Top 3 Take-Aways For Creating Habit & Behavior Change Via The Habit Summit

By Anna Ho, Senior Strategist

Earlier this month I went out to San Francisco to attend the 2017 Habit Summit, a behavioral design conference hosted by Nir Eyal, best-selling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. The conference featured a diverse line-up of speakers, from industry to academia, that spoke about the art and science of behavior change.

There were three critical take-aways that anyone in the business of creating habit and behavior change through the use of digital products and processes should know:


1) Hack the brain.

In talking about what shapes behavior and how habits are formed, a number of speakers touched upon the neuroplasticity of the brain and the opportunity to shape or re-shape the way people think, and in effect, the way they behave.

Futurist, Jane McGonigal, for example, showed that with an exercise she calls “remembering the future”, where you recall a memory of a person you know and an experience you’ve had and combine those two memories in a vivid scenario that is completely unfamiliar, you are able to encode the imagined scenario in your memory and increase the possibility that the impossible could happen. This mental habit of always challenging what you think cannot be changed fosters a psychological flexibility that impacts your thinking and capacity for change.

Carl D. Marci, Chief Neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, echoed similar sentiments from a biological perspective, explaining that the human brain is wired to continually make connections and is constantly changing as you take in new information.  Engagement he says, is attention to something that emotionally impacts you, leaving a memory trace that may ultimately affect your future behavior. And, a habit is a “fixed way of thinking or behaving; acquired through repetition, triggered by contextual cues that were reinforced or rewarded early in the experience.” In order to change habitual behavior, you must rewire your neural circuitry, leveraging established cues or rewards to impact imprinted behavior.


2) Make authentic connections.

A common herald heard throughout the day was that more and more, users today are seeking products that make meaningful connections. This emphasis on emotional resonance and personal relevance for consumers marks a growing shift in the industry away from persuasion, towards authenticity, a trend we too at SI have observed. In part due to the rise of distracted user behavior and fickleness, industry leaders emphasize that personal relevance is key to deeper engagement with consumers.

In her three rules of successful mobile products, SC Moatti, investor and former Facebook executive and author of Mobilized, said that the best apps appeal to the user’s spirt, mind, and body. We are in the midst of a cultural transformation, contends Moatti, and there is no such thing as a non-mobile product today, and to be of true value to your consumers, your product must:

  • Operate through beauty, where beauty is manifested through efficiency and a sense of wow.
  • Acknowledge user identity and context. Take into account norms and rituals.
  • Empower users to learn as they use your product. Appeal to their inherent desire to learn and grow.

Amy Bucher, Behavior Change Director of Mad*Pow, talked about how a pre-requisite to engagement is motivation and that motivation exists along a continuum. Citing Deci & Ryan’s self-determination theory — principles that underpin most modern thought on motivation — she explains that long-term behavior changes happen on the end of the motivation continuum where users are more intrinsically motivated. According to the Deci & Ryan, the three fundamental levers of motivation are:

  1. Autonomy – a desire to make meaningful choices.
  2. Competence – a desire to learn, grow, and succeed.
  3. Relatedness – the desire to belong, to be a part of something bigger than oneself.

Motivation, says Bucher, is “desire with velocity” and the three aforementioned desires offer a “highway to the habit zone”. Leverage these inherent human desires to better engage users and motivate lasting behavior change.


3) Use your powers responsibly.

Quoting Paul Virilio, Nir Eyal started the conference with a word of caution, “The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.”

With the opportunity and ability to shape human behavior, it’s important to remember that with great power comes great responsibility. Motivation and persuasion in technology, cautioned many of the speakers, should not be mistaken for coercion.

In addition to influencing distraction and addiction, Eyal pointed out that technology when designed irresponsibly can be used to influence dark patterns of behavior, getting people to do things they don’t want to do, like sign up for a newsletter or make an in-app purchase.

Echoing a similar call to action, Irene Au, operating partner at Khosla Ventures and former design lead at Google and Yahoo, impressed on the audience that as product designers, we need to look to ourselves and examine our intentions. Bad design, says Au, is an “outcome of the afflictions of self.” Wondering what lead to bad design? Look first to our own greed, attachments, and fears. On the flip side, well-designed products, says Au, “like their makers, are imbued with modesty.”

Nandini Stocker, Conversation Design Lead at Google, in talking about the emerging trend of speech interfaces like that featured in Google Home, underlined a simple but important truth, technology should make life easier, not harder.  Step back away from how people are using technology now, challenges Stocker, and focus on designing something that people want to use, something that removes barriers for all users. The power of voice interfaces, for example is that the spoken language solves some problems that would otherwise have a lot of friction.


What’s ahead? The future is about technologies that empower.

Though ostensibly about habit, this year’s Habit Summit centered around one prevalent theme — empowerment. An understanding of what influences human behavior empowers product designers and consumers to make authentic connections that matter. This understanding is transforming the industry. Will your digital product or service be part of the change?

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