How to Get Users to Fall in Love with Your Product | Product Habits (2/4)
Examples from Superhuman, Headspace and NGL
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This article is Part II of a 4-part series on Building Product Habits. Each article explores one of the four steps laid out in James Clear's best-selling book, Atomic Habits: cue, craving, response, and reward.
The Unfortunate Truth
We’re all beholden to our desires.
Sure, we’ve got willpower to overcome them, but as we all know well, that only goes so far. Sure, our desires can be more nuanced than a squirrel, but at the end of the day, our actions and, by extension, our habits are mostly dopamine-driven feedback loops.
As we develop products, the unfortunate truth is that we have to play the dopamine game. Because of that, I would highly encourage you to watch this video by Simon Sinek (only 6 minutes) just to help you understand the inherent risk of playing in that arena.
If we’re going to encourage our users to build a habit around our product, there's a responsibility to help our users build positive habits instead of harmful ones. I'll reserve the full ethics conversation for another day, but I’m going to assume we are on the same page and the goal here is to help build positive behavior.
With that in mind, let’s take a little trip back to high school science class.
📌 Biological Bookmarking
There’s this amazing chemical called Dopamine. It’s one of the four feel-good hormones along with serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.
Whenever we do something exciting or pleasurable, we get a hit of dopamine which is basically our brain's way of biologically bookmarking an activity so we come back to it again in the future.
When we get a little hit of dopamine, we have…
a bias toward action,
and a heightened ability to learn, memorize and make connections.
We basically turn into Bradley Cooper in the movie Limitless.
The cool thing with dopamine is that, because it's a proactive bookmarking system and not a reactionary reward system, we actually get a hit of dopamine in anticipation of the event. That’s our brain’s way of making sure we actually do the thing that’s good for us.
So when we trip over a Cue, we get a hit of dopamine which then encourages the action that leads to the actual reward where we get another little hit of dopamine. Rinse and repeat.
⬜️ Empty vs. ✅ Positive Goals
Since habit is the mechanism that our bodies use to put a bunch of tiny reps on autopilot, they're often directly associated with goals.
Part of what drives a user back to your product, isn't only the hit of dopamine they get with each rep. They also like to know that each rep is moving them toward something bigger. That's why it's important that we distinguish between "empty goals" and "positive goals".
Empty goals are the product equivalent of "empty calories" like cotton candy. Fun but mostly just fluff.
We saw an explosion of companies in the 2010's that rewarded users with meaningless badges and progress bars in an attempt to add a gamification layer to their products. But they were just empty goals. They didn’t lead to anything meaningful.
Don't get me wrong - badges and progress bars are fun! But the motivation is short lived because as soon as a user realizes that their efforts to earn a badge don't come with any tangible benefit, they churn.
Step 1: Set a positive goal
Rather than tying user behavior to meaningless metrics like earning points or collecting gems, try setting positive goals for your users that surface the natural wins and progress that the user makes during regular reps of your product.
A fantastic example of this is Superhuman, a beautiful email client for email power-users. Rahul Vohra, Superhuman's founder and CEO, talks about how they set the positive goal of "inbox zero" for their users. Inbox zero is a natural win for the user. Not some badge. But a meaningful, productive goal that moves the needle for their users in real life.
"At Superhuman, we set a very concrete goal: get to inbox zero. [...] When you hit inbox zero, you feel triumph over your email, a previously rare and incredibly rewarding experience."
Step 2: Make it attractive
Setting a positive goal is a great first step. But now we have to make it attractive so users get that dopamine hit that kicks off the habit-forming feedback loop. So Superhuman designed an inbox experience specifically to evoke emotions of pride and triumph that encouraged users to strive for that goal rather than let their inbox become cluttered. Using a combination of beautiful imagery and minimalistic design, Superhuman helps users feel like they did something that matters every time they hit inbox zero.
😍 Strategies of Attraction
Up to this point, we have...
set up a Cue to help our users "trip" over our product,
figured out the Product Rep that we want our users to take,
and established a Positive Goal for our users that each rep of the product over time will culminate in.
...and now it's time to figure out how to make it attractive.
Since dopamine is triggered by pleasure, the way that we initiate the beginning of the dopamine feedback loop is by connecting pleasure with the product rep and the goal.
This is an emotion wheel created by the Juno Institute. It's the same wheel that Superhuman used to help them identify pride and triumph as their target emotions.
Since dopamine is associated with positive emotion, the first step is to identify which positive emotion we want to design for. For example, love and surprise are very different emotions and would lead us to create starkly different product experiences. You can pick multiple, but I would suggest keeping it to a max of three or the experience may feel a bit jarring. Ideally, select emotions within the same “vein” of the emotion wheel so they feel cohesive like Superhuman did with pride and triumph.
It's important to note that this wheel is not comprehensive. For example, I was looking for the emotions of mischievous and powerful and could only find approximations for them. So don't feel confined just to the emotions listed on this wheel.
Ready to jump into some examples?
Sentimental: Super Mario Run’s nostalgic throwback
Peaceful: Headspace's guided meditations
Eager: NGL's anonymous Q&A
Hopeful: Robinhood's simple, free stock trading
Triumphant: Peloton's guided, community workouts
Playful: Snapchat's disappearing photos
Amused: FaceApp's "old" filter
Thankful: Flo's period tracking algorithm
Stimulated: TikTok's content algorithm
Astounded: Pokemon Go's augmented reality game
Shocked: Authentic Weather's copywriting
Hopefully that gets your gears turning! Go ahead and make a list of some of the ways you can infuse positive emotion into your product rep and goal. And don't be afraid to get a little weird with it. Too many products have lost their soul to the sterility of minimalism (I say this as a die-hard minimalist).
As a reminder, this is Part II of a 4-part series. Next week we're going to be exploring how to make the product rep dead simple for the user (even if your product is complicated). As always, it's gonna be packed with real-world examples.
Thanks for reading!
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Game Design, Not Gamification by Rahul Vohra is an excellent look into the ways we can build game mechanics around the product rep so that the user isn't earning badges for badges' sake but is actually deriving value from the game mechanics.
We’ve raised a generation on dopamine is an interview with Simon Sinek by Summer Rayne Oaks on the harmful impact that dopamine-powered products have had on our younger generations.