Interview with Nir Eyal about the Hook Model and Product Development

Nir Eyal is an educator, entrepreneur, author, and blogger who maintains the website In addition to his blog, Nir has written articles for TechCrunch, Psychology Today, and Forbes. Nir’s new book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” debuted on the Wall Street Journal business best seller list this year.

1) What is a creative “growth hacking” method you have seen bolted onto the Hook Model that can positively influence the viral coefficient (or alternative variable) and amplify the effect of your model? Clickbait is one potential example (adding a trigger to a hijacked audience); are there any better ones?

Clickbait is an okay example. I tend to think of engagement and growth as two things that can be connected, but that do not necessarily have to be. So when I look for opportunities to invest in or consult with companies, the three criteria I always look for are: growth, engagement, and monetization. A startup must possess two of these at the onset, with a strategy to obtain the third, or I’m likely not going to be interested.

Most viral strategies have nothing to do with engagement. This is important to note; most viral growth strategies lack engagement. These strategies are usually just a way to get people in the door. Sometimes you see innovators get so hung up on virality that they stop there, and unfortunately stop short of incorporating engagement into their product. For me that is what is interesting: how can you make engagement part of the product itself, part of the growth strategy? It is pretty rare to see engagement as part of the overall growth strategy. It’s pretty hard to do well unless you are a social network. Most others are doing it as a bribe: “Here is ten dollars; invite your friend.”

2) In your teachings, you speak about the power of negative valence and how feelings such as boredom, fear, and depression can be effective mechanisms to get someone to act. In your opinion, why have emotions with positive valence (such as a joy) proven to be less effective action triggers?

When we feel happy, we don’t have a problem. Every solution is used to address a problem. Negative valence states are painful. They create pain points and we seek to correct those pain points. One could also argue this is teleosemantic… two sides of the same coin. For instance, is someone lonely or do they simply desire connection? I like to focus product makers on the negative so they understand that they should be solving a problem. Unfortunately opportunities are generally not found when people are hunky-dory; opportunities are found when people are suffering from something.

3) In the process of your research, what are one or two of the most effective reoccurring external triggers you’ve seen that do not use the computer or mobile phone as the conduit? Is there anything on the horizon that might match or come close to the utility of smartphones with regard to effective trigger conduits?

Mobile devices are fairly new, but visual triggers obviously are not… advertising, storefronts, etc. Smartphones simply let us interact more effectively with these triggers. As far as something on the horizon, I think the smartwatch is going to be huge. Whenever there is a broad base interface change, it opens a world of opportunities to build innovative products. And as simple as this sounds, some of the most powerful triggers are often hidden in your pocket. You cannot see that you have an incoming email if you have put your phone on silent. A watch is ever-present; however, the downside is there is a lot less real estate to grab your attention (than a phone). This is going to make creating habits more important because with less real estate there will be less opportunity to grab your attention. It creates a more competitive environment for app makers.

4) In a previous conversation, you and I discussed that fitness is hard to position as a reward because fundamentally it’s punishment, making it inherently difficult to inspire this action. Are there strategies to help bolster the perceived intrinsic value of a difficult action in an attempt to strengthen the perceived reward?

It is not my position that fitness is “fundamentally” punishment. I don’t think it creates pain for everyone; some people are clearly passionate about fitness and get a lot out of it. They get pleasure from exercise. It is rewarding and they love it. It is what they like to do in their spare time.

What I do suggest is that those who do not enjoy exercise feel that way because it is potentially perceived as punishment and not viewed as rewarding. I believe that these people view exercise as not fun; simply put if they thought it was fun they would be doing it. The problem is people who don’t already enjoy it make up a majority of the general market, right? People making fitness products, or at least most of them, are trying to create behavior change in the hope of making inactive people become active. It is the proverbial brass ring that people in the fitness industry are reaching for.

From what I have seen to date, it just doesn’t work; it is just punishing users. Look at the phenomenon of “moral licensing”: when we do something that we feel punishes us, when we feel we are suffering in one area of our lives, we tend to go overboard in other areas. That’s been shown with charity giving, and it’s been shown with recycling: sacrificing in one area of life leads to indulgence is other areas of life.

If someone gets into this spiral — for instance they workout each day and burn 300 calories but then reward themselves with a 400-calorie Jamba Juice — what happens over time when they do not see results? They ask, “why am I gaining weight? I guess I am just a fat person.” In the end they come to a conclusion, “well, I’m just fat; it’s who I am.” And that’s the saddest part of this story, because “being fat” has become a part of their identity, and identity is much harder to change than behavior.

At a global level, a person’s environment is going to play a major factor in the obesity crisis. People make poor choices about what they eat because unhealthy food is easy to get. If we had better access to healthy choices, I believe that would go a long way. In that regard I love what the company Pantry Labs is doing. Pantry Labs makes it easy for companies to offer fresh foods to their employees through vending machine innovation. If you enable people to make healthy choices, I think this is an easier intervention to implement than expecting everyone to pick up exercise.

5) Continuing the theme of influencing healthy behavior change, in your TechCrunch article Why Behavior Change Apps Fail to Change Behavior you state, “When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing the new behavior.” I believe this to be true as well. However, I also believe Barry Schwartz’s contention that choice can often be paralyzing. Personally I struggle with the coexistence of these concepts when it comes to prescribing varying fitness modalities to a population (especially in light of data that suggests you get higher participations rates when you limit choice). Where do you believe the balance exists, if there is a way to find balance? 

I believe you are talking about two different things here, I don’t think it is apples to apples. When we talk about the “paradox of choice,” we address things we desire, like picking between 24 flavors of jelly. We want the jelly, but we cannot decide which one we want. When we are talking about issues of autonomy and choice, we’re addressing things that we do not want to do. “I do not want any jelly; I hate jelly,” is different than the statement, “I want jelly, but which one do I get? It’s just too difficult to decide.”

There is some crossover — there is the concern that making choices, even simple choices, may tax one’s willpower — and there is this other issue of behavior, high willpower versus low willpower. The “behavior change matrix” can be helpful in explaining the difference and how it relates to forming positive habits.

Automatic behaviors — in other words, our habits — fall into one of four modes: amateur, expert, habitué and addict. I categorize them by how much self-control is required (high willpower vs. low willpower) and whether motivation can be classified as pleasure seeking or pain alleviating. Amateur and Expert are both pleasure-seeking modes, but amateur requires little willpower while expert requires a high degree of willpower. Both modes tend to result in beneficial behaviors that people want to increase.

Habitué behaviors are pain alleviating but require little willpower. They may be beneficial or destructive. Addictive behaviors are primarily negative and people seek to rid themselves of them. If you want to change someone’s behaviors, or help them develop new ones, you need to understand the matrix and use techniques in line with these four behavior modes. In other words, we do not need to frame this as “finding balance” rather understand that various desired behavior change types call for different strategies depending on the situation.