Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit-Forming ProductsUnless you want whatever product you’re working to be ignored, go out and read Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, by Nir Eyal. It’s a short primer on the nuts and bolts of how products ingrain themselves into our everyday routines. As Nir puts it, “the ultimate goal of a habit-forming product is to solve the user’s pain by creating an association so that the user identifies the company’s product or service as the source of relief.” In the book, he outlines four components of a truly additive product:

  1. Trigger
  2. Action
  3. Variable Reward
  4. Investment

I wanted to see how well an app I regularly use stacked against these criteria. It’s an app called Sleep Cycle, which uses my phone’s accelerometer to measure the quality of my sleep each night. I’ve been using it pretty religiously for several months now, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s a habit forming product. Let’s see if it meets all of the criteria…

Trigger

There are four types of triggers outlined in the book, but just two apply here: internal and owned.

Internal is “When a product becomes tightly coupled with a thought, an emotion, or a pre-existing routine…”. Considering that I sleep everyday (it’s a great way to fend off insanity if you haven’t tried it), that’s a pretty solid internal trigger. I go to sleep; I am triggered to use Sleep Cycle. Since the app also serves as my alarm clock, it’s actually ingrained into two routines.

Owned refers to triggers that “consume a piece of real-estate in the user’s environment.” The app lives right there on the first page of apps on my iPhone home screen, so it does provide a trigger this way. For a phone app, though, “taking up a piece of real-estate” is pretty much a given, so I can’t give the app any extra credit here. However, app notifications fall under the umbrella of owned triggers, and it’s interesting that the app doesn’t offer any. I would think that setting up a simple reminder to “Turn on Sleep Cycle” at a set time every day would be a no-brainer.

I’ll give the app a 6 out of 10 here – the nature of the app lends itself well to routine, but it could go a lot further to remind new users to keep using the tool.

Action

The book references the Fogg Behavior Model, which says that “a given behavior will occur when motivation, ability, and a trigger are present at the same time and in sufficient degrees.”

We’ve already touched on trigger, so how about motivation and ability?

Eyal defines motivation it as “the level of desire to take that action.” For a first time user of the app, the primary motivation is to “sleep better” (it works by waking you up during the correct point in your sleep cycle). That’s an interesting proposition (who doesn’t want to sleep better), but it’s fairly vague in terms of what that actually means. Further more, the App Store page used to market the app doesn’t go a long way to really sell you on the concept.

Ability is simply how hard it is for a user to take an action. E.g. using Craigslist vs filing your taxes. Sleep Cycle is pretty easy to use, simply turn it on and place the phone facing down on your mattress. However, to get real benefit from the app, you need to use it consistently, and there’s kind of a steep learning curve to wade through all of the reports. You also have to make sure the phone is plugged in, which is a pain if you’re just exhausted and want to go right to bed! Of course the final step can be pretty tough (you actually have to go to sleep), but that’s not the app’s fault!

Let’s give it a 5.

Variable Reward

“Without variability, we are like children in that once we figure out what will happen next, we become less excited by the experience,” Eyal says. This is why the math behind slot machines is so important. If you simply won a small, fixed prize for every, say, ten spins, the experience would get dull pretty quickly. Apps are no different.

This is where Sleep Cycle really shines. Each morning when you wake up, the app rates your sleep quality on a scale of 0 to 100. 100 being a perfect night’s sleep, and 0 being, well, miserable. Yes, I did get a perfect 100 once; it took me 9 hours 29 minutes back in December. My worst was a 29%. That was a rough morning. Most days it hovers around 80%.

But the great thing about the sleep “score” is that it makes you feel as though you can “win” at sleep. It’s literally a game. You really don’t know what your score will be in the morning (you might have a vague sense if you were up all night worrying how you’ll pay back that Mafia loan), so each morning starts with the itch to satisfy your curiosity about how well you did.

I’ll give Sleep Cycle an 8 here.

Investment

Eyal points out how several studies have shown that we tend to over-value things that we’ve spent more time doing: “Of course everyone likes hearing the accordion, I’ve practiced every day for the past 8 years!”

One of the ways investment manifests itself is through the accumulation and interaction with data. And boy does Sleep Cycle have the data. Not only is it measuring sleep quality each night, but it tracks quality by day of week, duration in bed, the time you went to bed, and more. You can even add something called “Sleep Notes”, which are basically tags assigned to each night. For example, if you regularly each 5-alarm chili, you can set up a “5-alarm chili” Note. The app will compare your sleep quality on days you ate said chili to days you had a normal diet. After a while, you might see that your chili feasts cost you major sleep points, and you’ll decide to back off the Tabasco a bit.

Real life example: I switched to a new mattress in early November, and my sleep quality consistently improved since then. Money well spent!

Sleep Cycle gets a 9 out of 10 here; the longer you use the app, the more valuable (and interesting) it gets.

Summary

If we average out these scores, Sleep Cycle gets a 7/10. That’s not a terrible score, but the app could much improve it’s use of triggers to encourage new users to use the app regularly. It’s the kind of product that if the user wants to make using it a habit, it’ll probably happen. But for the curious user who downloads the app on a whim, they’re unlikely to be turned into a habitual user through the “hooks” of the app alone.

If you haven’t read Hooked yet, give it a read. It doesn’t commit the sin that most business books commit of being way too long, but there’s enough useful information in there to be valuable to almost any reader. Cheers!