Nir Eyal :: Proddiction :: When toys become essential

Notes on Nir Eyal’s Cascade SF talk 8 April ’15 on the addictive phenomenon in technology use, mixed in with my thoughts and responses. Nir’s slides and book are informative, masterful, some would say revolutionising. But each mind thinks with different tools, so on the chance that some might benefit from my take, here it is . . . Paul Quin

Products change behaviour by creating Hooks that induce addictions or create firm habits in relation to use of the product. A hook has four elements: Trigger, action, reward and investment.

If a product is meant to be used less than once a week – perhaps even once a year or less – then the user experience needs to focus on enriching technique and not aim to build habit.

1. Trigger :: Engage motivating energy and give a call to action.

BJ Fogg describes three prerequisites to action. Ability is a necessary component of Nir’s Action element; Motivation and Trigger are part of his Trigger element.

  • Ability, the capacity to act. (The action must be simple or easy in context.)
  • Motivation, the energy to act.
  • Trigger, the option to act.

Memory and association are powerful forces that combine a Fogg trigger to issue a call to action with a Fogg motivator to provide the energy or compulsion to respond to that call.

The ELSA triggers: Emotion, location, situation, activity. LSA being obvious, we focus here on emotions.

Primary emotions: Instinctive, physical responses to direct stimulus. The primal emotive response.

  • Safety | Fear
  • Excitement | Sorrow
  • Delight | Disappointment
  • Fulfilment | Frustration
  • Gain | Loss
  • Comfort | Discomfort
  • Ease | Disease

Secondary emotions: Simple, reflexive feelings triggered by an emotive response. Or complex feelings resulting from dis-integration of conflicting responses (delight at winning a war is conflicted by the sorrow of loss).

  • Anger | Fondness
  • Jealousy | Wonder
  • Lust | Satiation
  • Envy – including resentment, entitlement + revenge | Triumph
  • Happiness | Angst – including guilt + overwhelming sadness
  • Mania | Depression
  • Clarity | Confusion, Dismay

A person’s secondary emotions help identify what’s important to them. Some also provide the power to leverage change; others may sap motivation.

One of Nir’s prime examples of motivation is FOMO, the fear of missing out. Also, it is observable that depressives check email more often, loneliness may drive folks to Fb and boredom may trigger YouTube binges.

In Nir’s view, the negative emotions – Pain Points – carry the most power and are thus most relevant. I am unconvinced that this is the whole story. I think my friend Rob’s Instagrams each day of the Golden Gate Bridge as he rides to work comes not from a fear of losing the moment, as Nir would have it, but of a profound delight in the moment, and in the string of moments day by day, that Rob is impelled to share through sheer excitement.

Signs or buttons are the simplest triggers, visible objects that declare a call to action. When one clicks a button, that is itself the Nir Action. In order to respond to a button trigger, the user must already be motivated – so often a sign or button is backed up by an ELSA trigger.

Six ways to increase motivation: Give the user reason to think that by responding to your call to action they will . . .

  • Gain pleasure – Avoid pain
  • Gain hope – Avoid fear
  • Gain acceptance – Avoid rejection

2. Action :: Enable the simplest behaviour to get to a reward.

Elements that determine the simplicity or complexity of an action:

Less is more:

  • Time it takes
  • Money required
  • Physical effort expended

More is less:

  • Concentration required :: Excessive options tax concentration. On the other hand, puzzles and quandaries, which provide controlled chaos, may increase engagement. In typographic design, it is observable that readers pay more attention when they have to work a bit to decode a message. But the message must reward the effort.
  • Social differentiation or deviation demanded :: When one sees others participating, it makes it easier and more likely to participate. On the other hand, one does like to feel special.
  • Initiative required :: Routines and habits are simpler to act upon than unfamiliar actions.

Users generally come to a program or product motivated – it is the trigger that gets them there. So the focus of the action step is on providing users the ability to act. Often, this step is neglected.

There was in the past a tendency to overload the action step with heavy lifting on the user’s part – users were required to register before doing anything, to give out their address and other info. This reduced a user’s ability to act – it was a drain on motivated energy – and thus restricted usability. The tendency now is to welcome users to engage with a product before they sign up – the signup becomes an investment, not a barrier.

3. Reward :: Engage the user in anticipation of pleasure.

The nucleus accumbens is activated by the stress of desire. This gives a person intense and often addictive sensations of pleasure, which in turn makes them repeat the activities and actions that give them this stress.

The drug of desire is most potent during the period of anticipa . . . tion and is most reliably fed by unpredictable reward. The itch engages, the scratching – or variable reward – keeps users using (cf BF Skinner). A product succeeds when it activates an itch – and provides the scratch.

Nir describes three sorts of rewards. It would be interesting to see whether each one scratches particular emotional itches.

  • Reward of Tribe. Social rewards are actualised through competition or collaboration. The user gets simple attention or prizes.
  • Reward of the Hunt. Resource rewards verify a user’s feeling of control over the essential randomness of chance. Gambling, the lure of the data feed, scrolling and searching all provide this illusion. The user gets stuff: Money, info, gossip.
  • Reward of Self. Emotional rewards come from a feeling of mastery or competency. Games provide this intrinsic pleasure – also learning experiences, cleaning, clearing the in-box. Anything where chaos is tamed. The user gets control.

4. Investment :: Collect energy or resources to increase likelihood of continuing reward.

Physical objects wear out with use and lose value. Activities gain value with use as the user builds up followers, a body of work, a reputation.

There comes a point where the investment is so serious that it is virtually impossible for the user to abandon a platform – for example, strong reputations in Airbnb or TaskRabbit make it highly unlikely that a user would change to a competitive service, no matter how attractive it might otherwise be.

Investment activities may also load the next trigger and potentiate a continual recycle of action and reward.

The tendency is to move information gathering from action to this investment phase. Here, the user feels as if providing personal information helps immerse them in the experience – makes the product more sticky and increases the likelihood of future rewards.

Design is manipulation :: Information is everywhere; we long for Focus.

As the world becomes more addictive, technologies are likely to emerge that help break, not make, habits. Such programs would put addictive activities in their place and keep them there.

Understanding the addictive power of activities is not only a ticket to creating sticky applications – it gives designers the responsibility to treat the audience with respect. Nir suggests that every designer pick a problem to fix, then build a product that makes users more productive, more connected and happier.

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