How to build habit-forming products, part 1: the habit loop

4 min read
Dina Chaiffetz
  •  Feb 10, 2015
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“Motivation is what gets you started, habit is what keeps you going.”
—Jim Rohn

A compelling email or clever push notification can remind a user to come back to your product. But you may only get one visit. One conversion. What if there was a way to keep people coming back again and again—i.e., to create loyalty?

The key is habit.

By applying the same 3-part loop that compels you to brush your teeth every morning or reach for chocolate when you’re stressed, you can transform a primary user interaction into a habitual behavior.

Why habits matter

As Nir Eyal explains in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, people are inundated by distractions—and turning them into loyal users has grown more expensive and challenging than ever before. If you can’t carve out a space in your user’s daily, weekly, or monthly routine, they may not remain your users for very long.

Before you can successfully build habit into your product, you need to understand how and why people form habits. Let’s start with the basics.

The basics of habit

Neuroscientists and psychologists have learned a lot about habits in the last 15 years or so. Here are three critical aspects you should understand:

1. Habits serve a purpose

How many times have you left for work and wondered whether you locked the door or turned off the coffee pot?

Invariably, when you go back and check, the door’s locked and the coffee pot cooling, even though you have no memory of doing these things. Why? Because we relegate certain repetitive functions to a primitive area of our brains called the basal ganglia.

This frees up the cerebral cortex to tackle higher-level functions—like the meaning of life, and how your onboarding flow ought to work.

In short, habits free up mental RAM so you can operate more efficiently.

“We are creatures of habit more than we are creatures of change.”
― A.J. Darkholme, Rise of the Morningstar

2. We rely on habits

You know that old saying that we’re creatures of habit? It’s totally true.

A 2006 Duke University study showed that more than 40% of the actions we perform every day are driven by habit. That’s right: nearly half of what you do every day is automatic, unconscious.Twitter Logo

This may call into question the age-old idea that the key to ongoing engagement is staying “top of mind” with customers—by appealing to the thinking part of the brain. Instead, focusing on tapping into subconscious behaviors may be the more effective way to get someone hooked on your product.

“We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”
― John Dryden

3. Habits are forever

Neuroscientists have discovered that once a habit has been etched into our brain, it never really goes away. But if that’s true, how do people stop smoking or watching Project Runway religiously? Typically, they don’t just drop the habit—they exchange it for a new one.

Much like a girlfriend or boyfriend, old habits can be substituted for new ones. So while we can change a neural pathway, the right trigger can reawaken an old habit any time (like getting a text from an ex).

There are 2 valuable lessons here:

  1. The real power of habits is not just the unconscious, frictionless nature of the action, but also the ability to establish a permanent relationship with a customer
  2. If we understand users’ existing habits, we can piggyback on them to become a regular part of their lives

Understanding the 3-part habit loop

Illustration from Catriona Cornett’s article “How Habits Can Impact User Behavior

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, award-winning New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg explains the process of habit creation. At the core of every habit is a simple neurological loop that consists of 3 parts:

  1. Cue
    A cue is “a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.” Triggers can include places, times of day, emotions, and more.
  2. Routine
    In response to the cue, you perform an action. It can be a physical action like drinking coffee, or a cerebral one like Googling a question.
  3. Reward
    This is the benefit you get from completing the routine. It’s the part that proves to our brain that the action is worth repeating. It can be a variety of things such as a boost of energy when you’re tired or quickly finding an answer to your question.

Up next: using the habit loop

In part 2, we’ll talk about different ways to apply the habit loop to a product and share ideas and examples of how you can successfully embed routine-sparking elements into the user experience. Stay tuned!

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