Can “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” Help Make Learning a Habit?

Habit: noun: a usual way of behaving : something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way — Merriam-Webster

Hooked-hardcover“Hooked” is about how to build habit-forming products…habit-forming digital products that is. I included “Hooked” on my must-read list to see if any of the principles discussed might apply to education—Learning Management Systems (LMSs) for instance or other ed-tech applications. Given our culture’s fixation with mobile devices, surely there might be some lessons to make digital education applications more compelling. Can educators create platforms or applications that ‘hook’ students into learning, where learning behaviors become a habit? If so, how? Hooked provides some answers—see below.

‘The Hook’ Model
Author Nir Eyal, entrepreneur and product designer describes the book’s topic as “behavioral design”.  Behavioral design when applied to product development incorporates concepts of user experience, behavioral economics and neuroscience. Nir describes it as the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. His recipe for creating habit-forming products begins with ‘The Hook’ model.

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Nir Eyal’s “Hook” model encompasses four elements that products need to become habit-forming. Yet it’s not a guarantee for success, “new products can’t just be better, they must be nine times better” (pg 17).

Trigger
A trigger, either internal or external, leads to a behavior—it’s the spark that prompts action. Habit-forming products start by alerting users with external triggers such as an email, a website link, or an app icon on a smart phone, with the aim of prompting repeat engagement until a habit is formed. The trigger also tells the user of what to do next—to act.

Action
The action needs to be seamless; the user should be able to act with ease —without barriers. Action according to Nir, relies not only on ease of use but on principles of human behavior. It’s based on the premise that the user seeks one of three things: 1) pleasure in order to avoid pain, 2) hope to avoid fear, or 3) social acceptance to avoid rejection. Jack Dorsey founder of Twitter builds on this premise with his platform which is designed to solve a problem (communication, knowledge building), while addressing desires and emotions of its users (social acceptance via ‘likes’, retweets, etc.) (pg 39).

Variable Reward
What distinguishes the Hook model from the traditional feedback loop (embodied by the familiar model B.F. Skinner’s model where rewards are used to support behavior change through  positive reinforcement) is the variability of the reward which creates a desire for feedback, motivating the user to seek it out. Traditional feedback loops are predictable; they don’t create desire according to Nir. Yet when there’s uncertainty to the reward or  variability to the type of reward—the user’s interest is piqued  Think of the variability of the reward structure with slot machines; they’re unpredictable. In an education context, Nir describes how Codeacademy uses variable rewards with symbols that benchmark students progress along with variable feedback that uses rewards to fulfill the student’s desire for acceptance and validation (pg. 89).

Investment
The investment occurs when the user puts something into the product or service such as time, data, effort, social capital or money (pg. 7). The more users invest in the product or service, the more they value it—supporting the idea that labor leads to love. This investment concept is applicable to education—online courses for example where students contribute to course content (investment of time), complete course work (more time) and engage with peers (even more time).

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Image (above) of a screenshot from the YouVersion app which follows the four elements of the Hook model. The screen shot shows how rewards are built into the app, with the feature of ‘likes’ used by the community.

Case Study: The Hook Model in Action
After reading the case study of the Bible app, YouVersion in “Hooked” I could see the application of the Hook model, its relevance to learning contexts. The app provides a selection of bible study programs users can choose from based upon their needs. The app sends reminders and encouraging messages when readings or homework is due. When a message is avoided or missed, a red icon appears over the app, another cue. If more than two readings are missed,  users receive a supportive message suggesting they consider a different (less challenging) plan. There’s also a virtual community, where encouragement from its members is another source of ‘triggers’. Rewards come in several forms. When  a reading assignment is done for instance, the user gets a message “Day Complete” with a check mark on the app’s calendar. YouVersion is a success story. It’s the #1 downloaded Bible app with over 200,000,000 downloads.

How the Hook Model Can be Applied to Learning
What if learning did become a habit, where students check into their online class daily, share relevant content with classmates or engage in group assignments willingly? The case study of Youversion is instructive, suggesting that the model concepts are applicable to learning scenarios, specifically to learning platforms and applications. Learning applications created thoughtfully and purposefully can support behavior changes that result in seamless learning, with few barriers and built-in rewards that provide variety and freshness that also leverage the learning community.  Yet creating learning that follows the Hook model requires a different mindset, and commitment to create compelling learning with integrity and care that protects students, content and the process of learning.

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