How to Build a Habit-Forming Product Ethically: The Drug Dealer Test!

As a member of a newly born start-up, there is one dilemma that strikes me the most. Heading toward an era in which screens are anywhere. Our attention gets drawn in several directions. Although I used to believe I was the owner of my consciousness which I could deliberately drive. I realized how flawed my thinking was.

Indeed, as I dive into the startup world, I find out about a staggering truth. It isn’t a fight about power, prestige or money. Instead, another currency that, as we progress, becomes more and more scarce is at the center of this battle. It is all about people’s attention. That attention gets triggered and channeled by a set of hooks, that make the users wanting more. In this fight over people’s attention. The boundary between product development and people’s manipulation is thin. Thus, my dilemma is how to make sure we’re building a product that is ethical? Before finding the answer let me give you a quick introduction to the Hook Model.

The Hook Model


Instead of relying on expensive marketing, habit-forming companies link their services to the users’ daily routines and emotions. Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

habit-forming companies link their services to the users’ daily routines and emotions. ― Nir Eyal,… Click To Tweet

For anyone running a startup, the Hook Model is one of those frameworks you must keep on top of your mind. A four-step framework, from the trigger to investment and back to trigger. The user builds an habit that makes her wanting more and more of that product.

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A trigger is “the spark plug in the Hook Model.” Usually, an external trigger (e.g., a push notification from your phone) connects with an internal trigger (boredom) to bridge the gap between the user and the product. Once triggered into the model the user is incentivized to act (open your phone when seeing the push notification from Facebook). The core to make a product habit-forming is its variable reward. In short, our brain expects a reward, and it prepares for it. Yet after meeting the expected reward if the user finds an additional unexpected reward it gets almost hooked. Before the user leaves though it is time to ask for an investment regarding time, data, effort, social capital or money.

Big companies all over the world; from Facebook to LinkedIn, hooked us and we can’t live without their services. Therefore the model is so powerful that it brings up a few questions on what is the proper way of using it. Indeed, with such a robust framework how do we make sure to use it for good?

A Whole New Science About Emotional Intelligence and Why Emotions Are Made, Not Triggered

Ethics: A Problem as Old as Humankind

Bad people…are in conflict with themselves; they desire one thing and will another, like the incontinent who choose harmful pleasures instead of what they themselves believe to be good. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Ethics is not an easy issue. Deriving from the Greek ἦθος, meaning habit, custom. Ethics is an attempt to discern between good and evil, right or wrong. In other words, to define what are the absolute human values that should be part of anyone’s life. Per se, this approach is utopian and doomed to failure. In fact, things are often shaded. They’re neither right or wrong on their own. Rather, based on context, perspective, and cultural norms most of the human behaviors are goal-driven.

Also, ethics is the byproduct of human cultural evolution. What was right in the past it is considered as unjust nowadays. We have reasons to believe that what we deem right today will be regarded as wrong tomorrow. How do we solve this impasse? Rather than focusing on theoretical differences and definitions, we could use a much simpler approach.

For instance, in the startup world, we could define ethics as a process. That process leverages on unconscious clues and hooks. But it also should bring towards conscious behaviors. The final aim is to improve the user mental well-being. In short, those manipulations should be ethical. In this respect, Nir Eyal proposes an interesting framework.

Ethical Manipulation: The Drug Dealer Test


As Nir Eyal explains the first rule of drug dealing is “never get high on your own supply.” If you want to build an ethical product you have to break this rule! 

Indeed, the Manipulation Matrix is a two questions quadrant to assess whether the product you’re building is ethnically manipulative. The first question “Do you believe that the product or service you’re working on is materially improving people’s lives?” The answer is either Yes or No. Yes classifies you as a peddler. No, classifies you as a dealer. The second question “am I the user?” Yes puts you in the facilitator quadrant. No makes you as the entertainer. According to Nir Eyal, the companies that are successful at building ethical habit-forming product are those which founders turned out to be also facilitators. From Google to Facebook, Slack or Whatsapp. Are you a dealer or a facilitator?

Suggested Reading:

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products 

Published by

Gennaro Cuofano

Gennaro Cuofano, International MBA. Creator of The Four-Week MBA Community and Content Marketer/Business Developer at WordLift