Adult Biz Should Learn More About Habit-Forming Products

Scott Thompson

In the end, our industry has a leg up on mainstream. The psychological drive for sex is the best trigger there is. But spending some time understanding and wrapping a framework around how to create a habit-forming product could stimulate some new ways of thinking about product design.

If you’re in adult dating, particularly on the product side, your teams are asking themselves a lot of questions. Let’s face it, we’ve been disrupted. Tinder and the influence of social marketing have changed the game.

[S]pending some time understanding and wrapping a framework around how to create a habit-forming product could stimulate some new ways of thinking about product design.

In the past, there were many models for site design that focus on end-user feedback and features. But, there was nothing to explain the core psychology behind phenomenon like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.

Those five-guy companies that built billion-dollar capitalization in a few years from tools that not only delight us … but we almost can’t live without. I think the adult world has something to learn from this.

As an example, I recently went to a seminar at Stanford University. The speaker was Nir Eyal , the author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” which stemmed from his research with Dr. B.J. Fogg at the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford. Their study evolved a new model of behavior change and the psychology of persuasion and how it applies directly to getting end users to return to your site again and again.

At the core of software that’s compulsively used is the concept of habit. Habit is simply an impulse to do a behavior without conscious thought. The concept emerged around “The Hook.”

With enough frequency, end users experiencing the hook become habitually connected to your software. Even to the point where behavior is changed. Companies that master this design, and this behavior, experience greater flexibility to increase prices, expansive growth, and increased defensibility against competitors.

I’ll walk through the top-level components presented. I’d encourage any product person to read up more. But here are a couple concepts that helped me think differently around product design.

Great Sites Have A Trigger

Internal triggers get to the core of what drives your users to act on a psychological level. This is the “What to do next” through an association in the end users mind.

Interestingly, negative emotions have been found to make us act much more powerfully than positive emotions. Negative emotions (pain) are the itch that needs to be scratched. They dictate a need to find a solution, significantly more than a positive emotion. For example, there have been studies that conclude that depressed people check email more. And it makes sense.

When we’re lonely, we check Facebook. When we’re bored, we click YouTube. When we’re afraid of losing the moment, we use Snapchat. When we’re unsure, we use Google. Ultimately, every company has to define what their customer’s internal triggers are. For adult dating they may be: Sexual frustration, loneliness, inferiority or boredom.

Drive The Action

The trigger moves the end user to action, if you’ve messaged your triggers correctly and clearly identified the itch that needs to be scratched (connecting with someone out of frustration or loneliness). Action is defined by Eyal as: “The simplest behavior anticipating a reward.” For Pinterest, it’s scroll. For Google it’s search. For YouTube, it’s play.

Burger King used this to motivate action in teen boys. Associating their food with young, sexy women tapped into the two top things associated with pleasure among young U.S. males.

Make Sure You Deliver The Reward

In 1945, psychology researchers Olds & Milner studied reward centers in the brain. The Nucleus Accumbens is the fancy term for your brain’s ground zero for how we crave things. It turns out stimulating pleasure centers is not what triggers reward systems in the brain.

The more powerful reward system activates when we experience anticipation, or, what they call, the stress of desire. That’s the itch we need to scratch. The reward system actually calms when we get what we want. What they also found was that the stress of desire can be supercharged, increasing focus and engagement. Variability, or the element of the unknown, is this catalyst. For example, the reward system is stimulated when you view your newsfeed on Facebook.

The activities from your friends or responses to your post are different every time. The element of surprise and reward supercharge the reward centers and motivate users to come back, again and again.

As it applies to habit-forming software design, there are three types of variable rewards that have been found to be most effective to stimulate engagement (powerful because they are at the very root of human social behavior):

  • Tribe: The search for social rewards. Empathetic joy, partnership, competition are all examples of this. For example, the site Stack Overflow gives its contributors rankings and badges in a way that stimulates heavy usage among developers.
  • Hunt: The search for resources. For example,slot machines play on the need to hunt for variable material rewards. Tinder’s success was not based on the fact that swiping potential sexual partners is cool. It plays on very old processes in the brain that desire a way to rapidly hunt (swipe) for a partner. You never know who’s going to come up (variability), and the more you swipe, the more chances you have to find the reward. But, while your swiping you’re in a state of anticipation (stress of desire) striving to get getting a “match.”
  • Self: The search for self-achievement. Leveling-up reflects mastery and competency. For example, Inbox email management gives a reward of consistency and completion (Only one unread email … great job!).

The art of making this work is delivering a reward that scratches the users itch, but leaves them wanting more. Remember, the overall goal is to get repeated frequency from end-users through the “hook” cycle.

Deliver A Return On End Users’ Investment

Users invest in your app for future benefits. That could be money, data, time, etc. And, they expect a return from those investments in your application. Investments increase the likelihood of the next pass through the hook in two ways.

Investments load the next trigger of the hook. For example, a posted message and reply is an open invitation for an external trigger (like a red “1” on the mobile app logo to indicate there’s activity you need to deal with).

Secondly, investments store value. Ultimately, the more a habitual end-user is in your application, the smarter it should get. It needs to deliver more value the more it’s used. That could be in the form of new things you have access to: content, data, followers, reputation.

In the end, our industry has a leg up on mainstream. The psychological drive for sex is the best trigger there is. But spending some time understanding and wrapping a framework around how to create a habit-forming product could stimulate some new ways of thinking about product design.

Scott Thompson is FriendFinder Network’s director of product marketing.


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