Green curved flames

Attract, Attach

I’ve been conducting this really fascinating experiment at conferences and talks recently – I ask people to unlock their mobile phones & swap them with the person sitting next to them so they can both snoop through their apps & information. Try it, the reaction is quite remarkable.

Over the last 10 years we’ve created this incredible phenomenon – The connection to our tech, data and apps is quite remarkable. It’s brilliant to observe.

People are glued to their screens late into the night & then waking up at dawn and checking their tweets before they’ve said good morning to their loved ones. We’re posting extravagant status updates and self-revealing blog posts – Laying it all out bare for the world to judge us. I know people who are conducting deep, connected relationships with people they’ve never met from continents they’ve never even visited. This is frontier land. We’ve drenched society in digitally induced chemicals that bestow focus (and sometimes a distinct lack of!) and new levels of stamina and vigour towards micro tasks. The motivating engine of the brain firing on more cylinders than ever before.

Why the connection to tech?

Scans of the brains of people so deeply attached to digital have found that when they’re focusing on a goal, a whole host of brain parts start to light up. The two most important ones are the caudate nucleus – part of the primitive reptilian brain, which is usually only highly active in amorous individuals – and the brain areas associated with dopamine and norepinephrine production. Both of those brain chemicals are associated with pleasurable activities and excitement. Of course, dopamine is what gets released when you take a hit of cocaine, too – so it’s not surprising that for the brain, handing over your phone to a stranger is like handing someone your last gram of cocaine.

Go a day without your phone. I dare you. Some of you will start to feel the same sort of emotional pain that you might feel if say, someone broke into your house & stole your most personal belongings.

The human memory is short and terribly fickle

But what does that mean if you’re going to enter the arena and try and create the next big thing? Let’s say you’ve dreamt up a product that you want people to use everyday and you’re the kind of entrepreneurial go-getter who is well up for chasing that dragon to market no matter what. You’ve got a seriously big problem amigo, because literally hundreds of thousands of games, productivity tools and other apps are already in the market, and thousands more are launching every week. Many big, bold entrepreneurial thinkers are finding that their ideas aren’t so unique after all.

Here’s a startling fact – 21% of people who download a new app never look at it more than once. All that effort and expense building the perfect product and service only to see over 1 in 5 of them leave before they’ve even got started.

There’s another weird anomaly too – Even well heeled companies with big marketing budgets don’t always hold sway over the little bedroom developers a lot of the time. The UX is tight, the research is solid, the app looks good enough to eat & then pppppsssssssssssssssss… nobody uses it. But hang on a minute, it was meant to be one of the game-changers, the new-new. Total heartbreak for someone who’s given it their all.

Don’t cry, you probably just forgot the audience are human

Things are never as simple as they seem. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Things you could never have possibly know.

Have you ever heard of oxytocin? It’s sometimes called the “hormone of love”. It’s a lovely little chemical that one. Studies have shown that oxytocin plays a crucial role in bonding; when released in your brain during certain types of experiences, it’s what makes you bond to someone or something. It’s also involved in other corollary emotional responses, like trust-building and empathy. So that could be it right there – Your app was as good as the one before, and better than the one that will come after, but you became a #FAIL because you just didn’t quite nail the Trust & Empathy factors.

Spend less time on the shiny stuff & focus instead on building trust and empathising with the audience – #WINNER

There’s now also a lot of research on oxytocin that suggests a dark side to the so-called love hormone. While affecting positive behaviours of trust and bonding, it can also affect opposite behaviours like jealousy, envy, and suspicion. Oxytocin triggers and amplifies social feelings of all types, not just the positive, feel-good ones. When the person’s association to an app or service is positive, oxytocin bolsters pro-social behaviours; when the association is negative, the hormone increases negative sentiments. So that’s another reason you have to get the chat-up-line right… if it stinks, you’ve lost the audience in spectacular style and there is no second chance in todays hormone fuelled marketplace.

What if your app is great, but the ‘when’ and ‘where’ isn’t?

Here’s an interesting factor – Maybe someone just downloaded it at the wrong time? But what can we do to always make the wrong time, the right time? Recent studies have showed that listening to your favourite music has a similar effect on your brain as other pleasure-inducing activities like having sex. MRI scans reveal that when you listen to music that excites you, your brain releases dopamine during the most exciting moments of the song and even in anticipation of those moments. So what if you can get a person to play their favourite song at the same time as downloading and interacting with your shiny, new, same-same-but-different app or service app for the first time? That new factor alone might give you the edge and stop you being ditched by the 21% of people who download it but never look at it more than once. It sounds bonkers, but it’s true.

Before you get started, whack a tune on dude!

Shake, rattle & keep rolling

Novelty is one of the key factors in driving brain plasticity. I don’t mean making your product like a small and inexpensive toy or ornament either, I mean mix it up. Really mix it upA lot. Research shows us that novelty can, in fact, help keep a relationship fresh and rewarding. Engaging in fun, exciting, and new experiences even within the same, familiar, experience can get the dopamine and norepinephrine flowing and reward your brain as if it was the first time you’d downloaded it and the thing felt fresh.


So just remember you’re designing for humans & humans are full of all sorts of weirdy chemicals and stuff. Get someone to stick on a favourite song, inject a big dose of empathy, because these people are taking the time out of their already addicted lives to focus on you for 5 minutes. Find something that makes you trustworthy and if all that works and they start to open the app regularly, shake it up amigo and you’re almost there.

Now… luck… THAT… we cannot codify.

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