The secret techniques app designers use to get us addicted

Nowadays most of us end up spending a lot of our time on social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp etc. In the future, this trend is only expected to get worse.

Given this backdrop, I think it is extremely important that all of us get to understand some of the habit formation techniques that app developers deploy in these apps. It might give us a fair chance to still be in control of our social media usage. More so especially, if your are a parent, as the apps have their most vulnerable target in the form of your precious ones.

Let us begin with a simple question:

Why the heck are some of these apps so addictive ?

To find out the answer, we will take the help of our friend Mr. Nir Eyal, the author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Design School. Thankfully for us, he has spent a good part of his life figuring out the secret ingredients that go into habit-forming apps and products.

Related image

So without reinventing the wheel, let us first understand what Mr. Nir Eyal has found out.

According to Nir Eyal, habit-forming and engaging apps generally deploy a combination of these 4 concepts

  1. Trigger
  2. Action
  3. Variable Reward
  4. Investment

He calls it the “HOOK” model.

Image result

What the heck!! 

Err I understand. You have no clue and these definitely don’t sound exciting by any means. But hang on and soon you will be able to connect the dots to get your “Aha” moment.

1.Triggers (“the reminder to use the app”)

Just take a count of the apps in your phone. Mine is currently at 25. Phew.

But how many do you actually use regularly?

Umm.. Maybe around 5-6!

Ever wonder why?

Incomplete office work, bike to be repaired,  electricity bill to be paid, vegetables to be bought blah blah…Long story short – All of us are busy. Period.

So how in the world will we remember to open and use the app.

In comes our hero Mr Trigger.

Triggers are essentially “cues” which remind us to take the necessary action i.e to open and use the app.

These are typically the notifications, beeps, buzzes, rings, flags, pushes, pings, SMS, email etc. that your app keeps sending in order to make you use the app.

Image result for social media notification

Almost all apps start encouraging usage by alerting users with these simple triggers.

But the addictive apps, take the concept of triggers to the next level.

Think about this. Do you open facebook only when you receive a trigger from the app?

No right. We most often also check facebook when we feel bored or lonely.

So the trigger in this case is not only the typical external one designed by the app designer. But rather it is also the much more powerful internal trigger which is basically your own emotions or feelings that you go through.

Sample this:
You are feeling bored. You check Twitter!

You are unsure of something.You check Google!

You fear missing out on your groups’ conversation. You check Whatsapp!

While all apps start with simple external triggers, the successful ones gradually figure out an internal emotion or feeling which will act as a perennial and powerful trigger for using the app. So from then on, each and every time you get that emotion you will check out the app eventually creating a habit. Isn’t that a killer.

And here is something even more interesting – between positive and negative emotions, the negative emotions are proven to be more powerful internal triggers.

People  who  are  DEPRESSED  CHECK  EMAIL  MORE  OFTEN.     Source:  Kotikalapudi  et  al  2012

So the next time you decide to check an app. Pause for a second. Was it an external trigger or an internal trigger. If it’s an internal trigger – what is the emotion or feeling which is causing you to open the app?

This transition from an external to internal trigger is the first sign of an addictive killer app.

But hang on. The trigger is fine, but will it always lead to the desired action?

For eg:
I get a notification from Myntra informing a discount sale is on. But I am least interested. So it doesn’t lead to action.

So an external trigger, unless it matches with my internal motivation doesn’t lead to an action.

What about internal triggers?

I get really bored (internal trigger). But will I open the intended app?

So now we come to the next question –

When does a trigger really become effective and lead to action?

To decipher this, let’s move on to the second part of the HOOK model

2.Action (“using the app”)


The trigger driven by internal and external cues has essentially reminded you to do the action (i.e opening and using the app). However, if you don’t take action, the trigger is useless.

So for the trigger to work i.e the action to happen, there needs to be two more additional things apart from the trigger

  1. Motivation: A person must have sufficient motivation when the trigger occurs. That is basically there must be some reward (either extrinsic or intrinsic) which motivates you to do the action. Eg You open facebook to see who liked your picture – you get a social reward in the form of appreciation, recognition. We shall explore this in detail under the topic of “variable rewards”.
  2. Ability:  The person must have the ability to perform the behavior when the Trigger occurs. Think of someone trying to use the photoshop app to edit images. Unless he has the ability (the know how) he wont be able to use it.

So apps primarily work around these two levers of “motivation” and “ability” to ensure that the trigger leads to intended behavior.

Generally, it is far more difficult to increase motivation vis-a-vis ability.

Hence the apps which end up creating habits, initially focus on the ability portion. They make the action as easy as possible. The easier it is do something, the more users will do it. Think about the ease of all the actions which we do in various apps – scrolling, clicking, liking, sharing, playing a video etc

To make the action as easy as possible, app developers focus on these six elements and keep simplifying them

  1. Time: how long it takes to complete an action
  2. Money: the monetary cost of taking an action
  3. Physical effort: the amount of labour involved in taking that action
  4. Brain cycles: the level of mental effort and focus required to take an action
  5. Social deviance: how accepted that behaviour is by others
  6. Non-routine: how much the action matches or disrupts existing routine times
Level  of  of  motivation  and  ability   determines  if  action  will  occur. MOTIVATION TRIGGER  	 SUCCEEDS TRIGGER ...

Thus the app designers make the action as easy as possible, thereby ensuring that the trigger is effective.

As expected, the action phase of the hook is where the habitual behavior occurs.

So now we have

  1. A trigger which reminds us to do the action
  2. An action which is simple enough to be done

Hang on. There is still a major issue.

You have reminded me to act. Sure. You have made the action simple. Alright.

But why in the world should I do the action however simple it is. What is my incentive? 

So the app developer is now stuck with the problem of motivating us to do the action. Let us see how he solves this.

 3.Variable Rewards (rewards for using the app – and its variable!!)

The app developers solve this issue by rewarding the actions that it triggers. Rewards are not necessarily the monetary ones . There are several others types of rewards such as social rewards, search for resources, personal achievement etc about which I have discussed in detail in the below post

A deep dive into variable rewards

But here is the killer. Researchers have found that, instead of a steady and predictable reward, if these rewards are made variable (i.e random where you have no clue on when and what type of reward you stumble upon), they produce significant cravings in us and lead to addictive behavior. Eg Slot machines, video games, scrolling twitter in search of interesting information etc

This finding is born out of research conducted on animals, for example: teaching a rat to press a lever. Researchers found that when compared to a fixed schedule (eg: a piece of cheese for every other lever presses), varying the schedule (eg: two rewards in a row after one press, then a single reward after three presses, etc) was much more effective though the overall rewards received ratio was 1 to 2.

How Variable Rewards Work - Jason Shen

I have discussed this interesting concept in detail in my earlier post here

A pigeon from the 1950s has the answer to your facebook addiction

Thus as seen above variable rewards are one of the most powerful tools that app developers use to hook users.

 4. Investment (our inputs into the app)

The last phase of the Hook is where the user is asked to do bit of work. The point of the investment phase is to ask users to put something of value into the system, which increases the likelihood of them using the product and of successive passes through the Hook cycle.

Example: Inviting friends, sharing articles, commenting, sharing pictures, updating status, sending email etc

Unlike the action phase, which delivers immediate gratification, the investment phase is about the anticipation of future rewards.

The Hook Model applied in real life..

Let us see how Facebook uses the HOOK framework to create a habit


External Trigger – Notifications

Image result for facebook notification

Internal Trigger (the most powerful source of trigger)

You start using facebook whenever you are bored or lonely

2) Action

The scroll – how much more simpler can it be!!

Image result for facebook scrolling

3)Variable Rewards

The scroll action is done to get the variable rewards. There are several variable rewards that facebook deploys

  • We could get a friend request
  • Someone could tag us a in a photo
  • A friend could comment on our status update
  • A friend could have posted his/her own status update
  • Someone might have sent us a direct message
  • A friend might be online and ready to chat with us
  • We might stumble upon an awesome video shared by our friends
  • Some nice article in our news feed
  • Event invites
  • There is a discussion in our facebook groups etc

4) Investment:

Inviting friends, following people, sharing articles, commenting, sharing pictures, updating status, commenting in groups etc


Thus an addictive app mostly has all these 4 ingredients

  1. A trigger which reminds us to do the action
  2. An action which is damn simple to do
  3. A variable reward to keep us craving for more and repeating the action (this is responsible for the addictive behavior)
  4. An input from us into the app which leads to step 1 albeit with a lag

Apply this to any of the popular apps that you are using and I can guarantee your “Aha” moment.

In our next post, we will learn on how to invert the hook model and figure out on how we can slowly start reducing our app addiction.

Just in case you made it till here, do consider subscribing to the blog for further updates and free links to downloading some amazing contents on finance and behavioral psychology.



2 thoughts on “The secret techniques app designers use to get us addicted

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s