Have you ever mindlessly scrolled through your social media feed, only to stop and wonder why? An applied psychology method known as the hook might just be the reason.
The hook describes how certain products get you to behave in a particular way. For businesses, especially startups, this is a very good thing. More people using a product probably means more money. But beware, that kind of design can also take advantage of people by capitalizing on things like the fear of missing out, or FOMO.
Social media is a great example of this because usage varies greatly from the occasional and healthy (sharing pictures with the family) to the compulsive and emotionally draining (endless scrolling or comparison to others’ lives.) The intent may have started out the same but, at some point, something happened behind the screen that’s worth noting.
The question is, how can we do better? How can we help solve the right problems for people AND make it good for business? Whenever the goal is to drive engagement or increase app use, there should also be a conversation on design ethics.
By examining the hook model and the psychology behind the design, we can better reflect on how we design and use digital products, fostering that conversation.
The Psychology Behind It All
It all starts with behaviorism, a school in psychology pioneered by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. Behaviorism states that, with the right timing and variability of rewards and incentives, you can reinforce a particular behavior. However, purely focusing on rewards and incentives doesn’t take into account important human aspects like emotions and thoughts.
Psychology shied away from pure behaviorism in the 1950s, but ideas from it continue to inform the core of behavior design. First conceived by B.J. Fogg in the 1990s, behavior design came at a time when interactive technologies were beginning to have a presence in our daily lives, outside of just work. While it’s nothing new that businesses shape human behavior by influencing our daily choices, what is new is that digital products are so deeply ingrained in nearly all aspects of our lives. Manipulation is also becoming more subtle and harder to spot. Remember how social media was targeted to sway opinions and influence behaviors during a certain recent election?
Addictive products and dark patterns use the psychology of design to drive clicks, force subscriptions, and may even put data privacy at risk. We should all be wary of tricks like these, but designers should especially take note when creating new features intended to “increase app engagement”. Technology as a tool should help people (maybe even nudge them a little bit!) to become the best version of themselves, not drive them to form addictive habits.
Enter: The Hook Method
First popularized in 2014 by Nir Eyal, the hook method applies the psychology of behavior design to digital products. The goal of a hook is to help people build habits and Nir Eyal speaks highly about designing habits for good. The first places that come to mind are typically social media, but this model exists across industries. Applying the hook model in industries like healthcare and finance can be really helpful for people trying to make a change and stick to it.
The Hook Method consists of four basic parts: Trigger, Action, Reward, Investment. These four components can be repeated as a loop and, when layered together over time, can “hook” you to form patterns in your behavior. Once you’re hooked, the anticipation of reward keeps you coming back to the product.
There are two types of triggers: external and internal. External triggers provide information on what to do next; they prompt or cue the next action. Over time, if a product is meaningful and valuable, you may not need that cue to do something. Internal triggers come from within and are the building blocks of habits.
External Triggers Prompt An Action
There’s an art to finding the right balance when designing these elements. Let’s use notifications as an example. Too many, and they may be ignored. Too subtle and they may also be ignored. An additional consideration is around overall content strategy and microcopy: is the tone and voice appropriate for the situation? This has become such a crucial part of the equation that it’s given rise to the UX writer as a role within many UX teams.
With Good Intent
Good intent means the problem and solution are focused around the goals of the end-user. The problem may be that establishing a new fitness regimen is hard and the solution may incorporate daily reminder notifications to help establish a routine.
Straightforward reminders are helpful when crafted or customized by the person using them. Let’s say this is a new app and the users have identified they are having problems sticking to, or establishing, a new schedule.
Push notifications could help initiate the action — getting moving or requiring a conscious decision of snoozing the notification!
Be cautious when the problem and solution are centered around a business shortcoming. When the problem is that customers are canceling subscriptions and the solution is to add confusing popups and added steps, this is not done with good intent.
The desired action of the user is to cancel a subscription but that is not the main call to action on the screen. Designs that do this necessitate just a little more thought and a bit more effort to opt-out. Businesses don’t want their customers to leave and this is relatively harmless, right?
Though this example may seem trivial, using design to change a user’s behavior for the benefit of the business is a slippery slope. This is a type of dark pattern. Tactics may be appealing in the short term but, over time, can erode trust in a brand — especially as technology becomes more ingrained in every aspect of our lives.
Instead, take the time to get more definition of why engagement is low. In order to understand the misalignment and make informed decisions about a solution, utilize proven research methods like interviews, surveys, and usability testing to understand your customer’s needs.
Internal Triggers Drive Habit Formation
Internal triggers lie within someone’s mind and memory and they drive how people interact with what’s on the screen. They embody the avoidance of pain, discomfort, or other negative emotions. When designing a product, it’s important to understand the pain points and challenges of users in order to identify which of their internal triggers the product may be prompting.
The original intent of social media was purely to share quick life updates with others. It turns out there are many drivers for interacting with social apps and they are not always visible through screens. They are hugely important to app design and they should always be part of the conversation.
With Good Intent: Doin it for Gram (and Gramps)
People seek connection through sharing memorable moments as posts with people who might otherwise not see them. There’s no external prompt telling someone to do this. The trigger instead comes from within and from past experiences, like Grandma saying she wants to see more photos of your travels.
Use Caution: Doin it for the ‘gram
People seek validation by comparing themselves to other people, planning out their posts to seek connection, or possibly with the hope of becoming a paid sponsor. In order to craft the perfect image, or to avoid rejection due to being ‘less than’, free time is spent posting videos through stories or staging photoshoots. Living in the moment is impacted, and a habit like this can be draining.
An action is any behavior done in anticipation of a reward. Things that influence action or behavior are motivation and ability. Design elements used at this stage can respond to what motivates people and how to make it as easy as possible for them to use. If something is very easy to use, people may need less motivation to use it — and vice versa.
Ability Is The Capacity To Do It
When things are easy for people to do, they are more likely to do them. Simple, right? There are six factors that influence ability: time, money, physical effort, level of focus, social deviance, and non-routine.
With Good Intent: A push notification
Use Caution: Too many push notifications
The external trigger of a push notification sounds like a good idea. However, where one push notification in isolation may be helpful and clear, a number of things may demand our attention in the same way. Notifications in excess require a lot more focus to sort through and may reach a point where users are ignoring them entirely.
Designers must understand the context surrounding use. Where more focus is required, ability can be limited. People who otherwise might want to use a product may quit if something becomes too challenging. Someone may really want to establish a new routine to improve their health but life is too busy for them.
Motivation Is The Desire To Do It
Similar to internal triggers, motivators aren’t seen on the screen. As designers, we should understand motivators at play in order to empathize with the users and ensure it gets reflected in the design. There are six factors, according to Fogg, that influence motivation: seeking pleasure/avoiding pain, seeking hope/avoiding fear, and seeking acceptance/avoiding rejection.
Motivation is high for starting a new fitness plan with an app to track progress. People want to avoid pain and future health complications. Starting something new and unknown leaves people at a very vulnerable point, possibly looking for excuses to opt-out and quit before trying.
While a really long registration page or multi-step process might be necessary to collect information, does it need to be the first thing users see? What’s the purpose of this? Are we just collecting data for collection’s sake?
Form fields aren’t necessarily difficult and aren’t a barrier in all situations. For this example though, it isn’t making a strong first impression. Is this what users should expect with the rest of the product? Motivation is already limited and this form feels like a lot of work. People may quit before they try due to low confidence in the value of the product.
With Good Intent
Registration is a necessary evil but design can help. What type of information and when you’re collecting it is something that should be thought about strategically. Form fields are not inspiring, but creative onboarding could be. Is the address needed upfront? Can it be added later? Is it needed at all? Do people need to create an account first or should they get to take a look around first?
If confidence in the product is the issue, can we give people an idea of what they can expect so they are more confident using it? While we’re at it, the tone and voice might be something to spend more time on here as well. Use words and phrases that build hope to further boost user confidence.
A reward is getting something for your efforts. Based on research done by Olds and Milner, the reward zone in the brain is activated when we anticipate a reward — not when we get one. Variable rewards add an air of mystery; people are curious beings who crave to know the unknown.
Many products employ variable rewards to keep people engaged but they too can fall flat. Just because something works in one context doesn’t mean it works in another. Every project is different so reward types and their design are context-dependent. It isn’t as simple as adding a “like” button.
Reward of the Tribe
Humans are social creatures and it is in our nature to seek connection with others. Things that make you feel part of a group, on a team, or having status among peers all play to our social needs. Rewards of this type often show up on social media in the form of likes, comments, upvotes, rankings, even FAQs and message boards.
With Good Intent
Likes and comments from friends boost feelings of social connection. Stay in touch with or possibly reconnect with long lost friends. Watch and support as people live their best lives.
When the goal is to get as many likes and comments from strangers, friends, anyone really, the reward is just a sheer numbers game. Comparison to other posts, fueling the search for external validation. Possibly even strategies to get more likes. Following new accounts and liking their pictures, etc.
Reward of the Hunt
These are things like material prizes, money, or information. It is commonly used in feeds of all kinds.
Newsfeeds employ this reward because people want to stay in the loop and stay connected. This works because it is easy to scroll and there is always the anticipation of learning something new when the scrolling has no end.
Caution is needed because this can lead to mindless scrolling and timesuck. There’s also the marketing lens here, introducing ads sneakily or paid sponsorships to sway purchases or even opinions.
Reward of the Self
These are intrinsic things like self achievements, competency, mastery.
With Good Intent
An interesting example is the ‘you’re all caught up’ feature on newsfeeds. In some ways, it limits the reward of the hunt by instead providing a reward of achievement and mastery. You’ve found it all! You don’t need to waste any more time here.
This is the promise of a future reward. Two things build investment in a product: stored value over time and loading the next trigger.
With Good Intent
Initially, dashboards may not be very useful. Their value accumulates over time though, and the progress that builds it is intrinsic to the user. With things like wearable devices, getting data is not the problem. The art is in making sense of it.
In this example, the new fitness plan may be speaking to people who are trying to start from day one. Or, it could for people who are trying to get their personal best for their next marathon.
Communicating information through dashboard design can make for a meaningful and valuable product, as long as there is an understanding of the pain points and goals of the people using the product.
Since patterns and trends need to be observed and recorded over time, continued use requires motivation and investment. Making it as easy as possible can be a huge step towards achieving a goal of improved health and wellness.
Loading The Next Trigger
This sets the stage for the next task to be completed. The term ‘endowed progress effect’ is not new to digital technology. With more progress, there is a higher investment in achieving a goal or reward. Once something is started, it’s human nature to try and finish it. A really good example of this is the punchcard. “Buy 10, get one FREE!” 2/10 (meh) vs. 8/10 (so close I can taste the free coffee!)
With Good Intent
Let’s assume that one identified pain point was that the app felt impersonal and cold. Trying something new can be intimidating and, along with a fear of failing, goals may feel overwhelming. A solution may be to chunk goals into smaller milestones such as today, this week, or this month. Visuals that display progress can also help boost motivation to finish what’s been started.
This may be an opportunity to introduce fun interactive design elements. Notifications and reminders don’t have to be boring and microcopy doesn’t have to come from a robot. By taking some care to develop content that uses a supportive tone and voice, designers can provide encouragement and fun where it’s needed the most.
A different instance of this shows up when an app prompt provides more information than is required. Sometimes there’s a reward of higher status and seeing more relevant content. For example, when completing more sections of a profile like linking social media accounts, business info, contacts, etc. This may make it easier to find relevant content, but also may be done under the guise of collecting more consumer data for the benefit of business and marketing.
Reframing The Question
Questions like “how can I increase app engagement?” mean it’s a good time to have a conversation to reframe the ask. Is the root problem really that engagement isn’t high enough? Unlikely. People may not be using the product because it isn’t helping them reach their goals!
A better question might simply be “how can we design something that helps people reach their goals?” Maybe that means taking the time to do some more research to figure out goals and pain points. Or, maybe that means new designs entirely.
As designers and developers of digital solutions, we should continue to ask the tough questions. Sometimes that may mean challenging basic assumptions to ensure our solutions measure up. There’s room to reflect on how the design works in practice, even when done with the best intentions. We’re designing products that provide a solution to people and we can and should do this in a way that aligns business goals to the needs of the people using the products. Features aren’t successful if they prey on the weaknesses of people. They’re successful when they play to strengths and build a foundation of trust in the product or service.