A funny thing happens when you lie to people: they tend to believe. Why shouldn’t they? They lie to themselves all the time. Our minds are wired to respond in predictable ways–among them is perceiving the world the way we want to see it, not necessarily the way it is.
Perhaps no other phenomenon demonstrates our brain’s ability to make believe better than the placebo effect. Long known for its ability to improve a patient’s health, the practice of giving people an inert treatment they believe will make them better has been proven to be highly effective. In fact, in recent studies, researchers have found the placebo effect may be much more potent than previously thought. So strong is the expectation that a pill will provide relief, that even patients who are told beforehand that the medication is a placebo and has no medicinal properties, still show significant signs of improvement. When it comes to fooling ourselves, the brain can’t help itself.
How a sugar pill could be as effective as an FDA-approved drug, backed by millions of dollars in research, is a central mystery of the placebo effect. But the brain’s predilection to fool itself is not only evident in the medical field. The cognitive trick is a central trait of how the products we use every day become part of our lives.
Nir’s Note: A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief post summarizing some thoughts for a potential book chapter. I asked my readers for help and you delivered! The comments were fantastic and I received several insightful emails. Therefore, I’ve decided to continue with the experiment with the article below. This week’s post is much shorter and less developed than my previous essays and is intended to solicit more of your thoughts and feedback for a potential book chapter. Give it a quick read and tell me what you think. —
The world has become harder to resist. Products are getting better at giving people what they want and – for the most part – that has been good thing. Yet, the historical trend-line shows products are also becoming more habit-forming.
All products alleviate customers’ pain. Even products used to gain pleasure must first generate desire, a unique form of discomfort, which the customer will pay to satiate.
The engine driving the evolution of marketing and advertising for the past 125 years has been the increasing speed with which companies adapt products to better meet customer needs.
The Age of Scarcity (prehistory – 1930s): For the majority of human history, the basic necessities of life were expensive and rare. Human populations growth was mediated by the limitation of resources. Keynes formulation of Say’s law was that “supply creates its own demand” and in a time of scarcity, goods sold quickly to those who could afford them. Though commercial communication traces back thousands of years, the term “marketing” only made its debut in 1884. Prior to the industrial revolution, products attracted consumers mostly by being available. The limited supply meant high prices and only the well-off had any discretionary spending power.
Nir’s Note: This post is a little different from my normal writing. For one, its much shorter. You’ll notice I provide fewer citations and the ideas are less developed than my previous essays. This is intentional and I need your help. I’m considering writing a chapter on this topic in a forthcoming book but wanted to test the ideas with my most loyal readers first. Give it a quick read and tell me what you think. —
Habits are good for business. In fact, many industries could not survive without them. The incentive systems and business models of the companies that make habit-forming products require someone gets hooked. Without consumer habits, these enterprises would go bust.
While most of us think of cigarettes or gambling as habit-forming products, the fact is, a much wider swath of industries rely on consumer’s using their products without thought or deliberation.
These companies have no secret agenda or nefarious ambitions. They are in business to give people what they want, even if at times, what the consumer wants isn’t necessarily good for them.
But like every other company, habit-forming businesses are run by well-intentioned people. Hard-working folks with families and dreams of their own. So how then can these two realities coexist? How can companies seek to hook their customers, while also being run by decent people who have just as visceral of an aversion to manipulation as the rest of us?
Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover, Director of Product at PlayHaven, utilizes my thinking on the “Habit Zone” to shed light on where Turntable.fm fell short. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at rrhoover.
Remember Turntable? When it first launched in May of 2011, the music service seemed to own the internet, growing from zero to over 420,000 monthly active users (MAU) only two months later . Unfortunately, that growth didn’t last long as many of its early adopters ditched the service. It is now estimated to have only 20 – 50,000 MAU’s, a fraction of its early peak .
As I described nearly two years ago, much of Turntable’s success was due to its well-executed social engagement loop; however, that wasn’t enough. So what went wrong?
Turntable failed to create long-lasting habits , leaving it vulnerable to competitors who more quickly became a daily part of users lives. Nir Eyal, a researcher on habit design and blogger at NirAndFar.com, posits that habits form when users have a high perceived utility and use a product frequently. The most sticky products are used multiple times a day. How often have you checked your email or Twitter feed today? In other words, users need to value the product and use it often to form lasting habits and enter the “habit zone” as represented by the graph below.
One of the most common complaints about Turntable is its demand for attention. It is both its greatest strength and weakness.
We are a species that depend on one another. Scientists theorize humans have specially adapted neurons that help us feel what others feel, providing evidence that we survive through our empathy for others. We’re meant to be part of a tribe and our brains seek out rewards that make us feel accepted, important, attractive, and included.
Many of our institutions and industries are built around this need for social reinforcement. From civic and religious groups to spectator sports, the need to feel social connectedness informs our values and drives much of how we spend our time. Communication technology in particular has given rise to a long history of companies that have provided better ways of delivering what I call, “rewards of the tribe.”
However, it’s not only the reward we seek. Variability also keeps us engaged. From the telegraph to email, products that connect us are highly valued, but those that invoke an element of surprise are even more so. Recently, the explosion of Web technologies that cater to our insatiable search for validation provide clear examples of the tremendous appeal of the promise of social reward.
The endless search for rewards of the tribe, and the variability that often comes with it, are key components of the Web’s largest technical question and answer site, Stack Overflow. As with other user-generated sites like Quora, Wikipedia, and YouTube, all of Stack Overflow’s content is created voluntarily by its members. In Stack Overflow’s case, over 5,000 questions are posted and answered daily, all of which cost nothing to view. Many of these answers take hours to complete and require a high degree of technical expertise.
If the Internet had a voice, I am fairly certain it would sound like the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Hello Nir,” it said to me in its low, monotone voice. “Glad to see you again.”
“Internet, I just need a few quick things for an article I’m writing,” I’d reply. “Then it’s back to work. No distractions this time.”
“Of course Nir, but while you are here, won’t you look at what Paul Graham just wrote?”
“No Internet,” I’d resist. “I’m just here to find some specific information, I can’t be distracted.”
“Of course Nir,” the Internet would say. “But this article about LOLCats addiction is related to your work. Give it a click, won’t you?”
“Interesting.” I’d say hesitantly. “Just a quick read and then it’s back to work.”
3 hours later I would realize the time I’d wasted clicking and curse the Internet for sucking me into its mind vortex yet again.
Ironically, I research and write about seductive technology and yet I struggle to resist its temptations. Much of my work is written for entrepreneurs and designers looking for ways to boost user engagement with their products. The rest of my writing is intended to increase awareness of the habit-forming potential, and at times, unintended consequences, of an increasingly connected world.
The first thing Don Draper does when he gets to his office is give his busty secretary a suggestive wink. The second thing he does is take off his fedora. Finally, depending on the severity of the previous night, he completes his morning routine with a stiff drink.
What can we learn from Don’s habits? First, that scotch and submissive secretaries always equal drama. But what of that fedora? There’s a lesson there too.
As any Mad Men fan knows, it was once popular for men to wear hats everywhere they went — except that is, when they stepped indoors. When a gentleman went inside, he removed his hat and placed it on the nearest rack. It was a required social norm, a sign you were ready for business.
Though hats have long gone out of fashion, the custom should be a guide for how we adapt to the increasing pervasiveness of personal technology. It’s high time we started doing with our digital devices what well-mannered men did with their fedoras. We need a digital hat rack.
It seems that whenever people meet in person these days, they do so while separating their attention between the people in the room and the devices in their hands. Somehow, it has become socially acceptable to digitally masturbate in each other’s company. You might say, “but I’m taking notes or responding to an important request!” No you’re not, you are digitally dicking around.
If there is one altar at which Silicon Valley worships, it is the shrine of the holy network effect. Its mystical powers pluck lone startups from obscurity and elevate them to fame and fortune. The list of anointed ones includes nearly every technology success story of the past 15 years. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, eBay, and PayPal, have each soared to multi-billion-dollar valuations on the supreme power of the network effect.
But today, the power of the network effect is fading, at least in its current incarnation. Traditionally defined as a system where each new user on the network increases the value of the service for all others, a network effect often creates a winner-takes-all dynamic, ordaining one dominant company above the rest. Moreover, these companies often wield monopoly-like powers over their industries.
IN THE BEGINNING
Once, all a company needed to do to leverage the network effect was facilitate communication between a critical number of customers. If enough people used a particular system to exchange information, a leader would emerge and become the de facto platform. Companies who could either form a marketplace or facilitate the flow of information between parties became tremendously powerful as central hubs of data transfer.
In fact, the first network effects platform was Bell Telephone, which established a government-sanctioned monopoly nearly 100 years ago. Since then, successful network effects businesses have sung from essentially the same hymnal.
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.