Decoding Habits: Can Neuroscience Help us Build Better Product Attachment?

Decoding Habits: Can Neuroscience Help us Build Better Product Attachment?

Later this month, entrepreneurs, innovators, designers and marketers will gather in Stanford for the 2016 Habit Summit.  Thought leaders in consumer psychology, design and behavioural science will help delegates try to figure out how to build consumer habits and design engaging products.  There’s plenty of established wisdom in this area from psychology and behavioural studies – take for example, the best-selling book “Hooked” from one of the keynote speakers, Nir Eyal.  This powerful model shows how successful habit-forming products such as Facebook are those that take consumers repeatedly through phases of Trigger, Action, Reward and Investment.

At Untapped, we are always looking at both the science and art of innovation.  So we were intrigued to read in NewScientist about recent studies that are decoding the brain circuitry associated with habit formation.  Could this work help teach us even more about the how to foster attachment between your consumer and your product?

What neuroscientists are learning is that there are two different, competing systems in the brain: goal-directed behaviours (generally conscious and expensive in effort) and habit-forming (mental autopilot, conserves energy). Many habits start off as goal-directed, but become habits if done often enough. But if we’re tired or stressed, our brains may find it easier to revert to the simpler, lower-energy established habit – how many of us have reached for the post-work glass of wine when we’re stressed, in spite of a resolution to avoid it?   Neuroscientists have now identified the clear difference in brain circuitry for a habitual behavior –  a coordinated firing of cells in the striatum region happens at the beginning and end of the habit behavior. It’s a hard-wiring that’s hard to form and difficult to break.

Short of artificially stimulating the appropriate brain regions to manipulate habits, what else can neuroscience can teach us about helping to make or break them?

  • Willpower is a muscle: its gets depleted but reserves are restored overnight, so mornings are a good time to alter habits
  • Context is critical – habit circuits are often triggered by contexts, so trying to change a habit is best done when the brain is in a new context (e.g. new routine, new job). Alternatively, try tethering the habit change to another activity (e.g. eat an apple with lunch)
  • Try disrupting any sensory signals associated with the established habit (e.g. change taste, colour, smell) – use different sensory stimulus to break the circuit
  • Give it time and patience – it can take time to make the switch; and even if there are slip-ups, they don’t reverse the brains’ practice with new behaviours – so keep going!

How can you put this learning into practice? Whether your product is attempting to replace an alternative habit, or create a new one, we believe it’s critical to do 3 things:

Identify the habit context: consumers probably won’t be able to articulate their current habits or project how they will behave with an alternative experience.  There is no substitute for in-depth research – getting into their world and identifying the cues, contexts, emotions and sensorial signals that may be triggering established habits and routines.  Our approaches use observation, deprivation and stimulation phases of research to unlock the subconscious drivers that challenge new habits.

Learn with them as the habit is formed:  we know that habit changing takes time.  It’s critical to learn with prototypes over a longer period of time as consumers go on the journey to new habits, so we can understand how the product design can be optimized to reinforce and encourage the habit.

Give them a goal:  when consumers first use your product, it might be through goal-directed behaviour until a habit is established.  By developing a strong Innovation story with the consumer as hero, they have a reason to try and persist with the new product – meanwhile the product experience will hopefully start to feel intuitive and instinctive and the attachment is formed.

If you want to talk to us more about how our approaches can help you develop products that consumer get attached to then we would love to talk more.

Suzanne Allers
Suzanne Allers
[email protected]

Suzanne loves to apply creative and analytical thinking to connect the worlds of the consumer and technology, leading to breakthrough product design and communication.

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