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Product Manager’s Focus: Habit-Forming Products that Improve Lives

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14th Feb, 2017
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Product Manager’s Focus: Habit-Forming Products that Improve Lives

Yesterday, I woke up at 6 AM, and in a half-conscious state reached out to my mobile and started scrolling through WhatsApp for new messages.

Later during the day I began wondering, whether the act of reaching out to my mobile for the new WhatsApp messages was intentionally designed to be so, or is it just me who cannot control the urge to look for that new/missing text (read FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out).

Turns out, I am not a total weirdo, it is, in fact, the product (in this case, WhatsApp) that is designed to use my psyche to trigger an action of using the product. Sounds too scientific for something so simple, doesn’t it? I would recommend you to go through this amazing book called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products By Nir Eyal, which explains clearly how our internal triggers, coupled with targeted design, force us to get hooked on certain products.

How Habits are Formed

If you keep doing something again and again, after a long period of time, you will get comfortable with the activity and when the trigger takes place, your behaviour will automatically force you to perform the same action. In other words, you will perform the task as per your habit.

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Every habit is formed out of a habit loop. A habit loop consists of three parts: Trigger, Routine and Reward.

First, the trigger can be anything from an event to a location to a feeling. Let’s look at this example; you reach out for water when you feel thirsty. In this case, thirst is an external trigger that forced you to reach out for water. Your brain automatically tells you to drink water or another cold beverage to satisfy your thirst. Similarly,  in case of some external or internal trigger, your brain directs you to perform a certain activity, at the end of which you will get some reward, which in this case is the quenching of your thirst.

Product Manager's Focus: Habit-Forming Products that Improve Lives UpGrad Blog
Then comes the routine part. Behaviour can be classified as something that you want to change or you want to reinforce. For example, you want to change your smoking habit or you want to reinforce healthy diet. The routine involves your daily or hourly interaction with your surrounding environment or objects. Leaving office at 5:30 PM daily is a routine.

The third step is the reward which is the ultimate result of you performing the action triggered. With rewards, you complete the habit loop.

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The Behaviour Change Effect

If we try to dig deeper to understand what changes our behaviour, we can easily see a pattern emerging. According to BJ Fogg’s behaviour model, three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability and Trigger. If any of these three elements are missing, the action will not turn into a behaviour.

Suppose, you are building a new product (a camera app) for which a user has a very high motivation, such as taking a picture. At the same time, if you force the user to perform 5 clicks before he/she reaches the actual camera button, then that action is unlikely to turn into behavior.
Product Manager’s Focus: Habit-Forming Products that Improve Lives UpGrad Blog
If you observe the iPhone, there is a small camera icon hidden at the lower corner of the screen. Whenever a user has an urge to click a picture, he/she just has to tap that icon and the camera will be ready to operate. Over time this becomes the user’s behavior and he/she will repeat that action of tapping the camera icon.

Are You Building a Product or Behaviour?

Ask this question: what am I building? Are you building just another product that solves some problem, but still won’t be noticed by millions of potential users? Highly successful companies build products that become habits of their users. Why not focus on triggers (external and internal) and then make your product so easy to use that your user crosses the threshold and starts using your product again and again – instead of one time or just a few times.

Let’s talk about Youtube. People are spending around 40 minutes of their life per session on YouTube. Yes, 40 minutes per session. That’s a large amount of time. You could do a lot in 40 minutes. You can prepare a meal or finish that pending assignment you have been procrastinating about. But instead of that people choose to spend 40 precious minutes watching assorted Youtube videos (remember that ‘Charlie bit my finger’ video that went viral?)

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If we try to think and understand the reason behind the popularity of Youtube, you will find an interesting pattern that connects to human behaviour. Apart from all the direct reasons like content discovery, social media sharing, content generation, one reason is the connection with the emotional trigger of a user.


People often watch digital videos when they get bored. Getting bored is also a trigger that brings users to Youtube’s platform.

Youtube’s focus on building behaviour around watching videos enables it to retain its users without putting any extra marketing effort. Small increments like making videos available offline, ease of sharing videos and better performance on low bandwidth, makes it an ideal platform for content consumption as well as creation.

How Product Design Can Help in Building Behaviour

Aaron Otani, explains pretty well the behavioral approach to product design. According to him, it is important to consider the aesthetics of your product and whether it looks inviting enough or not. Can it be personalized for every user? Is your product able to make recommendations to users based on their search patterns?

Examples of Some of the Better Designed Products

In our day to day life, we use products that have greatly solved some of the recurring and most nagging problems we face on a daily basis. The way these products have been designed has definitely brought some improvement to our lives. Let’s go over some of these products and understand their design strategy:

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1. Wireless charging

Who doesn’t hate to see their mobile phone battery hitting the last 1%?
In addition to that, the worst part is searching for the charging cable and an adequately positioned electric point every time you want to charge your mobile phone. My first major smartphone was a Nokia Lumia 920 and the only reason I went for that phone (knowing it won’t stand a chance in terms of apps and ecosystems, compared to Android and iOS) was wireless charging. It was such a nice experience simply putting the phone down and its battery being fully charged when I picked it back up.

It was a smart move from Microsoft, launching the Lumia 920 model, as none of the major players at that time supported inbuilt wireless charging. They targeted the frustration point of users – regarding plugging their smartphones every time to charge. This catapulted them into the smartphone user’s mind.

2. Uber

Connecting to drivers and tracking them in real time is fairly common nowadays. Thanks to apps like Uber, the experience has become very seamless. But remember the days when you have to cancel a late night trip to your friend’s place because you were unsure whether you will get a taxi in the middle of the night or not?

Product Manager’s Focus: Habit-Forming Products that Improve Lives | UpGrad Blog
Uber has targeted the right pain points and created a product that is very easy to use. Therefore, they have a huge brand recall – external trigger invoked in user’s mind. Another important fact is that since Uber targeted these triggers, which are common among people across the world, they were able to gain market share at a very large scale.

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3. Tangle Free Earphones

Life is too precious to keep sorting out tangled earphones.
We have all experienced the tedious task that is untangling earphones – each time after we take them out of our bags, pockets, etc.
Yet a simple alteration/innovation of manufacturing earphones and headphones with flat wires, instead of cylindrical-shaped ones, reduced their chance of getting tangled. In terms of product design, this is a very simple change, but if you see it from the user’s perspective, this is a huge time-saver.

4. Amazon Go Shopping Stores

This is a great example of how improving user experience drastically changes your business and gets customers hooked to your product.

The concept of Amazon Go demonstrated the future of shopping where users can simply walk into the store, pick an item and leave. Imagine trying to do this 10 years ago. There was really no option unless you were comfortable with being a shoplifter! But once somebody experiences such ease in shopping, they would not want to go back to standing in lines so that they can get the items billed at the counter.

This concept is a very good example of changing user behaviour for good. It’s a win-win situation for both storekeepers and shoppers.

Introducing Inefficiency to Grab User Attention

While designing an App, everybody focuses on streamlining the user experience by removing all bottlenecks from the workflow.

Sure, that’s a good thing, but what if adding inefficiencies or challenges are sometimes necessary to change user behaviour? Let’s see some of the examples where adding challenges in the workflow reinforces users to change their behaviour:

1. App to prevent texting while driving

Texting while driving is one of the leading causes of road accidents, worldwide.

Product Manager’s Focus: Habit-Forming Products that Improve Lives | UpGrad Blog
The habit of continuously checking our smartphones sometimes comes in the way of safety; and when on the road – 100% of your attention should be just on the act of driving. So how do you reinforce or change user behaviour to ensure people do not look at their phone screens while driving?

By introducing an alternate behavior such as storing all messages that are received while driving and only prompting the person (showing the message on the screen display) once he/she comes to a halt. You could also consider a way to alert or discourage the user in some way if he/she picks up the mobile phone while driving. This sort of behaviour change can result in saving human lives.

2. Challenge based alarm clocks

Almost everybody, at some point of time, has struggled to wake up early in the morning.

Even though we have multiple alarms set, one thing is always there at the back of our mind that, if we hit the snooze button, we can continue sleeping.

So, the discomfort is momentary and does not result in any change in our behaviour. Now, instead of providing a simple snooze button, showing a math problem and asking the user to solve that in order to allow access to the snooze button, is adding a far greater level of complexity. This makes sure that the user spends more time in becoming fully attentive/losing sleep to solve the math question.

This approach ultimately reduces your chances of going back to sleep. You have become attentive and have been hearing that alarm buzzing for way too long.
In conclusion, keeping tabs on a user’s mental make-up while designing products ensures that the right set of problems are targeted by a product owner or manager. This way, your product won’t be just another product in an already competitive landscape, but in the true sense, a useful one. A product that the customer would love to use again and again. This is how, and why, we should focus on creating habit-forming products – that improve lives.

Comment below to let us know what are some of the products/apps you are addicted. If you are a product manager – what are your thoughts or ideas on habitual products that can improve lives?

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Anurag is a student of second cohort of UpGrad’s Product Management Program. He is passionate about all things design and likes to explore new technology. He is currently working for JDA Software in their product development division. Anurag is an alumnus of IIIT Bangalore.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1How to make a product habit-forming among customers?

A product needs to be engaging for it to become habit forming among customers. As a product manager, you will need to answer some questions. Like – what does my product offer? Is it something that the customer may want to buy over and over – like an OTT platform, or banking services? Does my product offer a one-time buy – like loan apps? Depending on the answers to these questions, you will then need to define touchpoints. If your product is a recurring need, all you need to do is focus on your offerings. If not, you may have to perform a deep dive analysis to understand what might attract your customers, and then add the requisite features that can feed into their needs.

2What is the primary goal of a product manager?

A product manager’s primary goal involves ensuring that the product is able to drive more and more people in the target audience to switch over to their offering. The product should be able to satisfy a certain need of customers which would be recurring, over the foreseeable future. The product manager also needs to ensure that the product’s goals in terms of revenue and profits are being met as per the organisation’s expectations. Lastly, the product manager should be able to understand which phase of the product lifecycle their product is currently in, and then devise strategies to maximise revenue while at the same time, adhere to constraints of resources and planning.

3How do I upgrade my technical skills as a product manager?

It is very easy to keep upgrading your technical skills as a product manager. All you need to do is to assess which skills are lacking in you. This could happen because you don’t have a technical background, or simply because of the advancements in market trends and technology. You can easily look for certification courses offered online by reputed institutes and take these so that you are always upto date in terms of the required skills to manage your product. If you are in a senior position, you can also consider hiring people who have the required skills and delegate responsibilities while you remain focused on driving the product.