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The Dark Side has cookies: My review of HOOKED by Nir Eyal with Ryan Hoover


Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products by Nir Eyal with Ryan Hoover (Review)

Wondering how to leverage the latest in Applied Psychology to get your app to go viral? HOOKED is the user’s manual every 21st century appdev needs.

But for the rest of us, it’s a trap.


Awakening the Force

In my professional capacity as a human behavior expert, I’m asked to review early versions of applications. Rather than tell them what to design, I ask specific questions of the team. The questions are meant to wake developers up to human issues they may encounter when end-user humans use their app. I don’t wait to hear a team’s responses because the questions I ask aren’t answered easily. Oftentimes getting to an answer requires not only some deep thinking but some (unexpected) soul-searching.

Usually I email the team the list of questions after reviewing their app. If I’m there in person, my fee goes way up. Why? Because then it’s something akin to a group counseling session. But such efforts are worth it, both to humanity and to the start-up’s bottom line. Unfortunately, the appdevs of the world are not able to reach out to experts they know could help because those in charge just want the code. The investors want a “MVP” (minimally viable product, i.e, a partially operational Death Star) yesterday.

Appdevs should buy HOOKED and hand it over to their higher-ups. Eyal and Hoover methodically deconstruct example after example of habit-forming apps while highlighting the psychological principles behind each design decision. Even end-users could benefit from reading HOOKED; They might let themselves – and their teens – off the hook for being addicted to Facebook or Snapchat (respectively, of course).

HOOKED was released in 2014, so many in-depth reviews already exist. I’m a little late to the game, but Nir Eyal recently sent me a copy for review.

Reviews I’ve read online seem overwhelmingly positive and I would have to agree. HOOKED is an appdev manual, a tech manifesto and a psych 101 textbook all-in-one. If you aren’t a developer but you like Behavioral Economics, HOOKED is a quick and informative read.

HOOKED falls short, though, in two key areas, and these are the same areas the start-up/appdev world falls short: 1. An overwhelming emphasis on the commercial rewards of designing a good app. 2. Only about two hundred words to address to the problem of trolls (should be a whole chapter in the very least).

Darth Venture

Something went wrong in the state of tech. Somehow the disease of quick money has morphed from a trend into a way of life. Observe how casually Eyal reasons the use of his tome:

“Companies that form strong user habits enjoy several benefits to their bottom line. These companies attach their product to internal triggers. As a result, users show up without any external prompting.”

With that kind of focus, Eyal is reaching for the speaking gigs at Google. The business bottom line bent is evident throughout. Eyal even quotes Warren Buffett:

“You can determine the strength of a business over time by the amount of agony they go through in raising prices.”

(i.e. If users complain about a price hike, you’re doing it wrong.) Because, make no mistake, that’s what we’re going for with appdev: The Bottom Line. Right? 

Darth isn't a good consultant for your application in development

Darth isn’t a good consultant for your application in development

The Dark Side has cookies

There’s an edict in undergraduate and graduate Psychology education that is oft repeated to students: “Do not use this knowledge for evil.” In other words, we were not to manipulate human beings nor were we to ever work in advertising.

That last part is bit of a joke, but the sentiment was there. We must use hard-earned psychology revelations only to improve the human condition (and not to bilk people of their money, energy or dignity). This ideal is practically an unbreakable cultural norm. I’ve had everyone from teaching assistants to professors to principal investigators on NIMH grants say those exact words to me, usually accompanied with some sort of almost-serious threat of public retribution if I ever took a job at Ogilvy. (I never did!)

I’m sure my professors would think HOOKED is tending toward the dark side, and I’d have to agree. The emphasis could have easily leaned a little more Jedi and still have landed Eyal the Google speaking gigs. In fact, as the core audience for HOOKED is the lowly appdevs, in an ironic and twisted way a little more “for-benefit” focus would have been the more profitable stance for its authors. Appdevs love code, sure. And some are downright greedy. But most appdevs are dreamers. They want to improve people’s lives, not sacrifice souls to be sucked dry at the bottom-line altar of Emperor Palpatine.

Features of the Force

A few years ago, an amazing essay I found on the web changed my life. The author shifted my entire world view of society and “disabled” humans who live in it. Confined to a wheelchair, the author Lisa Egan compared her existence to an application. Like a user can go up to a menu and turn off an application’s features, society had “clicked on her menu” and chose “Disable Lisa.” Lisa is not any lesser of a human, just as disabling a feature doesn’t delete the app. Society has made Lisa’s life less feature-filled. Lisa isn’t the “wrong” one. Society, in its (unconscious or purposeful) design, has rendered Lisa less fully-featured. Until other humans design, say, a sidewalk to contain a ramp, Lisa can’t use that sidewalk. A simple ramp that walking and rolling people can use equally could have been easily added when the township was pouring the concrete, but the township didn’t think of Lisa until well after the curb set.

I was a different person after I read Lisa’s essay. The “social model” design metaphor started leaking into every analysis I did. Now I start any consulting work with the question: What behavior do we want to elicit with this design and what behavior do we want to discourage? The latter half of that question almost never gets asked and answered fully in the world of application development.

Darth Insidious

Appdevs and founders don’t seem to think of troll-prevention/safe space as the focus of design. When dealing with Humans, safe space should be PRIORITY #1. A whole world of learning theory exists around the concept of safety. Basically it says that learners must feel safe before their brains can absorb new information well.

Going forward, no app will survive unless they take this concept seriously. (I use “safe space” here to refer to ease of use, freedom from abuse, reporting system, flagging systems, moderation, etc. in re: trolling, harassment, etc., I’m not talking about ”hand-holding” or “trigger warnings” or respectful challenges to one’s viewpoint in discussions. Detractors take “safe space” to extremes and perhaps aren’t familiar with what it really means).

Twitter, an oft-mentioned example in HOOKED, is a painful instance of ignoring human needs. Just recently the service was lambasted, again, for its lack of addressing trolling. Twitter founders have said idiotic things about “free speech” while celebrities like Leslie Jones are crushed under illegal hate acts. Code can take care of this (or, at least a good bit of it). Twitter is either too lazy, too cheap, or too evil to adequately address the problem with code or even after-the-fact policy. But hey, they got their cookies on everyone’s phones, right?

The amazing irony of this story lies in what the Darth Capitalists don’t get: Trolls affect the bottom line. Over time, a user will move away from Twitter or any other (overly) trolled sites, no matter how strong that user’s habit has become. Right now Twitter thinks it is more profitable to sacrifice Ms. Jones (or other abused users) than to actively redesign against trolling. At the end of the day isn’t a decision that will “scale,” as they say in the appdev world. Twitter has been losing its luster and its money, for years, and it surely isn’t getting either of those back any time soon.

In contrast, Reddit discovered it must rely on the services of volunteer moderators or die. Granted, Reddit still has a troll issue but the site is still up because it’s actively addressing the need for safe spaces. (No-one knows what will happen if the volunteers run out but if you read HOOKED, you’ll learn how “The Benefits of the Tribe” pretty much guarantees Reddit a steady supply of unpaid moderators).

Balance in the Force

Ryan Hoover, the co-author on this book, went on to found a website/app called Product Hunt, an early-adopter heaven where users connect with other users by sharing new apps while collecting one-upmanship points and techy street cred. I’m not an avid user of the app, so I can’t surmise the revenue model for it. Let’s assume, though, that Mr. Hoover designed Product Hunt for fellow early-adopters, the people who share his love for supporting worthy efforts in the world of tech.

Why would a founder like that, or Nir Eyal, for that matter, a founder himself, write the following paragraph about “Increasing Customer Lifetime Value” (which, I feel, perfectly sums up HOOKED: HOW TO BUILD HABIT-FORMING PRODUCTS)?:

“Fostering consumer habits is an effective way to increase the value of a company by driving higher customer lifetime value (CLTV): the amount of money made from a customer before that person switches to a competitor, stops using the product, or dies. User habits increase how long and how frequently customers use a product, resulting in higher CLTV.”

My only guess is they set out to help devs up their game. In his new book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, super-famous economist Richard H. Thaler says the old model of thinking of a market as a humanless optimizer has led to nothing but disastrous policy and even worse financial ruin. HOOKED needs a follow-up, pronto, that looks at appdev the way the new study of Behavioral Economics looks at economies: It begins with the basic unit of an imperfect, fragile, fighting and marvelous, “misbehaving” human before it takes step 1.

Because if tech continues on this path, we lowly users will all become padawans at the mercy of Vader’s saber, and there will never be balance in the Force. Or, at least, tech that moves humanity forward.



Nir Eyal, HOOKED‘s author, read this review. He sent me an email pointing out his chapter on ethics in design. He said (I have his permission to add this quote):

Regarding ethics, this is a topic [I] care about deeply and I’m surprised you didn’t mention that I devoted an entire chapter to the ‘Morality of Manipulation,’ even including a decision matrix to help designers figure out how to spend their time. Up to you of course if you think it’s worth mentioning.”

The chapter Eyal mentions is the 6th out of 8. Its actual title is “What Are You Going to Do with This?.” The title “The Morality of Manipulation” is a subheader after the initial chapter introduction. In it, Eyal offers 4 categories in a matrix by which an appdev can judge their motives in design: Facilitators, Peddlers, Entertainers and Dealers.The chapter didn’t strike me as groundbreaking. Perhaps if it was entitled something akin to “Rule #1: Don’t be a jerk” and it was Chapter One, I would have been more impressed.

Here’s the matrix, but you’ll need to read the book to get the full meaning:

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 9.52.25 PM

The next chapter…

In a move that demonstrates his knowledge of “framing” research (a psych trick used to influence decisions), Eyal’s next chapter is an in-depth look at the Bible App. Eyal offers a good case study, but a non-secular example in any general audience business book is … uncommon. Eyal himself uses said Bible App and he adds his experiences to the chapter. This is problematic, and it took extra effort to read it.

I question, too, the decision to add a 10-plus-page religious app case study (with tongue-in-cheek religious subheadings) when the book is directed toward a western tech audience, which, demographically, tends to show higher incidence of non-religious identity than the general population. That decision alone makes me wonder what the author is really trying to do with the book (or how the editors let it slip through). <-Not usually the state in which you want to leave a reader. I do admit, though, as a case study, it isn’t bad. It’s just inappropriate.

Nir Eyal asked I add these links to his work on the morality in design. I share them because any discussion that encourages appdevs and founders to think ethically about design is worth noting.





Links (I don’t like using hyperlinks within text):

Darth Photo credit: My friend Danie Ware on Flickr

Lisa Egan’s XOJane article

The books on Indie Bound:

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal with Ryan Hoover (cover photo from IndieBound)

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler