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, Flappy Bird 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 pipes. Yet Flappy Bird 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?
Why We Get Hooked
In 2008, a television series called Breaking Bad began receiving unprecedented critical and popular acclaim. The show followed the life of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who transforms himself into a crystal meth-cooking drug lord. As the body count on the show piled up season after season, so did its viewership. The first episode of the final season in 2013 attracted 5.9 million viewers and by the end of the series Guinness World Records dubbed it the highest-rated TV series of all time. Though Breaking Bad owes a great deal of its success to its talented cast and crew, fundamentally the program utilized a simple formula to keep people tuning in.
At the heart of every episode — and also across each season’s narrative arc — is a problem the characters must resolve. For example, during an episode in the first season, Walter White must find a way to dispose of the bodies of two rival drug dealers. Next, challenges prevent the resolution of the conflict and suspense is created as the audience waits to find out how the storyline ends. In this particular episode, White discovers one of the drug dealers is still alive and is faced with the dilemma of having to kill someone he thought was already dead.
Invariably, each episode’s central conflict is resolved near the end of the show, at which time a new challenge arises to pique the viewer’s curiosity. By design, the only way to know how Walter gets out of the mess he is in at the end of the latest episode is to watch the next episode.
The cycle of conflict, mystery and resolution is as old as storytelling itself, and at the heart of every good tale is uncertainty. The unknown is fascinating, and strong stories hold our attention by waiting to reveal what happens next. In a phenomenon called “experience-taking,” researchers have shown that people who read a story about a character actually feel what the protagonist is feeling. As we step into the character’s shoes we experience his or her motivations. We empathize with characters because they are driven by the same things that drive us.
But if the search to resolve uncertainty is such a powerful tool of engagement, why do we eventually lose interest in the things that once riveted us? Many people have experienced the intense focus of being hooked on a TV series, a great book, a new video game or even the latest gadget. Yet, most of us lose interest in a few days or weeks. Why does the power of these variable rewards seem to fade away?
The Finite and Infinite
Perhaps no company in recent memory epitomizes the mercurial nature of variable rewards quite like Zynga, makers of the hit Facebook game FarmVille. In 2009, FarmVille became an unmissable part of the global zeitgeist. The game smashed records as it quickly reached 83.8 million monthly active users by leveraging the Facebook platform to acquire new players. In 2010, as “farmers” tended their digital crops — while paying real money for virtual goods and levels — the company generated more than $36 million in revenue.
The company seemed invincible and set a course for growth by cloning its FarmVille success into a franchise. Zynga soon released CityVille, ChefVille, FrontierVille, and several more “-Ville” titles using familiar game mechanics in the hope that people would enjoy them as voraciously as they had FarmVille. By March 2012, Zynga’s stock was flying high and the company was valued at over $10 billion.
But by November of that same year, the stock was down over 80 percent. It turned out that Zynga’s new games were not really new at all. The company had simply re-skinned FarmVille, and soon players lost interest and investors followed suit. What was once novel and intriguing became rote and boring. The “Villes” had lost their variability, and with it, their viability. As the Zynga story demonstrates, an element of mystery is an important component of continued user interest.
Online games like FarmVille suffer from what I call “finite variability” — an experience that becomes predictable with use. While Breaking Bad built suspense over time as the audience wondered how the series would end, eventually interest in the show waned when it finally concluded. The series enthralled viewers with each new episode, but now that it is all over, how many people who saw it once will watch it again? With the plot lines known and the central mysteries revealed, the show just wouldn’t seem as interesting the second time around. Perhaps the show might resurrect interest with a new episode in the future, but viewership for old episodes people have already seen will never peak as it did when they were new. Experiences with finite variability become less engaging because they eventually become predictable.
Businesses with finite variability are not inferior per se, they just operate under different constraints. They must constantly churn out new content and experiences to cater to their consumers’ insatiable desire for novelty. It is no coincidence that both Hollywood and the video gaming industry operate under what is called the “studio model,” whereby a deep-pocketed company provides backing and distribution to a portfolio of movies or games, uncertain which one will become the next mega-hit.
This is in contrast with companies making products exhibiting “infinite variability” — experiences, which maintain user interest by sustaining variability with use. For example, games played to completion offer finite variability while those played with other people have higher degrees of infinite variability, because the players themselves alter the game-play throughout. World of Warcraft, the world’s most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game, still captured the attention of more than 10 million active users eight years after its first release. While FarmVille is played mostly in solitude, World of Warcraft is played with teams and it is the hard-to-predict behavior of other people that keeps the game interesting.
While content consumption, like watching a TV show, is an example of finite variability, content creation is infinitely variable. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter all leverage user-generated content to provide visitors with a never-ending stream of newness.
Of course, even sites utilizing infinite variability are not guaranteed to hold onto users attention forever. Eventually — to borrow from Michael Lewis’s book title — the “new, new thing” comes along and consumers migrate to it. However, products utilizing infinite variability stand a better chance of holding onto the user’s attention, while those with finite variability must constantly reinvent themselves just to keep pace.
Dong Nguyen, the Flappy Bird creator, has largely avoided media attention related to the spectacular success of Flappy Bird. However, Nguyen told Forbes he decided to take down Flappy Bird because it had become, “an addictive product.” While smoking several cigarettes during the interview, Nguyen told the reporter, “I think it has become a problem. To solve that problem, it’s best to take down Flappy Bird. It’s gone forever.”
So far, Nguyen’s goal of helping players break bad habits seems to have fallen short. Phones with the app installed were listed for sale on eBay within hours of the game’s demise. In Flappy Bird’s absence, a wave of clones appeared, hoping to siphon-off Nguyen’s success.
However, as inevitably as the world discarded the fads that came before it, the finite variability of a game where a bird flies through gaps of pipe will soon be forgotten — nostalgia of a time when a young man in Vietnam could get rich quick and become Internet famous. Had Nguyen wanted to see Flappy Bird go away, all he had to do was wait.
Top Consumer Psychology Articles
- The One Fitness App That Hooked Me For Good
- Here’s How Fortnite ‘Hooked’ Millions
- How Apps Can Shape Your Future Self
- How Netflix’s Customer Obsession Created a Customer Obsession
- Want to Design User Behavior? Pass the ‘Regret Test’ First
- How to Trigger Product Usage that Sticks
- How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off
- Here’s How Amazon’s Alexa Hooks You
- How to Use Psychology to Make Persuasive Video
- How to Use Personality Science to Drive Online Conversions
- The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology
- The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology
- Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do
- How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business
- What Most People Don’t Know About Behavioral Design
- How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design
- Your World is Full of Placebo Buttons (and That’s a Good Thing)
- How to Build Technology that Feels Like a Friend
- 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Tech Products
- Here’s How to Ethically Manipulate Other People
- How Two Companies Hooked Customers On Products They Rarely Use
- How to Hook Users in 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Die Dashboards, Die! Why Conversations Will Reinvent Software
- The Secret to Sending Emails and Notifications That Work
- How to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- Hooked for Good: How Habit-Forming Products Improve Lives
- Good Products Start With Good Questions
- Human + A.I. = Your Digital Future
- Why ‘Assistant-As-App’ Might Be the Next Big Tech Trend
- People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently.
- 4 Ways to Win Your Competitor’s Customer Habits (Slides)
- Here’s Why You’ll Hate the Apple Watch (and the Important Business Lesson You Need to Know)
- The Secret Psychology of Snapchat
- The Psychology of Notifications: How to Send Triggers that Work
- How Technology Tricks You Into Tipping More
- The Limits of Loyalty: When Habits Change, You’re Toast
- 4 Ways to Use Psychology to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- The Real Reason “Stupid” Startups Raise So Much Money
- The Psychology Behind Why We Can’t Stop Messaging
- The Psychology of a Billion-Dollar Enterprise App: Why is Slack so Habit-Forming?
- Framing Reward is as Important as Reward Itself
- A Free Course on User Behavior
- It’s Not All Fun And Games: The Pros and Cons of Gamification at Work
- Getting Traction: How to Hook New Users
- Designing for Behavior Change Book Review
- The Sneaky Trick Behind the Explosive Growth of the Kardashian Game
- How Successful Companies Design for Users’ Multi-Device Lives
- The Link Between Habits and User Satisfaction
- What Triggers The Best Word of Mouth Marketing?
- What Tech Companies Can Learn from Rehab
- The Secrets of Addictive Online Auctions
- Teach or Hook? What’s the Real Goal of Online Education?
- Using Mind Control to Raise Startup Cash
- How To Build Habits In A Multi-Device World
- How To Cope with Your Insane Jealousy Of The WhatsApp Deal
- Why Do Fads Fade? The Inevitable Death Of Flappy Bird
- You’d Be Surprised By What Really Motivates Users
- Nostalgia: A Product Designer’s Secret Weapon
- How You Can Help Users Change Habits
- Is “Lean Startup” Right for Your Idea?
- Hunting for Habits: Keying in on smart design to make a product irresistible
- Are Companies Too Obsessed With Growth? How to Measure Habits
- Refresh: The App a Secret Agent Would Love
- Angel or Devil: Who’s Really Investing In Your Start-Up?
- In 10 Years, We Won’t Use Personal Technology
- 4 Simple Things I Did to Control My Bad Tech Habits
- “Yes, And”: The Two Words that Created a #1 App
- From Laid to Paid: How Tinder Set Fire to Online Dating
- What if In-App Purchases Came to Real Life?
- Hooking Users One Snapchat at a Time
- How To Save Your Startup From The “Spotlight Effect”
- Bible App: Getting 100 Million Downloads is More Psychology Than Miracles
- How to Boost Desire Using the Psychology of Scarcity
- Marketplaces & The Curse of the Network Effect
- Today’s Behaviors, Tomorrow’s Startups
- Venture Capital and The Superstitious Investor
- The Future is Driven by Interface Changes
- Why Business is Addicted to Habits
- Viral Loops Or Viral ‘Oops’?
- Making a Marketplace
- What Killed Turntable.fm?
- What You Don’t Know About Human Intuition Can Hurt You
- Designing to Reward our Tribal Sides
- New Video – “Hooked: Building Habit-Forming Products”
- How Technology is Like Bug Sex
- Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do
- The Network Effect Isn’t Good Enough
- Mass Persuasion, One User At A Time
- How Investment Drives Engagement (Slides)
- Getting Your Product Into the Habit Zone
- Where Have The Users Gone?
- Infinite Scroll: The Web’s Slot Machine
- Designing User Habits Video
- Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain
- This is Your Brain On Boarding: How to Turn Visitors Into Users
- User Investment: Make Your Users Do the Work
- Behavior by Design Video
- When Designing for Good Is Bad
- Stop Building Apps, Start Building User Behaviors
- The Morality of Manipulation
- The Next Secrets of the Internet
- User Growth and Engagement: A Hacker Metric
- Spotting the Next Facebook: Why Emotions are Big Business
- The Billion Dollar Mind Trick: An Intro to Triggers
- Why Everyone Hates I.T. People
- Hooking Users In 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Abolish The Reference Check
- Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy
- How to Design Behavior (The Behavior Change Matrix)
- How To Design For “Normals”
- Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire
- User Habits: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts
- What Is, and Is Not, Your Product’s Job
- Pinterest’s Obvious Secret
- Personalized eCommerce Is Already Here, You Just Don’t Recognize It
- Where is the Web Going?
- The Developer Divide: When Great Companies Can’t Hire
- Being a Quitter Makes You a Good Entrepreneur
- Behavior by Design
- Why You Should Run Your Business Barefoot
- Are you a Startup Star, Wacko, or Wannabe?