Nir Eyal is the bestselling author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” and “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.” Nir writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. In this podcast, he talks us through his journey into product, the application of psychology towards product design, and the inspiration behind his Wall Street Journal best-selling books.
How did you get started in this crazy product tech world?
I helped start two tech companies. The latest was in the advertising and gaming industry where I learned from many of my clients, how they built products and services to change user behavior. And this was also at a time when, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Slack, Snapchat, all of these companies were really hitting their stride. And I had this front-row seat in Silicon Valley to try and understand how they did it.
And my goal was really to understand, how could we utilize that same psychology that these companies use to build habit forming products? What if we could use these techniques, not just for social media or video games. What if we could actually use these techniques for good? And so that’s why I wrote Hooked.
It came out of a class that I taught at the Stanford graduate school of business. And the goal of the book was to democratize these techniques to steal the psychological secrets of the stickiest companies in the world – the YouTube and Facebooks of the world – so that the rest of us can build products and services to build good habits using the exact same psychology.
And that’s exactly what’s happened since Hooked was published. Companies in EdTech, FinTech, Health Tech, SaaS products…every conceivable industry that requires customers to come back on their own out of habit have used the Hooked model to build the kind of products and services that people use because they want to, not because they feel like they have to.
As product people, we always reinforce the idea of falling in love with the problem and not the solution. What’s the problem that you’re the most passionate about right now?
The reason I love my job and the reason I love this community of product builders is that we get to do something super important. We get to solve people’s pain. I mean, this is God’s work, right? We get to solve people’s pain. How cool is that? How many jobs can say that they really do that?
As product designers, that is where we have to start. We have to begin with understanding what I call in my books, the internal trigger. That psychological itch. Not just on a functional level, it’s not just the cool gimmicks that your product can do. That’s not what’s special about your product. What’s special about your product is that it addresses a core human need. Loneliness, boredom, uncertainty, fatigue, stress, anxiety…these are universal human problems. And so it’s up to us as product designers to pinpoint which one of those problems we’re going to tackle and to build a solution for that problem. Not just on a functional level, but on a psychological level.
What was your inspiration for writing Hooked?
Selfishly, I wanted to understand how these products did it. I was in Silicon Valley when these amazing habit-forming products were really hitting their stride. And I didn’t really understand the deeper psychology. I mean, a lot of it looked like cutesy little crazy products, and some of them succeeded and some of them failed horribly. And I kept seeing this consistent problem where a company would achieve massive growth, but no engagement. I kept seeing this happen again and again and again, that Silicon Valley would go crazy over some company that was getting unbelievable growth. It was so viral. Viral used to be the big buzzword, and everybody wanted to be a growth hacker because it was all about growth. And I was kind of sitting in the back row saying during this whole time look, what’s the big deal?
You can always buy growth. Growth is not that important. You can always buy growth, you just buy more ads, right? Give money to Google or Facebook or the television stations. You can always get people to try your product. You can buy growth, but what you can’t buy is engagement.
You can’t buy repeat use, that has to be designed into the product. And so what I kept seeing was what we call leaky bucket businesses, right? Businesses that were really great at that viral growth, they got lots of people to try the product, and then they’d all leak out the bottom, right? They wouldn’t stick around, right. Because there were crazy churn rates with these products because they weren’t designed in such a way that people would stick around and keep using the product. So that’s a big fat waste of time and money and human capital, that we would build these products that people wouldn’t stick around in use.
I’m really on a mission to change this perception of the product design community, that growth is what matters, no growth without engagement is a waste of money. First you have to nail engagement, then you pour on growth.
Why do you think it’s a mistake that companies still make even to this day, that they prioritize growth over retention?
I think that’s because it’s impressive. As human beings, we tend to extrapolate the future based on the past. A good metaphor for this is if you look at the states of matter. So take water, for example. If you heat it up, it’ll get warmer and warmer. And if you just look on that trend, okay the water is getting warmer and warmer, you could extrapolate that, and then it’s going to get infinitely hot. But that’s of course not what happens. The temperature gets hotter and hotter. It stays constant. And then the water evaporates, it has a phase change.
And companies are kind of that way. They see this impressive growth and then the VCs start salivating and saying, Ooh, let’s jump in. Let’s invest. Or, you know the internal stakeholders say, let’s invest, look at this amazing growth.
They don’t realize that at a certain point, there’s a phase change where if you don’t focus on engagement, then all that work was for nothing. VCs are preemptively investing in companies before the companies even go out and raise, everybody’s trying to get in on deals. And so they’ll mistake growth as a sign of product-market fit. And it’s typically a very big mistake.
Which, by the way, isn’t to say that it’s not important. Growth is incredibly important. It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.
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Where did the inspiration for Indistractable come from?
For me, it was the same methodology. It was the same practice of Hooked, I’m looking for answers here. I have a question. When I wrote hooked, I honestly looked around for the book on how to build habit forming products. And I didn’t find such a book. So I read as many books I could around the topic, but there wasn’t specifically what I was looking for. How do I design for habits? I couldn’t find that book.
So I decided to spend five years researching and writing it. And the same thing happened with, Indistractable. I found in my own life, I was really struggling with distraction. I would say I would do one thing, and I would do something else constantly. Whether it was with my relationships, whether it was at work, whether it was in terms of taking care of my physical health.
I knew what to do, and frankly, I’m not alone. Right? Don’t we all basically know that if you want to be healthy, you have to eat right and exercise. We know that if we want to excel at your job, you have to do the work, especially the hard stuff you don’t want to do. If you want to have good relationships with people, you can’t be stuck on your phone when you’re having breakfast with your spouse or your kids, you have to be fully present with people to have good relationships.
So we know what to do. What we don’t know is how to stop getting in our own way. How do we stop getting distracted? And so that was really what I wanted to focus on, frankly, because I was struggling with it. And normally what I do when I struggle with something is that I read every book I can get my hands on, on the topic. I read all the academic research. And most of the time that helps me solve my problems in life.
But in this case, the books were wrong. The books were just plain wrong. Like they totally tell you stupid stuff, like go on a digital detox, digital minimalism, right? Get rid of your devices. Like some professor in an ivory tower. that’s never had a social media account, telling me to dump social media. Well, I need it for my job. I can’t stop using email. I can’t stop using my phone. I’ll get fired from my job.
What kind of advice is that? So I was really looking for a solution, not only for me, but for people out there who are struggling with these distractions but still utilize these tools. What I discovered was that the problem really is not the tech, the problem isn’t here. The problem is our relationship with these, with these distractions. And it’s not a new problem. It’s something that people have struggled with since time immemorial. Plato talked about this problem 2,500 years ago, it is not something that technology suddenly invented.
And so what I wanted to do is to take a deeper dive into the root causes of distraction, the deeper psychology around why we go off track, why we don’t do the things we know we want to do with our time and our attention in our life, so that we can get some actual practical answers.
And I have to tell you, in the five years it took me to write that book, there’s no facet of my life that hasn’t improved. I’m in the best shape of my life at 43 years old. I spend more quality time with my family than ever before. I’m more productive in my writing career than ever before. I’ve made better investments. Like everything I do professionally and personally has improved because I now have this skill that I think is the skill of the century, which is the power to control my attention, which is ultimately how we choose our life.
What would you say are some of the most important skills that have helped you to grow in your career?
And more than anything I think is curiosity. There’s a wonderful Dorothy Parker quote; “The cure for boredom is curiosity, and there is no cure for curiosity.” So I think that many of us make the mistake of thinking that all the questions have already been answered. If a guru doesn’t tell us the answer, then we haven’t looked hard enough. And many times, all it takes is sitting down and thinking.
And you know what’s amazing? Nobody does it these days. Very few people sit down, make time to think without distraction. If you want to kill it in your career, if you want to be better than the competition, if you want to be better than your colleagues, make time to think. Because that time to think is something that nobody else is doing.
Do you think that’s why so many people say that inspiration strikes them in the shower?
Oh, absolutely! We all know that and we know about the power of just being with our thoughts for a little bit. And the good news is you can make time for that. Many of us do have day jobs, but you can make some time in your day to sit with your thoughts. I constantly have a pen and a notebook here, to just make time in my day.
Now it’s scheduled in advance and I have time for what we call reactive work. That, of course, it’s part of my job. I have to react to emails and respond to notifications. Of course, it’s part of my day, but it shouldn’t be your entire day. You have to make time for what we call that reflective work to make sure that you have time to be creative, time to plan time, strategize, time to think must be done without distraction.
What are some of the things that you’re most interested in learning these days?
Oh my gosh. I have like a million things. Endless curiosities. There’s so much out there. I’m fascinated by human motivation. I’m fascinated by human psychology. I’m fascinated by the application of psychology towards product design and how products and services can shape our habits in good ways, and how we can defend against the bad habits in our life.
So I think what I’m gonna do is continue along this chain. Forming products is my first book…We want to get hooked to the exercise app or get hooked to the app that helps us save money while making sure that we can break the bad habits around the frivolous things that don’t enhance our life, like too much social media or video games. Those aren’t the same products we want to apply this stuff judiciously. And I think the next book will be something along this vein. I haven’t quite figured it out. I need to figure out what problem I really want to solve for myself. And that’s probably where my next book is going to come from.
What are some of the, what are some of the things that you’re the most excited for coming up in the future?
So I’m pretty optimistic. The media loves to sell us gloom and doom, but I’m pretty optimistic. I think there are going to be a lot of wonderful things that come from the ability of technology to change our habits for good. I’m very excited about the opportunities around crypto. I’m very excited about the opportunities around ubiquitous technology that is around us. And of course, there’s always room for abuse and we’ll have to navigate those waters as well. It’s not perfect, but on the whole, I’m pretty optimistic.
What advice would you give to your younger self when you were trying to break into product?
I think it’s super important to work on something that you believe is important. To devote your human capital to even if it fails. And one of the best tests, I actually give this test in Hooked, there’s a two-part matrix, it’s called the manipulation matrix. The manipulation matrix is a way to make sure that you use your human capital in an ethical way that you can use behavioral design towards persuasion or coercion. And persuasion is perfectly ethical. Persuasion is helping people do things they want to do. Coercion is getting people to do things they don’t want to do. And that’s clearly unethical. We never want to do that.
So in order to judge how we should spend our own human capital, I give people a two-part test and that two-part test is, am I materially improving people’s lives? That’s the first test. And you can only answer that yourself. Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, am I materially improving people’s lives? But that’s not good enough. The second part of this two-part test is a question that is designed to make you break the first rule of drug dealing. Do you happen to know the first rule of drug dealing?
You know…not off the tip of my tongue.
Okay, I’ll fill you in on the first rule of drug dealing, it’s never get high on your own supply.
You intentionally want to break that rule, I want you to get high on your own supply. Why? Because if there are any deleterious effects, you’ll be the first person to know about it. So the second question I want you to ask yourself is, am I the user? So the first question, does this materially improve people’s lives? And number two, am I the user? And if you can answer in the affirmative to both those questions, you’re what I call a facilitator. That you’re building something that you truly believe improves people’s lives. And you’re going to be the one that uses it. Not only is that a good ethical place to be, it’s actually an incredible point of strength and leverage from a business perspective, because the hardest part about building something people want is knowing what the hell they want. So if you, as the user are building this yourself for you, you can’t fail, right?
Because even if you don’t go public, even if your company crashes and burns, you will have built a product that you yourself wanted. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful building a product that you don’t believe materially improves people’s lives or that you don’t use yourself. I’m not saying that you can’t get monetary success that way. I would just ask you to consider whether that’s, how you want to spend your limited time on earth. That I think we can get much more out of our human capital and our contribution to society, and to the world, by passing this two-part test of only working on stuff that materially improves people’s lives. And you are the user. I think that’s a great place to be.
We’ll be back next week with even more of the latest insights from the Product Management world.