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.
A reader recently asked me a pointed question: “I’ve read your work on creating user habits. It’s all well and good for getting people to do things, like using an app on their iPhone, but I’ve got a bigger problem. How do I get people to do things they don’t want to do?” Taken aback by the directness and potentially immoral implications of his question, my gut reaction was to say, “You can’t and shouldn’t!” To which his response was, “I have to; it’s my job.”
This gentleman, who asked that I not disclose his name, is the corporate equivalent of the guy the mob sends to break kneecaps if a worker doesn’t do as they’re told. For the past decade, he has run the same methodical process of cajoling, and at times threatening, people to do things they don’t want to do. “It’s really unfair and mean. I know it is,” he said. “But people have to comply or else people get hurt.”
This man is an identity and access management auditor at a well-known public accounting firm. Not exactly Good Fellas, but high-stakes nonetheless. His Fortune 500 clients pay his firm to ensure managers complete lengthy inquiries involving hundreds of employees collecting thousands of pieces of information, usually on tight deadlines. “Ever since Sarbanes-Oxley, these user access reviews just have to get done.”
Though the auditor’s job is unique, getting others to do uninteresting tasks (specifically those that are infrequent and involve work done outside normal responsibilities) is a common challenge.
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.
We are caught in an endless cycle of messaging hell and the pattern is always the same. First, a new communication system is born — take email or Facebook, for example. Ease-of-use helps the product gain wide adoption and reach a critical mass of users. And then things turn ugly.
Some crafty entrepreneur figures out how to exploit the system and starts building a business around it. He reaches millions of people and opens the floodgates to countless others who seek to emulate his methods. Inevitably, the messaging channel is deluged with crap, clogging the pipes of what was once an efficient mode of communication — again, email or Facebook.
The latest messaging onslaught is hitting the notification systems on our smartphones. Those little red badges hovering over our app icons and urgent graphics along the top of our screens incessantly remind us of some task that needs doing. They crowd out real priorities with bits of tiny triviality. Notification spam has many up in arms, but the flood of distractions continues.
This is the story repeated ever since telemarketers started ruining dinners across the land. It was not until federal legislation effectively put them out of business with the Do Not Call Registry did they stop their pestering.
To date, platforms have been responsible for policing spammers on Facebook, Twitter, Android or Apple’s iOS. But keeping exploiters out is only half the challenge. The real problem is keeping the channels useful as they grow. Exhibit A:
Exhibit B – A Google search for “I hate email” returns 586 million results, more than twice the results for “the Beatles.” Very scientific, I know, but you get the point.
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.
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.
Before you can change the world, before your company can IPO, before getting millions of loyal users to wonder how they ever lived without your service, people need to on-board. Building the on-ramp to using your product is critical in every industry, but few more so than in the ADD world of web and mobile apps. Distractions are everywhere, vying for user mindshare and threatening to pull them off the road to using your products like the donut shops and strip clubs at a trucker’s rest stop.
However, done correctly, the on-boarding process can be the first step in creating strong user habits. Products that create repeat behaviors tend to follow a consistent design pattern of a trigger, action, reward, and investment, which I’ve described as the Desire Engine. This pattern is effective when used to craft behaviors that the designer intends to be repeated regularly. The on-boarding process can be the first of several passes through the Desire Engine.
Pulling the Trigger
The first step is bringing users in. But a successful trigger is much more than just a way to drive traffic, it’s an opportunity to start imprinting new routines. Josh Elman, an early product manager at a string of successful companies, including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, describes this as the point of “inception”– yes, like the movie. “Inception is about implanting an idea about why and when the product is useful for someone.” Since a user’s first awareness of a product depends on an external trigger, such as a call-to-action in an email, a link on a social media site, paid advertising, or a word-of-mouth recommendation, the message must be consistent. “People need to talk about your product the same way, each and every time,” Elman says.
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.
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.
For example, Voxer‘s simple walkie-talkie interface gives new functionality to the smartphone by replicating the “push to talk” experience within the app. Its few options give users limited functionality but focus on the one thing the app is built to do — send short audio messages.