The Mind Game Game Is Over
If your startup needs to trick
people to succeed, your product
probably isn’t good enough.
THOMAS GOETZ ; LAUNCHPAD
work against you as for you. Costolo quickly spotted something that many startups are too slow to recognize: Humans
behave in strange ways. Woe to those companies that think
they can bend our brains to their benefit.
This is surely the case with gamification, which five years
back was seen as the secret to luring consumers into all sorts of
behaviors. Badges and tokens were everywhere, rewarding you
for checking in (Foursquare) or checking out (Expedia). Alas,
badges and tokens are no substitute for satisfying human needs
for novelty and utility. Gamification has been so misused that
the entire shtick is exhausted.
And now there’s the latest fad: scarcity. Mastered by the
hotel site Booking.com, scarcity dangles supposedly disappearing o;erings, such as hotel rooms, like they’re apples
from Eden. Amazon, Airbnb, and others insert little prompts
that hint at dwindling inventories or fast-approaching expiration dates that compel us to buy now, lest we miss out.
Many companies are abusing scarcity—maybe I should call
it scare-ity—by using sketchy numbers or arbitrary deadlines.
EBay, for instance, often invokes scarcity by labeling some
products as “almost gone” without noting a deadline or the
number of remaining units. This is pure manipulation, and it’s
not only unfair, it’s ultimately self-defeating. “People don’t like
to be manipulated, and they’ll find out eventually,” says David
Teodorescu, a UX designer and writer who has analyzed the
psychology of scarcity. “Scarcity taps into a psychological bias
we humans have, but companies and designers need to use it
Those mind games never work for long; people get wise.
It’s time for a new crop of startups to recognize that—and
to exploit it.
his past February, Dick Costolo
did something smart: He shut
down his startup, Chorus, even
though, at less than a year old,
it had real customers and money
in the bank.
Costolo, the former CEO of
Twitter, had hoped that Chorus
would help motivate people
to exercise by signing them up into teams of friends. The prob-
lem, he said, was that instead of encouraging people to stay
committed to their workouts, the presence of a support group
meant that if anyone slacked o;, the app actually
made the person feel guilty—so he or she wouldn’t use it. Psy-
chologists call this the abstinence violation e;ect. Alerts about
a teammate’s progress didn’t motivate people to use the app—
on the contrary, they just made them feel bad.
To my mind, Chorus gallops out as the first horseman of
the coming Notification Apocalypse: the overuse and overdependence on notifications, reminders, and prompts in consumer software and apps to encourage users to do something
that they really may not want to do. Too many companies rely
on an alert’s popping up on a mobile screen without thinking
through whether the message—or the product or the company—is one that people actually want. For many of these
firms, a reckoning is sure to come.
Notification abuse is just one example of a larger challenge
among so many new tech companies—companies that have
seized on the latest hacks of human psychology and the
pseudoscience of A/B testing to create highly optimized, highly
manipulative products. These hacks typically come in the form
of user experience, or UX, fads: progress bars or gamification
badges or status points. At best, these fads seem like a benign
and fun way to beguile users into certain behaviors.
But when your company is trying to manipulate consumers
into doing something, human psychology is just as likely to
Thomas Goetz (@tgoetz) is a co-founder
of Iodine, a digital health startup based
in San Francisco.