Nir Eyal :: Proddiction :: When toys become essential

Notes on Nir Eyal’s Cascade SF talk 8 April ’15 on the addictive phenomenon in technology use, mixed in with my thoughts and responses. Nir’s slides and book are informative, masterful, some would say revolutionising. But each mind thinks with different tools, so on the chance that some might benefit from my take, here it is . . . Paul Quin

Products change behaviour by creating Hooks that induce addictions or create firm habits in relation to use of the product. A hook has four elements: Trigger, action, reward and investment.

If a product is meant to be used less than once a week – perhaps even once a year or less – then the user experience needs to focus on enriching technique and not aim to build habit.

1. Trigger :: Engage motivating energy and give a call to action.

BJ Fogg describes three prerequisites to action. Ability is a necessary component of Nir’s Action element; Motivation and Trigger are part of his Trigger element.

  • Ability, the capacity to act. (The action must be simple or easy in context.)
  • Motivation, the energy to act.
  • Trigger, the option to act.

Memory and association are powerful forces that combine a Fogg trigger to issue a call to action with a Fogg motivator to provide the energy or compulsion to respond to that call.

The ELSA triggers: Emotion, location, situation, activity. LSA being obvious, we focus here on emotions.

Primary emotions: Instinctive, physical responses to direct stimulus. The primal emotive response.

  • Safety | Fear
  • Excitement | Sorrow
  • Delight | Disappointment
  • Fulfilment | Frustration
  • Gain | Loss
  • Comfort | Discomfort
  • Ease | Disease

Secondary emotions: Simple, reflexive feelings triggered by an emotive response. Or complex feelings resulting from dis-integration of conflicting responses (delight at winning a war is conflicted by the sorrow of loss).

  • Anger | Fondness
  • Jealousy | Wonder
  • Lust | Satiation
  • Envy – including resentment, entitlement + revenge | Triumph
  • Happiness | Angst – including guilt + overwhelming sadness
  • Mania | Depression
  • Clarity | Confusion, Dismay

A person’s secondary emotions help identify what’s important to them. Some also provide the power to leverage change; others may sap motivation.

One of Nir’s prime examples of motivation is FOMO, the fear of missing out. Also, it is observable that depressives check email more often, loneliness may drive folks to Fb and boredom may trigger YouTube binges.

In Nir’s view, the negative emotions – Pain Points – carry the most power and are thus most relevant. I am unconvinced that this is the whole story. I think my friend Rob’s Instagrams each day of the Golden Gate Bridge as he rides to work comes not from a fear of losing the moment, as Nir would have it, but of a profound delight in the moment, and in the string of moments day by day, that Rob is impelled to share through sheer excitement.

Signs or buttons are the simplest triggers, visible objects that declare a call to action. When one clicks a button, that is itself the Nir Action. In order to respond to a button trigger, the user must already be motivated – so often a sign or button is backed up by an ELSA trigger.

Six ways to increase motivation: Give the user reason to think that by responding to your call to action they will . . .

  • Gain pleasure – Avoid pain
  • Gain hope – Avoid fear
  • Gain acceptance – Avoid rejection

2. Action :: Enable the simplest behaviour to get to a reward.

Elements that determine the simplicity or complexity of an action:

Less is more:

  • Time it takes
  • Money required
  • Physical effort expended

More is less:

  • Concentration required :: Excessive options tax concentration. On the other hand, puzzles and quandaries, which provide controlled chaos, may increase engagement. In typographic design, it is observable that readers pay more attention when they have to work a bit to decode a message. But the message must reward the effort.
  • Social differentiation or deviation demanded :: When one sees others participating, it makes it easier and more likely to participate. On the other hand, one does like to feel special.
  • Initiative required :: Routines and habits are simpler to act upon than unfamiliar actions.

Users generally come to a program or product motivated – it is the trigger that gets them there. So the focus of the action step is on providing users the ability to act. Often, this step is neglected.

There was in the past a tendency to overload the action step with heavy lifting on the user’s part – users were required to register before doing anything, to give out their address and other info. This reduced a user’s ability to act – it was a drain on motivated energy – and thus restricted usability. The tendency now is to welcome users to engage with a product before they sign up – the signup becomes an investment, not a barrier.

3. Reward :: Engage the user in anticipation of pleasure.

The nucleus accumbens is activated by the stress of desire. This gives a person intense and often addictive sensations of pleasure, which in turn makes them repeat the activities and actions that give them this stress.

The drug of desire is most potent during the period of anticipa . . . tion and is most reliably fed by unpredictable reward. The itch engages, the scratching – or variable reward – keeps users using (cf BF Skinner). A product succeeds when it activates an itch – and provides the scratch.

Nir describes three sorts of rewards. It would be interesting to see whether each one scratches particular emotional itches.

  • Reward of Tribe. Social rewards are actualised through competition or collaboration. The user gets simple attention or prizes.
  • Reward of the Hunt. Resource rewards verify a user’s feeling of control over the essential randomness of chance. Gambling, the lure of the data feed, scrolling and searching all provide this illusion. The user gets stuff: Money, info, gossip.
  • Reward of Self. Emotional rewards come from a feeling of mastery or competency. Games provide this intrinsic pleasure – also learning experiences, cleaning, clearing the in-box. Anything where chaos is tamed. The user gets control.

4. Investment :: Collect energy or resources to increase likelihood of continuing reward.

Physical objects wear out with use and lose value. Activities gain value with use as the user builds up followers, a body of work, a reputation.

There comes a point where the investment is so serious that it is virtually impossible for the user to abandon a platform – for example, strong reputations in Airbnb or TaskRabbit make it highly unlikely that a user would change to a competitive service, no matter how attractive it might otherwise be.

Investment activities may also load the next trigger and potentiate a continual recycle of action and reward.

The tendency is to move information gathering from action to this investment phase. Here, the user feels as if providing personal information helps immerse them in the experience – makes the product more sticky and increases the likelihood of future rewards.

Design is manipulation :: Information is everywhere; we long for Focus.

As the world becomes more addictive, technologies are likely to emerge that help break, not make, habits. Such programs would put addictive activities in their place and keep them there.

Understanding the addictive power of activities is not only a ticket to creating sticky applications – it gives designers the responsibility to treat the audience with respect. Nir suggests that every designer pick a problem to fix, then build a product that makes users more productive, more connected and happier.

The AYB ABTU Learning COR

At the heart of the learning system, the COR framework consists of pieces that, in the end, seem self-evident in import and perfectly linked in effect. Some call this the AYB ABTU COR, from the gamer saying, All your bases are belong to us, the statement of ultimate victory.

  • Context, Objectives & Resources
  • supporting a sequence of Simple, Obvious & Necessary actions,
  • that marshals random, personal skills
  • to achieve defined business objectives
  • and realise the broader mission.

With every project, I gain a richer understanding of learning elements and how to develop and use them. Here’s where I start:

Context is a primary benefit of focused learning. Information is all around us – data, opinions, a fug of posturing – so simply establishing context is a watershed action: The unknown land reaches the horizon.

  • Where am I?
  • Where am I going?
  • Why do I want to get there?
  • What do I know or see or imagine that might help me on the way?

The answers help the learner sift possibilities and choose right action.

Objectives benchmark progress and allow the learner to appreciate and celebrate small and large achievements along the road. While the learner sets personal project objectives, the learning framework sets micro-learning objectives for each step. These steps are the Lincoln-logs that help the learner achieve their targets.

  • What does this knowledge gain me?
  • How can I leverage it to move toward my goals?
  • What other learning steps does this subsume, require or posit?

All learners benefit from understanding and considering options. Not all the options will be engaged in the learner’s final solution. The process depends upon Ta’whayl:

  • Take what you like – and leave the rest.

Not everything is for everyone, but everyone has important talents and insights to contribute at every stage in the learning experience.

Resources for the dynamic on-line course are drawn by the learner from the vast resources of the Web. The framework provides starting points – trusted writers, well-grounded viewpoints, innovative spins, often a thoughtful contrarian.

  • What readings stimulate my imagination? Open new possibilities?
  • What is the research? What are the data on which these ideas are based? How can looking at the data help me craft the solutions I need?
  • Which writers help me understand? Who speaks my language?
  • Who shows me when the idea is taken a step too far? Where do I need to look instead?

The answers help the learner construct reference lists to continue learning beyond the COR project.

Sequencing is crucial, not only for retention, attention and enjoyment, but also to forge a logical competence that will serve the learner moving forward. For my purposes, I begin by establishing clear pre-requisites. This enables each project to move forward smoothly without detours to back-fill basics – detours that are inevitably both too simplistic for the skilled and too opaque for the clueless.

Simple units of doing. So learners understand the issues involved and the skills, even before learning them. This leads to frequent pats on the back and community cred.

  • What is this thing?
  • How do other folks do it?
  • How can I do it?
  • How does it help me?

For each learning step, I ask a question or two for context, define the simple objective, then turn loose the learner on the Web, with a couple of toe-in-the-water references.

  • Then the proof is, Can you do it? Now?

Obvious connection from each step to the next. Ideally, whatever But-what? that comes up – that’s what’s addressed next.

  • What potential of the last task is expressed here?
  • How does that connection help me understand both actions?
  • How does it help me understand how and when to use them?
  • What else about this do I want to know?

The obviousness about both small task and larger challenges helps learners see how each task and each set of tasks lets them do something they want or need to do.

Necessary sequence: Not only what pops up in your mind, but the action that makes sense of what you just learned and takes it forward. Necessity is a chain of the obvious that builds inexorably toward accomplishment on both the micro- and macro-level, within each step and challenge as well as among challenges.

  • Now I get it.

The thread of necessity I find the most difficult to spin. It makes me hammer out inconsistencies, integrate or discard potential elements and craft a viable, useful, adaptable project.

  • That’s how I work it. How do you?

Want to be a learner? Find a community. Pick a position. Start now.

PQ note: This piece derives from a proposal for an on-line English writing and design curriculum for a local college. While the proposal did not bear fruit, I have been applying these principles to develop COR learning programs for others. I’m interested in what other educators and learners think of this approach – hardly new, but none the less radical.

Pyramid in Louvre courtyard.

No rules, No schools: Time to learn

Old-model societies, dreams of the ’50s, were built on concrete social structures bolstered by strictly-defined social relationships. Our elders presumed primitive stereotypes and implemented a mechanistic vision of community: The cop, the addict, the car salesman, the wetback, the teacher, the clerk, the JD, the housewife, the jock.

This old model is crumbling in the face of new technologies and escalating pressures from a fragile environment and scant resources. Our parents’ compromises are not ours. Unable to train for a secure social position, we face demands to re-invent ourselves and our social relationships on a daily basis to fill the shifting needs of communities in crisis.

First, this means that learning is not boxed up into times or processes – learning is life-long and boundless.

Second, it means that collaborative, grass-roots efforts have an advantage over the rear-guard actions of embedded privilege – we are more agile, more resourceful, less comfortable. Oh, and brutally honest.

Opportunity in community

How does one accumulate skills and knowledge in a dynamic society? Through immersion in impromptu communities of subject experts, tech-wonks, artists and other assorted life-long learners.

Within these communities, skills are developed, invented and refined by direct, personal engagement using a 5-step, pro-active process:

Picture it. Visualise the action steps and skill-sets required to reach objectives.

Do it. Step by step, without flinching, without shame, using the talents, skills and resources at hand. However you can.

Evaluate it. In community, to improve individual skill and expand the group repertoire, evaluate accomplishments, failures, investments, opportunities seized and missed. Re-assess objectives, raise benchmarks, discover ways to better use talents and other resources.

Fix it. Do it over, with knowledge gained. Get closer to your objectives – efficiently, effectively, reliably.

Teach it to someone else. What you learned. So they can refine and apply it. You learn by doing; you learn more by teaching. Both individuals and the community build, through sharing, necessary skills and insight.

What dynamic learning looks like

Learning structures draw on the community skill and talent. Teams of learners and supporters collaborate to build useful skills and gain knowledge around a dynamic, open framework.

The Framework is assembled by experts in learning and community development. A Learning COR begins with a defined skill foundation and charts a path to the accomplishment of learner-defined objectives in a general field of endeavour.

Experienced practitioners provide a sounding-board to help each learner Focus personal talents, with efficiency and effect, toward the achievement of objectives. This mentoring approach takes on each challenge from complementary viewpoints: Limitless-opportunity and Been-there-done-that.

Technical rescue teams provide First-Aid to keep trivial processes and procedures from becoming learning roadblocks. As near-peers, these teams also challenge learners to take risks and trust their instincts.

Feedback from learners, tech teams and practitioners enables the program to continually re-invent itself, retain relevance and gain in power. The tree of learning keeps growing.

Companies where I work generally have a fundamental need to make learning a profit generator. Which is why they can hire me. The stability of a profitalised corporation helps keep continuity and authenticate outcomes. The volatility and responsiveness of more anarchic community operations keeps the work alive and relevant – as long as common energy is sufficient to sustain a quality effort.

In both scenarios, the enabling product is a Learning COR, the framework that structures, guides and rewards the learner throughout a project. I’ll talk about that in my next article.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from y’all about your learning and teaching experiences, good and bad, and what those have led you to value in the learning process.

My first In-the-browser design

Thank you Robert Nealan

Check out It’s an Agile project, so ongoing, but even in its nascent form celebrates personal firsts:

First use of Robert Nealan’s Design in the Browser.

Robert was the second design person to make me believe I could get on top of the coding mysteries and make my pages do what I want. I have some questions for him – in that first workshop he gave, we didn’t get beyond beginning steps – but it has been exciting to move from closed systems into something portable.

First one-page site.

I didn’t understand why folks made one-pagers. Or, rather, I understood the concept but the reality seldom seemed interesting in an experiential way. Generally, soft on content. But for this client, I realised that I wanted a full rollout of the product, in a way that phone users could enjoy, with no decisions and no clicks until you get to answering, Which of these do I want to buy? question.

And, yes, I know it’s got an Info page to come, which makes it a two-page site. But it works on the one-page concept: Scroll not click. Draw them in.

First Agile project.

Working with a diverse team, with everyone up to their eyeballs in every aspect of UiX, branding, product lineup, imagery, pricing, messaging – if we waited until everyone agreed, the brand would never launch. Not to mention that most of the team can’t picture things they can’t see and use, so we need this for, if nothing more, a test site.

I think it works. Do you?

There are questions, of course. And things that need doing:

The Info page, another one-page model, needs drafting.

Real photos need to be shot, showing the product as the branding and marketing gurus want them.

Photos need to be optimised for web, so they pop up instead of lazily scrolling onto the page.

Type faces and design details need crafting. For this first go-round, I stuck with generic. Next, I need to tackle mixin files and learn how to Grunt. I’ll be asking Robert questions.

Let me know what you think about the page, how it looks and how it works. Ask questions about how I did it and why. Give me ideas on ways to make it better. Ask me out for coffee.

My design approach: Show what I mean, mean what I show


All we live through changes us; I’m not sure we always recognise ourselves in the mirror. Through my professional life – from designing for letterpress, silkscreen and ditto to working with code – I’ve developed a few continually morphing approaches to help me make useful, sustainable and effective design choices.

Here’s today’s quick summary:

Objectives-first. Projects begin with Mission and the site’s rôle in achieving business objectives.

Collaborative. Common resources and shared imagery project a unique vision. Audience and community are challenged to respond, reject, rejoice and change – both the vision and themselves.

Process-oriented. UX belongs to the user; design encourages positive experiences by providing results through productive, simple interaction – and a dash of anticipation.

Branding-identified. Design and content dominate a niche with ID image, voice, tone, attitude and expertise.

Structure precedes detail. Organisation harnesses diversity. Specification builds durability. Content is substance. Code is design.

I found my doll Ona behind a dumpster in Barcelona. She keeps me IRL, to do a better job for you.


Hello, World!

Welcome to Paul Quin’s Wordpress phase. I’m helping people with content marketing and they want to work in Wp, so I thought I should try it again. I’ve been experimenting with Git and Bootstrap, but obsessed right now with the CM project and have no bandwidth for side experiments. And the kids want to talk about Wp.

Here I am. I’ll be talking about what I’m learning, what confuses me or my kids, what wonderful worlds appear when I wake up each day. A tightly focused blog, like that, featuring where my mind is at.

If you get my jokes, give yourself a star.

If we never speak again, just assume I became famous.
On the China Basin viaduct near Mission Bay, SF