Facebook. A mobile phone. Email. How often do you check them? Many of us have developed habits around these services.
The triggers that help create these habits can be baked in to the design of websites. The obvious benefit of doing so is that if you create habits in your users, then you’re less reliant on new search visitors for traffic.
How To Build Habit Forming Products
I recently read a book called “Hooked: How To Build Habit Forming Products” by Nir Eyal. Eyal is an entrepreneur who has built and sold two start ups, including a platform to place advertising within online social games. He also writes for Forbes, TechCrunch,and Psychology Today about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. This latest book is about how technology shapes behaviour.
If usability is about engineering a site to make things easier, then forming habits is engineering user behaviour so they keep coming back. Forming habits in the user base is a marketers dream, yet a lot of search marketing theory is built around targeting the new visitor. As competition rises on the web, traffic becomes more valuable, and the price rises.
Clicks are likely more profitable the less you have to pay for them. If visitors keep returning because the visitor has formed a habit, then that’s a much more lucrative proposition than having to continually find new visitors. Facebook is a habit. Email is a habit. Google is a habit. Amazon is a habit. We keep returning for that fix.
What techniques can we use to help build habits?
The book is well worth a read if you’re interested in the psychology of repeat engagement. There’s a lot of familiar topics presented in the book, with cross-over into other marketing territory such as e-mail and social media marketing, but I found it useful to think of engagement in terms of habit formation. Here’s a taste of what Eyal has discovered about habit forming services.
1. Have A Trigger
A trigger is something that grabs your attention and forces you to react to it. A trigger might be a photo of you that appears on a friends Facebook Feed. It might be the ping of an email. It might be someone reacting to a comment that you made on a forum and receive notification. These triggers help condition a user to take an action.
2. Inspire Action
Action is taken when a user anticipates a reward. An example might be clicking on a link for a free copy of a book. There are two conditions needed for a reward to work. It must be easy and there must be a strong motivation. The investment required - the click and attention - is typically a lower “cost” than the reward - the book. On social sites, like Facebook, the reward of the “like” click is the presumption of a social reward.
3. Variable Reward
The reward in response to the action must be variable. Something different should happen as the result of taking an action. The author gives the example of a slot machine. The reward might occur as the result of an action, or it might not. A slot machine would be boring if you got the exact same result each time you pulled the handle and spun the dials. The fact the slot machine only pays out sometimes is what keeps people coming back. All sports and games work on the basis of variable reward.
An online equivalent is Twitter or Facebook feeds. We keep looking at them because they keep changing. Somedays, there isn’t much of interest. Sometimes there is. Looking at that river of news going past can be an addictive habit, in part, because the reward changes.
The user must invest some time and do some work. Each time they invest some time and work, they add something that improves the service. They may add friends in Facebook. They add follows in Twitter. They build up reputation in forums. By adding to it, the service becomes more valuable both to the owner of the service, but also to the user. The bigger and deeper the network grows, the more valuable it becomes. If all your friends are on it, it’s valuable. This builds ever more triggers, makes actions easier and likely more frequent, and the reward more exciting.
The circle is complete. A habit is formed.
Applying Habit Theory To Websites
Habits create unprompted user engagement. The value is pretty obvious. There’s likely a higher lifetime value per customer than a one-off visit, or on-going visits we have to pay per click. We can spend less time acquiring new customers and more time growing the value to those we already have. If we create an easy mechanism by which that occurs, and spreads, then we’re not as vulnerable to search engines.
If this all sounds very function and product oriented, well, it is. So how does this apply to a published website? A product website that aims for a one off sale?
Think In Terms Of Habit Formation
For one off sales, there aren't opportunities for habit formation in the same way as there might be for, say, Facebook.
Developers often give away free apps, but bill for continued use. Once the user gets in the habit, of doing something, price becomes less of an issue. Price is much more of an issue before they form a habit because they wonder if they will get value. AngryBirds, WhatsApp, et al created a habit first, then cashed in once it was established.
A call-to-action is a trigger. If we think about how calls-to-action in social media and mobile applications, they tend to be big, bold and explicit. If users are in the habit of clicking big, bold buttons in other media, then try testing these such buttons against your current calls-to-action on web pages. Look to mimic habits and routines your visitors might use in other applications.
Habits can be a defensive strategy. It’s hard for a user to leave a company around which they've formed a habit. On the surface, there is a low switching cost between Google and, say, Bing, but how many people really do switch? Google has locked-in users habit by layering on services such as Gmail, or just the simple act of having people used to its interfaces. The habit of users increases their switching cost.
There’s a great line in the book:
Many innovations fail because consumers irrationally overvalue the old while companies irrationally overvalue the new” - John Gourville
Changing user habits is very difficult. Even Google couldn't do it with Google Video vs the established YouTube. If you’re thinking of getting into an established market, think about how you’re going to break existing habits. A few new features probably isn't enough. If breaking established habits seems too difficult, you may decide to pick an entirely new niche and try to get users forming a habit around your offering before other early movers show up.
Eyal also discusses emotional triggers. He uses the example of Instagram where users form a habit for emotional reasons, namely the fear of missing out. The fear of missing out is a more passive, internal trigger.
Make It Easy For The User To Take Action
After the trigger comes action. Usability is all about making it easy for the user to take action. Are you putting unnecessary sign-up stages in the way of a user taking action? Does the user really need to sign up before they take action? If you must have a sign up, how about making that process easier by letting people sign in with Facebook logins, or other shared services, where appropriate? Any barrier to action may lessen the chance of a user forming a habit.
Evan Williams, Blogger & Twitter:
Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time...identify that desire, then take out steps
The technologies and sites that go big tend to mirror something people already do and have done for a long time. They just make the process easier and more efficient. Email is easier than writing and posting a letter. Creating a blog is easier than seeking a publishing deal or landing a journalism job at a newspaper. Sharing photos with Facebook is easier than doing so offline.
Apple worked on similar principles:
The most obvious thing is that Jobs wanted his products to be simple above all else. But Jobs realized early on that for them to be simple and easy to use, they had to be based on things that people already understood. (Design geeks have since given this idea a clunky name: so-called skeuomorphic user interfaces.) What was true of the first Macintosh graphical interface is true of the iPhone and iPad--the range of physical metaphors, and, eventually, the physical gestures that control them, map directly with what we already do in the real world. That’s the true key to creating an intuitive interface, and Jobs realized it before computers could really even render the real world with much fidelity at all.[An example of "imputing" Apples values on the smallest decisions: Jobs spent hours honing the window borders of the first Macintosh GUI. When his designers complained, he pointed out that users would look at those details for hours, so they had to be good.
Reducing things to the essentials fosters engagement by making an action easier to take. If in doubt, take steps out, and see what happens.
Vary The Reward
Look for ways to reward the user when they take action. Forums use social rewards, such as reputation and status titles. Facebook has “Like” Buttons. Inherent is this reward system is the thrill of pursuit. When a visitor purchases from you, or signs up for a newsletter, do you make the visitor feel like they've “won”?
Placing feeds on your site are another example of variable reward. The feed content is unpredictable, but that very unpredictability may be enough to keep people coming back. Same goes for blog posts. Compare this with a static brochure site where the “reward” will always be the same.
Can you break a process down into steps where the user is rewarded for taking each little step towards a goal? The reward should match the desires of the visitor. Perhaps the reward is monetary, perhaps it’s social. Gamification is becoming big business and it’s based around the idea of varying reward, action and triggers in order to foster engagement.
Gamification has also been used as a tool for customer engagement, and for encouraging desirable website usage behaviour. Additionally, gamification is readily applicable to increasing engagement on sites built on social network services. For example, in August 2010, one site, DevHub, announced that they have increased the number of users who completed their online tasks from 10% to 80% after adding gamification elements. On the programming question-and-answer site Stack Overflow users receive points and/or badges for performing a variety of actions, including spreading links to questions and answers via Facebook and Twitter. A large number of different badges are available, and when a user's reputation points exceed various thresholds, he or she gains additional privileges, including at the higher end, the privilege of helping to moderate the site
This is “checking” behaviour. We check for something new. We get a variable reward for checking something new. If we help create this behaviour in our visitors, we get higher engagement signals, and we’re less reliant on new visitors from search engines.
Checking habits may change in the near future as more and more informational "rewards" are added to smartphones. The paper argues that novel informational rewards can lead to habitual behaviors if they are very quickly accessible. In a field experiment, when the phone's contact book application was augmented with real-time information about contacts' whereabouts and doings, users started regularly checking the application. The researchers also observed that habit-formation for one application may increase habit-formation for related applications.
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