Tag / startup

Do you get the feeling apps are getting dumber? They are, and that’s a good thing. Behind the surprising simplicity of some of today’s top apps, smart developers are realizing that they’re able to get users to do more by doing less. A new crop of companies is setting its sights on changing the small behaviors in your life, hoping to reap big rewards.

They’re using the best practices of interaction design and psychology to build products with your brain in mind. Here’s how they’re doing it:

Be a Feature

Famed venture capitalist Fred Wilson insists that successful mobile products need to do just one thing well.

App designers often forget the speed and attention constraints people experience while using their products. Testing your app in the office, while it’s connected to wi-fi and is the focus of your attention, hardly represents the hectic, real-world conditions experienced by most users. Mobile services not only compete for our attention with the other umpteen things we could do with our smartphones but also have to vie for our focus with the many offline distractions associated with life on the go.

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.  

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.

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.

Happy to share the first recorded version of my talk describing the Desire Engine. Slides from this presentation are available here.

I hope you find it useful!

Part 1 here:

Part 2 here:

(note: there was a brief break when some content was not recorded)

It’s time to abolish the reference check. The unpleasant process of calling up a job applicant’s former boss to gab about the candidate’s pluses and “deltas” is just silly. Maybe if we all just agree to stop doing it the practice will go away, like pay phones and fanny packs. Instead, I’ve learned a better way to hire that leverages a universal human attribute—namely, the fact that we’re all lazy.

What’s my beef with reference checks? They don’t accomplish the job we intend them to do. In a startup, you can’t afford to hire B-players. But reference checks, which are intended to do the screening, fail to eliminate these candidates who are just so-so. This happens because the person giving the reference has no incentive to say anything but good things about the candidate. Telling the whole truth, warts and all, could expose the former boss to a defamation lawsuit. But legal action aside, no one likes to speak poorly about an ex-colleague. It’s bad karma and just feels icky.

Note: This post originally appeared in TechCrunch

Here’s the gist:

  • Rather than using conventional feedback loops, companies today are employing a new, stronger habit-forming mechanism to hook users—the desire engine.
  • At the heart of the desire engine is a variable schedule of rewards: a powerful hack that focuses attention, provides pleasure, and infatuates the mind.
  • Our search for variable rewards is about an endless desire for three types of rewards: those of the tribe, the hunt and the self.

In advertising, marketers reinforce a behavior by linking to the promise of reward. “Use our product,” they claim, “and you’ll get laid”; it’s the gist of many product pitches from soap to hamburgers.

But online, feedback loops aren’t cutting it. Users are increasingly inundated with distractions, and companies find they need to hook users quickly if they want to stay in business. Today, companies are using more than feedback loops. They are deploying desire engines.

Note: This post originally appeared in Techcrunch. I’m proud to have co-authored this post with Katy Fike, PhD.  Dr. Fike is a gerontologist, systems engineer and Partner at Innovate50, a consulting firm helping companies create products and services for the 50+ market

As web watchers, entrepreneurs, and investors search for the next big thing, they’d be wise to focus on innovations that can be easily adopted by technology novices. A recent string of companies, including Groupon and Pinterest, have found success outside the early-adopter digerati by building products simple enough to be used by just about anyone. Designing with tech novices in mind can mean the difference between staying niche and going mainstream. Here are three principles for designing software for people Silicon Valley too often disparagingly calls “normals.”

Recently, my mom came for a visit.  She read my blog and discovered her son has a crazy habit of running barefoot.  After some convincing, she begrudgingly accepted my rationale, especially after I showed her that a nice Jewish professor at Harvard said it’s ok.

But on one morning, as I was about to walk out the door, my mom stopped me with a tight grab to the arm reminiscent of my childhood.  “It’s bad enough you run outside with bare feet but you look ridiculous running with these cheap shmatte gloves.”  She always had an eye for spotting the quality of apparel and she correctly identified my Wal-Mart bargain bin gloves, which I bought for $2 per dozen.

“Why are you wearing these things?” she exclaimed.  “You must be cold!  Let me get you a nice pair of warmer gloves. You’re cold, right?  Is that the reason?”

NOTE: This post originally appeared in Techcrunch. (Photo credits)

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.”