Nir Eyal on Bots, VR, and Facebook’s Next Big Move | Next Big Idea Club
Magazine / Nir Eyal on Bots, VR, and Facebook’s Next Big Move

Nir Eyal on Bots, VR, and Facebook’s Next Big Move

Habits & Productivity Technology
Nir Eyal on Bots, VR, and Facebook’s Next Big Move

Gabe Stein, Heleo’s head of product and audience development, sat down with Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products, to discuss the future of virtual reality, the surprising value of bots, and why we’re all so addicted to Slack.

Gabe Stein: Facebook just announced a whole bunch of new things that seem likely to have big implication on our lives. They’re making a big bet with virtual reality, and yet it seems like virtual reality is really silly right now. The products are hard to use, it looks silly when you’re wearing them, but Facebook is betting big. Do you think that virtual reality and augmented reality can take off, and what are those products going to look like once they realize their full potential?

Nir Eyal: We’re just at the nascent stage of what this whole technology around virtual reality and augmented reality is going to become. I’ve been playing around with these technologies, and we’re going to see a lot of amazing things happen. There’s some industries that it’s very clear it’s going to impact. When it comes to in-home entertainment, no doubt about it, gaming and movies are going to dramatically change in the years to come. Business applications, other applications, who knows?

From a habit-forming perspective, when we think about how you change consumer habits, anytime there’s a changed interface, if you can dramatically alter the way that people interact with each other through technology, that’s a bonanza. The deck is reshuffled whenever there’s an interface change. The interface has shifted from desktop to laptop to mobile to wearable and now to these headworn devices… and the sky’s the limit. There’ll be new players, there’ll be new winners and losers, and a lot of opportunity created.

Gabe: Have any of the technologies you’ve played around with point to the future of what those interfaces might become?

Nir: Like other technologies before it, every nascent technology first starts with entertainment, starts with porn, those two industries. Then, once a lot of the kinks get worked out through that first iteration, that’s when these technologies diffuse to other applications that currently we can’t even imagine. 

Gabe: Another Facebook product that everyone’s talking about is live video. Facebook just announced that their API’s out to enable multi-camera setups, and Buzzfeed had that watermelon exploding experience. What are your thoughts, having played around with live video?

Nir: Live video’s a tricky one. I was a huge advocate of Meerkat and Periscope for their attempts at live video, and Facebook has seen the success of those platforms. Then again, they kind of came and went a little bit, and Facebook probably started this effort in earnest thinking that this was going to be big.  I do think that live video is going to be big to some degree, but there are also real challenges with live video that don’t get enough attention. For the vast majority of people, to create compelling live video is really hard.

What’s interesting is Snapchat. Snapchat, as a video creation platform, doesn’t seem to be live, and yet has this really interesting element with their creation tool: I can stop and start my snaps with these little video snippets, and it’s a really interesting way to create content, because it solves this problem of, “What am I going to say?” If I do live video and I just start babbling on, eventually I’m going to run out of what to talk about and it’s going to need to be edited. With Snapchat, I can just start and stop and start and stop, and create these short videos that are pretty high impact. I wish that was a feature of Facebook Live, that you could stop when you screwed up, start again, that would be really nice. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s coming soon.

Gabe: Another big effort from Facebook and something you’ve written about is bots. They just released API access for bots in Facebook Messenger. Lots of other companies are doing this. Slack, Telegram, et cetera. Why do you find these so interesting? What makes them better than app interfaces?

One of the new bots on Facebook messenger

Nir: I love the bot interface. There’s a difference between the general chat interface, which is what I’m really excited about, and the different flavors within that. Not every bot is a chat interface, not every chat interface is a bot, but I think this general communication platform of interacting with a technology, or with a human mediated by technology through this stream, is a really, really big deal. It’s going to affect all sorts of industries that don’t know it’s coming. We’ll see a lot of winners and losers in the next few years as some companies use this chat interface to do things that were previously very complicated.

“Nobody really knew why we were liking all these pages, and why companies were spending billions of dollars getting you to like their pages. This is how it pays off, because now it becomes a communication channel for you to interact with all these companies.”

When we look at it from a cognitive standpoint, anytime you can radically simplify the interface, anytime you can make a difficult behavior all of a sudden very easy to do, look out. That’s exactly what we’re seeing now with bots. It reminds me of when Apple came out with their iPad. That was the first computer that my mom ever used. She wouldn’t get on a laptop. It was too complicated. Too many buttons. Too many things could go wrong. But this iPad was very simple, with little apps she could use. That radical simplification meant now she could use this technology. It didn’t do everything that the last technology did, that’s kind of the definition of disruptive technology. It caters to people who weren’t using that technology.

I think we’re going to see the same thing with this chat interface. It doesn’t matter how tech-savvy you are. Even if you just started using personal technology, everybody knows this chat interface. Anything you need to do that you would otherwise pick up the phone or navigate some kind of complicated dashboard would be better done through a conversational interface. And if Mark Zuckerberg can get you to think, instead of calling a service provider, I’m just going to chat with the company on Messenger, then Facebook wins. Nobody really knew why we were liking all these pages, and why companies were spending billions of dollars getting you to like their pages. This is how it pays off, because now it becomes a communication channel for you to interact with all these companies.

Gabe: As a product developer in one of these industries that could be disrupted by bots, where should I be thinking about assistance as an interface?

Nir: Any company that has an overly complex interface. If you have a dashboard, it’s time to kill that dashboard. Most people have dashboard fatigue, especially in enterprise. I get a lot of questions about, hey, my product’s a B-to-B product. How can I use consumer psychology, how can I use the hook model? Radical simplification. Instead of a dashboard, where we expect the user to, one, learn our dashboard, and two, make sense of all these numbers, instead, how much easier would it be if at 9am in the morning you get a text from a bot that says, “Hey, we have an idea for an experiment we’d like to run. Would you like Experiment A or B?” Great! A. Run it.
The experiment is run, we see we can optimize your website, we can optimize your marketing plan here, and here are the results. Would you like us to implement that sitewide? Yes or no?

All that heavy lifting should be done by either a highly trained person who really understands the interface or a bot that can do it programmatically. Either way, it shouldn’t be placed on the user. This stuff could be easily done through a conversation as opposed to expecting me to navigate some complicated interface.

“It’s not the Facebooks and Twitters that we should be worried about. The real problem is that far too many technologies are not engaging enough.”

Gabe: Moving on to a totally different topic: your Habit Summit. I noticed that your speaker list had an even number of men and women, which is wonderful, and I wanted to know if that was intentional, and if so, how you went about achieving that? Do you have any tips for other organizers who are worried about diversity, and really want to have more diverse conferences?

Nir: The Habit Summit was the first conference to take the 50/50 pledge. The 50/50 pledge is an initiative run by my friend Sandi MacPherson. She runs a company called Quibb. Sandi came up with the idea that if we got conference organizers to take a pledge to have gender equality onstage, it would make a big difference in our industry. As soon as she told me about it, I said, “I’m in.” I have a seven year-old daughter. I really care about what kind of world her generation is going to inherit, and the conference industry, particularly in tech, is male-dominated, and it continues to feed on itself.

The only way to change that is to start infusing new blood onto the conference stage. There’s no reason we can’t have gender parity. It just requires a little bit more effort, looking for people who haven’t been on stage before, but who have some amazing insights to share. This year, we achieved gender parity, and we’ll continue to do that for conferences to come.

Gabe: Can you share with us any particular surprising or thought-provoking ideas that came out of the conference?

Nir: When people think about habit-forming technologies, they often think about Facebook and Snapchat and these other products that might be considered entertaining or even frivolous. But the real problem when it comes to technology today is not that a few products are super habit-forming. It’s not the Facebooks and Twitters that we should be worried about. The real problem is that far too many technologies are not engaging enough.

There are so many products and services out there that want to help people do things they want to do, to make their lives better, but for lack of good design, don’t. That’s the real missed opportunity. There are ways to really change people’s lives for the better. Companies like 7 Cups, like PantryLabs, the list goes on and on, of companies that can help people live better lives by understanding consumer psychology, by understanding how we form these habits online, and then designing their products or services to be more engaging. That’s what I was really excited about.

Gabe: What’s one of those examples? Can you share with us of one of those companies that’s doing that really well?

Nir: There’s a company I invested in called 7Cups, founded by Glen Moriarty, who’s a therapist. Glen noticed that therapy’s too hard. If you are suffering, if you are the parent of a child with a disability, if you are a veteran with PTSD, to get help, to get the kind of therapy you need, it’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, there’s social stigma, it’s hard to get therapy. So Glen designed this app that with one push of a button, for free, anyone can connect to a trained listener [not a therapist] immediately. Glen told me about this idea years ago. 7Cups then went on to be a Y Combinator company, and now that company’s doing really well.

I immediately loved it. I just thought it was a great idea, because it uses these hooks. The same psychology that keeps us checking Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp, the same exact psychological processes are in 7Cups. What’s amazing about it is when people form this habit of connecting with someone else to talk to, they also have the opportunity to invest in becoming a listener themselves. They get better. The people who have followers, who have other folks who depend on them for therapy, they get dramatically better. It’s a great example of an app that’s really changing people’s lives. They do 180,000 sessions per week with this app

Gabe: I saw you had someone from Slack speak at the summit. We’re big fans of Slack here at Heleo. There’s been a little bit of Slack backlash recently. People are claiming that it’s worse than email in terms of being distracting. What are your thoughts about Slack as a product? Is it too distracting? Is it a good product?

Nir: We had Merci Victoria Grace speak at the Habit Summit, and she heads growth at Slack. I think the reaction to Slack is natural. All products, if they’re lucky enough to survive getting over the chasm of early adoption to become a mainstream product, face this challenge of “How do we continue to improve this product?”  This objection-raising of “Slack is great, but here’s what it doesn’t do so well for me” means that there are more opportunities, and I think that’s what Slack’s working very hard on. It’s a great technology for what it does, but like most nascent technologies, there are problems. Lots of technologies have problems when they first come out. So they continue to iterate and make it better.

With many of these technologies that we use in the workplace, we blame the technologies for being distracting, but really it’s that we’re addicted to work. If we want to stop technology from infiltrating our lives and us feeling overwhelmed and overworked, we have to talk about the culture of the workplace. What are the boundaries that we have around, hey, when should we shut off? It’s not just technology’s responsibility. It’s also the corporate culture that needs to change.

Gabe: I wake up really early, I’m on email right away, and then I’m on email late at night when I go to bed. Is that healthy? How should we improve that?

Nir: The unfortunate answer is, we don’t know. I wish I could give a prescriptive, “Oh yes, this is how everyone should live their lives.” I don’t think there is such an answer. I think the answer is, we should be mindful of when we are mindless. It’s okay to be immersed in experienced. The fact that a product is so good that we can use it out of habit, that we use it and it feels effortless, that’s not a problem. Would we want it any other way? Would we want products that are really hard to use and that we don’t want to use? No, of course not. We want these products to be so good that we want to use them. That’s progress.

The downside is that sometimes we can get sucked in. We use them all the time. It’s important to ask ourselves, is this product, is this technology serving me? Or am I serving it? The more we can do that, the more we can figure out how to put technology in its place. For some people, at some times of their life, it’s great: think of how an artist gets immersed in their painting, or an author gets totally immersed in their writing. That’s the state of flow that Csikszentmihalyi talks about, this important state of flow.

“It’s important to ask ourselves, is this product, is this technology serving me? Or am I serving it? The more we can do that, the more we can figure out how to put technology in its place.”

What I worry about is when it’s not creation, it’s more consumption, and we just consume and consume and consume mindlessly, then we wake up and say, “Hey, what just happened? How did I just waste an hour of my life?” It’s also nothing new. Socrates and Aristotle debated the nature of akrasia, this condition where we do things against our better interest. I know lots of people who watch hours and hours of sports. That’s not necessarily a productive behavior. Or hours and hours of TV. Those also fall into the bucket of behaviors that we should assess, “Is this really serving me? Or am I serving the technology?”

Gabe: Do product designers have a responsibility to think about that as they’re designing and developing their products? Or is it something that can only be addressed at the societal and normative level?

Nir: When it comes to bad habits, that’s the individual’s responsibility. It’s the designer’s responsibility to make products as easy and effortless and as fun as possible to use. It’s up to the individual to notice they’re overusing it and to say, Maybe I shouldn’t have this app on my phone right now. Or, I need to remove the triggers that are constantly asking me to come back. I need to take steps to put it in its place, just like we would television, just like we would chocolate cake. Lots of things in the world are great, but we have to use them in moderation.

Where the tech maker does have a special responsibility is when there’s an addict involved. An addiction is very different from a habit. A habit is a behavior done with little or no conscious thought. We have good habits, we have bad habits, my book is all about habits. My book is not about addiction. Addiction is this persistent compulsive dependency on a behavior or substance that hurts the user. This is something we want to stop doing, but can’t. Addiction has been around a very, very long time, and addiction is nothing new. The difference, and where I think there’s an opportunity here, is that for the first time, these companies that are making potentially addictive products know who the addicts are.

If you’re an alcohol distiller, you kind of have the moral cover to say, “We don’t know who the alcoholics are. How would we know who’s abusing our product?” But these tech companies, the ones that are making Candy Crush and Angry Birds and Clash of Clans and Facebook and Twitter and all these … They know, on a per user level, who’s using and how much. I’ve been writing now for years about how I want companies to implement a use and abuse policy. That if they know that a user is overusing a product to an unhealthy extent and want help, they have a moral responsibility to do something about it.

Gabe: With Slack and all of these products allowing us to do work from different places, do you think it’s going to become possible for us not to have offices or for offices to look radically different? Or is there always going to be a place for the office as we know it today? In general, what do you think work is going to look like in the future?

Nir: It’s important to remember that everything is a tool when it comes to the way we work, how we work, how we live our lives. These are just habits that have been adopted. Even the idea of an office is a technology, in a way. It’s a relatively new development. We weren’t sitting in offices 10,000 years ago. That technology, that organizational habit, can change. What we’re seeing is that there are some roles, some jobs, that are best done in offices. Then there are others where a distributed workforce is great. It’s amazing that we live in an age where that’s now a choice. It used to be, everybody had to come and sit at their desk from 9-to-5, and that’s just where work was done. For some people, that’s still the best way to work. For other careers, though, people can now work from anywhere and whenever they want. It creates more opportunity, more flexibility, and I think more potential human happiness.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

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