaviours have a short life, as our minds tends to revert to old ways, for new habits to take hold, they must occur often. Frequent engagement with a product—especially over a short period of time—increases the likelihood of forming new routines. How can a new company use this? Eyal suggests plotting the product’s habit-forming potential along by two axes: frequency (how often the behaviour occurs) and perceived utility (how useful and rewarding the behaviour is in the user’s mind over alternative solutions).
Googling occurs multiple times per day, but any particular search is negligibly better than that of rival services like Bling. On the other hand, we may use Amazon much less; but we derive great utility knowing that we will find whatever we need at the one and only ‘everything store’. The chart represents the interplay of these two factors. Products that fall into this habit zone—enough frequency and perceived utility become the default behaviour. How to get there? By putting the users though the following cycle: triggers, actions, reward and investment.
Triggers are spark plugs of habit-forming engines. Examples of triggers are an email, or a website link or an app icon. They have to be attractive enough, in a given context, for users to take action such as creating a login id, posting a picture or a comment, etc. Users will take action only when there is a reward to do so. It could be chatting with others in an online forum or seeing pictures that others have served. If the reward is one-time, it will not work as well. If it’s a variable reward like creating a surprise element each time for the users to come back, it will be a big hit. This is why one gets addicted to Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter, because there is a continuous and endless stream of information, pictures, opinion, video etc to keep the user hooked.
But smart companies will not leave it at that. They will try to get users to part with something at this stage, such as time, data, effort, social capital or money. This becomes the investment phase when the ‘IKEA effect’ kicks in. IKEA is a Swedish company that sells ready-to-assemble furniture kits. Studies have shown that this simple act of fixing their own furniture makes people more attached to the furniture (they have invested time and effort) and thereby, to IKEA as the brand.
This is a terrific new book in the hot area of exploring consumer psychology. It has become the must-read for start-ups, especially in the consumer-facing technology businesses. If you are into one of these businesses, or just interested in knowing how certain services can attract millions of users, this book will answer many of your questions.