Actuators of Behavior

A trigger is the actuator of behavior - the spark plug in the engine. Triggers come in two types: external and internal. Habit-forming products start by alerting users with external triggers like an e-mail, a Web site link, or the app icon on a phone.

A trigger is the actuator of behavior - the spark plug in the engine. Triggers come in two types: external and internal.8 Habit-forming products start by alerting users with external triggers like an e-mail, a Web site link, or the app icon on a phone. For example, suppose Barbra, a young woman in Pennsylvania, happens to see a photo in her Facebook News Feed taken by a family member from a rural part of the state. It’s a lovely picture and because she is planning a trip there with her brother Johnny, the external trigger’s call to action (in marketing and advertising lingo) intrigues her and she clicks. By cycling through successive hooks, users begin to form associations with internal triggers, which attach to existing behaviors and emotions. When users start to automatically cue their next behavior, the new habit becomes part of their everyday routine. Over time, Barbra associates Facebook with her need for social connection.

Following the trigger comes the action: the behavior done in anticipation of a reward. The simple action of clicking on the interesting picture in her news feed takes Barbra to a Web site called Pinterest, a “social bookmarking site with a virtual pinboard.” This phase of the Hook, as described in chapter 3, draws upon the art and science of usability design to reveal how products drive specific user actions. Companies leverage two basic pulleys of human behavior to increase the likelihood of an action occurring: the ease of performing an action and the psychological motivation to do it. Once Barbra completes the simple action of clicking on the photo, she is dazzled by what she sees next.

What distinguishes the Hooked Model from a plain vanilla feedback loop is the Hook’s ability to create a craving. Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire. The unsurprising response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again. However, add some variability to the mix—suppose a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time you open it—and voilà, intrigue is created. Variable rewards are one of the most powerful tools companies implement to hook users. Research shows that levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Although dopamine is often wrongly categorized as making us feel good, introducing variability does create a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire. Although classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards are prevalent in many other habit-forming products.

When Barbra lands on Pinterest, not only does she see the image she intended to find, but she is also served a multitude of other glittering objects. The images are related to what she is generally interested in—namely things to see on her upcoming trip to rural Pennsylvania—but there are other things that catch her eye as well. The exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common, sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward. Now she’s spending more time on Pinterest, hunting for the next wonderful thing to find. Before she knows it, she’s spent forty-five minutes scrolling.

The last phase of the Hooked Model is where the user does a bit of work. The investment phase increases the odds that the user will make another pass through the cycle in the future. The investment occurs when the user puts something into the product of service such as time, data, effort, social capital, or money.

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