How to Make Your Product Hard to Ignore | Product Habits (1/4)
Examples from Calm, Zero and Acorns
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This article is Part I of a 4-part series on Building Product Habits. Each article explores one of the four steps laid out in James Clear's best-selling book, Atomic Habits: cue, craving, response, and reward.
The Unfortunate Truth
Can we be honest here? Motivation is overrated. No matter how hard we try to build good habits, willpower alone just won't cut it. Even when a habit is objectively good for us, it can be difficult to drag ourselves to the gym, write that crappy first draft, or wind down the screen time before bed (guilty 🙋♂️).
That's why (in case you haven’t guessed by now), step one of habit building is "Cue." We have to make it painfully obvious. Like “tripping over it” obvious.
So much so that the path of least resistance is flipped on its head. Rather than expending energy and willpower to initiate the habit…
…how can we rig the game so that we have to expend energy and willpower to NOT initiate the habit instead?
Way easier said than done. Especially since a lot of modern day products are software. It's hard to put software in the hallway so you trip over it on the way to the bathroom in the morning. So let's dig into it a bit.
According to Clear, the two most common Cue types are time and location. I'd like to add a third to this list. Activity.
Tying a habit to a time, location or activity gives us a pre-existing anchor point in our user's lives to lash our product to.
Imagine a tube or wake board being pulled behind a motor boat. We want to ride the waves produced by the preceding habit to help us encourage a rep of the product.
Types of Cues
How can we tie a rep of our product with a specific time? Let's look at two examples: Calm and Zero.
Calm is the popular mediation app that provides you with guided meditations, breath exercises and nighttime sleep routines. Calm knew that most people who are downloading a meditation app have some desire to integrate the practice of meditation into their day-to-day life. After all, by it's very nature, meditation is a practice, not a one-time thing. It's meant to be a habit.
Since people typically want to meditate at a specific time each day, Calm offers time-based notifications in order to prompt users to meditate, using a streaks feature to track daily progress.
Zero is an app that helps you with metabolic health. I used it for about 3 months in 2021 to track my intermittent fasting. They offer the ability to dial in your fasting window, setting the times of day that you want to start and stop eating.
So every day at noon, I would get a notification telling me I could start eating. And later in the day at 6pm, I would get another notification letting me know it's time to stop eating.
Each time, I would open the app, tap the "start" or "stop" button and potentially log some additional information for my own record keeping. Those times were tightly coupled with product use for me, naturally helping me build a daily habit.
One of the best examples of tying a product to a location is Spotify and your car. Even before Spotify came along, the car was a place that folks would listen to music, so it was a natural location for Spotify to target their habit-building efforts.
While there was a natural evolution of the listening habit as cassettes and CDs gave way to auxiliary cables and bluetooth, Spotify didn't assume that they would naturally win the vehicle location. After all, there were formidable competitors like Pandora and Apple Music clamoring for that same Cue.
So what did they do? They optimized the experience.
They build "driving mode" to make navigating audio controls easier and, therefore, safer while driving.
They build Apple CarPlay and Android Audio integrations to display beautiful album artwork and large, touchscreen controls.
They even built custom integrations with native car stereo systems that didn't connect with CarPlay or Android Audio in order to capture a larger share of the "dumb" car market.
When a user gets in a car for the first time, Spotify's goal was to be the first audio app that they discover or, if not that, at least offer a superior experience.
Activity is perhaps the most common type of Cue for software products since software is often used for a very specific need (eg. open Venmo when you need to transfer money or open Lyft when you need a ride somewhere).
When it's time to go for a run, I open Strava. And Strava's an interesting example because they actually have aligned themselves with two different Cues leading to the same outcome.
The most obvious Cue and the easiest for Strava to capitalize on is simply "starting an activity." Let's using running as an example. For the pre-existing runners, they're already going for a run with or without Strava. That's a very compelling Cue because they need to track that run which is the product habit.
But the folks at Strava were smarty pants. They knew that a large number of wannabe runners downloaded Strava who didn't have a pre-existing running habit but wanted to build one. So Strava decided to help.
They build in shareable routes, badges, and challenges, all of which would tap into different external motivators to help Cue the user to start an activity.
Shareable routes and activity feeds: a social motivator
Badges: an achievement motivator
Challenges: a competitive motivator
Here's where it gets interesting.
For the first group of users, starting an activity was the Cue that led to the Habit of opening Strava.
But for the wannabe runners, starting an activity was the Habit that resulted from the Cue.
Typically this wouldn't be an ideal outcome since the habit the user wanted to build wasn't "tracking a run" (thus opening Strava) but rather "going for a run" (and Strava isn’t necessary).
But because the Cue that led them to the Habit of "going for a run" was initiated in Strava (a friend shared a route, they wanted to earn a PR badge, or they wanted to complete Challenge), they naturally would also use Strava to track that run. Very clever.
Popular Cue Strategies
Remind with Notifications
The most obvious Cue would be notifications. Push, email, SMS or carrier pigeon... your call. Notifications are great because they can be triggered based on specific variables. If you're on a mobile device, that list of variables expand to include cool stuff like GPS, accelerometer and gyroscope data.
Like the saturation slider for photos, notifications is one of those Cues that’s easy to overdo. If you've ever turned on notifications for social media, you've probably experienced notification overload. At that point, the impact of a notification as a Cue is severely decreased. Kind of a "boy who cried wolf" sort of thing.
Sometimes poignant, timely notifications are more effective to begin building a product habit.
Extend your Product Surface Area
A more subtle, but I would argue more effective, Cue is expanding the surface area of your product. Product Surface Area refers to the number of places it's possible for a user to "trip” over your product.
Spotify does a great job with this by integrating with just about every stereo system available, making it incredibly easy to listen to your tunes where ever you are.
Some examples of other surfaces you could expand an iOS app to in the Apple ecosystem alone include App Clips, Widgets, Siri integrations, iMessage apps, Apple Watch apps, MacOS apps and soon, Live Activities.
Which surfaces would make sense for your product to exist on?
And is it natural for your user to encounter and derive value from your product there?
Can you become the default option there?
Link to Pre-existing Habits
Some products, like Tinder or NGL, are massive dopamine hits with every rep of the product and need no external motivation to get users hooked. They play with our most basic carnal natures like sex and hidden desire.
But not all products can work in a sex angle, so you have to get creative to build a habit around your product.
The best way to do this is to tie a rep of the product with an existing, desirable habit. As James Clear puts it…
Attach the habit they NEED to do with a habit they WANT to do.
Take Acorns for example. They're a fintech product that helps you save an invest. But they know that getting people to save and invest is like getting kids to brush their teeth. Everyone recognizes it as a good thing, but no one wants to put the effort in to actually do it.
What do people actually WANT to do? Spend money.
So Acorns leaned into that! They round up each purchase to the nearest dollar and auto-invest the change. Following every desirable rep of the existing habit (spending money) was the necessary rep of the new habit (investing money).
Spend some time this week thinking through your product’s Cues.
What type of Cue naturally precedes or is linked with a rep of your product? A time, a location or an action?
Are there natural Cues that already exist like “getting in the car → listening to music” or “going for a run → tracking your mileage”?
What mechanism can you use to get your user to "trip" over your product?
As a reminder, this is Part I of a 4-part series. Next week we're going to be exploring how to make the habit attractive after a user has tripped over your product. As always, it's gonna be packed with real-world examples. If you haven't hit that subscribe button yet, give it a smash and I'll catch you in the next one.
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