Painkillers, Vitamins and habit in product design

Milan Vrekic
Mar 17, 2013 · 3 min read

If you talk to an early stage VC or an Angel Investor, they will often ask you to declare if you product is a “Painkiller or a Vitamin” product. What they mean by this analogy is “does your product solve a pain or you are making something that is solved — better”

There is really no sharp divide between solutions that are “vitamins” and solutions that are “painkillers”. It’s more of a continuum.

“Painkiller” products by definition have a quantifiable market, they can be monetized from the get-go and they solve a pain people know they have.

“Vitamin” products in contrast, appeal to the emotional need, not efficiency; they usually have an unknown market at the launch and they often start with “Wouldn’t it be cool if…

If we look at some of the largest web applications on the internet today (Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter…) it is easy to state that those products are “Vitamin” products as they have no pain component to them. If I said that the very first time you saw Facebook you could not see yourself using it more than once in a while — you would most likely agree.

Now, what Facebook and the best examples of the “Vitamin” products do well, is engage in a habit creating behaviour where the user comes to the web-site for pleasure seeking behaviour and over the time, the habit becomes so strong that NOT using the product becomes a pain. This is easy to illustrate again using the Facebook example: Just think about how you feel when you see a new message notification and you do not know who is it from?

For our brain, unknown is a fascination. We are wired to connect cause and effect. Similar effect is exploited successfuly by some of the biggest dating sites. You create your profile for free, you receive a message from someone and in order to see the message, you have to upgrade your subscription.

The brilliance of these companies is that over the time, they build habits that create the pain and then — sell you the remedy; combining the nature of both, “Vitamin” and “Painkiller” attributes in a company.

So, if you have a “vitamin” product, how do you add a bit of a “painkiller” in the product design cycle?

1.) Implement variable reward. Intermittent rewards INCREASE the response rate (did someone say gambling?) and the main driver is dopamine. Every time you receive an unexpected reward -your dopamine levels spike. Great practical example of this is Pinterest. Pinterest is designed in a way that entices you to scroll. One scroll is all they need to start the habit building process. Each scroll is a chance to be rewarded with a picture (pin) of something you like… so you just keep scrolling… When rewards are predictable, they become less rewarding. Zynga games are a good example of this, they have massive initial adoption rates and also a huge churn rate shortly after.

2.) Understand the motives for desired behaviour and build triggers to exploit them. People have seeking and avoiding motivators. Seeking motivators are pleasure, hope and acceptance. Avoiding motivators are pain, fear and rejection. Your triggers (popups, emails, calls to action…) must align with the right motivator. People join Facebook to seek social acceptance from their friends and avoid rejection by the group (think of all the Facebook organized events and parties that you know about just because of Facebook).

3.) Increase the action potential by making it easier to perform a desired action. Doing is easier than thinking. To understand this better, look into the Dr. BJ Fogg Behaviour model grid. Great example of this is evolution of the dropbox and twitter home page over the years:

4.) Negative emotions are painful and people will seek a “painkiller” to alleviate them. Depressed people check email more often. You can make an argument that email is what makes them depressed but a more likely explanation is that they check email looking for something that would “lift” their mood. This is where good UX comes into play, in competing products, identify negative experiences that would result in negative emotions and make sure that your product addresses those from the get-go.

This is by all means not a comprehensive list but it will get you started and pointed in the right direction.

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Blog of Milan Vrekic

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