6 ways to build a product that becomes a habit

We live in an age where technology accompanies us at all times of our day, from when the alarm sounds to wake us up to when we check social media before going to bed.

We feel an impulse that pushes us to control the smartphone every time we hear a notification. We developed a kind of addiction, forming habits that would have seemed crazy 10 years ago.

How did this change come about?

Let’s first try to understand what a habit is: for psychologists, the term habit  denotes “automatic behavior that is triggered by a situational signal”, or to put it simply, an action that we automatically carry out in certain circumstances.

How to create a habit

Anyone who creates a product today must ask themselves a question: how can I make my users continue to use my product? The answer is simple: create a product that forms a habit. To do this, it is necessary to understand what is the mechanism that leads a user to repeatedly use a product or service. To create a habit, you need to guide your user through a series of steps: the more often they are repeated, the more likely they will become a habit.

These steps can be observed in any behavior that creeps into our minds, thus becoming a habit:

  • Trigger – is the signal that sets the action in motion. There are two types: internal and external.
  • Action – what we do, usually with the expectation of a prize.
  • Variable reward – the one that creates a desire for the user.
  • Investment – the user invests something – money, time, effort – ensuring that the cycle will repeat itself in the future.

Step 1: create the trigger – trigger

The first step of each cycle is the so-called trigger, or a stimulus that leads us to take a certain action. There are two types of stimuli, internal and external.

External stimuli are the most common ones, which most of us are able to recognize. We think of notifications on the smartphone, pinging a new e-mail. These stimuli are extremely simple to implement, because they give the user a direct signal, and trigger predetermined behavior.

Internal stimuli, on the other hand, are those that do not depend on external factors, but are generated directly by our brain. This usually happens in response to an emotion we feel. The emotions that generate the strongest stimuli are generally the negative ones, such as boredom, anger, depression. If we feel bored, for example, we are stimulated to open Facebook or YouTube to find something that contrasts boredom.

Both stimuli create a sort of discomfort in us, an uncomfortable feeling we want to get rid of. The type of emotion we feel is closely related to the type of technology that we will use to alleviate this sensation. And this brings us to the second phase of the cycle.

Step 2: stimulate action – Action

Action is what we do in response to the stimulus. The moment we feel that discomfort created by the stimulus, we immediately seek a way to get rid of it.

Since we are in an uncomfortable situation, we are looking for an action that requires the least effort to satisfy our need, so one of the most important points to consider is the simplicity of the action.

There is a sort of formula that can help us understand when a stimulus leads to an action:


Where, to have a behavior ( B ehaviour), 3 conditions must be met:

  • M otivation (motivation) – it is what transforms the stimulus into action, it is our desire. The stronger the discomfort we feel, the greater our willingness to find a solution. If we have to wait in the waiting room for 10 minutes, we will be highly motivated to look for something to pass the time.
  • A bility – is the level of ease with which we can do the necessary action. The less effort required to perform a certain action, the greater the likelihood of repeating it. If I just open an app to see interesting articles, I will be more inclined to do so rather than having to enter my username and password every time.

When both Motivation and Skill are present, the user is in a highly influenced mental state. So here is the third element of our formula:

  • T rigger (stimulus) – the stimulus we saw in the first chapter.

Any human behavior can be traced back to this principle, and understanding how to act on the three elements that influence habits is a fundamental part of the design of any product.

Step 3: Offer a Variable Reward – Reward

When we perform an action, we expect a reward, which will satisfy our need. Instinctively, we would think that the reward we receive is what makes us happiest, but it is not so. Several studies show that our brain is most active not when it receives the reward, but when it expects to receive a reward. It is therefore the prediction of the prize that gives us greater satisfaction.

If the reward we receive was always the same, our brains would quickly get used to it, and we would soon lose interest in action, being able to predict the consequences. This is why it is important that the prize is variable, unpredictable. When we open Facebook or YouTube, we are not sure which posts we will see, there is a component of uncertainty that keeps us flowing, almost as if it were a game of chance.

There are three types of reward that follow an action:

  • Tribe rewards – are all those interactions that affect our relationship with the people who are part of our social group. This type of reward is what we feel when we visit social media, like other people’s posts, interact with others.
  • Hunting rewards – those rewards that make us feel like a hunter following a prey. They reward our efforts, our intelligence, our ability to solve problems and manage the situations in which we find ourselves.
  • Personal rewards – these are the satisfactions we obtain on a personal level, for example in learning a new skill, or in finishing a list of tasks and activities.

Step 4: lead to investment – Investment

The last phase of the cycle is the one in which the user invests in the product. The higher the investment, the stronger the incentive to return to use it.

Let’s think for example about Linkedin. Once our account is created, we are encouraged to complete our profile, adding photos, experiences, skills, etc. This is a time-consuming operation, and often does not complete as soon as we sign up. Whenever we access the platform, we are asked to complete the missing information.

The more information we provide, the stronger the bond we create with the platform. After all, if I “invest” my time in creating and maintaining a profile, it will mean that that service is valid. This mechanism leverages our belief that a product is more valuable if I am willing to spend more on it (time, money, effort).

With digital goods, whether they are social media, apps or games, this step has an amplified effect, because they are goods that do not lose value over time. In the real world, goods tend to deteriorate over time, losing value.

The difference between creating a habit or manipulation

There is a very subtle border between creating a habit and manipulation. We have approached the topic from a product study point of view, in order to create products that meet the needs of our customers.

But this is not always a positive thing. Think for example of advertisements for cigarettes in the 1950s. They managed to convince an entire generation to smoke, with disastrous consequences for health (but excellent from a business point of view).

When we create a product, and study how it will influence the habits and life of those who use it, we also have an obligation, at least moral, to ask ourselves if what we are doing will have positive or negative consequences.

Two contrasting examples could be these:

1) On the one hand we have the arcades with slot machines, or machines designed to inhibit the judgment of people, who leverage the variable reward to create a real addiction, with all the risks involved.

2) On the other hand, we think of an app that warns us, after a predetermined time, that we are spending a lot (too much) of time there, and invites us to stop using it to do other things. However counterproductive it may seem from an economic point of view, it may be a more correct approach from an ethical point of view.

Knowledge of these mechanisms is a powerful tool, but in the end, the choice of how to use this tool falls on us.

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