How to kick ass at habit-forming apps (Hook Model)

How to kick ass at habit-forming apps (Hook Model)

In this article I explain the Hook Model, hoping it will give you a model on getting started with your habit-forming product. You can start by looking at parts you are missing (eg. you don't know what motivates your users), or apply it maybe in a general way to build an app. Take note that the hook model speaks specifically about a product that forms habits (those automatic things we do daily or almost daily with little or no conscious thought, like checking email). Not every behaviour should become a habit, because some of them do not need to occur with a high frequency. We should think if we need a habit forming product that will benefits our users.




I want to encourage people to build something that drives positive behaviour change, that is useful and solves real problems.




The Hook model - what is it?

The author of the model noticed that many technologies we are using today are changing our behaviour. Some of them have intruded our lives so deep, that we have now habits related to them (checking your email or facebook too much?). So the Hook model tries to explain how to create technology that 'hooks' people into using it and uses the psychology of habit design to improve people's lives - think about the fact that almost 50% of a day is 'consumed' by habits. Why not do something useful rather than checking Facebook?


Ok, let's dive into it. The Hook model talks about 4 phases/hooks that your product has to include. These are: trigger, action, variable reward and investment.



1) Trigger

In order to draw attention on your new product, people have to know about it, right? So you can make use of external or internal triggers to get people's attention.



An external trigger can be of different types:


  • paid. This refers to marketing paid campaigns placed strategically online or offline, depending where your target audience is spending their time


  • earned. As the name suggests, these triggers refer to gained reputation like a press mention, a video that went viral. You cannot control these triggers much and they are said to have a short impact.


  • based on relationship. Spreading the word through a mail invitation, a facebook like, or just word of mouth.


  • owned. This is a trigger that has already been accepted by the user, for example a notification, a newsletter informing users about the new product/service. Note this trigger has to be accepted otherwise you will risk to be ignored or even annoy and probably lose your potential customer. I see many entrepreneurs just inserting everyone's emails in newsletters and do not even ask permission and explain this when they send them out. Work on building a trust relationship with your user from the beginning.




An internal trigger is where you have to do a bit more research on your target audience. This refers to what in psychology is called intrinsic motivation. For example emotions and emotional states, especially negative ones (boredom, fear, loneliness ) push us into playing a game or looking at social media (Facebook, you evil app). And this is the foundation of what drives us - emotions.








2) Action

And now, my favourite part: what do you need in order for the user to take action? B.J Fogg model's of behaviour change is a pioneering starting point in creating persuasive technology. He states that for an action (behaviour) to occur 3 factors have to be present in the same time: motivation, ability and trigger (discussed above).




Action = motivation + ability + trigger / same time



Like other authors that talk about behaviour change (eg Thaler and Sunstein's nudge theory , Susan's Weinschenk – How to get people to do stuff) Fogg's model is based on a simple yet powerful idea: Help people to do what they already want to do. You are helping your users, easing their 'pain' by designing something that integrates with their life and bring positive change and does not seem a forced solution.





a) What do you need to know about motivation? Fogg talks about 3 pairs of motivators: pleasure-pain, hope-fear, social acceptance- social rejection.


You need to do research on this phase to understand why your user needs your product, and what motivates him. It comes again to intrinsic motivation, to our internal emotional state and to the motivators above. Find those and you already have a competitive edge. For example, Facebook works on our social acceptance need, Twitter on our fear to losing out news or updates, you get the point.




b) Ability refers to the ease of doing the action, in this case. You should start with it, not motivation, which is harder to change.

While D.J Hauptly's book on creating truly innovative products resumes just 3 steps to innovative products ( (1) understand reason for use, (2) lay out steps to desired outcome, and then (3) simplify these steps as much as you can), Fogg talks about several elements of simplicity. These are:




  • time : how long it takes to complete an action


  • money: the cost of taking the action


  • physical effort: the actual labor involved in the action


  • brain cycles: the amount of mental effort and focus


  • social deviance: how accepted is the behaviour by others


  • non-routine: how much the action matches or disrupts existing routines.




3) Variable reward

Have you ever heard the idea that what delights us is not an experience, but the anticipation of it? - it's true! Well this is what a variable reward refers to: creating craving or wanting in a product. Many things that we do are because we receive some kind of reward as an outcome, being feeling good with ourselves, money, feelings of power, happiness. The hook model talks about 3 types:



a) Reward of the tribe

Think social rewards, like feeling accepted, attractive, important or included in a group or community. For example we are using Facebook or Meetup because we have a sense of belonging to a group. And having these social relationships, real or just the feeling, contributes to our overall happiness.



b) Reward of the hunt

People like to look for information, more money, opportunities; we 'hunt' for these rewards when we gamble or look on our Twitter timeline for news and opinions of others.



c) Reward of the self

This type of reward is sparked by our intrinsic motivation, as we want to gain a sense of mastery, of control. Think for example Duolingo is fueled by our desire to learn another language and be fluent in it – master it.



4) Investment

So far, so good. We have our users interested, we know why, and we made it simple for them to take action. So they are starting to change their behaviour towards what you intend them to do. Now you have to change their attitude which will lead to a long-term investment in your service.



This is the part where the user has to invest in the product and create value for himself. Giving back to the product means storing data, content, time, effort in order for the service to get better with use and personal investment. Think of what would LinkedIn would be without you completing your profile data or being able to connect with others. With time, using your product little by little users get familiar and accustomed with your product, making it thus harder to let go (the "old habits die hard" principle).




This is my simplified version of the Hook Model and I hope it gives you a good idea on how to 'hook' your users. Please use it to do good. :)



Need help?

If you're interested to apply this model to your app or website, or any tips and tricks to get users engaged, please feel free to contact me at hello@corinavladut.com.






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