Why are variable rewards addicting?

"Hooked" - how good UX design is addicting

There are plenty of them: products and apps that are addicting. 79 percent of all smartphone owners check their device within fifteen minutes every morning, writes Nir Eyal in his book "Hooked". Apple, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest - all of these companies have one thing in common: They create habits among users. But creating habits is easier said than done. A beautiful design or a well-placed button is not enough to create a product that engages the user. Nir Eyal's four-step “hook model” shows what these habit-forming mechanisms are and how UX design can make use of them.

April 23, Marcus Walbröl
The business advantages of habitual consumption are obvious: Not only does it bring more flexibility in terms of price and longer customer lifetime value, but above all a habit-forming product has a competitive advantage over competing products with similar properties. In an almost completely digitized world, it is digital products, apps and web applications that we deal with over and over, even every day. Google answers all of our questions, Twitter tells us what's going on in the world and should we get bored for a moment, we open Facebook or Instagram to drive it away. A well-designed user experience is essential for this. Nir Eyal describes the process of a habit-oriented strategy as a "hook model", consisting of four phases:

1. Trigger

Every “hook” begins with an impulse, the trigger. This can be external or internal. External triggers tell us what to do. An email, for example, that asks us to buy or click something, in the form of a link or button. If the following action is repeated, there will soon no longer be any need for external triggers. Behaviors are linked to feelings and internal triggers arise. These can be of a positive nature: Pinterest users feel the urge to "pin" something every time they discover something interesting on the Internet. Or they can be negative triggers: Facebook users seek confirmation when they feel lonely.

2nd act

For the "hook" to work, an action must take place. In order to motivate the user to do it, it must be easy to do and offer a reward. Opening an app, clicking the play button on YouTube or doing a Google search are examples of a call to action. It is the task of the UX designer to place and design these sensibly.

3. (variable) reward

As UX designers, we know: The dopamine level rises as soon as the user expects a reward. The introduction of variability multiplies this effect. If the surprise disappears, the motivation drops. The "hook" becomes weaker. A “newsfeed” is a great example of a variable reward - the unknown keeps the user coming back. Many Instagram users spend hours every day keeping up to date.

4. Investment

The investment is an act that improves the product the next time it is used. Invite new friends, indicate preferences or learn new functions. Investments can be time, data, effort or money - they bind the user to the product in the long term. It's similar to a stock: if all the signs are pointing to the stock's going to fall, most investors would hardly get in at the given time. But if we assume they have already invested in the past and posted a loss, would investors exit just as safely? A successful cycle of this process activates the internal triggers. Perhaps the emotion that the user attaches to the product is great enough to use it a second time. A variable reward reinforces the feeling and creates curiosity. In addition, the user gets to know new functions, which gradually increases the motivation to use the product again. A habit soon developed - the user is “hooked”. In order to generate habit-forming properties, UX designers should ask themselves the following questions:
  1. What do users want really? What problems does the product solve? (Internal trigger)
  2. How do users get to the product? (external trigger)
  3. Which is the simplest action, the user can perform in anticipation of a reward and how can this still simplify?
  4. Are the users satisfied or expecting their reward? even more?
  5. What services invest the users in the product?

But be careful - risk of manipulation:

Not all digital products follow morally justifiable principles. The usefulness of social media is not viewed equally by everyone: There are many supporters who value Facebook and Co. very much to keep in touch with friends and family. Critics, such as the counter-movement Time Well Spent, complain that these technologies make their users jealous, dissatisfied or even depressed. The makers of habit-forming products will always have to deal with such conflicts and they should ask themselves whether their product actually gives the user a better life or is simply addictive. To weigh the moral implications, Nir Eyal suggests asking yourself two questions:
  1. Does the product improve the user's life?
  2. Would i use the product?
Only those who answered “yes” to the above two questions should develop a product like this, writes Eyal.

What do we as product developers do with Hooked?

Products such as Facebook, Google or Pinterest have significantly changed the daily actions of their customers and users. Based on in-depth knowledge of human behavior and habits, Eyal describes what the reasons for the success of these products are and how a sophisticated user experience can use these findings. On a positive note, his clear call to use these insights responsibly is to be emphasized. We create a world where people and devices work together and we are responsible for that. When we develop programs that learn from user interactions and have a profound impact on users' lives, the morality of our actions is of tremendous importance. The book "Hooked" is on the Empatic UX reading list for new employees - but along with a conversation about the moral responsibility of product developers and designers. Because we want to create a world in which people benefit from the devices - not the other way around.Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products. He blogs on NirAndFar.com about his findings in product psychology and writes a newsletter about the application of psychology to behavior change.