Want to design a habit-forming product? Keep these 5 things in mind

4 min read
Tiago Gerstheimer,
Melissa Ng
  •  Feb 6, 2017
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You’re in front of your computer with nothing to do (or a lot to do, and you’re procrastinating). So you open a new browser tab, type in a single letter, and voila—the URL of your favorite website *coughRedditcough* pops up.

After reading all the stories on the front page, we started thinking about what makes Reddit—and the other products we love—so distractingly addictive. While the sources of “addiction” varied, the symptoms and behaviors we observed were startlingly similar across different sites and apps.

Related: Picking Nir Eyal’s brain about habit-forming products

So we asked the team and a couple of other people to tell us the apps and websites they interact with every day, or multiple times a day. And then we listed out all the things about each product that kept people coming back:

We rearranged all the common reasons together to figure out the features most of them had in common. Below is what we found to be the 5 secrets to designing an addictive productTwitter Logo.

1. Everyone wants to feel liked and important

We’ve all felt it, and we can’t deny that we love it. We’re social creatures, and we seek out self-validation through social affirmation—it’s human instinct!

Getting a nod of approval, even if it’s from strangers through platforms like Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest, makes people feel like they matter.

And it turns out there’s some neuroscience involved. Your brain has a region called the nucleus accumbens that processes the feeling of being rewarded, and it’s activated when you receive social acceptance and praise.

“Everyone wants to feel liked and important.”

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While some users battle to earn upvotes (Reddit), some are busy composing an impeccable photo to get likes (Instagram), and others are spending their time writing the perfect 140 characters to gain retweets and followers (Twitter).

The quest for self-validation through social media

2. We get addicted to the anticipation of a potential reward

With each post you make, every notification you receive becomes rich with the promise of possible self-validation! This makes getting a new notification more exciting than you’d otherwise assume.

When you don’t know what’s behind that notification, you’re more excited to find out. It could be a simple but appreciated act, like a friend retweeting your tweet, or it could be a job opportunity through LinkedIn. In many cases, this notification is displayed through a tiny app icon on the top of your phone screen. Life teaches us that it’s the little things that matter the most. ?

Mel: Yup, Ben Horowitz liked my tweet 2 years ago, and I’m still a bit giddy about it.

And the reason for that eagerness is because a lack of a guaranteed reward is far more addictive than one that’s assured.Twitter Logo The brain is complacent when things are predictable, but the lure of a potential reward will drive it to keep going until it finds one.

Based on this behavior, if the reward comes randomly from a variety of sources, the quest for a reward (likely of self-validation via likes or retweets) will carry on.

3. Our brain loves new things

Ah, dopamine. Dopamine is what our brain releases when it sees something new (and positive). In the “novelty center” of our brain (a region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area), this neurotransmitter plays a big role in reward-motivated behavior—which is why we find ourselves constantly refreshing our favorite websites looking for something new.

“Grabbing someone’s attention is all about relevance.”

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You can see this in the form of news feeds (Facebook), timelines (Twitter, Instagram), front pages (Reddit), and on Tinder.

Image: Wikipedia.

Tinder is the epitome of “new new new.” With just a simple swipe, you can browse through what feels like an infinite amount of new profiles. Add to that the first point of self-validation (through getting a match), and the second point about the variability of rewards (anticipating what the next swipe will bring you), and Tinder is a perfect example of the combination of all 3 qualities.

But if you don’t believe us, trust the numbers: Tinder receives 1.4 billion swipes a day.

4. It’s tough to walk away when you’ve invested so much!

With the pursuit of self-validation (point 1) and the anticipation of a potential reward (point 2), we end up adding photos, posts, and connections into these apps slowly over time. And before we know it, so much has gone into these apps that it becomes something we default to continue using.

Facebook is the perfect example of something that’s hard for us to walk away from because we’ve invested so much time and history into it—from years of photos to hundreds of friends, to thousands of posts.

Other social media platforms work similarly. Leaving LinkedIn would mean leaving behind the professional network and connections you’ve grown. And while Snapchat revolves around snaps with a 24-hour expiration date (why it’s addictive needs its own article), Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest are centered around your photo and tweet history. Again, a compilation of your contributions over time you don’t want to lose.

And to take it even further, sometimes it’s not just about the things you might be leaving behind, but about how it feels like a representation of part of your identity.

From collecting photos of things you’re interested in or aspired to be like (Pinterest or Instagram; popular topics are fashion, makeup, travel), or your photos and likes (Facebook), or your interests or intellectual preferences (Reddit).

Over time, it becomes not about quitting these products, but about leaving all these memories, connections and representations/extensions of yourself behind.

5. We want what we want, and nothing else really matters

For many on the list, an integral part of signing up contains the encouragement of the following of people or accounts, or selection of topics of interest. The purpose of that is to land you straight into a page full of things relevant to you.

These products never take a one-size-fits-all approach to what users see. With Netflix, they allow you to create multiple profiles within the same account, so your mother’s obsessive watching of Korean TV dramas doesn’t distract you from your Game of Thrones marathon. With Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and many apps, the option to follow or unfollow is always available to you.

“We’re engaged only by what we want to see.”

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People are inherently self-centered. We’re drawn to things we’re intrigued by, and disinterested by things we don’t care about. Whether by design or without conscious intention, we’re engaged only by what we want to seeTwitter Logo, and disinterested by things we don’t care about.

Grabbing someone’s attention is all about relevance.Twitter Logo And relevance can take many different shapes and forms:

Facebook’s relevance is “personal”: Whether it’s exploring photos of friends, seeing posts from pages you’ve liked, talking to your housemates through its Messenger feature, or commenting on your family’s posts and updates—everything about Facebook is meant to be personal. The platform also gives you the power to hide unwanted posts to further curate your newsfeed to show you only what you want to see.

Instagram’s relevance by “aspiration”: We all know the phrase “Instagram-worthy.” You work to capture the magic of where you’re at so you can post it on Instagram after. Why? Because you post inspiring and interesting photos, similar to the images taken by the people you follow. And you follow them because you aspire to be like them (usually within a specific context).

LinkedIn’s relevance by “professional opportunities”: While these other products have a personal draw, LinkedIn focuses on the professional. It connects you to people in your business network, and through that to professional opportunities. Its relevance is simple in the advancement of your career.

Reddit’s relevance by “curated interests”: One of the best things about Reddit is the sheer variety, and volume of content sorted into subreddits (groups based on a topic). These groups are typically created, contributed and moderated by the community. Meaning you don’t have the standard categories often found elsewhere.

Once you’re on Reddit, you’re shown a curated wall of content based on subreddits you’ve subscribed to. And through their upvote/downvote system, they’ve put the power of keeping high-quality content into the hands of their vast community, which ensures the content is always relevant.

In summary…

While many other factors that go into making products addictive, the 5 points in this article are some of the most typical and popular strategies we’ve uncovered.

And although a designer might spend a lot of the time in front of the screen or on a sketchpad, engaging users always comes back down to understanding how people work and what they value.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard