8. HABIT TESTING AND WHERE TO LOOK FOR HABIT-FORMING OPPORTUNITIES
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Now that you have an understanding of the Hook Model and have reflected on the morality of influencing user behavior, it is time to get to work. Running your idea through the four phases of the model will help you discover potential weaknesses in your product’s habit-forming potential.
Does your users’ internal trigger frequently prompt them to action? Is your external trigger cueing them when they are most likely to act? Is your design simple enough to make taking the action easy? Does the reward satisfy your users’ need while leaving them wanting more? Do your users invest a bit of work in the product, storing value to improve the experience with use and loading the next trigger?
By identifying where your technology is lacking, you can focus on developing improvements to your product where it matters most.
By following the “Do This Now” sections in previous chapters, you should have enough knowledge to prototype your product. But simply coming up with ideas is not enough, and creating user habits is often easier said than done. The process of developing successful habit-forming technologies requires patience and persistence. The Hook Model can be a helpful tool for filtering out bad ideas with low habit potential as well as a framework for identifying room for improvement in existing products. However, after the designer has formulated new hypotheses, there is no way to know which ideas will work without testing them with actual users.
Building a habit-forming product is an iterative process and requires user behavior analysis and continuous experimentation. How can you implement the concepts in this book to measure your product’s effectiveness building user habits?
Through my studies and discussions with entrepreneurs at today’s most successful habit-forming companies, I’ve distilled this process into what I call “Habit Testing.” It is a process inspired by the build-measure-learn methodology championed by the lean startup movement. Habit Testing offers insights and actionable data to inform the design of habit-forming products. It helps clarify who your devotees are, what parts of your product are habit-forming (if any), and why those aspects of your product are changing user behavior.
Habit Testing does not always require a live product; however, it can be difficult to draw clear conclusions without a comprehensive view of how people are using your system. The following steps assume you have a product, users, and meaningful data to explore.
Step 1: Identify
The initial question for Habit Testing is “Who are the product’s habitual users?” Remember, the more frequently your product is used, the more likely it is to form a user habit.
First, define what it means to be a devoted user. How often “should” one use your product? The answer to this question is very important and can widely change your perspective. Publicly available data from similar products or solutions can help define your users and engagement targets. If data is not available, educated assumptions must be made — but be realistic and honest.
If you are building a social networking app like Twitter or Instagram, you should expect habitual users to visit the service multiple times per day. On the other hand, you should not expect users of a movie recommendation site like Rotten Tomatoes to visit more than once or twice a week (since their visits will come on the heels of seeing a movie or researching one to watch). Don’t come up with an overly aggressive prediction that only accounts for uber-users; you are looking for a realistic guess to calibrate how often typical users will interact with your product.
Once you know how often users should use your product, dig into the numbers and identify how many and which type of users meet this threshold. As a best practice, use cohort analysis to measure changes in user behavior through future product iterations.
Step 2: Codify
Hopefully you’ve identified a few users who meet the criteria of habitual users. But how many users are enough? My rule of thumb is five percent. Though your rate of active users will need to be much higher to sustain your business, this is a good initial benchmark.
However, if at least five percent of your users don’t find your product valuable enough to use as much as you predicted they would, you may have a problem. Either you identified the wrong users or your product needs to go back to the drawing board. But if you have exceeded that bar and identified your habitual users, the next step is to codify the steps they took using your product to understand what hooked them.
Users will interact with your product in slightly different ways. Even if you have a standard user flow, the way users engage with your product creates a unique fingerprint. Where users are coming from, decisions made when registering, and the number of friends using the service, are just a few of the behaviors that help create a recognizable pattern. Sift through the data to determine if similarities emerge. You’re looking for a “Habit Path,” — a series of similar actions shared by your most loyal users.
For example, in its early days, Twitter discovered that once new users followed 30 other members, they hit a tipping point which dramatically increased the odds they would keep using the site.[cxxx]
Every product has a different set of actions that devoted users take; the goal of finding the Habit Path is to determine which of these steps is critical for creating devoted users so that you can modify the experience to encourage this behavior.
Step 3: Modify
Armed with new insights, it is time to revisit your product and identify ways to nudge new users down the same Habit Path taken by devotees. This may include an update to the registration funnel, content changes, feature removal, or increased emphasis on an existing feature. Twitter used the insights gained from the previous step to modify its on-boarding process, encouraging new users to immediately begin following others.
Habit Testing is a continual process you can implement with every new feature and product iteration. Tracking users by cohort and comparing their activity to habitual users should guide how products evolve and improve.
Discovering Habit-forming Opportunities
The Habit Testing process requires the product designer to have an existing product to test. But where might you look to find potentially habit-forming experiences ripe for new technological solutions?
When it comes to developing new products, there are no guarantees. Along with creating an engaging product as described in this book, startups must also find a way to monetize and grow. Although this book does not cover business models for delivering customer value or methods for profitable customer acquisition, both are necessary components of any successful business. Several things must go right for a new company to succeed, and forming user habits is just one of them.
As we saw in chapter six, being a “facilitator” is not only a moral imperative, it also makes for better businesses practices. Creating a product the designer uses and believes materially improves people’s lives increases the odds of delivering something people want. Therefore, the first place for the entrepreneur or designer to look for new opportunities is in the mirror. Paul Graham advises entrepreneurs to leave the sexy-sounding business ideas behind and instead build for their own needs: “Instead of asking ‘what problem should I solve?’ ask ‘what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?’”[cxxxi]
Studying your own needs can lead to remarkable discoveries and new ideas because the designer always has a direct line to at least one user — himself or herself. For example, Buffer, a service for posting updates to social networks, was inspired by its founder’s insightful observations of his own behavior.
Buffer was founded in 2010 and is now used by over 1.1 million people.[cxxxii] Its founder, Joel Gascoigne, described the company’s inception in an interview.[cxxxiii] “The idea for Buffer came to me after I had been using Twitter for about 1.5 years. I had started to share links to blog posts and quotes I found inspiring, and I found that my followers seemed to really like these types of tweets. I would often get retweets or end up having a great conversation around the blog post or quote. That's when I decided I wanted to share this kind of content more frequently, because the conversations being triggered were allowing me to be in touch with some super smart and interesting people.”
Gascoigne continues, “So, with my goal of sharing more blog posts and quotes, I started to do it manually. I quickly realized that it would be far more efficient to schedule these tweets for the future, so I started to use a few available Twitter clients to do this. The key pain I ran into here was that I would have to choose the exact date and time for the tweet, and in reality all I wanted to do was to tweet ‘five times per day.’ I just wanted the tweets to be spread out so I didn't share them all at the same time when I did my daily reading. For a while, I used a notepad and kept track of when I had scheduled tweets, so that I could try and tweet five times per day. This became quite cumbersome, and so my idea was born: I wanted to make scheduling tweets 'x times a day' as easy as tweeting regularly.”
Gascoigne’s story is a classic example of a founder scratching his own itch. As he used existing solutions, he recognized a discrepancy in what they offered and the solution he needed. He identified where steps could be removed from other products he used and built a simpler way to get his job done.
Careful introspection can uncover opportunities for building habit-forming products. As you go about your day, ask yourself why you do, or do not do, certain things and how those tasks could be made easier or more rewarding.
Observing your own behavior can inspire the next habit-forming product or inform a breakthrough improvement to an existing solution. Below, you’ll find other hotbeds for innovation opportunities — think of them as shortcuts for uncovering existing behaviors that are ripe for successful business development based on forming new user habits.
Sometimes technologies that appear to cater to a niche will cross into the mainstream. Behaviors that start with a small group of users can expand to a wider population, but only if they cater to a broad need. However, the fact that the technology is at first used only by a small population often deceives observers into dismissing the product's true potential.
A striking number of world-changing innovations were written off as mere novelties with limited commercial appeal. George Eastman’s Brownie camera, preloaded with a film roll and selling for just $1, was originally marketed as a child’s toy.[cxxxiv] Established studio photographers saw the device as little more than a cheap plaything.
The invention of the telephone was also dismissed at first. Sir William Preece, the chief engineer of the British Post Office famously declared, "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."[cxxxv]
In 1911, Ferdinand Foch the future Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies in WWI said, "Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value."[cxxxvi]
In 1957, the editor of business books for Prentice Hall told his publisher, “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year.”
The Internet itself, and each successive wave of innovation, has continually received criticism for its inability to gain mass appeal. In 1995, Clifford Stoll wrote a Newsweek article titled, “The Internet? Bah!” where he declared, “The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper…” Stoll continued, “...we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.”[cxxxvii]
But of course, now we do read books and newspapers over the Internet. When technologies are new, people are often skeptical. Old habits die hard and few people have the foresight to see how new innovations will eventually change their routines. However, by looking to early adopters who have already developed nascent behaviors, entrepreneurs and designers can identify niche use cases, which can be taken mainstream.
For example, in its early days, Facebook was only used by Harvard students. The service mimicked an offline behavior familiar to all college students at the time: Perusing a printed book of student faces and profiles. After finding popularity at Harvard, Facebook rolled out to other Ivy League schools, and then, to college students nationwide. Next came high school kids and later, employees at select companies. Finally, in September of 2006, Facebook was opened to the world. Today, Facebook is used by over a billion people. What first began as a nascent behavior at one campus became a global phenomenon catering to the fundamental human need for connection to others.
As discussed early in the book, many habit-forming technologies begin as “vitamins” — nice-to-have products that, over time, become must-have “painkillers” by relieving an itch or pain. It is revealing that so many breakthrough technologies and companies, from airplanes to Airbnb, were at first dismissed by critics as toys or niche markets. Looking for nascent behaviors among early adopters can often uncover valuable new business opportunities.
Mike Maples, Jr., a Silicon Valley “super angel” investor, likens technology to big-wave surfing. In 2012, Maples blogged, “In my experience, every decade or so, we see a major new tech wave. When I was in high school, it was the PC revolution. I made my career as an entrepreneur at the end of the client/server wave and in the early phases of the Internet wave. Today, we are at the mass adoption phase of the social networking wave. I am obsessed with these technology waves and have spent a lot of time studying how they develop and what patterns can be observed.”
Maples believes technology waves follow a three-phase pattern, “They start with infrastructure. Advances in infrastructure are the preliminary forces that enable a large wave to gather. As the wave begins to gather, enabling technologies and platforms create the basis for new types of applications that cause a gathering wave to achieve massive penetration and customer adoption. Eventually, these waves crest and subside, making way for the next gathering wave to take shape.”[cxxxviii]
Entrepreneurs looking for windows of opportunity would be wise to consider Maples’ metaphor. Wherever new technologies suddenly make a behavior easier, new possibilities are born. Oftentimes, the creation of a new infrastructure opens up unforeseen ways to make other actions simpler or more rewarding. For example, the Internet was first made possible because of the infrastructure commissioned by the United States government during the Cold War. Then, enabling technologies such as dial-up modems, and later, high-speed Internet connections, provided access to the web. And finally, HTML, web browsers and search engines — the application layer — made browsing possible on the World Wide Web. At each successive stage, previous enabling technologies allowed new behaviors and businesses to flourish.
Identifying areas where a new technology makes cycling through the Hook Model faster, more frequent, or more rewarding provides fertile ground for developing new habit-forming products.
Technological changes often create opportunities to build new hooks. However, sometimes no technology change is required. Many companies have found success in driving new habit formation by identifying how changing user interactions can create new routines.
Whenever a massive change occurs in the way people interact with technology, expect to find plenty of opportunities ripe for harvesting. Changes in interface suddenly make all sorts of behaviors easier. Subsequently, when the effort required to accomplish an action decreases, usage tends to explode.
A long history of technology businesses made their fortunes discovering behavioral secrets made visible because of a change in the interface. Apple and Microsoft succeeded by turning clunky terminals into graphical user interfaces accessible by mainstream consumers. Google simplified the search interface as compared to those of ad-heavy and difficult-to-use competitors such as Yahoo! and Lycos. Facebook and Twitter turned new behavioral insights into interfaces that simplified social interactions online. In each case, a new interface made an action easier and uncovered surprising truths about user behaviors.
More recently, Instagram and Pinterest have capitalized on behavioral insights brought about by interface changes. Pinterest’s ability to create a rich canvas of images — utilizing what were then cutting-edge interface changes — revealed new insights about the addictive nature of an online catalog. For Instagram, the interface change was cameras integrated into smartphones. Instagram discovered that its low-tech filters made relatively poor-quality smartphone photos look great. Suddenly taking good pictures with your phone was easier and Instagram used its newly discovered insights to recruit an army of rabidly snapping users. With both Pinterest and Instagram, tiny teams generated huge value — not by cracking hard technical challenges, but by solving common interaction problems. Likewise, the fast ascent of mobile devices, including tablets, has spawned a new revolution in interface changes — and a new generation of startup products and services designed around mobile user needs and behaviors.
To uncover where interfaces are changing, Paul Buchheit, Partner at Y-Combinator, encourages entrepreneurs to “live in the future.”[cxxxix] A profusion of interface changes are just a few years away. Wearable technologies like Google Glass, the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, and the Pebble watch promise to change how users interact with the real and digital worlds. By looking forward to anticipate where interfaces will change, the enterprising designer can uncover new ways to form user habits.
Remember and Share
- The Hook Model helps the product designer generate an initial prototype for a habit-forming technology. It also helps uncover potential weaknesses in an existing product’s habit-forming potential.
- Once a product is built, Habit Testing helps uncover product devotees, discover which product elements are habit forming (if any), and why those aspects of your product change user behavior. Habit Testing includes three steps: identify, codify, and modify.
- First, dig into the data to identify how people are behaving and using the product.
- Next, codify these findings in search of habitual users. To generate new hypotheses, study the actions and paths taken by devoted users.
- Lastly, modify the product to influence more users to follow the same path as your habitual users, and then evaluate results and continue to modify as needed.
- Keen observation of one's own behavior can lead to new insights and habit-forming product opportunities.
- Identifying areas where a new technology makes cycling through the Hook Model faster, more frequent or more rewarding provides fertile ground for developing new habit-forming products.
- Nascent behaviors — new behaviors that few people see or do, and yet ultimately fulfill a mass-market need — can inform future breakthrough habit-forming opportunities.
- New interfaces lead to transformative behavior change and business opportunities.
Do This Now
Refer to the answers you came up with in the “Do This Now” section in chapter five to complete the following exercises:
- Perform Habit Testing, as described in this chapter, to identify the steps users take toward long-term engagement.
- Be aware of your behaviors and emotions for the next week as you use everyday products. Ask yourself:
- What triggered me to use these products? Was I prompted externally or through internal means?
- Am I using these products as intended?
- How might these products improve their on-boarding funnels, re-engage users through additional external triggers, or encourage users to invest in their services?
- Speak with three people outside your social circle to discover which apps occupy the first screen on their mobile devices. Ask them to use these apps as they normally would and see if you uncover any unnecessary or nascent behaviors.
- Brainstorm five new interfaces that could introduce opportunities or threats to your business.