The Best Products Don’t Care If You’re Happy
What brain chemicals like dopamine are actually for.
“Get the dopamine flowing.”
The new age of behavior-driven design, habit loops, and virality has created a growth movement that I like to call “brain-hacking”.
In the same way that college undergrads ate up The 4-Hour Work Week because Ferris promised a way to work way less and earn way more, brain-hacking offers a selection of biological and neurological “quirks” that promise to take your customers from boring, average consumers to devout superfans in minutes. Human brains decide to pay for goods and services, and human brains operate on chemical triggers, so why not influence those chemical triggers to convince humans to buy goods and services?
At the core, this makes perfect sense. Neurological research has finally uncovered the building blocks of human behavior, and the courser details have wandered into the public realm of daily conversation. If you want to get to bed earlier, turn off your computer because the light tricks your brain into producing less melatonin. Being in love produces the same cocktail of chemicals as someone using hard drugs. Alcohol not only slows down your brain, but also releases endorphins which make you think that fifth drink is a perfectly reasonable idea. Brain chemistry has become pop psychology, and as a result, designers and engineers have a new panel of levers to pull when building products that customers love.
As it turns out, we have been playing the brain chemical game forever without addressing the chemical names directly. Advertisements fifty years ago were engineered to use fear or insecurity to drive sales. You’ve probably heard the phrase “sex sells” more than once in your life. Dale Carnegie’s golden classic How To Win Friends And Influence People picks out the social interactions that result in the most satisfaction for both parties. We used to call them “feelings” and now we have labels to describe the components that they are made of.
After designs are semi-polished and features work reasonably well, a product organization tends to float towards the goal of better retention. How do we get people to stick around? What should the user be feeling when they use our product?
“The user should be excited to use our product”, says a designer.
“They should have a WOW moment where everything clicks”, says another.
“They should be able to see the value of the product in just a few minutes”, says someone else.
“Pumped”, “excited”, “wowed”, “addicted”, “thrilled”, “ready to share”, are some other adjectives you expect to hear in that same meeting. The consensus is the same:
“Users of our product should be overjoyed or we simply aren’t doing it right.”
In this post, I want to propose something a little more radical:
Customers don’t need to feel a certain way for you to build a habit-forming product.
Designing for feelings is shortsighted, and oftentimes annoying. Effectively designing for dopamine, serotonin, and other brain chemicals is best described as “straightforward” and “socially aware”.
Let’s dive in to the details of these habit-forming molecules, and then we’ll walk through a few product examples. Ready?
Serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins
Before we can shout at our coworkers about building an animated, sparkle-covered high-five modal, let’s run through a little bit of background on what these chemicals do in the human body.
Serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins are categorized as neurotransmitters. These molecules are used by cells (usually neurons) to communicate and influence cellular reactions between cells. Serotonin and dopamine are small molecules, which makes them especially fit to act as local chemical messengers for all kinds of cells.
Serotonin is found primarily in your gut (about 90%) where it is used to regulate digestive functions. The rest is created in the central nervous system where it has been found to regulate mood, appetite, and sleep, while also having an influence on memory and learning. A lack of serotonin in the body has been shown to be connected with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, falling obsessively in love, and the impulsive behavior associated with drinking alcohol (which decreases bodily serotonin). Product designers might care about serotonin for its qualities associated with love and evangelism.
Dopamine is found primarily in the brain and it is used to regulate and influence reward-motivated behavior as well as some motor control. Although it’s been slow goings for scientists studying structures of the brain, the popular hypothesis is that the basal ganglia region is a particularly important dopamine-powered system, acting as a mechanism for deciding which actions to take. A higher level of dopamine activity makes an action more likely to be decided upon. In addition, when an action is decided upon, the basal ganglia will lower the “threshold” needed to decide on the same action in the future. What the basal ganglia doesn’t do, however, is carry out the action that was decided on (it only decides). Too much dopamine can result in impulsive behavior or movements (think cocaine) and too little dopamine can result in slow reaction time.
Dopamine is a central player in the reward system of the human brain. A misconception is that dopamine increase is positively correlated with “liking” something, when in fact it is most strongly associated with “wanting” something. The most extreme examples are drug addicts, who crave substances that massively increase dopamine activity, and yet do not particularly enjoy taking drugs after they have built up a tolerance. In a less extreme example, new habits are formed as the dopamine response from an external cue becomes associated with an action. This potential to drive repetitive action is why dopamine is so interesting to product designers.
Endorphins are natural painkillers manufactured inside of the body. They are mostly used to block pain in response to high stress or injury. Endorphins are “opioid” molecules, which means they are similar to other substances like opium or morphine. A high dose of any opioid can cause euphoria, and the effect from opioids are quite addictive. This could be a reason that some people are “thrill-seekers”, putting themselves into high-stress situations in order to produce a large dose of endorphins. The addictive quality of opioids is what puts endorphins on the map for product designers (although they may find that this kind of addiction isn’t what they are really looking for).
Designing for delight
Remember how we learned that dopamine is more about “wanting” than “liking”? Sometimes, product designers can get that mixed up. Too much focus on feelings of joy or excitement can be quickly exhausting. Usually, the products that collect eye-rolls are the ones where they expect you to feel excited when you simply… don’t.
It’s no surprise that “customer happiness” has become (and arguably has always been) a focus for the newest generation of businesses, because those who focus on delight are seeing far less churn, higher LTV:CAC, more referrals, and greater opportunities over time.
For those who build consumer or freemium products, it is especially important to build “delight” into the product itself in order to keep retention sky high and to supercharge acquisitions through referrals and evangelism. There are some who argue that focusing on delight puts more important, basic interactions to the backburner, but there are plenty of examples of companies that have succeeded through delight-oriented strategies, therefore the movement is being taken seriously.
“One witty email won’t change your business, but a series of little moments can create a great experience for your customers and keep them coming back.”
Delight is about small, positive moments that build up over time. What if designers try too hard to manufacture these moments? What if the product experience doesn’t line up with expectations set by sales and marketing content? Customers start being exposed to experiences that have good intentions but fail to hit the mark.
Let’s talk about support chat. The way a company handles their lowest-friction customer support mechanism is fairly indicative of the attitudes that they have about customer delight. I have had countless experiences with a particular internet provider (for the sake of this example I’ll call them “Flexfinity”) who has trained their support reps to say things like:
“Sure Geoff. I can absolutely help you with that. You are in the right hands and your satisfaction is my goal.”
And then something like:
“Let me check that for you. While the system is loading, let me tell you about a new offer from Flexfinity…”
“I understand completely. Please wait while I transfer you to another department.”
From a problem-solving perspective, showing “value” (a new offer) and reassuring the customer that you care about them are all contributing to the goal of customer delight. In reality, these interactions are forced and disconnected from real life.
Much of the disconnect comes from saying one thing and doing another. When companies like PayPal promise financial security and freedom and then require you connect a bank account, two credit cards, and your social security number in order to withdraw funds beyond a daily limit, they begin to erode customer delight. On the other hand, Venmo (unsurprisingly owned by PayPal) is doing a great job at sticking to the basics by eventually putting the limits on merchants and allowing the consumers to add and withdraw funds as they please. The ease of use and no-nonsense processing of funds is what fuels customer loyalty, and every repeated successful match of expectation and outcome on Venmo rewards the customer with a nice dose of dopamine.
Once a customer reaches that “delighted” state, it’s assumed that they are much more likely to carry out actions that are beneficial to the company they are delighted with, like sharing, referring, and upgrading. Is there a good time to ask for these things, or should you simply wait for it to happen? Marketing and sales strategies lean towards suggesting activity instead of waiting for it to occur organically.
Yet, it’s difficult to know what the right moment for suggestion is. There is a tendency for product-builders to become biased and over-estimate current levels of delight when pushing for action. A great example of this concept is the moment where a product asks you to share something to your social network. If the designers are considerate, they will have placed this proposal somewhere after you have “seen value” within the product, like making a purchase, creating a campaign, or reading a blog post. The idea is that, at this moment, you have crossed a threshold of emotional response to the product and sharing it with your network will be not only valuable to you, but a fair trade for the value you were given by the product.
Sharing to a social network is considered “high-friction”, meaning that there is a considerable threshold that a person has to reach before their basal ganglia decides that they should share something with all of their Facebook friends. A person unconsciously weighs many pros and cons of sharing something with their network, like “what is in it for me?”, “do my friends care about this?”, “is this valuable information?”, “do I want to be publicly associated with this brand?”. More often than not, requests to share socially don’t come close to reaching the decision threshold, and so the average user has learned to expect and ignore these requests as one more step to skip in the process of using a product.
It seems that customer delight is a combination of customer freedom, accurate expectations, and being socially competent. Once these basics are met, some companies attempt to go further by exploiting the dopamine system…
Designing for WOW-factor
Wow-factor, by definition, is about surprises. The dopamine system responds to unexpected results much more heavily than expected results, so why not build a product with value-add zinging from all directions? Product designers run into a few problems with this approach: the surprises don’t add any real value, or the surprises are placed inappropriately within the experience.
If you are a Nintendo enthusiast, you might have been turned on to their new “social experiment” Miitomo. The app lets you create a look-alike character which talks to you and asks you questions. Your friends can create their own characters and these characters will “visit” each other, letting you answer questions and ask questions as though this character is acting as your friend’s ambassador. For people who are less inclined to reach out on their own, this app removes the need to actually speak to someone in live conversation, instead opting for an experience similar to “you go and tell her that I said this”.
A friend of mine collects Nintendo products, so it’s no surprise that he asked me to try it out. I am usually skeptical of new social networks because product designers understand that habit-forming is the most important part of social network app adoption, which means a potential for creating awkward or annoying experiences in the name of habit. Right off the bat, I learned that Miitomo is no exception.
I opened the app to get some screenshots for this post and before I could do anything, I was given these screens, one after the other:
Gah! I know this is supposed to be exciting… but all I did to deserve this onslaught was open the app (plus, it’s very clear that this app was designed by a game company, with coins and levels and customization items galore). Why do I need to know all of this stuff in the first few moments of use? Even worse, there is plenty of space to put these notifications somewhere on the idle screen where I could discover them on my own:
Technically, these popups are surprises, but what they aren’t is appearing when they are important. The design team decided that users who open Miitomo want to know that information first, but what it actually does is distract from the core value of the app: talking and sharing information with friends. Additionally, if I am presented with unwanted popups every time I open the app, my dopamine response is greatly reduced as I learn to expect and ignore these messages. As a result, the advantage of WOW-factor is lost in a few days (and yet, it’s not hurting them very much. Must be a Nintendo thing).
One of my all-time favorites for examples of confusing rewards is Tagged, “The social network for meeting new people”.
I’ll be straightforward about this — I have no idea what’s going on in Tagged. If there is a book on gamification, they have not only read it but implemented every single example given. Even better, I haven’t logged into Tagged in a couple of years and I seem to have 400M Gold and my profile is Level 2519 (but my Value is less than one cent, bummer). In addition, Pets seem to have avatars of people, which makes me think that I’d be buying and selling people if I started a Pet trade. Someone correct me if I’m misinterpreting anything.
One thing is for certain, if there was any dopamine response from the activity generated on Tagged, it’s been replaced with adrenaline from needing to escape the overwhelming experience.
Getting it right
What are the best products made of? I like to think that a product worth investing in sports a polished core experience that first exceeds then consistently meets expectations, brandishes a clear, easily-digestible vision, and is paired with a knowledgeable community of people to get you a little bit closer to the decision-making process. Focusing on brain chemicals like endorphins or dopamine is not a strategic step-one, or even a step-five (unless you are DraftKings, perhaps).
Below are some examples, but this list is very far from exhaustive.
Exceeding expectations through simplicity
Oftentimes, we’ll see an overwhelming success from products that are so simple that users inevitably build habits around them in the first few uses. Great examples of this are utilities like Venmo and Snapchat:
Dopamine response to the first instantly successful payment or the first deleted snap message is enough to restart the trigger/activity loop. The loops are short and low-friction with high dopamine payoff. These apps work a person’s dopamine system in the same way that a bag of potato chips does (except, of course, you won’t have an upset stomach after). Most importantly, these apps don’t try hand you a reward or a surprise; the core experience alone is enough to delight because the core experience has very little to do with the app itself. The core experience is all about interacting with other people.
Meeting expectations through customization
The majority of products being built today are more complicated by nature. Enterprise software is oftentimes less about delighting customers and more about getting a decision-maker to sign a multi-year contract. Founders with a strong vision and a groundbreaking product still struggle with bringing customers “delight”.
Many times, the answer to habitual use comes from customization — different customers will want to use your software in different ways than you could imagine. Organizational tools like Trello start as a blank slate, letting you mold the boards, columns, and labels to the needs of your team.
GitHub’s Atom editor is built to be infinitely customizable, allowing you to create themes and shortcuts that fit your style.
When you allow for easy customization, you give customers control over their experience. Customized products are also harder to ditch for vanilla alternatives because of the amount of effort customers spend on crafting a system closely aligned to their needs. However, some people are not interested in customization, so your products better work to solve problems just as effectively in their default state.
Exceeding expectations through reduction
Another reason that customers may turn into evangelists is due to your ability to simplify a complex domain. I never thought I’d say this, but two years in a row I have been incredibly impressed with Intuit’s once-a-year tax machine TurboTax. They realized that the average person has a pretty bad handle on the details of filing annual U.S. tax paperwork (myself included). The solution? Hide all of the paperwork and replace it with casual conversation.
The removal of anxiety mixed with the relative ease of progress makes TurboTax a dopamine goldmine. I can work on the sections in any order I want knowing that the software will guide me through them with the same enthusiasm. If I need help, the interface will go slow and try to clear up confusion. If I am familiar with how to file my taxes, I can cherrypick the sections I need to complete and quickly move on.
After I am blown away by the easy of my first time use, I come back and expect to have the same experience next year. Guess what? Even if I have a totally different set of taxes to file, the interface follows the same pattern and I leave the experience as a happy customer (even if I owe the government a bunch of cash).
Visions set expectations
This mostly goes without saying, but the act of exceeding early expectations is only possible when you set the right expectations up front.
Adobe Photoshop is a professional visual design software which is awesome for graphic artists and digital designers but not that great for a grandma trying to get rid of red eye before posting vacation photos on Facebook. They use words like “professional”, “artboards”, and “Typekit”.
Hired is a digital job market focused on placement in the software space. They very clearly cater their landing pages to the candidate (probably because they do manual legwork to find companies who will bid) and they lay the entire process out in front of you on their home page. For some companies this is unheard of, but for Hired, they realize that setting expectations now is the way to keep candidates from leaving.
On the flip side, Close.io is setting expectations that make me uneasy. Calling, tracked emails, and beautiful UI are the most important things for closing more deals (it seems), which means that if I don’t close more deals, perhaps the 1-click calling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The vision seems to be less geared towards core sales rep/manager needs and more towards a problem with clunky interfaces. It’s a vision, but not a very clear one.
Knowledgeable, passionate community
A fourth, less magical way to build habitual use of your product is through community support and benefits. By being closely connected with the product builders and other customers, you have the opportunity to project more value onto the product itself (in the same way that some people “only buy American cars”). Users of the design tool Sketch are sent a periodic newsletter that is full of plugins and useful information. You can even attend events and meetups that bring you closer to other Sketch users. These emails are far from advertisements — in fact, they feed the creative mind which in turn gives customers additional reasons to use the product.
It won’t seem like much of surprise, then, that small game development companies are taking the community approach to success. Game distribution platform Steam has given companies the ability to publish and gamers the ability to play-test games in their Early-Access/Beta phases. These games can be full of bugs (or even unplayable) but the community of passionate gamers are willing to step up and give feedback in order to be closer to the development and feel proud of the final product.
The forces that push customers back to your product are strongly oriented towards interactions with people in the real world — that could mean peers, your manager, or simply yourself and your personality. Enabling people to do what they imagine they can do with your product is more important than any number of high-five illustrations, badges, points, or tee shirts.
- Don’t stop until you’ve made your vision both consistent and digestible across every part of your product and marketing content.
- Exceed customers’ expectations early, meet high expectations after.
- Tie your product back to the real world as much as you can and encourage a community to form around it (moderated, or not).
There are more ways to act on these principles than the examples I provided above. Many brilliant design teams have put their own spin on vision, expectations, and community. I could write ten more blog posts and not cover them all.
“Don’t tell me how to feel”
I hope that the future of consumer software is less about delivering delight and more about letting people delight themselves through their own experiences. My favorite apps are the ones that act as a metaphorical wine glass — I don’t feel one way or the other about the glass itself, but once I don’t have it, I feel weird drinking wine from a regular cup, not to mention doing that in front of other people who drink wine. The wine community is passionate about the liquids that can go into the wine glass, which fuels the repetitive use of the glass. A wine glass is a “great fit” for that activity, and thus it gets my attention for years until something else establishes itself as the new standard for holding wine.
Just to clarify, one chemical you probably shouldn’t optimize your product for is alcohol. I can handle that on my own, thanks.