How to build habit-forming products, part 2: building on the loop

4 min read
Dina Chaiffetz
  •  Feb 23, 2015
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(If you missed part 1, check out the psychology of habits.)

Eating chocolate. Checking your phone. Crushing some candy. Disparate as these actions seem, they share one thing—they’re all habits. And habits all share a 3-part foundation known as the habit loop.

Good or bad, habits rule our lives. This gives product designers an incredible opportunity to become part of their users’ routines. Just imagine if using your product came as naturally as brushing your teeth every morning.

Sound appealing? Let’s take a deeper dive into the components of the habit loop, and explore a few methods for making your product habit-forming.

The 3 parts of the habit loop

The habit loop was identified in the 1990s by MIT scientists studying the behavior of mice in a maze. This neurological loop serves a very important function because it helps us conserve brain power and operate more efficiently.

Here’s how it works:

1. Cue

The cue is any trigger that initiates the habit sequence. Triggers include a time of day, a feeling (like boredom), or an event (like someone emailing you).

2. Routine

After the cue, you act: taking a shower, saying “thank you” to your barista, using your turn signal. Research shows that over 40% of our daily actions are habitual.

3. Reward

This is the most critical component of the habit loop. The reward has to be compelling enough to make the act worth remembering and repeating in the future. Otherwise, no habit loop.

To build a habit-forming product, you’ll need to identify or create a cue that triggers an action related to your product. Ideally, this action also rewards repeat visits and usage.

Here are 3 different ways to kick off this critical process.

3 ways to create a habit

1. Change the routine stage of an existing loop

Habits are built to last. They can be altered or overwritten, but scientists believe they never truly go away. That’s why building off existing habits can be easier and more effective than asking your users to form an entirely new one.

In his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” Charles Duhigg tells the story of how Tony Dungy became one of the most successful coaches in recent NFL history by tweaking his players’ existing routines.

In 1996, Dungy became head coach of the notoriously unsuccessful Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He theorized that their losing ways stemmed from one major fault: the players made too many decisions during a game.

To win, they needed to stop thinking.

Duhigg wrote:

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

Dungy knew his players already had deeply ingrained ways of playing, so he decided to build off their existing cues and rewards, but insert new routines.

It worked. In 1997, the Buccaneers went to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

You don’t have to be an NFL coach to leverage this technique. In fact, it works really well for any product in a competitive or saturated space—because your competitors have already done the hard work for you. If you understand the cues and rewards they employ, then you can insert your product into the action phase.

To discover users’ current, just observe them. Simply watching people go about their days can unveil a lot, without unduly affecting their behavior. If you can’t observe your users, you can also send out a survey or set up a focus group.

Whatever method you use, you’ll want to learn 2 key things:

  1. Their core routines
  2. First, ask your users about important parts of their life that have nothing to do with your product. You might ask, what app do you use first thing in the morning? Right before you go to sleep? Or, how do you shop online? You might discover a new way, time, or place to insert a habit.

  3. Routines related to your product
  4. Next, ask them about their usage of your product. You want to get a crystal clear picture of their experiences before, during, and after using your app. For example, are they listening to music while they use it? Are they multitasking in a meeting? What do they usually do after using it?

With the answers to these questions, you’ll be able to intelligently identify a routine in their lives where your product can add value.

2. Create a new routine and reward for an existing cue

If your product’s not part of a saturated industry, you might have a chance to create your own habit loop instead of tapping into an existing one. This happens when you can identify a trigger in your user’s workday or personal life.
This works best for a product that delivers a new solution to an everyday problem. You want to identify a cue that’s linked an inconsistent or imperfect routine. If you can step in and provide a satisfying routine and reward, you’ll create an entirely new loop.

Let’s use GrubHub—a food delivery app—as an example. When GrubHub started in 2004, people were already ordering plenty of delivery from restaurants. But the most common process wasn’t ideal—it took time to find places that delivered to your area, sometimes you had to wait on hold, and orders could get miscommunicated over the phone. GrubHub had the perfect opportunity to take an existing cue (wanting delivery) and build a habit loop based on that.
Here’s GrubHub’s habit loop:

Cue: A person needs food delivered pronto.

Action: GrubHub replaced a 3-step action (googling the restaurant, visiting the website, and placing an online order or calling it in) with a simple, 1-step action: open GrubHub and get everything done in 1 place.

Reward: GrubHub “rewards” app users with ease and discovery, including: finding a new restaurant that offers delivery, tracking the order by text or mobile app, and the ability to save payment info and special instructions for future use.

GrubHub’s reward structure provides an important lesson: a product can offer multiple rewards for the same actionTwitter Logo, rewarding an array of different users.

GrubHub was one of the first products to create this habit loop around delivery. Now, competitors such as Eat24 or OrderUp—who launched a few years later—have the opportunity to replace GrubHub’s established action with their own product.

3. Create a new cue, then complete the loop

Not every product’s blessed with an inherent cue. However, you can manufacture desire by creating a cue that plays off your user’s needs and desires.

Want to learn how to create an effective cue? From Fritos to Febreeze, the advertising industry has been doing it for ages. Pepsodent’s ad campaign is one of the best examples because it built a habit around a specific product, but they also built a habit that transformed a nation. Here’s what happened:

In the early 1900s, few Americans brushed their teeth. Ever. In fact, dental hygiene was so bad that the US Army labeled the problem a national security risk when they saw the state of WWI recruits’ teeth.

But a man named Claude Hopkins ran a habit-forming ad campaign for Pepsodent that changed all that.

The campaign was simple, but tapped into all the crucial elements of the habit loop. First, he identified the cue, which was the “film” you can feel on dirty teeth. Second, the routine—brushing your teeth with Pepsodent. And finally, the reward—feeling like you have clean, beautiful teeth.

Ten years later, 65 percent of Americans regularly brushed their teeth. Before the campaign, only 7 percent even had toothpaste in their cabinets.

You may not use Pepsodent today, but you can thank Claude Hopkins and the habit loop for your morning (and evening) ritual with the toothbrush.

Ready to come up with the perfect cue? Start by getting an understanding of your users’ daily routine using the process from tactic #1 above.

Next, it’s time to brainstorm. Cues generally fall into one of five categories. Try to think of cues in each of these five categories that relate to the action you’re trying to make habitual.

  1. Time: When you wake up. Your 3:30 coffee break.
  2. Emotion: Angry. Bored. Stressed.
  3. Location: Your office. The beach. A bathroom.
  4. People: Your mom. Your boss.
  5. An event: Phone rang, looked at phone. Drank beer, craved fast food.

To identify the right cue, find the one with the most logical connection to the action you want to drive. If you’re trying to help people communicate, then a people-based trigger will probably be most effective. If the action you want to drive is device-based, then the location the device is used will likely be a core component of the trigger. Remember, you can always test a number of different cues if you’re not sure what’s best.

So, you’ve got a cue. Now what?

At this point, you grok the habit loop and have identified the best approach to finding the right trigger for your product. In part 3, I’ll cover what a good habit looks like and explore the right time to introduce a habit. I’ll also dig into some strategies for crafting meaningful, effective rewards, which is one of the most difficult and important pieces to designing a successful habit loop.

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