The trigger is the actuator of a behavior—the spark plug in the hook model. There are two types of triggers: external and internal. Habit-forming technologies start by alerting users with external triggers like an email, a link on a web site, or the app icon on a phone. By cycling continuously through these hooks, users begin to form associations with internal triggers, which become attached to existing behaviors and emotions.
- So, the first step of building a hook is to identify our triggers. And there are two types of triggers. We have external triggers and we have internal triggers. External triggers, you'll be very familiar with, these are things in our environment that tell us what to do next with some piece of information. Click here, buy now, play this, a friend telling you about a product or service through word of mouth. All of these things tell you what to do with some piece of information. Those are external triggers. Now, product designers, UX people, we all know how to design those external triggers, that's what we focus most of our time, that's our bread and butter.
But what people don't consider enough and what turns out to be absolutely critical for forming these long-term habits is creating an association with what's called an internal trigger. Internal triggers are these things that tell us what to do next, but the information for what to do is stored as a memory or an association inside the user's brain. Now, these internal triggers take many different formats. They can be routines, they can be certain people, they can be situations, they can be places, but most often they are emotions.
And not just any emotion, they are specifically negative emotions. These negative emotions prompt us to action because they feel bad, they're what psychologists call negative valence states. Now, there's an interesting study that showed us about the importance of these internal triggers. One study found that people suffering from depression check email more. Now, why would that be? Why would people suffering from clinical depression check their email more frequently than the general population? Well, it turns out that people suffering from depression experience what psychologists call these negative valence states, and these negative valence states prompt them to action, they're looking for relief with email, with their devices.
They're going online more often than the general population. But of course, we all do this, all of us use our products and services. Fundamentally, there is only one reason that we use any of the products and services that we use every day, and that fundamental reason is to modulate our mood, to make us feel something different. So, let me ask you, what website or app do people check when they're feeling lonely? Well, most people check Facebook.
And what about when you're uncertain about something, before you scan your brain, what are you doing? You're Googling it. And what about when you're feeling bored? Let's say between two and four o'clock in the afternoon, you know you have some big project you don't feel like working on right now, where do you go? You check YouTube, you check Reddit, you check stock prices, you look at the news. All of these products and services scratch this itch of boredom. And so, when we build a habit-forming product or service, what we want to start with is understanding what is the user's itch that occurs frequently enough in the user's life? What occurs often enough in their daily routine? And remember, the frequency needs to be a week's time or less.
Once we identify that internal trigger, that's going to be the basis of the rest of the hook. Because the goal of the hook is to scratch that user's itch, to give them what they came for, to make their life better in some way by satisfying that impulse. That's the goal of this trigger phase. Now, the way we build great external triggers, the way we make sure that we don't just spam people and annoy them and get them to uninstall our app or unsubscribe from our newsletter, the way we do this is that we spend time thinking about how do we closely couple the internal trigger with the external trigger.
So, the difference between sending a notification, sending a message, sending an external trigger that feels like spam and one that feels like magic is one word. And that one word is context. Context is all about closely coupling the internal trigger and external trigger together. If you can send me a solution to my problem the minute I feel that problem, that's magical. And what most companies do is that they send these notifications, they send these external trigger on their schedule, on the maker's schedule, which is a huge mistake because we have all this data, we have all this information about when users would most likely need our product or service.
That's when we should send them the notification, that's when we should send them the external trigger to prompt them to action, to find relief for whatever discomfort they're feeling with our product. And there's all kinds of new technologies to help us do that, but fundamentally what you need to do if you're designing a habit-forming product or service is to understand what is the internal trigger, and does it occur frequently enough in the user's life to attach your product to? So, that's the first step is to understand what is your user's itch? Does it occur with sufficient frequency? And then number two, how can you closely couple the moment in time the user feels the internal trigger with when they are going to receive this notification, this message, this call to action, the external trigger? That's your fist job.