User Experience

How Designers Employ the Science of Habit to Drive User Adoption

By Lindsay Schwartz

November 16, 2017

Our habits control more than just how often we brush our teeth, or which lockers we like to use at the gym.

For better or worse, habits also influence our buying decisions. That’s why designers often integrate the science of human behavior into the functions of the products and services they help develop.

“A company’s economic value is a function of the habits they create,” writes author, educator and behavioral designer, Nir Eyal, in his book Hooked. It’s a fascinating read that explores what it takes to design products users can’t live without.

How I Got ‘Hooked’ By a Habit-Forming Design

Eyal’s Hook Model of product adoption begins with an internal or external trigger.

In my case, the trigger was an advertisement for the Nike+ Run Club app. I saw the advertisement while registering online for a half marathon and thought I’d test it out in my training.

According to Eyal, product adoption requires an experience that connects the user’s problem to a solution frequently enough to form a habit. My problem is that while I enjoy running, having to plan my workouts in order to best capitalize on my training feels like a mental burden when I am already very busy. I do not have the time to regularly plan different routes in order to hit my mileage goals for the week. I want to be able to run variable distances from different starting locations without a bunch of research.

The first time I tested the Nike app, I was impressed with its ability to set and track the distance, duration, and speed of my run from any location. At that point, my internal motivation to succeed in my training was amplified by my enjoyment of the app’s easy-to-use features. This ability to effortlessly plan a run allowed me to work on my mileage goals starting from any location I chose. That was my first hook.

Ready for Action

The next step of Eyal’s model is action. He defines it as the behavior users complete in anticipation of a reward.

With the Nike app, I discovered a surprisingly cool feature that helped build my anticipation. As I continued using it, I remained satisfied with how it facilitated my runs and kept accurate records. Then, when I completed my first distance goal near the end of a long run, I heard cheering in my earbuds and the congratulatory voice of a well-known Olympic runner.

Sure, it was a small and quirky moment. But it felt pretty cool to be sharing it with a renowned fellow athlete. After that, I began to anticipate other rewarding surprises I might unlock in the future.

Variable rewards like this are incredibly powerful, as they work in tandem with our body chemistry. Research shows that levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, increase when we learn to expect a reward for our actions. As Eyal explains, “Introducing variability in the reward… multiplies the effect, creating a focused state in our minds that suppress other areas of the brain associated with judgement and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.”

Going ‘All In’

The last stage of the Hook model is known as investment, and is reflected in the cyclical pattern with which I continue to invest time, effort and data into Nike’s training app.

The more I use it, the more I see my total mileage crank up, and the more valuable the chronological summaries of my workouts become. Plus, I’ve learned to value additional training metrics (like coaching plans, elevation gain, and heart rate monitoring) that initially I had no clue were available. This hyper-relevant content has increased my passion for training while putting the app at the center of my reinforced habit.

With other habit-forming products or platforms, users might invest social capital or money. The point is, they easily become invested in the accumulation of value.

If I continue to enjoy the Nike+ app, I may eventually explore other features I have yet to use, like sharing my workouts with other runners online. This social activity would likely set the hook even deeper into my workout habit, and it would distribute triggers across my social network that may begin the adoption model anew for other users. (Sneaky, Nike.)

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Good design has tremendous power to influence behavior.

As employees of a B Corporation, my colleagues and I at Azul Seven feel a moral obligation to put our design skills to work for the benefit of society. This makes it even more important to understand how we influence human behavior, and to what end.

If you’d like to learn about our work in complex fields like healthcare, education, finance or government, please contact us.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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