Creating Addictive Products and Apps That Change Lives

Do you ever have a feeling when you get home from work where you can’t recall any of your drive home? Do you ever find yourself aimlessly scrolling through your Facebook or Twitter feed without even remembering opening it? These are your habits, instances of things your mind does while it’s on autopilot. In his book, Hooked, Nir Eyal defines a habit as a behavior done with little or no conscious thought.

Addictive products are those that naturally fit into our habits.

Products that alleviate pain by relieving a pronounced itch are habit-forming. That’s because these products do not require much behavior change at all. They inject themselves into our lives by capitalizing on our normal behavior patterns.

Product designers often make the mistake of fabricating a new environment for their users. They start to design around the way a user should or might behave, rather than the way they already do. In Donald A. Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things, he tells a group of logical-thinking engineers “You are designing for people the way you would like them to be, not for the way they really are.” It’s critical that we fully empathize with our user base, and acknowledge their behavioral patterns. Users won’t immediately alter their subconscious mind just because they engage with our product.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Ex (1)

The Hook Cycle

Shown below is Nir Eyal’s hook cycle, which he describes in great detail throughout Hooked. The hook is an experience designed to connect the users problem to your solution. Through successive cycles, the customers tastes take hold and it becomes a habit.



A trigger starts off the hook cycle. There are two types of triggers:

  1. External triggers – things in our environment that tell us what to do. For example, an advertisement or word of mouth suggestion.
  2. Internal triggers – things that internally tells us we should do something, but not specifically what. The what is decided subconsciously and certain emotions dictate what we do next, with negative emotions having the highest impact. For example:
    • When confused, we go to Google
    • When lonely, we scroll through Facebook or Tinder
    • When bored, we open Imgur or Reddit
    • When depressed, we check email (this one is an actual statistic, sadly)

Before we understand what we are doing, triggers push us to act. When designing your product, be able to articulate precisely what itch you are solving for the user, with sufficient frequency.


An action is the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. For example, getting search results on Google, playing a video on YouTube, or scrolling through pins on Pinterest.


The reward is when the user gets what they came for through taking action. The goal of technology and your product is to shorten distance between recognized need and reward.

It’s important to note that the brain becomes most excited in anticipation of a reward. When we actually get it, the reward is less attractive. You can manufacture this sensation through variability, which causes us to focus and engage. Slot machines are addictive because are constantly anticipating a variable outcome. Suspense, mystery, and the unknown are fascinating to our minds.

There are three types of rewards:

  1. Tribe – social rewards and competition
  2. Hunt – money, information, feeds on LinkedIn or Twitter
  3. Self – personal gratification, things that stimulate our senses, mystery, control, and competency. With gaming, you love getting to the next level and building up your skill. With app notifications, you wonder what could be waiting inside the app for you.


Investment is the final piece needed to complete the hook cycle, and it’s the most crucial. Investments increase likelihood of next pass through hook, and it’s something a user does in anticipation of a future reward.

Investments store value, improving product adoption. The more content you put into a social network, the more followers you have, the better your reputation on eBay or Airbnb. This stored value enhances your experience and thus size of your reward next time you go through the hook cycle.

The best product does not always win.

The products that become hits are the ones that are addictive. It’s the product that can capitalize the monopoly of the mind through understanding how consumer preferences are formed. The goal of your product design should be to influence customers to use your product on their own, again and again without relying on overt calls to action such as ads or promotions.

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