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Habit Summit 2015: a Silicon Valley product design conference

This last week I attended the Habit Summit, a day-long conference here at Stanford where industry leaders in software and app development get together to talk frankly about how to make engaging customer experiences and get people hooked on their tools and games.

The amount of research and philosophy, buzz words and metaphors presented was very impressive. It was a fascinating (and sometimes scary) glimpse into the enterprise and start up world. This post outlines some of the ideas and trends that I witnessed.

Interesting Models and Psychological Research

Nir Eyal and "Hooked"

Nir Eyal opened the day with a quick overview of his Hooked model. According to Nir Eyal we can get people "hooked" by ensuring that we are monopolizing on internal and external "triggers" (emails, desires, emotions, tweets, etc) by giving people "actions" to take (tasks, links, calls to action) which create "rewards" (likes, reposts, mastery, competency, resources) that lead into future "investments" to loop them in and reload the next trigger (storing value or content, building followers, pinging someone else so that they respond) Check out this image of the hooked model to get a better idea of how this all works. Nir wrote the book Hooked: how to build habit forming products that outlines the ideas above in great detail. He was also the MC for the day. 

Kintan Brahmbhatt of Amazon and "Friction"

Kintan Brahmbhatt, the Head of Products for Amazon Prime spoke about reducing "friction" in user experiences by discovering where people are struggling and how to smooth those places out to make better experiences. He described friction as anything that comes in the way of a user's ability to achieve his/her objective. When a new user has a new toy (your app or tool) and things are going well, they're delighted, which is always the goal, BUT delight + friction = disappointment. For instance, a new toy (delight) + no batteries (friction) = disappointment.

The three types of friction he called out were:

  1. avoidable effort needed to complete a task
  2. unnatural context switching
  3. count and complexity of decisions

Minimizing these will maximize people's satisfaction with your product and decrease the likelihood that any habitual use will ever be broken, meaning they won't switch to a competitor. Kintan emphasized that discovering and prioritizing which fiction points to resolve is the hardest part.

Natalie Nahai and Psychological Principles

The very fast talking Natalie Nahai, covered a series of psychological principles that could be used to override people's conscious thought and build habits or product addiction. It was slightly terrifying and very impressive to hear her discuss all of the consumer psychology standards that have been developed over the years and how to apply them to the web. Her book Webs of Influence comes highly recommended.

Here are a few examples of principles that she outlined:

  1. Endowed Progress If something looks partially completed at the outset, the chance of completing it is twice as high. For example, a buy 8 and get one free card works twice as well if it's a buy 10 and get one free with two already punched.
  2. Sunk Cost Fallacy We will stick with something if we've already invested in it, even if it's not in our best interest. For example, I'll keep playing this game because my player is so high level, I've put a ton of time into it.
  3.  Opportunity Cost We'll trade money for things like time if the cost of waiting is high enough. This is a case where "fun pain" comes in; people playing a game that requires waiting (like training troops in Clash of Clans) will pay to get rid of their fun pain and make the troops train faster. And a great way to remove the pain of purchasing even further is to introduce an intermediate currency.

At the end of this session, a woman asked, "How do we prevent children from becoming addicted via these subconscious patterns?" And the answer was, "You can't!" Learning about these principles doesn't make them not work on you. The best way to keep kids (and yourself) safe from games like Angry Birds is to limit screen time and focus on what the game or app is getting from you, so that you're conscious of the corporate will behind the principles. I've decided I'm going to give myself more slack for being addicted to Clash of Clans.

Know Your Users

User-Centered Design

There were a few of great presentations on user-centered design and user research featuring design and research leads from Twitter (Ximena Vengoechea) and Instagram (Bo Ren). These presentations emphasized starting with research before ever building anything. Asking questions like:

  • What are we changing?
  • What is our goal?
  • How do people feel when they open my app?
  • When do people use this tool?
  • What does my user's happiness depend upon?
  • Where is my user coming from? What in their life experience is most relevant to my product?

In particular, I appreciated that these two focused on the potential positive impact of their work. Bo Ren said, "Good products aren't just delightful, they help you take action toward a goal." As someone who isn't a heavy app user, I was glad that there was more emphasis in their presentations on thinking about people in a positive way by solving a problem they have, rather than just getting them hooked.


Roger Dooling presented on all of the wild technologies out there that power companies are using to test the physical and neurological responses of their consumers. He emphasized the fact that 5% of our decision making is conscious, so asking users what they think is not that meaningful. A few processes he called out were fMRI, eye tracking, facial coding, and EEG. At this point, the research is just starting to come in on whether or not these tools can be used as indicators of potential purchases, with fMRI being the best indicator at this point. Today these sorts of studies are very expensive, but with the advent of wearables like the Apple Watch, it may become easier and easier to study people's unconscious responses to your products.

My takeaways

I have to admit that going in I had hoped there would be a little more self-awareness in the community: questions of ethics, presentations on positive habit formation, not just a focus on addictive habit formation, but it was extremely interesting despite that. And there were a few examples of people using these techniques for things like reducing energy consumption. Let's do more of that and get these concepts into the non-profit world! "We planted two trees for you, plant eight more and get a tree hugger t-shirt" That one needs work, but you know what I mean.

I'd also like to further explore how we can use these sorts of tools and principles to relieve friction in the workplace using tools that allow people to come to their work with the unconsciousness that they open their favorite app. Companies like Slack are working in that sphere these days, which is pretty great.