The dirty secret about habit-forming software products


This is a guest post by Geoff Foulds

It’s easy to enjoy Nir Eyal’s talk on how to build habit-forming products – he’s witty, well informed and full of great stories – all you have to do is forget about the consequences of what he’s saying.

Eyal was in town for the Canadian launch of his book HOOKED: How to build habit-forming products. An attentive group of Startup Grind Torontonians turned out to hear Eyal share the secrets of designing habit forming products.

One of the secrets is a dirty one.

Eyal says that some customers will become addicted to habit forming products. Eyal notes that habit-forming product are “quite possibly the cigarette of the 21st century.”  For those of you who slept through history class, here’s the 50-word summary of the cigarette story: Native Americans used tobacco rarely and sparingly. It played a small, but important part in ceremonies and rituals that deepened personal insight and community bonds. Europeans lifted tobacco out of context and consumed it in huge quantities. We’re still wrestling with the cancers and addictions caused by tobacco abuse.

Addiction is still thought to be a morals issues by many. You’ll hear people say things like: “People of strong morals will not succumb to temptation and fall into addiction. Only the weak will fail. Punishment will make them repent and reform.” It sounds logical, but it’s wrong.

When you graph the range of ability across the population you always get a bell curve. In sports performance, technology adoption, the extremity of religious belief or denial – the bell curve is everywhere. That’s why the bell curve is called the normal distribution.

It’s this overwhelming body of scientific evidence Eyal refers to when he says that between two to five per cent of your customers, regardless of your product category, will become addicted to your product if you do your job well.

In his plea that we hook responsibly, Eyal invokes Gandhi’s maxim, to “be the change you want to see in the world.” Could we please only develop products that focus on problems that need to be fixed, that help others find meaning, that engage customers in something important? Will this prevent abuse?

Eyal hopes that online products by their nature make developers more accountable. Developers can monitor usage patterns in real time. They can see exactly who is addicted. Some have already acted to protect people who can’t stop themselves. Stackoverflow caps the social media points users can accumulate. He also hopes that his writing can educate consumers about what they are up against.

This means that any developer who releases an addictive product will have a much harder time claiming it was an honest mistake.

Can we relax our vigilance on habit forming software? The bell curve says “No.” The bell curve guarantees that a small fraction of the population will be unable to resist the temptation to abuse these software design techniques.

We are now seeing something extraordinary in the beer business. After an awful lot of social pressure at least one brewer now devotes a part of its advertising budgets to celebrate non-drinkers. We need the leading developers of habit forming software to follow the lead of the brewers.

Note: My company, Cdling Capital Services Inc produced the Hooked book launch in co-operation with Nir Eyal, Penguin Canada and 500px. I am the Director of Startup Grind Toronto

Michael Cayley
Michael Cayley
Having attracted over US$50-million in investment and closed over $21-million in pre-launch sales for startups in China, the USA and domestically, Michael is living the struggle of the self-funded, pre-revenue Founder in Canada. He understands the pace of global innovation. He founded & funded the Ontario Cross-border Technology Innovation Ecosystem (OCTIE) study and he designed and taught the first, post graduate level, social media course in a full time program in Canada: crowdsourcing over 100 global experts as mentors. Cayley is the Founder of Cdling Capital Services Inc. (pronounced "seedling") a ratings agency that measures risk and builds trust between Founders, Investors and Experts in the era of low cost, globally funded startups and he is the Founder & Director of Startup Grind Toronto.

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