Nir’s Note: Parts of this article are adapted from Hooked: A Guide to Building Habit-Forming Products.
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?
A few minutes before his helicopter touched down in a covert military base just outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tommy Thompson reached for his secret weapon. He was about to meet with top Afghan officials and he needed to ensure he hit his mark. But Thompson’s mission to the war-torn region in 2004 did not involve delivering guns and bombs. As the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, the diplomat was there to win hearts and minds.
To accomplish his directive, assigned to him by the President of the United States, Thompson relied upon information delivered at exactly the right time and place. Minutes before each meeting with dignitaries, he was handed a top-secret intelligence briefing.
The CIA-prepared binder contained the most vital, and at times trivial, information on who the Secretary was going to meet. A quick glance provided the context for the meeting, notes from previous encounters, and often times contained personal information.
“Speaking to Secretary Thompson after he read his briefing gave you the feeling you were the most important person in the world,” said Bhavin Shah, who traveled with Thompson to Afghanistan. “You understood that he cared about you enough to mention the things that were on your mind.”
Thanks to his dossier, Thompson was never without a piece of information, which when used in the right context, served to ease the conversation. His meetings were never awkward, he was never dull, and somehow, it always appeared the Secretary was, in Shah’s words, “conversationally refreshed.”
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:
Nir’s Note: An edited version of this essay appeared in The Atlantic. Below is my original.
It’s not often an app has the power to keep someone out of a strip club. But according to Bobby Gruenewald, CEO of YouVersion, that’s exactly what his technology did. Gruenewald says a user of his app walked into a business of ill repute when suddenly, out of the heavens, he received a notification on his phone. “God’s trying to tell me something!,” Gruenewald recalled the user saying, “I just walked into a strip club — and man — the Bible just texted me!”
YouVersion recently announced its app hit a monumental milestone — placing it among a rare strata of technology companies. The app, simply called “Bible,” is now on more than 100 million devices and growing. Gruenewald says a new install occurs every 1.3 seconds.
On average, some 66,000 people have the app open during any given second, but that number climbs much higher at times. Every Sunday, Gruenewald says, preachers around the world tell devotees, “to take out your Bibles or YouVersion app. And, we see a huge spike.”
The app was funded and built by LifeChurch.tv of Edmond, Oklahoma. Though Silicon Valley digerati rarely heed lessons from churches in red states, in this case, Gruenewald and his team have something to preach about.
Imagine walking into a busy mall when someone approaches you with an open hand. “Would you have some coins to take the bus, please?” he asks. But in this case, the person is not a panhandler. The beggar is a PhD.
As part of a French study, researchers wanted to know if they could influence how much money people handed to a total stranger using just a few specially encoded words. They discovered a technique so simple and effective it doubled the amount people gave.
The turn of phrase has been shown to not only increase how much bus fare people give, but was also effective in boosting charitable donations and participation in voluntary surveys. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 42 studies involving over 22,000 participants concluded that these few words, placed at the end of a request, are a highly-effective way to gain compliance, doubling the likelihood of people saying “yes.”
What were the magic words the researchers discovered? The phrase, “but you are free to accept or refuse.”
The “but you are free” technique demonstrates how we are more likely to be persuaded when our ability to choose is reaffirmed. The effect was observed not only during face-to-face interactions, but also over email. Though the research did not directly look at how products and services might use the technique, the study provides several practical insights for how companies can influence customer behavior.
Interested in boosting customer desire? A classic study reveals an interesting quirk of human behavior that may hold a clue.
In 1975, researchers Worchel, Lee, and Adewole wanted to know how people would value cookies in two identical glass jars. One jar held ten cookies while the other contained just two stragglers. Which cookies would people value more?
Though the cookies and jars were identical, participants valued the ones in the near-empty jar more highly. Scarcity had somehow affected their perception of value.
There are many theories as to why this was the case. For one, scarcity may signal something about the product. If there are less of an item, the thinking goes, it might be because other people know something you don’t. Namely, the cookies in the almost empty jar are the num-numier choice.
It’s About Context
Classical economic theory starts with two key assumptions: First, consumers are armed with “perfect information.” Second, people behave rationally. However, in the real world, these two conditions are more the exception than the rule. In fact, marketers do their best to trigger cognitive quirks, like the scarcity heuristic, to influence behavior.
Even though it may make no objective difference regarding what is actually being sold, marketers know context matters just as much as the product itself. The near-empty jar with just two cookies left in it conveys valuable (albeit irrelevant) information.
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?
Note: I’m pleased to have co-authored this post with Sangeet Paul Choudary, who analyzes business models for network businesses at Platformed.info. Follow Sangeet on Twitter at @sanguit.
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.