How to Use the Hook Model for Maximum Stickiness (Retention)
Four elements to consider when evaluating product concepts part 4: Stickiness
The average American has 80 apps installed and checks their phone every 12 minutes. On average, people tend to only use 9 specific apps daily. These apps are “sticky” and are rooted in their habits. The remaining 62 percent of apps are rarely used because they aren’t “sticky” enough.
Stickiness refers to the natural retention mechanisms built into your product—the “how” and “why” your users will stick around. Sticky products lead to more user sessions and longer session durations resulting in strong long-term user retention and engagement. The “Hook Model” is a helpful way to think about stickiness in your product.
The Hook Model leverages proven behavioral psychology principles to build “habit-forming products.”
Habitual products have strong long-term retention rates (which, as we know, is a massive indicator of product-market fit). The hook model is a repeated four-step process consisting of (1) trigger, (2) action, (3) variable reward, and (4) investment.
The trigger starts the habit and propels the user towards action in your product (thus beginning a new session). Triggers are calls to action that can be classified as “external” and “internal.”
External triggers include push notifications, app icon badges, emails, user-generated content on a feed, etc. Internal triggers are more ethereal and feel like an “urge” to use your product. Users associate external triggers with internal emotions. For example, when you see a friend’s photo in a feed (external trigger), it activates an intrinsic desire for social connection (internal trigger), which prompts you to use your favorite social media.
Triggers have a chance of compelling a user to initiate an action. However, whether or not the trigger succeeds is dependent on the user’s motivation and ability. B.J Fogg’s “Behavior Model” describes this as B=MAP: behavior = motivation*ability*prompt. This means for a prompt (trigger) to induce an action, there must be sufficient levels of motivation and ability.
For example, let’s say you got a push notification for Instagram (trigger) that read “[your friend] posted a new photo.” You simply tap on the notification to view the photo immediately, which is an effortless action (high ability or “easy to do”). So even if your motivation was lukewarm, you still completed the action. Now imagine Instagram signed you out of your account for some reason, and you didn’t remember your password. Suddenly it’s much harder to complete the action (low ability or “hard to do). You probably give up on your task. Now imagine instead of your friend posting a photo, the notification read, “[your crush] sent you a direct message.” You’d probably do everything you could to log in and see the message as soon as possible. In this scenario, the ability didn’t change, but your motivation increased, which allowed the trigger to succeed.
To understand variable rewards, we need to go back to B.F Skinner’s theory of “Operant Conditioning.” The theory states: actions that are reinforced (positive or negative) are repeated more often, thus leading to habits. He “proved” this using the famous operant conditioning chamber experiment. This is the classic “carrot and stick” motivation. If you want people to do something, reward them; if you want them to stop doing something, punish them.
We now know “carrot and stick methods” are extrinsic motivators, and only suitable for compliance. True engagement comes from intrinsic motivation, which comes from a combination of (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) relatedness, according to “Self Determination Theory.”
For a product with poor retention, using extrinsic motivators to build a habit-forming product makes sense. Fostering intrinsic motivation can come after the users are retained. The important insight from Skinner’s research is “variable rewards” being the most potent reinforcement method. The anticipation of an unpredictable reward is what unleashes the surge of dopamine we all crave.
“Variable rewards are the most powerful tools companies implement to hook users.”
Similar to how slot machines are addictive because every pull has a chance to win the jackpot, every (well designed) notification has a chance of showing the user something exciting. Instagram becoming one of the most widely used products in the world is no coincidence. There are tons of variable rewards built into their core experience (examples to follow).
Classification of rewards
Rewards have motivated us for 200,000 years, but their fundamental classification hasn’t changed much. Nearly everything we do is driven by either: (1) rewards of the tribe, (2) rewards of the hunt, and (3) rewards of the self.
Rewards of the tribe are our desire to be accepted, important, attractive, and included within our social environment. For example, when you post a photo on Instagram, the reward is getting likes and comments. This reward grants us a feeling of connectedness and makes us feel accepted, important, or attractive. Have you ever wanted to “check Facebook” to see how many likes you’ve gotten on your recent photo? This is your internal trigger for the variable reward (number of likes).
Rewards of the hunt is our desire to acquire things. In the past, humans were motivated to acquire food, but we’re driven by our desire to acquire wealth and information in modern times. For example, when you scroll through your Instagram home feed, there’s the variable reward of finding a piece of valuable information or discovering a relevant product or service.
Shopping and commerce startups have also leveraged this by adding variable rewards to deal hunting. Take Wish’s “daily spin reward” as an example.
Rewards of the self is our personal desire for gratification and achievement. Humans enjoy the feeling of progress and mastery. This is why we feel great after a workout or accomplishing a task (also explains the massive 45.8 billion productivity market). For example, Instagram’s core experience is relatively minimal, but there’s a lot of less obvious features and tricks for the experienced users. Mastery over these advanced tricks may (variable) lead to better social vanity metrics (reward).
Email as an example
Over 3.8 billion of half the global population uses email often. Do you know someone who checks email obsessively? They may be forgiven because email is addictive due to all three variable rewards built into its core experience.
Our social obligation to answer emails and connect with our friends & family is related to the rewards of the tribe. The chance an email may provide critical information about new opportunities is connected to the rewards of the hunt. Lastly, the productive feeling of clearing our inbox is related to rewards of the self. These reward factors combined with the Hook Model give designers the tools to create a habitual product that retains its users.
As users continue to use your product (invest), their experience should be continuously improved. User investment includes actions that cost time, data, effort, social capital, and even money. In exchange, your user’s investments should make the next trigger more engaging, the action easier, and the reward more exciting. The investment phase increases the odds that the user will make another pass through the hook cycle in the future.
In other words, your user’s “switching costs (or switching barriers)” should become higher and higher. Switching costs are the costs a customer incurs due to changing brands, suppliers, or products. Cost doesn’t necessarily mean money but can also take the form of effort or time-based costs. Many experts say, “your product needs to be 10x better than your competitors”, due to the switching costs advantages existing players in the market have.
For example, following more people on Instagram makes your news feed better. Having more followers increases the variable reward in the number of likes you get in your posts. If a new Instagram clone that was a little better launched, you’d likely be hesitant because of the “work” (switching costs) required to get the same number of followers & quality of your home feed.
In conclusion, the Hook Model is a helpful framework for designers to create more engaging product experiences that result in strong long-term retention. The core product experience should be designed with all four steps in mind. Ideally, there should be intrinsic variable rewards and an investment mechanism to improve users' experience as they complete more loops through the model.
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