On February 8, 2014, an app called Flappy Bird held the coveted No. 1 spot in the Apple App Store. The app’s 29-year-old creator, Dong Nguyen, reported earning $50,000 a day from the game.
Then, the Vietnamese developer sent a shocking message. In a tweet many dismissed as a publicity stunt, Nguyen wrote, “I am sorry ‘Flappy Bird‘ users, 22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird‘ down. I cannot take this anymore.” And as promised, the game disappeared the next day.
This is not the way success typically ends.
Flappy Bird was downloaded over 50 million times and unleashed a digital tsunami of players and pundits dissecting what turned into a global fixation. Players’ only goal in the game was to pilot a pixelated bird through gaps of pipe. Yet the app seemed to have a mysteriously seductive power. In a TechCrunch article titled Confessions Of A Flappy Bird Addict, Josh Constine wrote, “It humiliates me, but I like it. It’s the dominatrix of mobile games.”
What is at the heart of today’s digital juggernauts and why do they seem to disappear as quickly as they rise? What is it about the things that capture our attention in a mental vice grip, only to be ridiculed as faddish whims later?
Given the meteoric success and subsequent decline of other games like Candy Crush Saga, Angry Birds, and FarmVille, perhaps the death of Flappy Bird was more than a rash decision. Perhaps it was a mercy killing?
Earlier this month, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone unveiled his mysterious startup Jelly. The question-and-answer app was met with a mix of criticism and head scratching. Tech-watchers asked if the world really needed another Q&A service. Skeptics questioned how it would compete with existing solutions and pointed to the rocky history of previous products like Mahalo Answers, Formspring, and Aardvark.
In an interview, Biz articulated his goal to, “make the world a more empathetic place.” Sounds great but one wonders if Biz is being overly optimistic. Aren’t we all busy enough? Control for our attention is in a constant tug-of-war as we struggle to keep-up with all the demands for our time. Can Jelly realistically help people help one another? For that matter, how does any technology stand a chance of motivating users to do things outside their normal routines?
We hope a few insights gleaned from user psychology may help the Jelly makers improve their jam and provide some tips for anyone building an online community.
Lesson 1 – The Right Reward
In May 2007, entrepreneur and Internet celebrity Jason Calacanis launched a site called Mahalo. A flagship feature of the new site was a Q&A forum known as Mahalo Answers. Unlike previous Q&A sites, Mahalo utilized a special incentive to get users to ask and answer questions.
Nir’s Note: In this guest post, Ryan Hoover takes a look at Tinder, a red hot dating app. Ryan dives into what makes the app so popular and engaging. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at rrhoover.
Tinder, a hot new entrant in the world of online dating, is capturing the attention of millions of single hopefuls. The premise is simple. After launching the mobile app and logging in with Facebook, users browse profiles of other men or women. Each potential match is presented as a card. Swipe left if you’re disinterested and right if someone catches your fancy. Once both parties express interest, a match is made and a private chat connects the two potential lovebirds.
The app has become a fixture in the U.S. App Store as one of the top 25 social networking applications, generating 1.5 million daily matches as more than 50 percent of its users login multiple times per day.
This isn’t luck. It’s smart design based in part, on game mechanics and an understanding of user psychology.
Here are four ways Tinder engages its calloused-fingered users:
Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Ryan Hoover. Ryan blogs at ryanhoover.me and you can follow him on Twitter at @rrhoover.
When Snapchat first launched, critics discounted the photo-messaging app as a fad – a toy for sexting and selfies. Their judgements were reasonable. It’s impossible to predict the success of a product on day one, let alone its ability to change user behavior. But hindsight is beginning to prove critics wrong.
Snapchat boasts 5 million daily active users sending 200 million photos and videos daily. That’s an average of 40 snaps a day per user! But why are users so engaged? After all, what real need is the company solving anyway?
Snapchat popularized a new form of expression, using photos and videos as a communication medium. For many, Snapchat is a daily routine – the go-to app for interacting with friends in a playful way. This habit is not a happy mistake but a conscious effort driven by several subtle design choices.
As Nir Eyal describes, habit-forming products must have two things – high perceived utility and frequency of use. In Snapchat’s case, as with most communication services, each individual message isn’t particularly valuable in isolation. But through frequent use, Snapchatters enter the “Habit Zone”, instinctually turning to the product to solve their desire to communicate and feel connected with others. This key insight has enabled the company to craft an experience tailored for high engagement.
Here are five ways Snapchat drives habitual engagement with their product:
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?
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.