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.
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?
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.
Let’s admit it, we in the consumer web industry are in the manipulation business. We build products meant to persuade people to do what we want them to do. We call these people “users” and even if we don’t say it aloud, we secretly wish every one of them would become fiendishly addicted.
Users take our technologies with them to bed. When they wake up, they check for notifications, tweets, and updates before saying “good morning” to their loved ones. Ian Bogost, the famed game creator and professor, calls the wave of habit-forming technologies the “cigarette of this century” and warns of equally addictive and potentially destructive side-effects.
When Is Manipulation Wrong?
Manipulation is a designed experience crafted to change behavior — we all know what it feels like. We’re uncomfortable when we sense someone is trying to make us do something we wouldn’t do otherwise, like when at a car dealership or a timeshare presentation.
Yet, manipulation can’t be all bad. If it were, what explains the numerous multi-billion dollar industries that rely heavily on users willfully submitting to manipulation? If manipulation is a designed experience crafted to change behavior, then Weight Watchers, one of the most successful mass-manipulationproducts in history, fits the definition.
Much like in the consumer web industry, Weight Watchers customers’ decisions are programed by the designer of the system. Yet few question the morality of Weight Watchers. But what’s the difference? Why is manipulating users through flashy advertising or addictive video games thought to be distasteful while a strict system of food rationing is considered laudable?
Right now, someone is tinkering with a billion dollar secret — they just don’t know it yet. “What people aren’t telling you,” Peter Thiel taught his class at Stanford, “can very often give you great insight as to where you should be directing your attention.”
Secrets people can’t or don’t want to divulge are a common thread behind Thiel’s most lucrative investments such as Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as several other breakout companies of the past decade. The kinds of truths Thiel discusses — the kinds that create billion dollar businesses in just a few years — are not held exclusively by those with deep corporate pockets. In fact, the person most likely to build the next great tech business will likely be a scrappy entrepreneur with a big dream, a sharp mind, and a valuable secret.
Where are the Secrets?
I believe secrets about human behavior, which provide insights into the way people act even though they can’t tell you why, are levers for creating user habits and competitive advantage. These kinds of secrets are also relatively cheap to uncover but can be the basis of massive enterprises.
Once, only large companies had the resources to discover monetizable secrets. Throughout the twentieth century, companies like GE, Dupont, Chrysler, and IBM specialized in discovering the optimal form of physical goods and their insights lay largely hidden in the discipline of industrial design. For these companies, uncovering secrets required massive R&D investment to find the best way to create a better, cheaper, or faster product.
If you’re like me, you’ve had enough of the Facebook IPO story. For tech entrepreneurs struggling to build stuff, the cacophony of recent press is just more noise. That’s why when my friend Andrew Chen posted an insightful analysis of Facebook user data, I was happy to get back to learning from what the company did right instead of debating what its bankers did wrong.
Chen calculated Facebook’s historical ratio of daily active users (DAU) to monthly active users (MAU) and the stats are startling. Since March 2009, when the earliest data is available, approximately 50% of Facebook users logged in daily.
As other technology companies struggle to maintain DAU to MAU ratios of 5% or less, Facebook’s numbers appear stratospherically high in comparison. But what is equally surprising is the consistency of that ratio over time. Despite periodic user revolts in reaction to changes in the site, the ratio remained strangely stable. In fact, the number has risen over the past year and is now hovering at 58% as of March of this year.
It’s as if Zuckerberg has steered the company by this golden ratio. Which raises the question: is there some wisdom here regarding this ratio as a predictor of Internet success? Obviously, there are no guarantees and starting cutting edge tech companies will always be risky business. But, assuming you have a solid business model, there are good reasons to believe that if there is one metric to focus on while building your business, it’s the percentage of users who come back daily as expressed by this ratio.
Today Facebook will sell shares in one of the biggest tech IPOs in history. New investors will gobble up the stock to get a piece of the global phenomenon famously started in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room in 2004. But while owning the stock will have quantifiable value when it trades on the open market, few buyers will be able to say truthfully that they understood the value of the company just a few years ago.
Ask yourself candidly, what did you think of Facebook the first time you landed on its homepage? Were you blown away? Could you see how it would fill a gaping need in the lives of nearly a billion people? If you’re honest with yourself, and you’re not Peter Thiel, your answer is probably, “No, not really.”
Don’t feel bad. Like many of the astoundingly successful web companies of the last decade, it was hard to appreciate the value of Facebook at first glance. But one person who “got Facebook” early on was Noah Kagan, who in October of 2005 joined the company as one of its first product managers. In 2006, Noah was the source for an analysis of Facebook written by Nisan Gabbay. The essay identified one of the most important reasons for the company’s ascent to Internet glory and offers a prescient description of opportunities still to come:
“The Facebook success story is most interesting to me because of how daily offline social behavior drove usage of the site. There are plenty of activities in our daily life that could benefit from a complementary online product … Facebook demonstrates you have a great Internet service if offline behaviors can drive nearly daily usage online.”
Yin asked not to be identified by her real name. A young addict in her mid-twenties, she lives in Palo Alto and, despite her addiction, attends Stanford University. She has all the composure and polish you’d expect of a student at a prestigious school, yet she succombs to her habit throughout the day. She can’t help it; she’s compulsively hooked.
Yin is an Instagram addict. The photo sharing social network, recently purchased by Facebook for $1 billion, captured the minds of Yin and 40 million others like her. The acquisition demonstrates the increasing importance–and immense value created by–habit-forming technologies. Of course, the Instagram purchase price was driven by a host of factors including a rumored bidding war for the company. But at its core, Instagram is the latest example of an enterprising team, conversant in psychology as much as technology, that unleashed an addictive product on users who made it part of their daily routines.
Like all addicts, Yin doesn’t realize she’s hooked. “It’s just fun,” she says as she captures her latest in a collection of moody snapshots reminiscent of the late 1970s. “I don’t have a problem or anything. I just use it whenever I see something cool. I feel I need to grab it before it’s gone.”