How Understanding Addiction Can Inspire Better Product Building

Muhammad Hazem on September 23, 2021

There are lots of crazy stories out there on how far an addiction pushes people. I personally know many of them, and I am sure that you might know too. Addictions are the most notoriously irrational behaviors that we cannot fathom unless we’ve personally experienced them. To feel at ease, we rather dismiss addicts as intrinsically bad people or just sheer psychopaths, and that’s only because we want a quick explanation to feel less confused and more certain about why addicts do what they do.

In the two wonderfully insightful books ‘’Predictably irrational & the upside of irrationality,‘’ Dan Ariely does an amazing job in showing how emotions drive our decision making in the most subtle of ways, from how we’re inclined to order what other people are ordering just to conform even if we dislike it to how we’re likely to rationalize purchases that are bundled with a free item even if it is irrelevant in value, Dan powerfully sets the ground for understanding that in order to to influence customers’ decision making, you’ve got to approach them with enough empathy for their emotional and social needs.  

And since addiction is basically about taking the same very bad decision over and over again, understanding what fuels it can provide valuable insights simply because what hooks people to persist in a relationship with a given addiction has similar underlying mechanisms to what can hook people to persist in a relationship with a given product that tries to provide relevant value.  

The goal is not to trap users into a toxic dependency like that of addiction, that is something I wish for nobody as I’ve personally experienced it!  Rather, my aim is to shed enough light on the realistic drivers of our decisions. It’s the science of behavioral economics that approaches human decision making with enough empathy and realism as opposed to the standard economics that is primarily fueled with ideal assumptions about our behavioral reactions that rarely align with how we actually behave. So, in the next couple of paragraphs I am going to answer a few interesting questions that I hope to get my point across.


What qualifies a behavior to be an addiction?  

The fundamental difference that separates an easily breakable habit from a full blown addiction is the extent to which the behavior satisfies primal psychological needs such as the need to be accepted, seen as competent, loved, noticed, supported, etc.

When we experience dull and toxic childhoods, we usually grow up unable to satisfy our psychological needs in healthy ways so we develop alternative coping behaviors that are powerfully medicating yet quite destructive (a.k.a addictions). At a certain point, we come to terms with how screwed up our life is slowly growing to be, yet our addiction is the only way we learnt how to deal with our emotions and bitter struggles. In a sense, it is our God. 

And that’s why we feel hooked, our addiction becomes synonymous with how we react to life itself so quitting always seems like an existential suicide. When you ask an addict to renounce his addiction, you’re basically asking him to go through a delicate process of reparenting to learn new ways of dealing with life that better works for him, and that’s why recovery is usually a process that needs a supportive environment to increase the likelihood of sobriety.

Let me put it differently — to become addicted to any behavior means that this behavior has an excellent offering that fits perfectly what you need which is simply what each of us as product builders try to do: create something with relevant value for a subset of the population, right?

You might be hungry for acceptance and love so you get hooked to promiscuous sex so you can derive what you need from having many sexual partners or you might be hungry for feeling competent and noticed so you get hooked on drugs because it makes you feel at the top of your game, able to work more, face people courageously and the like. You get the idea? There’s always a needs / medication fit in addiction, and that’s why we simply get hooked. Nothing super complex here.   


So, how’s that relevant to reinforcing a product / market fit? 

Building a sticky relationship with an addictive behavior is not a rational undertaking (or at least never entirely), it is hugely an emotional and social one, and that is super similar to why we start a relationship with a product and stay retained, it hooks us. It satisfies our needs with precision, so we stay. 

And that is why most of the effective product frameworks rely on helping you identify customers’ needs realistically and prioritize the pains that would help your business grow when you solve them effectively. I personally like the Jobs to be done framework (JTBD) that effectively breaks down customers’ needs to functional, social and emotional ones. 

It seems simple, doesn’t it? But there’s a lacking factor that deters a lot of entrepreneurs and product managers from intuitively realizing how to solve for their customers if it is missing — the golden keyword in my humble opinion: empathy. Let me tell you why it is immensely significant. 

Sometimes when you build a viable product that you perceive as functioning, it fails to incur the kind of revenue that indicates its true potential. And you are left clueless as to why these ungrateful customers are abandoning a product that is technically sound and probably even beautifully designed.

You might be emotionally detached to the actual experiences of your customers, turning a blind eye to how your technology might qualify for awards but your customers couldn’t care less about it. That usually happens when you are not truly building for your customers but more for what you believe qualifies for a good sounding feature. 

And the solution to this dangerous detachment to what your customers truly need is empathy — I’ve recently initiated contact with a number of my customers and got to know them as friends. I added them to a Whatsapp group, started getting to know them personally and showing sincere interest in their day to day fitness struggles, and instead of developing solutions for them, I developed solutions with them.

We started getting on calls together, asking for their valuable feedback regarding certain stuff, even sharing hilarious fitness memes and that matured my understanding of how I can further develop my product to meet all of their macro and micro needs in a glorious fashion, and thus positively hook them emotionally to sustaining a high LTV.

So, in a sense, empathy is always the key to understanding what you don’t understand, be it addiction or why the hell your customers are apathetic to your state of the art technology infrastructure. T

hink about it, you develop a relationship with a product because it satisfies your needs and you stay in the relationship because it persists to do so. And that’s what we attempt to create, ‘’ a relationship. ‘’ We build products that are relevant enough in value to activate a relationship and sustain it, and if your customers are churning madly, it’s simply because there are loopholes that kill the relationship in its infancy. And how can you fix that? Talk to your customers in the friendliest and most sincere fashion of all. Drop your preconceived notions and approach them with enough humility and empathy to make it work for them, and that’s how everybody wins!  

Final thoughts… 

I believe if you understand your customers’ needs realistically, you can create a market for a product that didn’t previously exist because, in its simplest term, a market represents a consensus from a large group of people that X is needed to satisfy what they are consciously seeking to satisfy for which they are willing to pay money.

But sometimes people are unaware of what product / service they might use if it became available and here lies the creative process of following an intuition and capitalizing on it with enough customer interviews and research to crystallize a MVP that you can test.   

Muhammad Hazem