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.
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.”
My wife put our daughter to bed, brushed her teeth, and freshened up before bed. Slipping under the covers, we exchanged glances and knew it was time to do what comes naturally for a couple on a warm night in Silicon Valley. We began to lovingly caress–but not each other, of course. She began to fondle her cell phone, while I tenderly stroked the screen of my iPad. Ooh, it felt so good.
If our nightly habits were any indication, we were having a love affair with our gadgets instead of each other. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones substituting foreplay for Facebook. According to a recent study, fully one-third of Americans would rather give up sex than lose their cell phones.
Fortunately for my wife and I, we learned how to end our liaisons with gizmos and successfully reclaim our lovelife. However, technology continues to change many of our most intimate behaviors and the story of how we broke our technophilia illustrates a method to break any number of habits we’d be better off without.
CUCKOLD BY THE INTERNET
First, we took a look at the problem and realized it was bigger than our sex lives. As technology becomes more pervasive, it is also becoming more persuasive. The result is products so seductive that they are increasingly difficult to resist. We are forming habits with unintended consequences and new bedroom practices are symptomatic of technology evolving faster than we are. The confluence of increased access, greater sharing of personal information, and at higher transmission speeds, has created the perfect storm of addictive technology.
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.”