How do products tempt us? What makes them so alluring? It is easy to assume we crave delicious food or impulsively check email because we find pleasure in the activity. But pleasure is just half the story.
Temptation is more than just the promise of reward. Recent advances in neuroscience allow us to peer into the brain, providing a greater understanding of what makes us want.
In 2011, Sriram Chellappan, an assistant professor of computer science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, gained unheard of access to sensitive information about the way undergraduates were using the Internet. His study tracked students on campus as they browsed the web. Chellappan was looking for patterns, which not only revealed what students were doing online, but provided clues about who they were.
“We believe that your pattern of Internet use says something about you,” Chellappan wrote in the New York Times. “Specifically, our research suggests it can offer clues to your mental well-being.” Chellappan concluded that there was, in fact, predictive power in the data. He found students with early signs of clinical depression used the Internet differently and he could identify students most likely to face mental health issues simply by looking at how they clicked.
“We identified several features of Internet usage that correlated with depression,” wrote Chellappan. “For example, participants with depressive symptoms tended to engage in very high e-mail usage.”
Chellappan developed the technology in hopes of creating an early-warning system to identify struggling students. But his study raised another question, why do people with depression check email more?
“Successful entrepreneurs recommend reading this article about the persuasion techniques companies use to drive engagement.”
Scratch that, how’s this? “Tons of people are tweeting this article. Find out why.”
OK, here’s one more. “This article will only be on the TechCrunch front page for a few hours before fading into the information abyss.”
Perhaps your preference for one of the opening lines above is a matter of taste, but for companies leveraging the explosion of personalized data, it’s very big business.
Marketers are increasingly personalizing their products and services to meet their customers’ changing needs. But customization used in conjunction with powerful persuasion techniques is arming marketers with new weaponry to boost customer engagement and drive profits.
The tools of influence, such as authority (seen in the opening line), social proof (second line), and scarcity (third line), have been used to persuade consumers since Edward Bernays launched the public relations industry during the first World War. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, applied his uncle’s theories of the human subconscious to drive consumer behavior. Back then, marketers, including tobacco companies and the CIA, hired Bernays to shape public opinion and influence the masses.
Bernays, and the PR and advertising industries he spawned, sold consumers goods and ideas by tapping deep into the human psyche. For example, Bernays engineered demand for cigarettes among women by associating smoking with the desire for independence and freedom from male domination.
This week, Baba Shiv and I taught a class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business called, “Using Neuroscience to Influence Human Behavior.” The course focused on the science behind how consumers make decisions.
During the class, we walked through my Desire Engine framework, a four-step cycle that creates preferences and usage habits. Readers of my blog will be familiar with the model but I wanted to share some slides regarding one particular part of the Desire Engine, the “investment phase”.
This phase involves customers doing a bit of “work”, which commits them to the usage of the product. Investment makes re-engaging with the product more likely, and with the slides below, I try to explain why.
Slides from the Investment Phase discussion are below and I apologize for not having a voiceover to go with them yet. I’ll be writing more on this topic in the coming weeks but wanted to share some of the research into the topic.
I was honored to present at WordCamp this year but had to make do with the small amount of time allotted. I crammed my talk into a very short intro to the Desire Engine that sounds like I’m talking while on fast forward. Enjoy!
Step 1: Build an app. Step 2: Get users hooked to it. Step 3: Profit. It sounds simple and, given our umbilical ties to cell phones, social media, and email inboxes, it may even sound plausible. Recently, tech entrepreneurs and investors have started to look to psychology for ways to strike it rich by altering user behavior. Perhaps you’ve read essays on how to create habit-forming technology and figured you’d give it a shot?
Well hold your dogs Pavlov! Though I’m an advocate for understanding user behavior to build high-engagement products, the reality is that successfully creating long-term habits is exceptionally rare. Changing behavior requires not only an understanding of how to persuade users to act — for example, the first time they land on a webpage — but also necessitates getting them to behave differently for long periods of time, ideally for the rest of their lives.
The good news is that that companies that accomplish this rare feat are the ones associated with game-changing, wildly successful innovation. Google, Apple, Twitter, and Android come to mind. As we enter a world where, according to Paul Graham, everything is becoming more addictive, the companies that successfully form and control habits in the future will come to dominate the industries of tomorrow.
Habits or Hype?
But claiming that habits are the keys to success is a tall order. If people like me provide ready-made formulas and guidebooks on how to create habits, why isn’t every company that alters user behavior succeeding?
This week, fans packed stadiums in London wearing their nation’s colors like rebels ready for battle in Mel Gibson’s army. They screamed with excitement and anguished in defeat. Many paid thousands of dollars to travel around the globe to be there.
What the hell is going on here? How do sports engage, delight, and motivate people to put their lives on hold and become totally engrossed in watching other people play games? If sports can motivate people to go to great lengths, can businesses learn to instill the same loyalty and passion in their customers?
In fact, the psychology that makes fans do crazy things in the name of their team can be harnessed to turn people into avid users. Innovative companies are minting habitual customers by understanding the mechanics of human behavior. Here are a few examples of the psychology of sports and the companies who have learned to exploit these same principles:
“This Might Be the Year”
For a stunning example of customer loyalty, look no further than the fans of the heartbreaking Chicago Cubs. The team suffers from “the longest drought in North American sports,” 104 years without a World Series win. Yet, despite the century of defeat, Forbes magazine rated the team as having the 4th most loyal fans in baseball.
Before you can change the world, before your company can IPO, before getting millions of loyal users to wonder how they ever lived without your service, people need to on-board. Building the on-ramp to using your product is critical in every industry, but few more so than in the ADD world of web and mobile apps. Distractions are everywhere, vying for user mindshare and threatening to pull them off the road to using your products like the donut shops and strip clubs at a trucker’s rest stop.
However, done correctly, the on-boarding process can be the first step in creating strong user habits. Products that create repeat behaviors tend to follow a consistent design pattern of a trigger, action, reward, and investment, which I’ve described as the Desire Engine. This pattern is effective when used to craft behaviors that the designer intends to be repeated regularly. The on-boarding process can be the first of several passes through the Desire Engine.
Pulling the Trigger
The first step is bringing users in. But a successful trigger is much more than just a way to drive traffic, it’s an opportunity to start imprinting new routines. Josh Elman, an early product manager at a string of successful companies, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, describes this as the point of “inception”– yes, like the movie. “Inception is about implanting an idea about why and when the product is useful for someone.” Since a user’s first awareness of a product depends on an external trigger, such as a call-to-action in an email, a link on a social media site, paid advertising, or a word-of-mouth recommendation, the message must be consistent. “People need to talk about your product the same way, each and every time,” Elman says.
The belief that products should always be as easy to use as possible is a sacred cow of the tech world. The rise of design thinking, coinciding with beautiful new products like the iPhone, has led some to conclude that creating slick interfaces is a hallmark of great design. But, like all attempts to create absolute rules about how we should interact with technology, the law that design should always decrease the amount of effort users expend doesn’t always hold true. In fact, putting users to work is critical in creating products people love.
Several studies have shown that expending effort on a task seems to commit us to it. For example, when buying a lottery ticket, players are able to either choose their own numbers or play a set of digits generated randomly. Certainly, choosing either option has no effect on the odds of winning. Traditional thinking would predict that the less effortful path would be the one users prefer.
However, the opposite is true. Despite the considerable effort required to pick the lottery numbers, a process reminiscent of filling out multiple choice questions on the S.A.T., players who choose their own numbers play more. This phenomenon isn’t just about a skewed perception of luck. According to a classic study by Ellen Langler, even when players are explicitly told their chances of winning, they choose to trade worse odds for the ability to play the numbers they spent the time and effort picking.
We in the design business love when people do what we want. Nothing is more satisfying than when a user intuitively understands what to do with what we’ve built. At the heart of good design, however, is understanding what the user really wants to get done.
But what of designing for behaviors people don’t want to do, at least not right now? We all know we should eat healthier, exercise more, create fewer greenhouse gases, give more to charity, and vote in every local election from city council to school board. But do we? Despite countless organizations and nonprofits encouraging us to do what we know we should, we often don’t. Why is designing for behaviors in the user’s best interests so hard?
Recycling is Trash
Back in school, I remember having lunch with my mother when she came into town for a visit. We sat in the cafeteria at the Stanford Graduate School of Business campus. After our meal, she offered to take our trays to the trash while I cleaned off the table. But what she encountered was not one garbage can, but four.
I watched her as she first stopped and tried to comprehend what to do. She wanted to comply with the recycling instructions but as she stood there, dirty tray in hand, her mind was struggling to figure out what to do. Each bin was color-coded and had a description identifying what could and could not be thrown in.