based on real experience working in China for 14 months.
Aza Raskin from the Centre for Humane Technology said social media
companies deliberately use addictive technology in their apps in order
to lure us in to spending as much time on their platforms as possible.
Our team – pretty good selfie skill
人文技术中心（Centre for Humane
A little background: I grew up in a 3rd tier city in China and came to
the US in 2006 for last two years of high school and college. I worked
in finance in NYC before moving to LA to join Whisper App in Dec 2013.
Over the last 10 years, I have lived between US and China and have
strived to add value to the Internet space & culture exchange between US
and China. Twitter/Instagram: @chenyuz
Aza Raskin invented the endless scroll – the app feature that means
you don’t have to click to get to the next page and can keep scrolling
for far longer than maybe necessary or healthy.
In July 2014, my colleague and I moved to China to set up Whisper’s
operations in Shenzhen. The subsequent 14 months were my first real
experience working in China, on a startup. I was fully immersed in
China’s booming tech scene. This humbling journey not only made me more
grounded and connected to my roots, but also taught me life-long
Below are 5 of my observations of China’s Internet sector
Aza says he did not intend to hook users with it but says the
business model of many social media companies is designed to maximise
user time online. He says this encourages designers to come up with
technological tricks that hook users.
How Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest Hook Users
1. China is far beyond copying the West. Great innovation is happening everywhere in China.
Copying a popular app directly to China does not work—only when a
validated need is combined with proper localization by the right team at
the right timing. In Chinese, we say 天时地利人和 .
- For example, Zhihu (30M registered users as of Aug 2015 and raised
series C funding from Tencent in Nov 2015) is a leading Q&A platform
with significant media distribution in China. At first glance, it
could be China’s version of Quora, but far beyond a copycat.
In my mind, it combines Pinterest-style lifestyle, fitness, inspiration
photos with Quora’s Q&A and knowledge sharing. Their motto
与世界分享你的知识、经验和见解, which translates to “Share with the
world your knowledge, experience and opinion.” Interestingly, the
founders are journalists turned entrepreneurs and their stand-alone app
Zhihu Daily is a leading media distribution platform in China. For tech
worker or lifestyle blogger, having your article selected by Zhihu Daily
is a great honor and adds credibility.
Screenshot from Zhihu’s Baidu page
Most of my Western friends know about major SNS such as Weibo, Wechat,
QQ, but for any real China insider, Zhihu is a blossoming platform that
people are rushing to build a presence on. It is similar to the trend I
observe that Instagram influencers now direct their fans to follow them
on Snapchat. The quality and $ value per Zhihu follower are way above
- With 600M MAU as of Aug 2015, WeChat is the Facebook of China. It is
no exaggeration to regard it as a swiss army knife. When you make
new acquaintance, the first thing to ask is not their phone number,
but scan each other’s WeChat QR code.
On WeChat, I order my Didi taxi, pay for grocery at 711, AA with friends
at a meal, top up my cellphone, pay for water & utility, order a ferry
ticket to Macau, you name it. In addition, I can order fresh produce,
snacks, fresh made yogurt from WeChat official accounts. Not to mention
that most of my news and media consumption are from WeChat moment.
Everything I need to make life convenient is all within WeChat.
WeChat’s product innovation and ultra user experience are worth an
article itself. I plan to write a post on WeChat vs QQ – their
differences, similarities and how they turned from competitive to
complementary over the last 2 years.
The tactics that the best digital brands use to stay relevant in users’
minds and lives.
2. In China, idea to market moves fast.
Entrepreneurship has been booming everywhere in China—the media buzz is
around people born after 90’s starting their own companies. One thing
for sure is that in China, things move fast – a combination of Chinese
diligence, hardworking and engineering skills.
There is a saying that the sun never sets in a Chinese startup.
Work-life balance is not a term often mentioned in China. What do I mean
by Chinese diligence? Here are examples from everyday life, I ordered a
Uber in Guangzhou and my driver was a 65 year old retired grandpa—he was
earning extra bucks during his down time from cooking at home. Another
Uber driver didn’t eat dinner at 10:20pm because he gets $500 bonus for
making 90 rides a week & he was half way through.
A validated idea from the US can get better execution & faster product
cycle in China. Dubsmash’s Chinese copycat 小咖秀 was far more polished
and well-executed not only as an product, but also on the marketing
front. The app is sleek and stayed on top of app store rankings all over
China with celebrities participating.
Chinese entrepreneurs follow trends and hot apps in the US for product
validation. Their phones are equipped with every single top app from the
US iTunes store. They may still have limited English communications
skills, but great product sense & engineering capabilities.
Sandy Parakilas, who was a platform operations manager at Facebook
in 2011 and 2012, said there was definitely an awareness that Facebook
was habit-forming when he worked at the company.
Type the name of almost any successful consumer web company into your
search bar and add the word “addict” after it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Try
“Facebook addict” or “Twitter addict” or even “Pinterest addict,” and
you’ll soon get a slew of results from hooked users and observers
deriding the narcotic-like properties of these sites. How is it that
these companies, producing little more than bits of code displayed on a
screen, can seemingly control users’ minds? Why are these sites so
addictive, and what does their power mean for the future of the web?
No. 3 Chinese companies are fierce and grow out of alkaline land.
Moreover, Chinese startups face extremely competitive landscape where
not only 20+ companies are building the Operator of China, but also
back-stabbing occurs among each other. Competitive apps report each
other and within some of the largest Internet giants, a few groups would
work on the same idea simultaneously and only one survives.
A Chinese internet executive once told me:
The Chinese companies that survive grow out of alkaline land, while
the US companies may be greenhouse grown.
In his opinion, Uber is the most fierce US company that resembles
We’re on the precipice of a new digital era. As infinite distractions
compete for our attention, companies are learning to master new tactics
to stay relevant in users’ minds and lives. Today, just amassing
millions of users is no longer good enough. Companies increasingly find
that their economic value is a function of the strength of the habits
they create. But as some companies are just waking up to this new
reality, others are already cashing in.
No. 4 Marketing an app in China and US shares some similar mechanism.
From my observation, when market an app in the US, Facebook Ads Platform
is an effective tool. Working with Youtube, Instagram, Vine etc
influencers can be another.
Similarly in China, Tencent Ad Platform is used and KOLs help market
products. But audience targeting does not work as well as the US
In my mind, China’s innovation occurs both in product and marketing. The
endless possibilities of promoting an app was truly eye-opening.
Marketing an app gets very creative and content driven. For example, 9
apps in the same category (say productivity or winter break) can bundle
together to work with 9-10 Weibo KOLs.
- the ad appears as useful content instead of an ad.
- cost-effective: 9 apps share the cost and can work with more
influencers at once.
One caveat is Android app market – a different game between US and
China. While there is one Google Play store for Android in the US, keep
in mind that 50+ Android app stores exist in China and each android
market comes with promotion strategies. For example, new app / version
launch on a particular market, entering a raffle as a reward for
downloading, or buying banner ad space in app store’s mobile app.
Facebook and Instagram have told the BBC that their apps are
designed to bring people together and that they never set out to create
No. 5 In China, celebrities are getting into startup space.
In China, increasingly celebrities promote new apps in exchange for an
equity. For example, a Chinese copy of Airbnb and a juice cleanse
company both have Angela Baby (one of the most popular celebrities) as
A company that forms strong user habits enjoys several benefits to its
bottom line. For one, it creates associations with “internal triggers”
in users’ minds. That is to say, users come to the site without any
external prompting. Instead of relying on expensive marketing or
worrying about differentiation, habit-forming companies get users to cue
themselves to action by attaching their services to the users’ daily
routines and emotions. A cemented habit is when users unconsciously
think, I’m bored, and Facebook instantly comes to mind. They think, I
wonder what’s going on in the world? and before rational thought kicks
in, Twitter is the answer. The first-to-mind solution wins.
Regarding my own startup experience:
Adam and I were given autonomy and resources to operate Whisper’s China
branch in Shenzhen:
We needed to figure out a lot of things—from setting up the legal
structure, finding the right place for office, furnishing the office to
create a start-up environment that resembles our HQ, to hiring a team
from 2 people to 35, figuring out how to market an app in Chinese ways
This experience allowed for accelerated learning and discovering my
potential in leading a team on the operations & marketing side. Working
and living in China were drastically different from the US:
- all my contacts are on WeChat and I became active on “China’s Quora”
Zhihu and Douban.
- No gmail or google calendar were used in local Chinese business, I
quickly adapted to exchange QQ numbers for work.
- WeChat Moment was our Faceboook Timeline.
- Productivity, analytics and team collaboration softwares don’t run
as smoothly:We tried hard to find the equivalents of Dropbox and
MixPanel in China, but they are just a bit less smooth and user
friendly. I came to appreciate the details that make Dropbox a great
product that just works.
- Harder to stay in touch with friends in US via SNS.
During my 14 months in China, given the physical distance, I first
attempted to stay in contact with US friends via Facebook Twitter,
Instagram, via VPN of course.
But every US service was slow—gmail, google cal were barely working. So
half way through, I decided to fully embrace what China has to offer and
disappeared from US Social networking sites.
Among many hard things I learned, the following 5 have stood out most :
- Focus on things that matter most.
- Be relentlessly resourceful.
- Work with the right people.
- Your greatest strength can also be your biggest weakness.
- Learn how to say No.
I wanted to share 2 stories:
1. Focus on things that matter most.
I tend to over-stretch myself and working on multiple tasks
simultaneously. Our daily to-do list was overwhelming, especially during
the first 3 months. I had been staying up till 2–3AM constantly with
high stress—I once wrote in my journal:
My to-do list at midnight is as long as it was this morning when I
In Oct 2014, our CEO Michael visited and suggested us to focus more on
building an A team fast. You may think – isn’t that every startup’s
priority? Then he said:
Hire an admin and recruiter soon.
Adam and I were doing (almost) everything ourselves and hiring an office
manager wasn’t on our priority list then. But it was that short
conversation that really opened up my mind. Once we had a super great
admin, Adam and I were able to focus on other matters more. Everyday, I
am striving to learn to prioritize and keeping this saying in mind.
But how do companies create a connection with the internal cues needed
to form habits? They manufacture desire. While fans of Mad Men are
familiar with how the ad industry once created consumer desire during
Madison Avenue’s golden era, those days are long gone. A multiscreen
world, with ad-wary consumers and a lack of ROI metrics, has rendered
Don Draper’s big-budget brainwashing useless to all but the biggest
brands. Instead, startups manufacture desire by guiding users through a
series of experiences designed to create habits. I call these
experiences Hooks, and the more often users run through them, the more
likely they are to self-trigger.
2. Be relentlessly resourceful.
I arrived at Shenzhen with few contacts but one of my highest priorities
was to recruit the best talent. I had to find innovative ways to reach
the talent—— I went on Dribbble to look through every China-based
designer portfolio, for the suitable ones, I guessed their WeChat and
Weibo ID based on their Dribbble ID ( Dribbble ID & WeChat ID are prob
equally important for a designer)After sending many requests, I made a
few designer friends.
Instagram was also my best friend in making contacts – I geo-explored
Tencent and other internet companies on Instagram & befriended a few
Things started to evolve as my story of leaving finance for a startup
with a series of acrylic portraits of entrepreneurs became a widely
distributed inspirational story across China. I had readers from every
corner of China, from tech workers to students. I spoke at 20+
universities and internet companies like Tencent (4 times), Alibaba,
Baidu, Meitu, Zhihu. By the time I relocated to LA, I felt comfortable
and plugged in working in China.
I wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products to help others
understand what is at the heart of habit-forming technology. The book
highlights common patterns I observed in my career in the video gaming
and online advertising industries. While my model is generic enough for
a broad explanation of habit formation, I’ll focus on applications in
consumer internet here.
This write-up was my 2015 Reflections and a mentor suggested me to share
with a wider audience. Stay tuned for more writings on China, the
Internet and Innovation, life and culture etc.
To me, 2015 was a year of connecting with amazing people, getting lost
in my own roots, wandering into new destinations, and rediscovering who
I am. I learned to work hard yet appreciate what life brings to us.
2015 made me a stronger, more appreciative and courageous person. I
lived and breathed in the “can do” mentality and learned to blend in
China’s ever-changing tech world.
instagram/ twitter: @chenyuz (if you want to continue to see
interesting shares about China)
From “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” by Nir Eyal
endless scroll 无限下拉滚动
The trigger is the actuator of a behavior — the spark plug in the Hook
model. Triggers come in two types: external and internal. Habit-forming
technologies start by alerting users with external triggers like an
email, a link on a website, 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. Soon users are internally triggered every time they feel a
certain way. The internal trigger becomes part of their routine
behavior, and the habit is formed.
business model 商业模式
For example, suppose Barbra, a young woman in Pennsylvania, happens to
see a photo in her Facebook newsfeed taken by a family member from a
rural part of the state. It’s a lovely photo, and since she’s planning a
trip there with her brother Johnny, the trigger intrigues her.
After the trigger comes the intended action. Here, companies leverage
two pulleys of human behavior: motivation and ability. To increase the
odds of a user taking the intended action, the behavior designer makes
the action as easy as possible, while simultaneously boosting the user’s
motivation. This phase of the Hook draws on the art and science of
usability design to ensure that the user acts the way the designer
Using the example of Barbra, with a click on the interesting picture in
her newsfeed, she’s taken to a website she’s never been to before called
Pinterest. Once she’s done the intended action (in this case, clicking
on the photo), she’s dazzled by what she sees next.
What separates Hooks from a plain vanilla feedback loop is their ability
to create wanting in the user. Feedback loops are all around us, but
predictable ones don’t create desire. The predictable response of your
fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep
opening it again and again. However, add some variability to the
mix — say, a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time
you open it — and voilà, intrigue is created. You’ll be opening that
door like a lab animal in a Skinner box.
Variable schedules of reward are one of the most powerful tools that
companies use to hook users. Research shows that levels of
dopamine — the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure
center — surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing
variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state,
activating the parts associated with wanting and desire. Although
classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards
are prevalent in habit-forming technologies as well.
When Barbra lands on Pinterest, not only does she see the image she
intended to find, but she’s also served a multitude of other glittering
objects. The images are associated with what she’s generally interested
in — namely, things to see during a trip to rural Pennsylvania — but
there are also some others that catch her eye. The exciting
juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain,
beautiful and common sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the
promise of reward. Now she’s spending more time on the site, hunting for
the next wonderful thing to find. Before she knows it, she’s spent 45
minutes scrolling in search of her next hit.
The last phase of the Hook is where the user is asked to do bit of work.
This phase has two goals as far as the behavior engineer is concerned.
The first is to increase the odds that the user will make another pass
through the Hook when presented with the next trigger. Second, now that
the user’s brain is swimming in dopamine from the anticipation of reward
in the previous phase, it’s time to pay some bills. The investment
generally comes in the form of asking the user to give some combination
of time, data, effort, social capital, or money.
But unlike a sales funnel, which has a set endpoint, the investment
phase isn’t about consumers opening up their wallets and moving on with
their day. The investment implies an action that improves the service
for the next go-around. Inviting friends, stating preferences, building
virtual assets, and learning to use new features are all commitments
that improve the service for the user. These investments can be
leveraged to make the trigger more engaging, the action easier, and the
reward more exciting with every pass through the Hook.
As Barbra enjoys endlessly scrolling the Pinterest cornucopia, she
builds a desire to keep the things that delight her. By collecting
items, she’ll be giving the site data about her preferences. Soon she
will follow, pin, re-pin, and make other investments, which serve to
increase her ties to the site and prime her for future loops through the
A reader recently wrote to me, “If it can’t be used for evil, it’s not a
superpower.” He’s right. And under this definition, habit design is
indeed a super power. If used for good, habits can enhance people’s
lives with entertaining, and even healthful, routines. If used to
exploit, habits can turn into wasteful addictions.
But, like it or not, habit-forming technology is already here. The fact
that we have greater access to the web through our various devices also
gives companies greater access to us. As companies combine this greater
access with the ability to collect and process our data at higher speeds
than ever before, we’re faced with a future where everything becomes
more addictive. This trinity of access, data, and speed creates new
opportunities for habit-forming technologies to hook users. Companies
need to know how to harness the power of Hooks to improve people’s
lives, while consumers need to understand the mechanics of behavior
engineering to protect themselves from unwanted manipulation.
The degree to which a company can utilize habit-forming technologies
will increasingly decide which products and services succeed or fail.
Habit-forming technology creates associations with “internal triggers,”
which cue users without the need for marketing, messaging, or other
Creating associations with internal triggers comes from building the
four components of a Hook — a trigger, action, variable reward, and
Consumers must understand how habit-forming technology works to prevent
unwanted manipulation while still enjoying the benefits of these
Companies must understand the mechanics of habit formation to increase
engagement with their products and services and ultimately help users
create beneficial routines.
Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
and blogs about the psychology of products at NirAndFar.com. For more
insights on using psychology to change behavior, join his newsletter and
receive a free workbook.
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