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Grandma Was a Behavior Designer

Updated: Dec 6, 2022

My grandmother mastered the art of designing sticky experiences. She knew that people cherish experiences more than things, and that memories are about the journey as much as the destination. So, she transformed my seventh birthday celebration with a weathered treasure map with clues, hidden surprises and riddles at every turn until finally, hours later, we found a giant treasure chest full of gold coins and – that thing she knew I’d always wanted – a toy pirate ship! Grandma for the win!

Fast-forward 30+ birthdays later, and the memory sticks with me, not only for personal reasons, but also because it aligns so well with the behavioral science underpinning how our brains translate experiences into memories. According to the Peak-End Rule, in hindsight we judge experiences largely by how they were at their peak moments and at their end. Which begs the question “What makes the peaks, peak?” In other words, what is the DNA of micro-moments that imprint in our brains more than others?

I’ve found that question so intriguing and important that I dedicated myself to identifying five principles for designing stickier experiences. And since we’re talking memory here, I couldn’t help but create a simple pneumonic device: The Five A's.

1. Anticipation is about creating the craving for a reward that builds what I call “motivation momentum.” Behavioral research shows that consumers prefer to delay desirable outcomes to savor the pleasure. Often we get more delight from the anticipation and memory of the experience than from the actual experience itself. Amping up anticipation is what the movie trailer was designed for, and it’s why Starbucks insists on hyping up

the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Airlines and hotels build anticipation by reminding us of our upcoming trips and suggesting activities to enjoy while we’re in town.

2. Autonomy is about offering choice to make customers feel smart and in control. Self-Determination Theory posits that we have a strong desire to be self-directed and tend to be more engaged in an experience when we perceive we have the freedom to choose. This is especially true for millennials – digital natives who have grown up surrounded by a wide array of choices from online content to flexible employment. Mobile ordering systems enable customers to customize their sandwich or espresso. Airlines and concert ticket apps empower customers to select their own seats. Now the Hilton Honors App even lets you select your own hotel room from the floor plan! But it’s critical to remember the paradox of choice and not overwhelm customers with too many options. Often, a smart balance can be struck by curating several good options (three’s always good), and using choice architecture to gently nudge in one direction without curtailing choice. This lets custome

rs feel the freedom of control, but in a manageable way that encourages them to move forward.

3. Astonishment is about delivering a pleasant surprise that breaks through the clutter to capture customers’ attention, create a moment of pause and amp emotions. Our brains are pattern recognition machines designed to process and translate experiences into predictions for the future and heuristics for decision-making. When we’re expecting a zig but experience a zag our brains go into hyper-drive, releasing an exhilarating dose of dopamine and activating what Tania Luna, co-author of "Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected,” calls our “surprise sequence.” We first stop briefly and actively engage in the moment. Then we seek to find an explanation; we shift our perspective; and finally, we share our experience with others. “Surprise and delight” examples abound. Heineken surprised travelers by daring them to play “Departure Roulette” – pulling a lever and dropping their plans to immediately travel to a random destination. MasterCard’s “Priceless Surprises” program delights customers with unexpected gifts like high-end cupcakes or even a VIP trip to see Justin Timberlake perform, and then invites customers to share their surprises with family and friends. And, love it or hate it, who can forget the Unicorn Frappuccino?

But don’t get too carried away with surprising customers. At our core we want to feel safe and secure, perhaps with the illusion of uncertainty or danger. So it’s important to acknowledge this human desire for “safe exploration” by creating a foundation of trust and familiarity with injections of surprise and delight to keep the experience fresh and exciting.

4. Affect is about creating an emotional connection through simple reminders of humanity. We have a bias for more intense emotional experiences, in part because emotions serve a critical biological function; they’re powerful physiological signals that encourage us to move toward someone or something… or run away. We’re also herd animals that long for safety in community, and while technology has made us more connected than ever before, the sad truth is we often feel quite isolated and lonely. So we crave any reminder that we’re not alone, that people are good and kind, and that we’re cared for. Great examples of strong emotional design are all around us, from the elaborate undersea and safari, imaging adventures children's hospitals are creating to evoke safety and calm during scans, to cars with recognizable faces. One of my favorites is how, after 20 years of frowns, IHOP transformed its logo by turning the frown upside down and evoked a cheerful and delightfully simple vibe. I don't know about you, but I'm much more inclined to get all Rooty Tooty now.

5. Accomplishment is about creating a sense of achievement to help customers perceive progress toward their ideal self. In any given moment, we have goals we want to accomplish and a self we aspire to be. We tend to value products and experiences more when we’ve exerted some effort ourselves – a principle called the endowment effect. This can be as simple as having app users take a quiz before receiving

a reward. And product designers in the food space – where showing care is a major “job” consumers hire brands to do – are intentional about helping the consumer be a hero by leaving a little work to do, whether that means having them add an egg, top with a garnish or simply dump in a skillet and serve.

We also have a fundamental desire to feel on track toward achieving our many goals. So we crave tangible signs of progress, or feedback, which is why I love mowing the lawn and doing the dishes. When we designed a research engagement for an appliance manufacturer who’d developed a silent prototype, we learned that customers have an irrational love for the whirring sound of the dishwasher. It’s a sign of progress, feedback that you’ve loaded the dishwasher and won the day… and that someone else is taking over from here. That whirring has so much joyful purpose under the hood, which definitely impacted design direction going forward.

And, rewarding customers also strongly aligns with our desire to make an impact and put their values on display. For example, Snapchat partnered with the non-profit (RED) to create three filters Snapchat could users on World AIDS Day. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation then donated $3 every time one of the Snapchat filters was used, generating millions of dollars. And how proud are you to display your “I Voted!” sticker on Election Day?!

So, what next? When you’re ready to put these principles to use, consider how you might…

  • Create an experience that leverages time and mystery to create desire?

  • Make the experience easy to understand and give customers an element of choice and control?

  • Deliver new and unexpected twists that engage and delight customers by keeping them guessing what’s next?

  • Be real, authentic and human to demonstrate empathy and build brand connection?

  • Help your customers achieve a goal to feel like their aspirational self in the moment, and then make it easy for them to share their wins?

While my grandmother wasn’t actually behavioral scientist, she had a strong intuition for how to delight and serve others by designing sticky experiences. The good news is that behavioral science offers the rest of us a playbook to do this better and more frequently than we would otherwise. And that’s worth its weight in, a seven-year-old's gold, matey. Arrrrrgh…

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