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Nir Eyal came to lead a workshop at the Microsoft R&D Center in Hertzliya this month. Sponsored by UpWestLabs in Silicon Valley where he himself is based, the workshop was called, “Hooked! How to Drive Engagement by Creating User Habits.” Nir Eyal is a mentor and writer known for his ideas on the place where technology, business and human psychology meet. He writes about them on his personal blog, and for magazines like Forbes and Psychology Today, drawing as well from his own experience as a two-time entrepreneur.

Before getting started, Eyal surveyed his audience to see how many were actually working on startups. By the show of hands, more than half the room was which was hardly a surprise. Israel is a well-known hotbed of innovation, attracting more venture capital per person than any other country – 2.5 times more than the U.S. and 300 times China (!). On any given week in Tel Aviv, one can find multiple Meetups and industry events geared towards aspiring entrepreneurs and showcasing people with advice that can help them. Like Eyal.

As if his personal cachet wasn’t enough to lure entrepreneurs in, Eyal’s workshop title held the promise of cracking the secret code to success. The room was packed and both of Eyal’s workshops – he had given one at the Google Campus in Tel Aviv the day before – were sold out. What entrepreneur doesn’t care about user engagement? Who doesn’t want their users to become “hooked”??

The 4-½ hour workshop was a combination of straight-up lecture and various exercises. Everyone partnered up so they could help each other through some of the questions Eyal posed to arrive at key insights about their respective business.

Here are some of the key takeaways we walked away with:

Find “The Hook”

Engagement depends on cultivating habits by repeatedly connecting the solution with the problem until it becomes indispensible. As Eyal put it, if your solution isn’t a painkiller that solves an immediate problem or “pain” then it’s a vitamin. Being a vitamin isn’t a bad thing so long as you can find “the hook” – or itch – that will help make it habit-forming. Consider Facebook. It wasn’t until Facebook that posting and checking status updates on the Internet became so reflexive, users began to believe it was the best way to stay in touch with their friends. Unlike painkillers, vitamins require finding – then exacerbating – an itch to make sure users need to scratch it again and again. Indeed, frequent use is key to turning a product into a habit. But take note: this sort of thing can take time. “A habit isn’t created, it is built upon,” said Eyal, “Like a pearl.”

Get those internal triggers right

Internal triggers are the emotional markers that pinpoint why your product will resonate with customers. Picking the right ones requires knowing your users well enough to know what pain you are solving for them. While external triggers – i.e. paid or earned media – prompt action (like traffic to your site), they only work if the right internal triggers are in place. To illustrate his point Eyal cited the “famous” Betty Crocker mistake as an example. Thinking their instant cake recipe would be a hit because it was fast, Betty Crocker missed the mark on how to sell it to customers. To fix their approach they had to learn an important lesson about their customers: for them, making a cake was as much about pride and love as convenience or speed. This key insight into customers’ internal triggers about cake enabled Betty Crocker to redirect its approach to more effectively explain how their instant cake could help.

Focus on ability first

Once the hook and right internal triggers are in place, ability will be what ultimately moves users to action. By this Eyal was referring to the importance of making it REALLY EASY for users to actually do whatever it is you want them to do: sign up, log in, share, etc. For Google, the design and layout of their homepage is centered on driving the desired action of getting users to search. Twitter is another good example, with a homepage that became increasingly simplified – even spare – as people got to know the brand. If people can’t act quickly and easily, motivating them will only go so far said Eyal. This is why startups need to focus on ability first – and simplifying their message as much as possible to drive the desired behavior.

In a country prone to invention and innovation, Eyal’s lecture was an important reminder that success is not just about having a brilliant product – but also about who you hope to find on the receiving end. If you’re not thinking about how you’re going to get them “hooked” on the road to launch and beyond, there may just be a Betty Crocker mistake in the future!

If you missed Eyal’s workshop you can get the slides here. If you attended and had some takeaways of your own we’d love to hear them in the comments below.