Designed for self-deception

What does neuroscience have to do with product and marketing?

Great products are difficult to build. The fine balance between creativity and understanding how a human mind works continues to define the likelihood of a product’s success. In my job as an early stage investor, I test at least 20–30 products each week. On average I spend a quarter of my time studying data regarding consumer engagement. I also study marketing strategies as ways to engineer growth. Fine-tuning products and marketing strategies dynamically in response to user behaviour data is evermore done in real-time. It is fascinating to see how tuning micro UX loops to a user’s natural behaviour can affect the overall engagement rate. To that extent, neuroscience is increasingly used as a framework to understand the relationship between rational and emotional decision-making, helping teams develop UX and messaging that work. Given the vast array of data that we are exposed to, we find it crucial to continue sharpening our analysis toolkit in an ambition to move from big data to smart data analysis.

We were recently joined by Nathalie Nahai and Douglas van Praet, two leading experts in the field of neuroscience, to learn about system 1 (pilot mode) and system 2 (auto-pilot mode), focusing on how leading brands are using behavioural analysis to win over customers. Furthermore, we also looked into how some of our companies, like Jukely and Qapital are working with behavioural scientists in their product development efforts. Nathalie and Douglas took Founders, CPOs, and CMOs from our community of portfolio companies and friends, through ways of harnessing behavioural sciences in product development and marketing strategy. Our key learnings are shared below.

1. Cognitive neuroscience is proving that humans are irrational decision-makers with minds designed for self-deception.

A/B split testing is the best way to get feedback on what the customer does, rather than what they say. Through eye-tracking and other behavioural metrics, it is even possible to test and refine almost instantaneously. Check out what Sticky and Tobii are doing in this field.

2. Product architecture can benefit immensely from understanding and working with what Nathalie Nahai refers to as 5 principles of persuasive product design: Endowed Progress, Sunk-Cost Fallacy, Appointment Dynamic, Opportunity Cost (attention, time and money), Hedonic Adaptation.

3. Even ‘universal’ motivators (financial, social, habitual) are culturally contextual and importantly, congruent with the product or service being delivered. Companies have to be careful to choose the motivators that will work for their particular context.

4. Communicate USPs on a subconscious level. People are dual minded creatures; pattern detectors and followers. Consider Spotify’s somewhat unexpected color palette upgrade as part of its wider branding renewal, and the costs associated to making the change, from one shade of green to another. Whilst on first sight barely noticeable, and thus questionable as a subtle degree of change, to the design team at Spotify it became apparent that the color needed to be more “pop” to stay relevant to the increasingly millennial audience. Following an initial period of user shock (lesson learned, the user feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

5. Perception is illusionary: great brands tap into emotions most, if not all the time. We need to lead with emotions and provide rational proof points — emotionally competent stimuli:

  1. feelings: stories, metaphors, art, music, poetry, symbols
  2. facts: spark emotions, give permission

6. Pick your stimulator(s): survival, safety, social status, sex, small fry (i.e. babies and animals), sustenance, surprise. Every successful brand in the world deploys at least one of these in its messaging. Douglas van Praet’s analysis of top viral memes and campaigns over the last few years found that all contain some of these basic stimulators. These are linked to a hierarchy of needs that is hard-wired within all of us, and which we can rationalize from, but not so easily without. We feel our way to reason.

7. Challenger brands have a unique position — scientifically speaking: the human mind is a prediction machine, and only notices interruptions of patterns. Make use of this.

8. Ethics of persuasion versus coercion: increasingly coming into the discourse of product architecture, particularly when it comes to consumer products. All principles above need to be used with caution. Depending on your product target audience there is a lower or higher resilience to these factors, and using them too much can dissuade your users (for more on this see:

We see the power of motivators at work in many of our portfolio companies. Fishbrain’s “catch of the week” ranking creates a sense of appointment dynamics and social ranking amongst anglers. Seriously, Space Ape, and Dots are games companies that offer micro rewards for coming back into the game on a daily basis. Spotify’s Discover Weekly function is in itself a very compelling example of the ‘appointment dynamic’, or a reward for using the service during the week, and then there are companies like Matsmart, who have the financial reward of deal hunting AND doing social good at the core of their business model.

Both presentations from the event are available here.

About the experts

Douglas Van Praet is founder of a brand strategy consultancy whose approach to marketing draws from Unconscious Behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics to business problems. He has positioned many of the world’s most iconic brands through highly effective and award winning campaigns.

Inc. Magazine named his book, Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing, one of the 10 Best Marketing Books of 2014. Van Praet’s work has been featured in international news media including Time Magazine, Forbes, Fast Company, Business Insider, Psychology Today, UK Telegraph, BBC News, Contagious Magazine, Communicate/Advertising Age, WOR News in New York City, and Expert Marketer Magazine. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company and Psychology Today.

For more information:

Nathalie Nahai is a web psychologist, international speaker and author of the best-selling book, Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion (Pearson).

The foremost expert in web psychology, Nathalie helps businesses apply scientific rigour to their website design, content marketing and products. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies, design agencies and SMEs, including Google, eBay, Unilever and Harvard Business Review, to name a few.

Nathalie lectures internationally on the digital application of behavioural sciences, co-hosts the Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast, and contributes to national publications, TV and radio on the subject of online behaviour.

She is also the founder of Humanise The Web (a conference that explores both how the internet influences our behaviours, and how businesses can harness persuasive technologies for good), and sits on the Social Media Week advisory board and Ogilvy Change experts’ panel.

For more information: