Nir Eyal: “to become indistractable, a company’s culture needs to shift”
Nir Eyal is a key thinker on this conundrum. His 2014 bestselling book ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products’ is a must-read if you want to understand how to engage your customers by helping them build positive habits. In 2019 he followed up with ‘Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life’ which explains how we can stay focussed in a world filled with distractions.
After his talk at our Mission CX program we caught up with Nir and discussed the ethical dangers of habit-forming technologies, how not to get distracted in times of COVID and why CX and EX rely on each other.
"Any customer experience that is recurring needs a hook”, Nir started our conversation. “There are of course many products and services which require no repetitive use. You for example don't use car insurance unless something terrible has happened. But when you have a product that is frequently used, like software, education, healthcare or food and beverage, you need a hook.”
For those types of products customer experience really matters, because that is part of how we form habits. In the past companies habituated customers by bombarding them with ads. Think about Coca-Cola, the way these brands created habits was by showing you thousands of messages. This uses what psychologists call the mere exposure effect, the more we are exposed to a jingle, brand or face, the more affinity we have for it.
“Today, the world's most habit-forming companies, like Facebook, Snapchat or TikTok, don't spend much money on advertising”, Nir Said. “You almost never see their ads. That’s because they don't use the mere exposure effect, they rather use the customer experience itself. The more you use the product, the more you form a habit. Today it’s all about customer experience."
This leads us to the hook model, which Nir pioneered. In this model, a user’s interaction with a product passes through four stages. First there is a trigger, which intrigues the user. This trigger then causes an action, which gives a reward. Finally, a user invests some time in the product, which ties them to it. This cycle is constantly repeated, and pushes engagement from a user.
Yet that raises the question of ethics. Habits can be good, but also bad. Recent revelations for example suggested that Instagram had negative psychological effects on teenage girls. "For children I agree there need to be restrictions”, said Nir. “There are already age restrictions around alcohol, gambling and certain media. I won't let my 13-year old daughter read any kind of book in the library. Books of course are great, but there are some for which a 13-year old girl is not ready. So we need to moderate content, in the non-digital, but also the digital world. But I think adults of ‘sound body and mind’ make pretty good choices over time.”
Nir compared social media to drinking alcohol. “Everyone of us of course has had a bit too much to drink, yet we want to live in a world where we can drink alcohol anyways, just as we want to have the option to use Facebook. But we need to learn how to use these platforms responsibly. That's what the price of progress is all about. The internet puts massive amounts of information at our fingertips, yet that also implies that we need to learn to use this technology responsibly.”
“Of course we should also look at this from the company perspective”, he continued. “The hook model can persuade people into doing things they want to do. Which is good. The big problem today is actually not that Facebook or Instagram suck us in, but that most companies' products simply suck. Think about interacting with government services or local businesses. ’The user experience is awful most of the time. How much better would society be if we got people hooked on online education or exercise, the way they are hooked onto Facebook? I want to democratise these techniques so everyone, not just social media or gaming companies, can use them. The opposite of persuasion is coercion. Here companies manipulate people to do things they regret. Which isn't just unethical, it's bad for business. If you trick someone into doing something they don't want to do, then they will hop onto social media and tell all their friends about it."
Habit-forming technologies are a two way street for Nir, and through his work he tries to use them for good. "Every tool can be used in ways the designers didn't intend”, he said. “A hammer can build a house, or bash someone's head in. The techniques I teach have been around for a very long time, but I wanted to unlock them so we could use them for good. This criticism of social media isn't something new either. We always get scared of new technologies. We said the same thing about bicycles, radios and comic books. Today the discussion is about products being too engaging, but that causes a problem. We can't say to Netflix that their shows are too good, and that they should make them worse. We cannot tell Apple that their phones are too user-friendly, and that they should make the CX more shitty. That doesn't make any sense."
In 2019 Nir followed-up his first book about habits with one about distractions (find a summary here). “The first book is about creating good habits, and the second one is about using these products responsibly. For the research for my second book I investigated technology as the big distractor. I even got rid of my smartphone and replaced it with a flip phone while I was writing. You often hear that smartphones are too addictive, so I wanted to try this. I even got a word processor without an internet connection. Guess what happened? I sat down at my desk, and I got distracted by a new book I just bought or the mess on my desk. I learned that even Plato, 2500 years ago, wrote about being distracted. People have always been distracted, it's not just the latest technology. Distraction begins from within, which is why we need to start taking responsibility."
Which is a key subject for companies to pay attention to, since distracted employees aren’t capable of doing their best work. "Employees need to become indistractable as individuals, which I discuss in my book”, Nir said. “But we also need to acknowledge that distraction at work is not something we can address at an individual level. Distraction in the workplace is a symptom of systemic dysfunction. The company culture needs to shift to become indistractable. It starts from the top. Culture is like water: it flows downhill. The company leadership needs to understand that their employees need time to think. It really needs to be ingrained in the culture. You cannot just have email free Fridays or no-meeting Wednesdays. There needs to be a systematic approach."
A good example of such an indistractable work culture can be found in an unlikely place. "Many people blame Slack for distracting them”, Nir said. “I went to Slack, expecting them to be the most distracted company in the world. But that's not what I found. At 6PM nobody is at the office anymore at Slack. If you send a Slack message on weekends you are reprimanded. In the company canteen there is a huge sign that says 'work hard, and go home.' Not something you would expect from a hard-charging Silicon Valley company. Everybody, from the CEO down, believes in the ethos that to do your best work you need time to disconnect. You cannot be constantly responding to every message if you want to work well."
Since the book was published, the world lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, which introduced a new wave of distractedness that Nir hopes his work can address. "First there are internal triggers”, he said. “The desire to escape discomfort prompts us to distraction. When the level of tension goes up in the world, because of the pandemic, we're more likely to look for distraction. How many of us were glued to the news because of how crazy the world got? COVID-19 was a very big moment for news publishers, who are in the same business as Facebook: they want to sell your attention to advertisers. The other thing that changed during the pandemic is that many people worked from home. When I wrote the book the number one distraction in the workplace was colleagues. Today we're not working in an office, so the external triggers have changed. It's our kids, our spouse or our roommates that distract us. We need new ways to deal with them."
Having a good, indistractable employee experience in turn helps companies create better products. "What is endemic to low-performing people and teams is that they do reactive work”, concluded Nir. “They react to messages and meetings all day long, and have no time for reflective work. High-performing people and teams make time for things like thinking, planning and strategising, which can only be done without distraction. In order to build experiences your customers enjoy, CX in other words, you have to have great employee experience. Employees need time to think and be creative. In order to make great CX you need great EX."