Monday, August 27, 2012

Michelle Ahronovitz on Nir Eyal's "Creating Desire"

The Memories of a Product Manager has its' first guest blogger.
Michelle Ahronovitz is a fourth year psychobiology student at UC Davis. She is currently a Research Assistant at the MIND Institute in Sacramento, focusing on Autism research and spent the last summer serving a preceptorship in psychiatry at St. Joseph's Hospital in Atlanta. 

I always used to think business was confusing. Frequently, I would read my dad's blogs and become mixed up over all the specific terminology. But a quick peruse of issues of HBR and my most recent experience of attending Lean Start-Up Circle's event with Nir Eyal titled "Building a Desire Engine" and I realized something. Business is merely an extension of psychology.

The premise of Thursday's presentation is simple enough: how do you make a product that is not only desirable, but, after a given amount of time, habitual. Eyal presented the 100+ audience with well-known examples such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Being a 20-something college student, these products are a fundamental part of my social media/social life experience. There are two ways I view this dependency: as a consumer, I am considered a success story for these companies. As a psychology student, it is a fundmental example of classic theories.

Eyal addresses these theories throughout his presentation even citing studies done by researchers at Stanford University where he lectures. (Personal side note: Stanford University's psychology department has produced some of most predominant studies in psychology and I frequently see them referred to in my lectures).

A classic example of Eyal's psychology application to creating a desirable product is his illustration of a "desire engine."

There two kinds of triggers: external and internal. This is a topic frequently covered in psychology, the most obvious that comes to mind is intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Levels of intrinsic motivation (and I would not be surprised if there was a connection to susceptibility to triggers) are determined early in life. A famous study that demonstrates this is known amongst psychologists as the Marshmallow Experiment (conducted - where else? - Stanford University.) The basic gist is that intrinsic motivation is inherently defined in the self and as a child can accurately predict levels of intrinsic motivation and delayed gratification during adulthood. 

When the trigger is strong enough, however, it can break even the strongest delayers of gratification as demonstrated by the Fogg Behavior Model.

As Eyal shared during his presentation, that formula looks scary and mathematical, but all it's really saying is that behavior is a combination of motivation, ability and triggers. The position of triggers indicate that in order for a behavior to occur, the trigger must exceed the ability/motivation curve due to some combination of the two. 

Now we understand the contributing factors, so where does the motivation come from? Why do we feel the need to obsessively check our e-mails, phones, Facebooks? I did not have this inherent need as a 10 year old, so where does this come from? 


These three factors dictate how behavior is encouraged and it is the same in psychology: we seek satisfaction for ourselves (this is one of the basises of Freudian psychology, but I won't discuss that here), but as humans are also an inherently social species, we seek social gratification at every turn. These successful products provide us with the social gratification. But more than that, they leave us craving MORE.

The mechanism of the "want" can be explained by classic behaviorist  and social psychology theory, which I will briefly describe.

The first (very historical) example that was used in the presentation is that of Skinner's Box as an example of effectiveness in scheduling of reward with training a specific behavior. 

B.F. Skinner put rats in a cage that contained a lever and a machine that released pellets of food. When the pellets where released on a fixed interval (after a certain amount of time), after a few hits of the lever, the rat left it alone. This is because the rat figured out that regardless of a pushing the lever, food would come. When the food came on a variable interval though (unpredictable), the rat pushed the lever almost incessantly because it was unable to determine whether the lever was responsible for making the food come or not. 

Sounds like a silly experiment, but think about it: when you receive an e-mail, a response on Twitter, or a notification on Facebook - do you know when it's coming? And once you receive it, do you simply check it and log off? No. You sit there and you peruse. Referring back to the second diagram in my post, this is what Eyal referred to when he was discussing variable reward.

Now we come to the last turn of the wheel of desirability, the component that keeps us all in it for the long haul: investment. We don't merely use these resources, we are invested in them. This is social psychology in action! How, you ask?

Eyal gave several psychological study examples to drive this point home, but the basis of it was what social psychologists refer to as "the foot in the door" technique. It is best explained through example:

Imagine someone knocks on your door and asks you, "Good afternoon, might you be willing to donate $50 to [insert noble cause here]?" What is your immediate reaction? "Sorrynothanksgoodbye" and you promptly slam the door in their face.

Now what if they had started out with "Good afternoon, I'd like to tell you about [insert noble cause here]." And after a few minutes of schmoozing you and pulling at your heartstrings, they ask for a donation. Whether your common sense allows you to think so or not, statistically, you are much more likely to make a donation in this instance. 

This is the most basic explanation, but as Eyal demonstrated it is easily applied to the products, services and applications we use today. 

Using these simple, time-tested techniques of psychology and a greater understanding of the human mind, people like Nir Eyal are developing products that society not only wants and needs, but cannot live without. He is an example of a facilitator. His final slide of the night gave a solid piece of advice for all the entrepreneurs out there striving to attain this:

Psychology isn't a mystery or a secret, it's who we are. Attempt to understand that and you're well on your way to making the next desirable product.

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