Self-Concept Inception to Habit-Forming User Adoption

How do companies like Evernote, who have reached cult status in places like Tokyo with over 30+ japanese books written about them, create such active and addicted users? They implant the idea of “I remember everything, via Evernote” into each of their users’ self-concepts without the users ever noticing (a.k.a., inception).

So how did Evernote plant this idea in each of its users? By using something called the IDEA process. But before I start explaining how you can use the same process as Evernote to utilize and change someone’s self-concept, let’s go over what a self-concept is.

What is it?

So what is your self-concept? To put it simply, it’s how you perceive yourself and your abilities. It’s the ideas you have about yourself. If I were to ask you to create a bullet list describing who you are, it might have ideas like:

  1. I am a programmer
  2. I am a problem solver
  3. I am good looking
  4. I am fit
  5. etc…

All of these ideas make up your self-concept. They define who you think you are.

How to use it & Why?

Each idea in a person’s self-concept has behaviors which define it. A programmer codes, a problem solver breaks down problems into smaller pieces and solves them, and fit people work out regularly and eat healthy.

But something magical happens when a company’s product attaches itself to the behaviors that define these ideas: Our brains attribute that idea with the product! When there’s an association between a product and the actions defining an idea, the brain recognizes a pattern and connects the dots between product and idea.

You can see this effect everywhere. Ever see those billboards with beautiful women advertising beauty products? Advertisers associate the idea of “I am beautiful” with using their product. Or what about that good ol’ “lucky rabbit’s foot”? By constantly being associated with behaviors defining a certain idea (e.g., being smart), you start to rely on the “lucky rabbit’s foot” to give a desired outcome (e.g., getting a good grade on a test).

The IDEA Process

So how can you, like Evernote, associate your product with an idea in someone’s self-concept? Here’s the 4-step IDEA process.

The IDEA Process Diagram

Step 1: Idea

The first step is to decide on an idea you’d like to associate with and implant in your users’ self-concept. How? First, decide what habits and behaviors you can and would like to build in your users. Then search for an idea encapsulating those habits and behaviors. In Evernote’s case, they wanted to have their users keep track of everything (e.g., music, pictures, notes) and store it in Evernote. The best idea encapsulating these behaviors is “Remember Everything.”

Step 2. Desire

The second step is to create a want and desire in the user to add this idea to their self-concept; Show the meaning of the idea to the user. If they don’t see any value or meaning in the idea, it will be impossible to add it to their self-concept. It’s the whole reason sayings like “to change, you have to want it” exist.

Step 3. Execute

This is the single most important step in the IDEA process. Why? Because this is where the adhesive is applied between your product and the idea in the user’s self-concept. These are the 2 things you need to do in this step:

A. Create an action feedback loop. Give the user feedback alongside their actions showing the association between using your product and the ideas that define the idea. For example, seeing you got a great grade on a test by using your “lucky rabbits foot,” or someone telling you that you look beautiful after putting on new lipstick.

B. Create habits. The faster and more often you can get your users to go through the action feedback loop, the faster their brain will see a connection between your product and the idea.

Step 4. Attribute

At this point, the user has both successfully had your idea implanted into their self-concept and attributed that idea with your product. After this, the user needs constant upkeep in order to further ingrain the idea into their self-concept (i.e., an infinite loop between step 3 and step 4 as seen in the diagram above).

IDEA In Use—Evernote Case Study



Evernote is a simple way to capture all of your experiences; Be it a photo, a web page snippet or an audio clip, Evernote helps you remember everything.

Step 1. Idea: The idea Evernote instills in its users’ self-concept is, “I can remember everything.” From the very first time you learn about Evernote, to the slogan on their homepage, this idea is very apparent. The entire company is so focused around this one point that their logo is an elephant—the iconic form of remembering everything.

Step 2. Desire: The idea of remembering everything means different things to different people. To some it may involve the ability to recall something very fast, while to others it may be as simple as never forgetting someone’s name and face.

Individual “mini-apps” (e.g., Hello and Peek), along with videos showing how some of Evernote’s users use it to remember everything, shows two things. First, Evernote understands that remembering everything takes on a different meaning from user to user. Secondly, Evernote wanted to create a closer connection between “Remember Everything” and Evernote. What would really take it away, though, would be to see something like a slider on the homepage with quotes or videos about what “Remember Everything” means to Evernote’s customers.

Step 3. Execute: The behaviors which define “Remember Everything” are made as simple and easy as possible in Evernote. In fact, some of the most common behaviors have been made into apps themselves, enabling Evernote to give a more tailored user experience (e.g., remembering someone’s face and the app Evernote Hello). As for feedback showing the user that they do remember everything… Evernote does its best, but it really does take a year to show somebody they remember something from a year ago. In fact, this is why their famous smile graph exists.

Step 4. Attribute: After consistent use and feedback, Evernote becomes heavily associated with the idea of “Remember Everything,” which has been inserted in the user’s self-concept. Users just can’t stop using it since they now rely on it to “Remember Everything.” Thus, the users begin merging Evernote further into their everyday lives.

Future Case Study—How Starbucks can add real meaning to Valentine’s Day 2013

What started as a small gesture of holiday cheer [on a] Wednesday, in 24 hours, grew to involve about 500 coffee drinkers in a chain of giving in Marysville. At about 8 a.m., a woman purchasing a drink at a Starbucks drive-through … offered to buy the drinks for the customers in line behind her. She told the employee who was working the window to wish the folks happy holidays, and she drove away. Those customers were so touched that they paid for the order of the folks behind them.

Countless gingerbread lattes and peppermint mochas later, the spirit of reciprocity carried on. [24 hours later], the line of giving had grown to involve 490 customers picking up tabs for those next in line at the store’s drive-through and lobby. … “Each time people were just so excited,” said store’s assistant manager Michele Case. It shows that a small gesture can have a big impact. (Siderius, The Seattle Times)


How could Starbucks, America’s largest coffee retailer, Institutionalize this idea of “paying it forward” in all of its drinkers? Let’s step through the IDEA process:

Step 1. Idea: The idea Starbucks would be adding to their drinkers’ self-concepts is “I am a giver.” The behavior defining this would be anonymously paying for the drinker(s) behind you, or if you were the recipient, paying it forward.

Step 2. Desire: Starbucks could have the campaign run around Valentine’s Day which already elicits feelings of love and giving. Making it much easier to create a desire to give. The only research Starbucks would have to do here, is to discover what giving means to its different drinkers and to build an ad campaign around it, demonstrating the relationship between drinking Starbucks and feeling like “I am a giver.”

Step 3. Execute: Most of the ways Starbucks could get drinkers to give are purely psychological. For example, since all giving would be anonymous, whenever someone finds out their order has already been paid for, they won’t have anyone to thank. So what tends to happen? They pay it forward and join in.

As for feedback, Starbucks would be able to give both internal and external feedback. Internally, giving feels good. It activates the same pleasure centers as eating good food or having sex. Externally, each person who pays for someone behind them could be given a card with a code on it. Whenever someone is a recipient of the donor’s gift, they would be asked if they would allow a photo to be taken of them. Now, whenever the donor enters the code they received into Starbucks website, they will see all the anonymous faces of the people they paid for.

Step 4. Attribute: By creating a very responsive action feedback loop, drinkers will attribute the idea, “I am giver,” to getting a drink at Starbucks. Thus, creating a brand association between Starbucks and giving.


  1. By associating your product with an idea in someone’s self-concept, your product becomes an experience and users will start to rely on your product to satisfy the behaviors that define said idea.
  2. Adding an idea to someone’s self-concept can be done by following the IDEA process (Idea, Desire, Execute and Attribute).

The Power Of Keystone Habits

A lot of times people wonder what makes applications like twitter and games like Portal so addictive. How do they hook users from the get go? Because applications like twitter and games like Portal use a technique that makes it easier to build and change several habits/behaviors at once: finding a keystone habit.

Falling Jenga Tower

So what exactly are keystone habits and how are they different from regular habits? An easy way to think of the difference between regular habits and keystone habits is with the classic game of Jenga. Regular habits and behaviors act like the pieces on the very top of the Jenga tower. Pull one out and there is little to no effect on the other pieces. Keystone habits on the other hand are the pieces that form the foundation of the Jenga tower. Once you successfully pull one out from the foundation, the entire tower falls down!

Now this sounds fantastic and you may be asking yourself: “Why not always target keystone habits?” Well just like anything, there are pros and cons:

Meet the Pros:

  1. Since habits tend to build on top of one another, when you are trying to change or engineer several different habits and behaviors you may find they have a common keystone habit. By targeting this keystone habit you will in effect be killing two birds with one stone.
  2. Keystone habits are the foundation of a Jenga tower. As more and more pieces (i.e., habits and behaviors) are built on top of the foundation, it becomes increasingly difficult to remove part of the foundation. Thus, increasing the longevity of your engineered habits/behaviors.

Meet the Cons:

  1. Since you are not targeting the desired habit or behavior directly, you have to wait for the keystone habit’s effect to “bubble up.” Or in terms of Jenga, instead of immediately pulling out a single piece, you have to wait for the tower to fall down.
  2. Because many habits share the same keystone habit, it can at times be very difficult to change them—imagine trying to swap out one of the pieces at the bottom of the Jenga tower without it falling down.

How are they in use?

So now that you know what keystone habits are, why they can be so powerful and the risks in using them, let’s take a look at how other games and applications have put this technique to work.

Portal 2

Like its name, Portal is a game about using portals to solve extravagant and life threatening puzzles. But what made Portal so much fun? Why was it so hard to put down after you started playing it? What made it more addictive than all the other puzzle games out there? One of the biggest reasons for this is because Portal makes you feel like adventuring and “testing”. Give anyone the keyboard or controller for a couple minutes and I guarantee you they will start testing absolutely random things.

Now why does Portal make me feel like adventuring and testing? Because Portal discovered the keystone habit to making you feel like an adventurer. And since the very beginning of the game, started building its keystone habit: don’t be afraid to jump, you can always get back to where you were. So how did they install this habit into you?

  1. Because many gamers have become familiar with the affordance of long fall = fast death, it was necessary to force the player to take the first step… or should i say jump. Because of this, one of the very first things Portal has you do, is you guessed it, fall down a large hole. Plus, to reassure the player everything will be fine, Wheatley (your companion) keeps saying things like “you’re a good jumper” or “go ahead and jump, you’ve got braces on your legs so you’re all set.”
  2. Levels are brilliantly designed to make you fall large distances. By repeatedly showing the player that 1. they lived and 2. how easy it is to get back to where they were, the player begins to feel more and more comfortable leaving the beaten path and testing things.

Because of this, the player is instilled with the feeling of being an adventurer, test subject and jumper.


With 140 Million active users sending a total of 340 million tweets everyday, you can definitely say twitter has hooked its users. How did they get so many users hooked? They found their keystone behavior: following 5 or more active twitterers. After discovering this, twitter remade its entire signup process to make sure each user achieved this. Here’s how their process works, circa September 2012.

  1. After creating an account, the first thing a new user is shown is a little tutorial on how twitter works, what their timeline is, etc. But what is the first step they almost force the user to take? That’s right, following 5 highly active twitterers.
  2. After this, they then ask you to follow people in certain areas you find interesting (Music, Technology, etc…).
  3. Lastly, you are asked to follow people you know via email and upload an avatar.

It is at this point that the genius can be seen. The user is immediately shown content they find interesting. Their timeline is filled with tweets from coworkers, friends, their favorite sites and celebrities. This user is no longer a “user,” they feel like a fully fledged twitterer.

Finding your keystone habit

Debatably the toughest part of using the technique that is keystone habits, is simply finding what habit IS a keystone habit. But here are some tips on finding yours:

  1. Mine data, data, data and more data. Oh, did i mention mining data? If you have a game or application that already has a good amount of hooked users, start looking for patterns and activities that took place between the time when they were just ordinary users and when they became hooked. After enough data analysis you’ll start to find similar patterns in what triggered their addiction.
  2. Find other applications similar to yours who have found their keystone habit. For example, if you were building Pinterest before it had massive amounts of hooked users, you might look at twitter and reverse engineer both what their keystone was and how they installed it into their users.
  3. Get lots of “test subjects,” and analyze why they do what they do. Sit down with a gamer, or potential user of your application and quietly watch them play your game or use your app. When you see them taking the behaviors you’re trying to build, try to drill down and found out why they did. The guys at Valve like Mike Ambinder do this intensively (they even do things like eye tracking).

Other than those tips, its all about experimenting. It took twitter 3+ redesigns and years of experimenting to find their keystone habit. But once you do, you’ve struck gold. Just don’t give up, and as GLaDOS would most certainly agree: keep testing.

Habit and Behavior Engineering Toolbox: Affordances

Ever wonder why some of your users can’t find a certain download/buy/play button, even though to you, its location is clear as day? Or maybe you’ve wondered why some gamers constantly get stuck at a certain point in your game because they didn’t think a hookshot could be used there or that a certain block was movable. Well, in most cases, the reason this happens is because of an issue with something called “perceived affordance.”

So before we go any further we need to put you through a crash course in what affordances are. So bear with me here, I promise it’ll be worth your time.

Affordance Crash Course

Affordances are the qualities of an object that allow a user to perform a certain action. For example, a ball affords bouncing, coke bottles afford drinking, laptops afford opening and closing and headphones afford listening.

Perceived affordances on the other hand are what a user thinks an object can do. This button looks like it downloads this app, this door looks like it can be pushed open and this block looks like it can be moved are all examples of perceived affordances. To put it simply, affordances are what an object CAN do and perceived affordances are what an object LOOKS LIKE it can do.

So what is the relationship between perceived affordance and affordance? Well lucky for you, a man by the name of William Gaver created a very helpful framework (see figure below):

Affordance vs Perceived Affordance

As you can see in the figure, there are 4 possible “slots,” so lets run through them really fast.

  • A correct rejection is when you don’t perceive an object to afford something which it doesn’t. For example, when you don’t perceive a car as being able to fly and it doesn’t (unless it does, in which case I’d love to hitch a ride).
  • A hidden affordance occurs when an object affords something but you did not perceive it to be able to. While browsing the internet have you ever found yourself looking for the download/buy/play button when you later find out the “button” you were looking for was just some plain text? This is a case of a hidden affordance. The text afforded to download/buy/play but you did not perceive it being able to.
  • A false affordance occurs when you think an object does something when in reality… it doesn’t. Ever walk up to a door, push it to open and instantly feel stupid because you were supposed to pull? Yeah, that’s what is called a false affordance. You perceived the door to afford pushing when it actually only afforded pulling.
  • Lastly is perceptible affordance. This occurs when what you perceive an object being able to do, matches up with what it can do.

Now that you’ve had a crash course on affordances and a have a nice framework to boot, let me explain why affordances are a very important behavior and habit engineering tool.

Why they are important

From the websites we visit to the games and activities we do on Facebook, our brain is constantly on the lookout for patterns in everything we do. It’s one of the ways our brain creates habits. What does this have to do with affordances, though? Well, affordances are all about patterns. Why do you think something is clickable whenever you see underlined blue text? Why do you think a big red button activates something dangerous? It’s because you have witnessed this being an affordance of these “patterns” over and over again.

Now imagine if you completely ignore affordances while building your game, application, etc… You would be making it much harder for the users brain to find patterns and make habits within your application. So before I let you start using your new tool, I’ve put together some examples of how you can use affordances in your own games and applications.

Portal and The Legend of Zelda

These games use affordances and clever level design as a way to teach you certain elements of the game and build habits — thus avoiding the need to incessantly tell you what to do each step of the way (like most games nowadays).


Jumping Through Portals

Right when you start the game you are required to walk through these strange blue and orange portals on the wall, thus teaching you the basic properties of these portals. As you continue, the game eventually lets you place one of these portals wherever you choose. But, as users quickly find out after trying to randomly put portals everywhere, only white surfaces are “portalable” and afford portals.

The game continues in this same pattern whenever a new element is introduced. First, force the player to see the affordance (e.g., a box deflecting lasers, blue gel acting as a trampoline, etc…). Second, let them play around with the new elements in a controlled environment (e.g., only allow them to control one portal). Lastly, let ‘em loose!

The Legend of Zelda

Escaping The Room

As soon as you find a new weapon or tool in a dungeon, the game forces you to use this new tool in order to escape the room you found it in. The game then takes this opportunity to associate a certain sound or shape to the use of the tool (e.g., the hookshot and a bullseye).

After continuously associating this shape or sound with the tool, the player has now learned this shape or sound affords the use of the tool. Now whenever the player sees a bullseye, they are certain to try and use the hookshot on it.

Keep existing affordances in mind while designing

Before someone starts using your application or playing your game, they have already “learned” affordances from their past experiences (their perceptual field). They have already learned that red barrels explode when shot and a button with a floppy disk on it will download something. Underlined text with a different color is a link, red bubbly liquid is lava and will damage your character when touched and red buttons and levers trigger something important (e.g., explosions).

So before you design something, think about what previous applications and games have already taught players.

Well that’s all I have to say about affordances for now. So get out there and start using your new tool!


  1. Affordances are the qualities of an object that allow a user to perform a certain action (e.g., a ball affords bouncing and a chair affords sitting).
  2. Perceived affordances are what a user thinks an object can do (e.g., this button looks like it downloads this app, this door looks like it can be pushed open).
  3. Since one of the ways our brain creates habits is by constantly being on the lookout for patterns in everything we do, both affordances and perceived affordances are key tools in building habits and behaviors. Why? Well, if what an object can do and what we think it can do never align… our brain may never be able to find a pattern.
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