As the web becomes an increasingly crowded place, users are desperate for solutions to sort through the online clutter. The Internet has become a giant hairball of choice-inhibiting noise and the need to make sense of it all has never been more acute.
Just ask high-flying sites like Pinterest, Reddit, and Tumblr. Thesecurated web portals connect millions of people to information they never knew they were looking for. Some have started monetizing this tremendous flow of traffic and though it’s too early to call winners and losers, their strategy of driving user engagement by creating daily habits is clear. These companies are following a plan implemented by web titans like Amazon and Google and are hoping to yield similar results.
Creating user habits leverages two critical factors that should be considered by every company attempting to build high-engagement products.
Action Without Cognition
Habits are one of the ways the brain learns complex behaviors. In order to allow us to focus our attention on obtaining new insights, neuroscientists believe habitual behaviors are moved to thebasal ganglia, an area of the brain associated with actions requiring little or no cognition. Habits form when the brain takes a shortcut and stops actively deliberating about the decision being made.
The brain quickly learns to codify behaviors that provide a solution to whatever problem it encounters. For example, nail biting is a common behavior, which occurs with little or no thought, typically triggered by the unpleasant feeling of stress. The biter associates the satisfaction of nail chomping with the temporary relief it provides. As any habitual nail bitter knows, the conditioned response is extremely difficult to break.
Face it; you’re hooked. It’s your uncontrollable urge to check for email notifications on your phone. It’s your compulsion to visit Facebook or Twitter for just a few minutes, but somehow find yourself still scrolling after an hour. It’s the fact that if I recommended a book to purchase, your mind would flash “Amazon” like a gaudy neon sign. If habits are defined as repeated and automatic behaviors, then technology has wired your brain so you behave exactly the way it wants you to.
In an online world of ever-increasing distractions, habits matter. In fact, the economic value of web businesses increasingly depends on the strength of the habitual behavior of their users. These habits ultimately will be a deciding factor in what separates startup winners and losers.
Reading Leena Rao’s recent article on Techcrunch about the personalization revolution, you get the sense that the tech world is waiting for a bus that isn’t coming. Rao quotes well-known industry experts and luminaries describing what needs to happen for e-commerce to finally realize the promise of personalized shopping, a future where online retailers predict what you’ll want to buy before you know yourself.
Ironically, Rao and her pundits are missing the zooming race car that’s speeding by them as they wait for the personalization bus to arrive. That racecar is Pinterest and the new breed of startups marking the beginning of what I call the “Curated Web.”
The promise of personalized e-commerce began over 10 years ago with technology pioneered at Amazon. It was then that the mental dye was cast for what eCommerce personalization would look like, an algorithmic solution for matching customer to products. Web watchers came to expect that someday all online retailers would have such algorithms on their sites and the dream of personalized commerce would finally be realized.
For over a decade, startups took their best shot at making this apparition a reality. Companies like Hunch tackled the data collection piece of the equation, asking users endless survey questions to determine their tastes and preferences. Google’s Boutiques.com tried to crack the challenges of structuring the data associated with personalized shopping recommendations. Ultimately, these attempts failed.
Disruptive web innovation comes from changes in interface.
Interfaces, which make information easier to understand by mainstream users, create world-changing companies.
The next stage of the web is the Curated Web, which like the stages before, will create massive opportunities for entrepreneurs who see the trend.
Is this it? Really? Facebook wins, cashes in its chips, and we all go home?
Of course, there is more to come and it’s a future filled with sheer awesomeness. Within the next few years, technology will improve your life in ways you can scarcely imagine. But if you’re looking for where we’re headed, it’s useful to know where we’ve been and most importantly, we should know the catalyst driving us from one phase to the next.
Though tech types tend to focus myopically on the laws of hardware innovation, including those written by Moore, Metcalfe and Kryder, these principles focus on infrastructure, which is only the first phase of a rising technology wave. After infrastructure, technology waves enter a platform and finally an application phase. It is during the platform phases in particular that entrepreneurs build world-changing companies without much initial capital, a la Gates and Zuckerburg. How do companies change user behavior so profoundly and produce massive growth, seemingly overnight?