All posts tagged experiences

17 Posts

The Biological Power of Push and Pull

On the 28th February 2015, in front of c1500 people at TEDx I stood up and launched my campaign against dumb, linear problem solving digital services.

Someone had said to me last year when I told them I’d got TEDx;

Oh no… you’re not going to stand up and do the hormones and Tinder rant are you?” …Whoops. I did it again.

You haven’t picked the REALLY big TEDx event, have you?” …Double whoops. Go big or go home, right?

When I set up Nexus explicitly as a behavioural design company, I had a mission in mind – to use technology to “Better connect people to digital experiences” and help people learn about themselves, evolve and get smarter.

In order to do all of that, I have to draw a line through the services out there that fundamentally rub up against my design philosophy (basically, all the ones that make us biologically dumber) and there was no better place for me to do that than on those hallowed boards, in the circle, in front of the big red TED.

I’m a fraud. It’s true.

We all know what I am and what I’m not… I’m not a neuroscientist. I’m a strategist. An experience planner. A designer with an unhealthy fascination in brain science – What a dangerous concoction I am.

Since the age of Mad Men, marketers have tried to tap into the human subconscious, basically try to influence consumers to buy their products. We worked out a long time ago that the brain reacts in a unique way when it spots a famous brand name or logo. You see, it doesn’t treat it like any other word or picture, instead it activates parts of the brain normally used to process emotions, and so you could argue that we, in the design community, on behalf of brands, have always been in the habit-forming, brain manipulation business. It’s what we’re paid to do. It’s our job. But a lot of agencies out there who worked out the emotions and story-telling trick have just used it to sell more ‘stuff’.

I say – Shame on you people. The brain is a really fragile, incredible thing. Respect it. We should be using this incredible opportunity we have to break habits, not create them. Stimulate the brain in good ways.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

10 years ago things started to get really juicy and in a big way. The invention of the iPhone started flooding the market with a new type of design – ‘The App’.

Apps suddenly brought digital design into the pockets of the people on a huge huge scale. Directing us like drones with instantaneous gratification and rewards galore. At best guess, about 1.5 billion smartphones were in use by the end of 2014 – That’s a lot of apps being consumed by people. But it’s also created a problem and a really really big one – Enthusiastic designers, creating stupider people.

The brain solves problems in two ways and it’s got nothing to do with the whole left-brain, right-brain tripe that is on posters all over the world too. That’s total nonsense.

There is linear problem-solving, which includes problems that have only one solution and are usually often better solved analytically. An example of a linear problem might be choosing to say yes or no, or left of right… a simplification of something.

Then there are complex, nonlinear problems which can have more than one solution and are solved much better with a different kind of thinking. They require non-conscious thinking. These types of problems are what we often refer to as Insight Problems. These types of problems require creativity – the ability to combine information in a whole new way.

The intense repetition of a task creates new, stronger neural pathways associated with that particular task. So the more Linear and Non Linear tasks people do, the stronger the brain learns to think in that particular way. As a person becomes an expert in a particular thing, the areas of the brain associated with those tasks actually grow. It’s why we get better at what we do if we do it repeatedly. Contrary to popular belief, this is not limited to children or youth either… but people of all ages.

So guess what happens if you make someone continuously perform a Linear task? You teach the brain to get simpler… you dumb people down.

Bus Drivers & Taxi Drivers

Here’s an example of how the intense repetition of a linear and non linear task affects us. There’s a really neat area of the brain called the hippocampus. It has a specialised role in developing the skill used to solve problems & navigate routes. It’s basically one of the bits of the brain that make us smarter and more analytical.
Now a Bus drivers hippocampus is much smaller than a Taxi Drivers because it’s under-stimulated. They drive the same route day after day. They’re Linear problem solvers.

Where-as Taxi drivers have a much bigger, more stimulated hippocampus because everyday they get to choose their own destiny. They solve creative challenges. They’re Non-linear problem solvers.

As a design community we’ve become rather obsessed with turning everyone into Bus Drivers for some reason. Everybody wants to make things simpler and on a massive massive scale. What an epic fail that is for humanity. Back in the day a chap called Einstein made this quote;

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler

We might have wanted to pay a bit more attention to Mr Einstein, but in the last few years the tables on the app store have started tipping dramatically towards the Linear side of the equation.

I call it the Solve and Evolve paradox.

The Biological Power of Push and Pull

Here’s the next part of the story. The bit that’s going to get me into trouble. What a lot of people aren’t aware of is that both types of problem solving encourage lots of hormonal & biological responses. Digital is effectively a biological activity in as much as it encourages different types of hormones to be released in response to the content of the activity or task.

When you engage in digital services hormones are released almost instantaneously and recent research showed that something like a steroid hormone can alter almost every function of our body, from Growth to Shape to Metabolism to the Immune functions and even of course our brains – its mood and memory – possibly even someone’s personality and behaviour.

So the more we encourage people to use a particular app or service that hasn’t even been planned with some of the above in mind (literally) it could be doing two things;

  • Making people stupider
  • Messing about with peoples physiology

You think I’m joking don’t you? I wish I was. Let’s take my old nemesis Tinder on a test drive. Now there’s a dirty little app that hit the market 18 months ago. It’s been nicknamed by scientists as one of the most addictive apps on the market.

This type of new linear digital mating ritual did not even exist until a few years ago, so it’s really a totally new frontier. A whole uncharted set of triggers, behaviours and reactions designed in an app-developers head and released into the wild with very little thought beyond the potential to change the dating game.

Here’s the story of what’s going on…

You find a couple of people in close proximity to you that tickle your pickle, so you swipe them to the right to let them know you’re nearby & interested. Each swipe with your finger sets off a small chain-reaction of events within your body that can be as narcotic as crack.

Your body has gone into adrenaline high-alert in anticipation and swings full throttle through the gears of excitement, stress, anxiety and joy. At least four emotions in one swipe & in literally seconds. That’s pretty cool huh. Designers don’t tend to think about the emotions that come during or after an interaction only really the interaction itself.

At the same time the adrenal glands are starting to produce the hormone testosterone, which is what we call an anabolic steroid and one seriously potent chemical. Testosterone fans out across the body & starts to have its physical effect almost instantaneously. It also returns to the brain, changing the very way people are going to think and more importantly behave.

It just increased peoples confidence and also their appetite for risk.

There’s a really cool side effect of Testosterone feedback loop too… it involves success and failure.

Both male or female, regardless or what happens next, whether they succeed or whether they fail, they actually emerge with much higher levels of testosterone than when you first opened that app. Those elevated levels of testosterone give you a sort of androgenic priming. It gives you the edge, making your reactions much much quicker.

Over the years Scientists have replicated these effects with athletes, and believe the testosterone feedback loop may actually explain winning and losing streaks in sports.

This is total body re-engineering using just your thumb, an app and a photo of someone near-by. But what goes up must also come down… There’s a flip side to winning streaks of course. When you lose, you go the opposite way. Quite literally crashing into the opposite end of the spectrum.

There’s something else going on too – It has to do with the amount of time we let people play on these apps and services.

Adrenaline coupled with Testosterone were really evolutions way of making you run fast enough to get away from a bear in the woods. But after a prolonged siege the body also does something else.

After playing on services like Tinder for roughly 20mins or longer (it varies dramatically between men, woman, big, small, old, young etc), another part of the brain tells the hypothalamus to send a chemical message to the pituitary gland. This message has caused another hormone to start leaking out of the adrenal glands and across your body to take over from the testosterone and this one is the really really nasty one. It’s called Cortisol.

Cortisol is another steroid hormone. Only this one is released in response to stress and anxiety and not excitement or fear. But what we’ve done is trick it to be released during what was actually designed to be, effectively, a leisure activity. Cortisol kicks in to support us during a long siege & hangs around in the body for quite a while.

Cortisol has one main far-reaching command – glucose now – It starts to dismantle your body at a biological level. So people who pull out their phone to play on apps like tinder for a couple of minutes, are running off testosterone which is great. Get stuck in pal. But if people are spending 20, 30, 40 minutes at it, then they’re running off Coritsol, which has in effect ordered a complete re-tooling of your body away from leisure and ready for all out war… we’re letting people eat their own bodies.

We’re encouraging the body to react to stress. We’ve designed Stress.

So not only are we teaching the brain to get stupider by repeatedly making people perform a linear task to find the future Mr or Mrs Smith, we’ve also just induced stress in everybody finding love at first swipe for more than 15 or 20 mins.

Back to the mission

So why have I told you all this? Well – It’s pretty basic… I imagine a lot of you have never even stopped and considered that all these little digital experiences we’re creating have such an amazing effect on us physically, psychology etc. They’re just apps, right? But with every swipe, touch, pixel and ping we’re changing ourselves and the people around us.

If an idea is worth spreading, it’s that we need to make sure we design experiences that are non-linear and that they create short bursts of positive ripples rather than long bursts of negative ones.

Nexus is a company I’ve formed to start using all these amazing little biological quirks to create products that start to have positive effects. That bring these learnings into industries and services that probably have just had teams of really talented designers and user experience people happily designing away with no real legitimate reason to stop and consider what it is they’re actually designing from a biological or psychological feedback perspective (don’t even get me started on the Stamford Marshmallow Test!).

There’s another thought too – What if we could create products that actually start to reverse the effects of atrophy in the hippocampus and amygdala – make people smarter and more analytical? Make people less stressed or depressed?

We’re collecting an incredible amount of data about people and I want to use that data to start to map the human psyche. Help understand our motivations and design the right kind of services that support those motives, rather than random stress inducing dumb ones that make us stupider and eat us.

Don’t dumb down say, banking. Make the people doing banker smarter.

I’ve got nothing against bus drivers, they get me to where I want to go… but I really want to do is start helping people aspire to be taxi drivers… metaphorically speaking anyway.

Live long and prosper.


B = f(P,E)


Design revolves around finding a pain point or gap and then creating a solution for it. That’s the essence of what good design is and what good design should be. But my design interests have always sat slightly to the left or right of that core principle. What drives me is the reasons, behaviours and cognitive biases that make someone want to use (or not!) a piece of design, a service or a pattern, and not necessarily the thing itself. More importantly, I want to design products that actually move the cognitive needle – drive people back into itself and with that return, allow it to change us in some way shape or form – often quite literally.

One of the major themes in my work is the idea of a “life space” – A “life space” is the combination of all factors that influence a person’s behavior at a given moment in time, not just the screen in front of them. Therefore, a life space may include instantaneous thought, memory, drives and motives, personality, biases as well as the situation and external environmental factors.


There have been numerous studies over the decades, looking at the way the brain evolves and changes over the course of our lives. Every situation we encounter, every life moment we live in has an effect on the brain. It’s what gives us our individual personalities.

It’s an ever-evolving and solving 1.5kg blob of plasticity.

I started working in Investing Solutions four or five years ago and one of the areas I studied at length was the effects of stress on the brain. I was really fascinated to discover that hormonal responses generated by stressful situations generate subsequent risk taking attitudes. I was also blown away to discover that there is now enough empirical evidence to suggest that exposure to long-term stress can cause what’s know as ‘Hippocampal Atrophy‘ – Something normally associated with memory-loss conditions, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. That’s a pretty frightening side-effect when you stop to think about how hugely stressful the lives many of us live are.


What if we could create the opposite effect? What if we could actually use the digital experiences we create to start to reverse the effects of atrophy and change certain Behavioural Biases to make us behave better or just think differently? In theory it may actually be possible to stave off the effects of stress and mild forms of depression – maybe even before they appear – using brain focused functions so simplistic in their design that they seem almost too good to be true.

What’s commonly know now is that within the suffers of stress and forms of depression is a tendency to “amplify” unpleasant information and that makes the brain overreact to negative emotional stimuli. It’s also been shown that the children or partners of mental health patients are potentially at higher-than-normal risk of developing the same condition themselves, in part because they may inherit their parent or loved ones trait to overreact. It’s an inherited behavioural bias. So working backwards from suffers themselves, to some of the people around them, may be a really important place to start.

Reversing a behavioural bias and start to “rewire” the brain isn’t as complex as it might sound. We just need to design the right experiences into the services we build.

The trick is going to be teaching people (implicitly or explicitly) how to control the activity that is generated in a network of interrelated brain regions that are directly linked to stress and depression – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. We can already do that using basic Neural Feedback Displays – hell, I’ve been playing with several cheap and cheerful EEG gizmos for years now. They don’t do much more than let me see roughly and crudely what’s going on inside my head, but that’s somehow a good enough place to start and it gives me a deeper connection to myself. When I perform an action, it shows me what the reaction inside my brain is, and that starts to show me more about myself than I knew before.

One of the exercises I’ve been studying shows neural feedback in the form of a thermometer on the screen. You show people sad or negative pictures that might ordinarily raise their “temperature”, and then get them to try to lower that “temperature” by adopting more sanguine mental states. After a while you start to work what the reaction looks like and in doing so create a sort of mental pro-action to stop it occurring in the first place. It’s therapy friends, but not as we know it.

You can start to reverse the behavioural bias. Over the course of a period of time you can start to change the actual structure of the brain. Which is a pretty neat concept.

There’s another technique where a pair of faces is shown to someone on a screen every few seconds; either neutral and sad, or neutral and happy. Then a dot replaces one of the faces, and the user is asked to click on the dot. During one particular experiment using the dot technique, some people had the face replaced by the dot selected at random, but other people always had the dot replace the more positive face in the pair. Over a period of time of engaging in the dot technique, the group that had the dot replacing the positive face, where in effect being trained to avoid looking at the sad faces.

This kind of attentional-bias training, is so simplistic that most good scientists would bet that it could not alter psychological symptoms. But they’d lose the bet.

In both the examples above it’s been proven that stress-related responses – for example, increases in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels – to negative stimuli – are significantly reduced using both techniques. These stress responses are a key marker of depression, and they diminished roughly one week after the experiments began. Incidentally, some people in the experimental groups also developed fewer defensive responses to negative faces, such as startled blinking however the people in the control groups showed no such improvement.

In another experiment researchers at Cardiff University showed eight people how their brains reacted to positive imagery. After four sessions the participants with mental health conditions had seen significant improvements in their depression.

Was it a placebo effect? Possibly. But so what, that’s still a positive outcome!

As part of the same experiment another eight people with mental health problems were asked to do the exercise but just think positively and were not shown the brain images. They showed no change over the same period of time.

The researchers said they believed the scans allowed participants to work out, through trial and error, which sort of positive emotional imagery was most effective for them.

Once you’ve taught someone the mindset to lower that temperature or unlearn that negative thought, it’s a simple case of asking them to try to recreate that mindset in their daily lives, in normal stress related situations – Call it mindfulness, call it brain-training, call it CBT… you can even call it brainwashing if you like… it’s doesn’t matter, call it whatever best fits – the point is not the label that matters, the point is the start point of the process. You show people the mirror and they start to see themselves.


There have been plenty of experiments that have failed too by the way. Or shown only a correlation to success in a percentage of the people in the test. Which is totally to be expected.

To me, the interesting aspect of all these techniques is simply that they start by giving people an insight into themselves and their biases and only then do they work towards letting people control their own brain activity.

Most people (especially those living with stress or depression etc) are actually acutely aware and really interested in a way of engaging with themselves.

I’m not suggesting we mass ship EEG devices like EPOC to sufferers of anxiety, stress and depression so they can see what’s happening in their heads – but what I am suggesting is that we can build experiences that help people to understand themselves better and by starting there, we might in turn be able to start to help people reverse or reduce the effects of some of the conditions that can debilitate a lot of people.

People are dynamic creatures with dynamic thoughts, emotions, and psychological forces. To understand people you have to consider all possible factors that influence a person’s behavior and consider how those factors interact and change in time to influence the person’s present state.

So in designing solutions that start to move the needle on behaviour and start to break biases it’s imperative that we look at all the factors and start to influence people piece by pieces. Reversing negative brain patterns and negative cognitive biases starts with understanding the individual and moves out from there to a series of small interactions that gently nudge the brain into reverse.

It’s a noble idea I know… and probably one that many of you would scoff at. But my brain is already growing out of the curiosity of where this might lead me.


Go Small or Go Home

Have you ever started a financial plan but didn’t stick with it? If you are like millions of other people, you’ve set out with the best intentions but failed to keep the momentum going. Relying on motivation and willpower doesn’t work.

When you begin any new self-improvement program, you’re enthusiasm is high and you’re motivated by the pleasure of what you want or the pain of what you don’t want. But motivation naturally diminishes with time.

When your motivation wanes, you rely more on willpower. But no one has an endless supply of willpower. It’s a resource that gets “used up”. Every time you will yourself do something you don’t really want to do, you use up some willpower. Every temptation you pass up depletes your willpower reserve.

By evening, you may find you have no willpower left. That’s why most people usually blow a new diet in the evening after eating healthy all day.

95% of our life is dictated by the subconscious mind, the part of our brain that runs our lives on autopilot. This is why you can do everything from brushing your teeth to driving a car without thinking about it.

By consciously deciding to create a new habit, you can harness the power of your unconscious to create a new neural pathway. Once a new habit is established it becomes easy to do –motivation and willpower are no longer required!

Something like financial planning needs to become a habit like brushing your teeth, not a fad like dieting or exercise. Once a habit is established people find themselves doing it effortlessly.

Set Small Goals

Setting big goals is exciting but starting with small boring goals is more likely to lead to success.

Taking small actions tricks your brain. Your subconscious likes to be in control – it doesn’t like change. A big change often sets up subconscious resistance, but you can sneak a small change by it.

If you ask neuroscientists or researchers they will likely tell you that change rarely happens overnight by changing something in its entirety. The best path to sustainable behavioral change is taking small steps.

It wasn’t that long ago that we’d go big or go home on wholesale redesigns of online services every year or so. What a massive error that was.

Now we have a far greater understanding of the human brain that we design services with micro changes and more importantly introduce micro-actions – actions so small and simple anyone can do them – is crucial to changing the behavior of your audience.

Your actions are a reflection of how your brain is wired to function. By changing an audiences actions – even if we start with a micro-action – you can actually start to reprogram the brain, and trigger a virtuous circle of more action. Changing subsequent actions thus becomes both easier and more likely to succeed.

As Designers we’re in the business of behavioral change and we want to try and create experiences that make the audience do only one daily action, they’ll soon start to I notice that they become more conscious of other small things they could do better.

Design for the mindset of “what small thing could I do better today?”

How your brain learns

Not long ago was it thought that the brain stops learning after a certain age. Not true, it doesn’t! The brain keeps learning throughout your life through a process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity – also referred to as Brain plasticity – is an odd term for most people, with the word “plastic” causing images of Tupperware or Saran Wrap to pop into your head. However, brain plasticity is a common term used by neuroscientists, referring to the brain’s ability to change at any age – for better or worse. As you would imagine, this flexibility plays an incredibly important role in our brain development (or decline) and in shaping our distinct personalities.

Neuroplasticity happens when the brain’s building blocks, neurons, connect with each other and keep the brain active!

Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities. For example, each time we learn a new dance step, it reflects a change in our physical brains: new “wires” (neural pathways) that give instructions to our bodies on how to perform the step. Each time we forget someone’s name, it also reflects brain change— “wires”that once connected to the memory have been degraded, or even severed.

Neurons want to form lasting relationships

We have as many neurons in our brain as stars in our galaxy. Hundreds of billions. Neurons are very social and want to form lasting relationships. When you learn, new neuron relationships are formed. The more you use a relationship, the stronger it gets. “The cells that fire together, wire together”.

The Brain is not that clever

Designing for micro-actions is important because we experience hundreds of thousands of stimuli daily, and it is impossible for the brain to keep up. Focusing on small changes allows your brain to effectively start the process of neuroplasticity.

Create, Focus and Complete

Your brain is really smart. And lazy. It is constantly trying to save effort by creating habits. Why? Because habits are “pre-programmed” and require less energy. To help create habits, your task is to pick activities that are easy (which a micro-action is, duh!), then focus and repeat.

Action creates more Action

Your actions re-program your brain. When you take action and succeed you get a sense of accomplishment, advancement, and other positive feelings. Your brain starts learning, and it makes you more ready and likely to take the next action, and thus triggers a virtuous circle of even more action.

Hence, taking action:

  1. Reprograms your brain by building new neuron connections, and
  2. Triggers more action.

Often, people think of childhood and young adulthood as a time of brain growth—the young person constantly learns new things, embarks on new adventures, shows an inquisitive and explorative spirit. Conversely, older adulthood is often seen as a time of cognitive decline, with people becoming more forgetful, less inclined to seek new experiences, more “set in their ways”.

But what recent research has shown is that under the right circumstances, the power of brain plasticity can help adult minds grow. Although certain brain machinery tends to decline with age, using micro-actions there are steps people can take to tap into plasticity and reinvigorate that machinery.

Neuroplasticity and the Senses

One of the important findings of recent neuroplasticity research is the discovery of how closely our senses are connected to memory and cognition. Because of their interdependence, a weakness in one is often related to—or even the cause of—a weakness in the other. For example, we all know that Alzheimer’s patients slowly lose their memories. One way this manifests is that they eat less food. Why? As it turns out, visual deficits are also a part of Alzheimer’s. People eat less because they can’t see the food as well. Another example is in normal age-related cognitive changes. As we grow older, we get more forgetful and distracted in large part because our brain does not process what we hear, see, and feel as well as it once did. The result is that we can’t store images of our experiences as clearly, and so have trouble using them and recalling them later.

Use Triggers

A trigger is something that leads you to automatically doing something else. Smokers, for example, are triggered to smoke after a meal. Use triggers to your advantage. If you commit to always checking your bank balance after breakfast, after a few weeks you’ll automatically think about doing it after your morning meal. Visual triggers work well, too. For example, encourage your audience to leave their bank card next to the bed when they go to bed so they’re reminded of the task they need to do the following morning.

Do it Early

Always do your financial planning in the morning when your willpower is high. You’ll reap the rewards all day!

Make it Convenient

The more difficult and time consuming it is to take an action, the less likely an audience will do it. This is why so many people who buy gym memberships drop out. It’s just not that convenient. Get everything you need ready ahead of time so that when it’s time you can, as Nike says, “Just Do It”.

Make it Fun

If people don’t enjoy doing something they aren’t going to stick with it. Find ways to make the executable lifestyle change as enjoyable as possible.

Don’t Break the Chain

When Jerry Seinfeld was an unknown, he created the habit of writing new material daily using a wall calendar and a red marker. Every day he wrote, he put a big red “X” through that day. He didn’t want to see any blank days that “broke the chain”. Build mechanisms into your interface and user experience for exactly this and you’ll find that after one month a new habit will largely be formed.

Make it a journey not a destination

I’m not a taoist, or any ‘ist’, ‘in’ or ‘ish’ for that matter, but I do include a few of the basic concepts of Taoism in my approach to problem solving, design and taking small actions.

Tao translates to “Way” and that’s the basic idea right there. Taoism is about the journey, focusing on and enjoying what lies in front of you instead of always looking ahead at your destination. That’s a really great guiding principle when you start designing services and products too. Think about the journey you want to send the audience on and the story you want to unfold before them, rather than obsessing over the potential outcome.

Brain Journeys

Every human brain has 3 basic goals;

  • Learning
  • Being Social
  • Having Fun

So to conclude, think about the little actions you’re design, how often and how few they are, but also how you categorise them;

Somewhere between the size, the frequency and the type of actions (across the above three categories) is the answer to behavioural change.


By using these steps and these categories to create a habit we can start to trick the audiences brain into creating new neural pathways. Once that habit is formed the audience can use it to serve as a gateway to bigger changes that can truly change behavior.

A journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step.


Hacking Motivation

We’re building a lot of digital ‘stuff’ at the moment and as I’ve mentioned in my last few posts, there are a lot of factors often overlooked in the conception and creation of the things we build. I’ve talked at length about Designing to overcome Fears & I’ve talked a bit about the different types of Problem Solving that help us evolve. But the third and possibly most important pillar of Design is ‘Motivation’.

You know that sense of drive that energizes our actions? Important goals can take a frustrating amount of time and effort to achieve. And the mere thought of such exertion can be enough to put someone off a particular task.

It’s often believed that motivation is a state that is strictly psychological, but it’s not, it’s also biochemical.

All the recent advances in neuroscience suggest that motivation ultimately boils down to competing signals in the brain and being motivated influences the outcome of this competition – Simply put, an audiences drive to do something arises from the brain’s calculations of what we can expect to get out of it (the pros) and at what cost (the cons).

The big D

Motivation is one of the most interesting behaviours for Human Centred Design to consider and account for. What inspires people to push forward? What invisible force keeps you accountable despite boredom and roadblocks? To trace the source of motivation, let’s begin in the brain where neurotransmitters spark chemical messages to keep us alert and on task. One specific neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in motivation is my favourite one – Dopamine.

I talked about Dopamine last year during my SXSW talk. It’s one of those hot topics.

Dopamine is forever linked to salacious stories of sex, drugs and wild partying in the popular press. It’s the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters if you like – SXSW14

Dopamine’s reputation for being a pleasure neurotransmitter is well-earned because it’s basically true. Dopamine IS the brain’s pleasure chemical. But assuming that’s all it does would be missing the complete story. Dopamine’s impact on the body is felt in many many different areas, including reward, memory, behavior and cognition, attention, sleep, mood, learning and finally motivation.

Dopamine’s chemical signal gets passed from one neuron to the next, interacting with various receptors inside the synapse between the two neurons. For motivation specifically, it matters which pathway dopamine takes. The mesolimbic pathway, which originates in the middle of the brain and branches to various places like the cerebral cortex, is the most important reward pathway in the brain. One of the mesolimbic’s stops is the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is critically involved in anticipating potential reward. Your brain recognizes that something important — good or bad — is about to happen, thus triggering the motivation to do something about it.

Dopamine actually performs its task before we obtain rewards and not after we reach a goal, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and motivate us to achieve or avoid something bad.

Behavioural neuroscientist John Salamone confirmed the link in an animal study on rats who were given the choice of one pile of food or another pile of food twice the size but behind a small fence. The rats with lowered levels of dopamine almost always took the easy way out, choosing the small pile instead of jumping the fence for greater reward.

In another study a team of Vanderbilt scientists put audiences through Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans which measure dopamine activity in different parts of the brain. They discovered that “go-getters”, (those willing to work harder for rewards) had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex — two areas known to impact motivation and reward. Whereas in “slackers” dopamine was more present in the anterior insula, an area of the brain that is involved in emotion and risk perception.

So it’s scientifically proven that if we can design ways of encouraging an audience to persevere and push forward in small incremental ways, we can do incredibly powerful things. However if our designed services stop short of pushing the audience over that threshold, then we may inadvertently have created the reverse effect.

“We don’t need no stinking badges

Rewards‘ have long been touted as a compelling incentive that drives people to dig deeper and return more. While this may make sense for repetitive tasks & linear problem solving, rewards don’t quite resonate when any kind of rudimentary cognitive skill is needed to complete the task – or non-linear problem solving.

In 1945 a cognitive performance test was published called the “candle problem,”. Subjects were given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a box of matches, and asked to fix the lit candle to the wall so that it will not drip wax onto the table below. The test evaluates problem-solving capabilities.

A few decades later, Princeton University’s Sam Glucksberg examined the power of rewards by asking different groups of people to solve the candle problem. To the first group, Glucksberg explained that his study’s purpose was to obtain the estimated time people needed to find an adequate solution for the problem. To the second group, he offered a cash incentive depending on how quickly one could come up with solutions. It took the latter group 3.5 minutes longer to solve the candle problem.

Glucksberg’s research found that incentives and rewards lead to worse performance because “the reward actually narrows your focus and restricts the possibility”.

Designing a ‘belief’ mechanism

Experiencing self-belief causes a surge of dopamine; so a positive self-image can be a really powerful motivator. Find a function, a piece of content or build in a mechanism that encourages an audience to find and identify their positives and when new positives are achieved. Make sure it allows them to form mental movies of themselves feeling motivated and achieving their goals.

Being told they are performing well releases dopamine too – so designing that system of feedback which continuously gives the audience a virtual thumbs up is a really important thing. It’s why I love the Push Notification feature on mobile phones – it’s the most incredible way of letting someone know, periodically, that they’re doing really well at something. Use and abuse it. In marketing terms it’s the new CRM.

Another good way of designing out functions that play to an audiences belief system is to recognise the different types of motivation that drive all the experiences we create. The following model attempts to show the 3 primary motivations and their interlocking principles.


Can motivation be hacked?

Most people will never feel very motivated to begin something. But the way that the brain works is that it will naturally start to produce dopamine as you begin to get things done.

Great things never came from comfort zones.

The brain actually gets fed from bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences, but not by rewards themselves. You create the dopamine environment, and the brain does the rest.

We also have far greater control over the signals in our head that we might imagine so by designing experiences that have smaller incremental goals and by breaking every indomitable task into a group of smaller goals, the dopamine will build up as the audience achieves through each tiny step towards the end and prolonged motivation will occur.

Start by picking out a tiny, easy part of the overall stack of tasks to start the audience with. This is absolutely crucial. Because dopamine bombs are dropped every time you achieve something, no matter how small it is and because the brain enjoys frequent positive feedback, letting it know things are progressing towards a final goal, encourages the dopamine flow even when it’s only a small step.

The dopamine boost you’ll get from that initial achievement will leave you feeling buzzed — and pave the way to you doing more.

By designing experiences that have a lot of small feedback loops, what we are doing is rewiring the brain to attach a dopamine response to all the little steps and not just the big ones.

Self-fulfilling needs

The other key to getting your audience to be motivated and to persevere with a task is to understand what motivates them in the first place – so why not start every new experience by asking them that very question and then acting on it.

People’s motivation can be anything from “I want to be financially secure” to “I want to send my son to the best school possible”. The secret to success is building trust by asking the questions that uncover that truth. This may seem easy enough, but the problem is we never actually ask that question. Furthermore, if someone does tell us their needs, we have an obligation to always be thinking about how we can help them achieve those goals, which is going to take an incredibly intelligent system to fulfil.

Mastery should be witnessed

When you can see progress in your effort, it further motivates you. Progress is the single most powerful motivator in meaningful work. Put quite simply, people want to see how far they’ve come.

When signs of that progress is missing, motivation quickly dwindles.

If there’s anything we can do to increase the flow of dopamine like reinforcing positive feedback through incremental progress, embrace it – tell people every day how close they are to achieving their goal or finishing their task. Along with this, we must also build in indications of how much effort is involved to complete a task or solve a problem.


Sometimes, the cure for low motivation may simply be old-school determination and perseverance, encouraging our audiences to stick with what they’re doing even when they may not want to. However, they’ll only do that if they have an idea of how long something is going to take and how much blood and sweat will be needed to get to it. So it’s back to my old principle of ‘Transparency’ and ‘openness’ again.

Motivation is the combination of desire, values, and beliefs. It’s those things that drive our audiences to take action and then see it through to a conclusion. These three motivating factors, and/or lack of them, are at the root of why people behave the way they do, so in the planning stages of your product or project, make sure you factor in a way of capturing and then acting on the knowledge you collect.

Ultimately when an audience is in control of their values, beliefs and desires, we can get the dopamine flowing and influence the motivations.

So just to conclude – In your design work, when you’re asking audiences to set-up goals make sure that you are considering and baking in the following rules to help make sure that you’re hacking motivation appropriately;

All tasks and goals should be:

  • Realistic: Goals should be based on their abilities and circumstances.
  • Possible: Don’t establish constraints that make the realistic, unrealistic.
  • Flexible: Help the audience anticipate bumps in the road and then help then to work around them.
  • Measurable: Give them a target in mind so they know when they have reached their goal.
  • Under your control: Set goals based on their values, interests, and desires. Target things where they can control the outcome.

Some great reading about Motivation;


Solve and Evolve

Design for Problem Solving

Take a moment to count the decisions you’ve made so far today. Most likely, you’ve chosen what to wear, what to have for breakfast, which route to take to work. Once at work, you took stock of pressing demands and made some decisions about which tasks to tackle first. If you’re a manager, you might have had to schedule and attend meetings, possibly negotiate with team members on a proposal, counsel some staff, prepare reports or presentations and you might have had to pitch an idea. All before lunch.

That’s a lot of problem solving right there. Your brain must feel fried.

I’ve talked about this a lot this year – The key organising principle in the brain is to minimize threat and maximise reward. This has implications for problem-solving because when we experience a problem to solve, it activates a lot of the same bits of the brain that process threats, which in turn impacts our capacity to think clearly and make good decisions. The threat response is mentally taxing and deadly to productivity. It also impairs analytic thinking and creative insight (which I’ll talk about a bit later).

Let me just debunk a myth quickly before I go into the detail – “The left brain is really realistic, analytical, practical, organized, and logical, and the right brain is so creative, passionate, sensual, tasteful, colorful, vivid, and poetic?”…

…No. Just no. Stop it. Please. Totally false.

Creativity and problem solving does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain. It involves all of it. There is no one location in the brain that makes decisions and solves problems, all four lobes are involved and so too are a lot of sub-regions.


The most basic definition is “A problem is any given situation that differs from a desired goal”. Go back a thousand years or so and this obviously included issues like finding food in harsh winters, remembering where you left your provisions, making decisions about which way to go, learning, repeating and varying all kinds of complex movements, and so on.

Problem solving has been crucial during the evolutionary process that created us the way we are. Solving problems is good. It makes us better. So we need to think really hard when we’re designing solutions about helping people solve problems.

I have a very very simple principle – Everything we design should ‘Make People Better’ because the brain is wired to solve & evolve.


First, consider that there are different types of problem solving. There is linear problem-solving, which includes problems that have only one solution and are usually often better solved analytically. An example of a linear problem might be balancing a budget.

In a goal-oriented situation more often than not the audience reproduces the response to the given problem from past experience. This is called reproductive thinking.

Complex problems, however, have more than one solution and are solved much better with a different kind of thinking. They require non-conscious thinking. These types of problems are what we refer to as Insight Problems.

Complex problems are nonlinear vs. linear and are different in that they don’t have obvious solutions or sequential steps to follow. Complex problems require something new and different to achieve the goal, prior learning is of little help here. Such productive thinking involves insight. These types of problems require creativity – the ability to combine information in a whole new way.

The entire problem solving process, complex or simple – from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification – consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions.


Complex problems need creative solutions that come to us in the form of insights.

When we have an insight, what is not obvious becomes obvious to us. The proverbial a-ha moment. They involve non-conscious processing and are at the heart of innovation. Insight comes to us suddenly and when we are not putting our focus on the problem. This is why you may have noticed that some of your biggest moments of a-ha have arrived in the middle of the night, in the shower, while cooking dinner, or when you were driving. Being able to reinterpret information in a different way and pull together remotely linked ideas to create a novel solution to long standing problems is not something our conscious brain, or prefrontal cortex, is particularly good at – In fact, it can actually hinder our ability to hear insights, those quiet signals our non-conscious brain sends to us when we make new connections that lead to big ideas.

We need to start designing solutions for some of lifes big problems (like financial planning), that tap into the power of your non-conscious brain. Setting people a problem or challenge to solve and then actually asking them to walk away from it feels counter-intuitive, but it’s a genuine neurological recipe for success – “We’ve told you the problem, now shut the app, go away and do something else & come back tomorrow”.


High levels of anxiety and fear create a lot of noise in the brain and inhibit our ability to have and hear insights. Insights are the result of a very small number of distantly associated brain cells talking to each other. To compare, deciding what to eat for breakfast involves millions of brain cells having a conversation with each other. An insight only involves a few thousands neurons talking to each other. This is why we have them when our brains are quiet, and activity level is low.

Here’s an insight for you to consider; Design solutions that keep the audience in a positive mood because in turn that decreases anxiety and drops noise levels to low.

I call it my ‘Smile Test‘ – Does a product make me smile? If it does then my brain is going to be on low-anxiety mode and therefore I’m primed to start solving problems much much better.

Another way of reducing anxiety is by helping the audience to structure the task you’re giving them better. If you don’t already prioritise prioritising, this simple function may do wonders for freeing up the prefrontal cortex of our audience and making your product stickier.

Are you trying to get your audience to focus on too many things at once? Try to focus their attention on one thing at a time. If possible, get things out of their head by finding ways of recording it somewhere else. Keep one place for recording ideas and one place for to-do lists or diary actions. By doing this, it allows your prefrontal cortex a ‘rest’, allowing it to focus on doing the job of problem solving properly.


To overcome an impasse we have to experience a shift in perspective – a break in our mental set. It is our natural tendency to project interpretations onto situations based on our past experiences. Unfortunately, this hinders our ability to see a different perspective that is often needed to move change forward.

One of the biggest obstacles to breaking a mental set is analytic thinking, also known as rational thinking. To solve a problem with insight and creativity, we have to stop trying so hard. Focusing on the problem and putting effort into finding the solution does not create the mental state conducive to having an insight.

Engaging in analysis with our rational brain constrains our ability to creatively solve an insight problem by further cementing a particular perspective or mental set. This often disrupts the ability to see different perspectives. Consider the discovery of the Postit note. The glue that didn’t stick so well and seemed to have no value at all was considered a problem until someone broke their mental set and realized that a glue that didn’t stick that well could actually be a good thing.

Try designing solutions that describe a problem to be solved using metaphors or parallels. For example, stop talking about financial problem solving using money – create a solution that uses a metaphor because it will switch the fixation on the actual problem, to one that’s more creative.


Sometimes if we want to experience creative solutions to long standing problems, we have to step back so that we can see the bigger picture. Studies show that people are more able to solve problems if they visualize or imagine themselves in the future solving their problem. This promotes a form of stepping back which produces more creative ideas.

Encourage the audience to take a break, go for a quick walk. While this may be seen as eating into the experience time, we know the process of stopping to think about a problem can quieten the brain allowing for an insight you may not have otherwise have.

In addition, research tells us that it is much easier to take a positive perspective on a challenging situation when we are in a good mood. Negative moods are associated with a narrow focus, sometimes referred to as tunnel vision. When faced with a complex problem, allow your brain to gain some distance from the problem and notice how many more creative ideas bubble up to the surface. Consider starting your problem solving tool by asking people what mood they’re in – If the mood is specified as gloomy then suggest they come back and try to solve the problem at another time.


In all humans there is a dominant set of behaviours in situations requiring relatively novel means of attaining goals and problem solving involves. It involves a process that we call “Restructuring”. You need to design for the Restructuring process and two main questions have to be considered:

How is a problem represented in a person’s mind?

How does solving this problem involve a reorganisation or restructuring of this representation?

I talked about a similar thing in my last post ‘Designing Fear’. You have to help a user reframe a problem, fear or challenge in order to overcome it.


It’s an exciting time for the neuroscience of problem solving, as long as you ditch outdated notions of how creativity works. This requires embracing the messiness of the creative process and the dynamic brain activations and collaborations among many different brains that make it all possible.

If you want to follow up on some of these points then very thoughtful cognitive neuroscientists such as Anna Abraham, Mark Beeman, Adam Bristol, Kalina Christoff, Andreas Fink, Jeremy Gray, Adam Green, Rex Jung, John Kounios, Hikaru Takeuchi, Oshin Vartanian, Darya Zabelina and others are on the forefront of investigating what actually happens in the brain during the problem solving process. And their findings are overturning conventional and overly simplistic notions surrounding the neuroscience of creativity.

For more on the latest findings in the emerging neuroscience of creativity, I highly recommend the recent book “Neuroscience of Creativity,” edited by Oshin Vartanian, Adam S. Bristol, and James C. Kaufman.

I’m really grateful for the following amazing sources & thinking that I mashed together with my own thoughts to create this piece:


Designing Fear

How often has fear held you back from doing something you knew in your gut you should do?

There’s a pattern to everyone’s fears. Take a step back and you might notice that many of your decisions stem from one core fear. This could be a fear of belonging in a social situation, not being the best at something, a fear of something being too complicated or it could even be a fear of letting others down.

When we’re designing digital services for our various audiences we often focus on the obvious attributes – “Does it function well?”, “Does it look slick?”, “Is it useful & usable?” etc – but often (if not always) we neglect one of the most important attributes from our planning – “Will our product address the fears of our audiences and help them past those fears?”

Think about a time when you confronted, adapted and learned to overcome a certain fear or panic inducing situation… It was a pretty awesome feeling, right? Now imagine that you digitise that moment and bring it to your audience online. We have to design that attitude of overcoming fear into the solutions we’re creating.

The mind is good at generating doubts. We tell ourselves: “There’s no way I’ll succeed in that” or “It’s an obvious idea” or “It’s too expensive” etc and Fear has a knack for masquerading as rational thought. Having a big dream or idea is intimidating. “What if it fails?“, “What if the dream is unachievable?” – Often we find ways to reason ourselves out of these kinds of risks.

An audience will actually talk themselves out of doing something when they’re afraid of the thing you’re asking them to do.

Researchers continue to find evidence that being pro-active and facing fears is the best way to overcome them. But what are the internal processes of perceiving different types of threat and fear?

Ready for a little science lesson just to help you understand where fear comes from?


When we encounter a risky situation, our brains become vulnerable to a process called the “amygdala hijack“. The amygdala – the part of your brain associated with memory, decision-making, and emotional responses – has a quicker reaction time than the cortex, or rational thinking part of your brain. So you basically what you need to know is that fear takes hold more quickly than logic & it has a more potent effect in a lot of cases.

It sends us into fight-or-flight mode. But sometimes when we’re stressed rather than in real serious danger, the amygdala can overfire, leading us to make bad decisions because it confuses that stress with fear.

The pathways through which we consciously and subconsciously interpret fear are not well understood by neuroscientists. We know a bit about amygdala and its role in fear and fearlessness but as with many advances forward, it appears the more we know about the brain, the less we actually understand how it works.

In a study released on January 27, 2013 scientists identified specific neurons linked to a certain type of fear memory held in your amygdala. The study examined how fear responses are learned, controlled, and memorized. It’s that fear memory that could be a real killer for your service – once a service is deemed ‘something to fear’ the audience will resent it and not return.

Neuroscientists have found that a specific class of neurons called SOM+ in a subdivision of the amygdala plays an active role in these processes.

In another paper published February 3, 2013 from the University of Iowa, we’re told that the amygdala is not the only gatekeeper of fear in the human mind. Other regions – such as the brainstem, diencephalon, or insular cortex – can also sense the body’s most primal inner signals of danger when basic survival is threatened. So fear is a complex thing and the biological reactions to fear are really powerful deterrents from your service.

In short – When we’re faced with stress the part of the brain that takes over, the part that reacts the most, is the circuitry that was originally designed to manage danger and it is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we’re under stress – particularly if we get hijacked by it – are likely to lead the audience astray or in a lot of cases send them off in the opposite direction completely. Design the best experiences in the world are irrelevant if we ignore that a topic might be a stressful and therefore fearful one.


Humans display freezing and risk-assessment behaviors in response to fearful situations. Understanding how to switch an audience from passive to a more active fear coping strategies is key to adapting to the stress and unpredictability of modern life. It’s also something we need to design for.

Another thing to remember is that it’s often the moments of unpredictability that people regret most when they look back on experiences. There’s a pattern that we see when it comes to regrets. People regret what they didn’t do more than they regret what they did do. Fear can make you run and hide, it can motivate you to take action, and it can freeze you dead in your tracks. Which in the case of a lot of things we design can mean that services are just ignored or overlooked completely.

But can we consciously condition our audience to be more active and less passive in the face of the fear of dealing with say, Debt and Financial Management online – which is absolutely terrifying and stress inducing for a lot of people – I believe the answer is “Yes“.


I define “functional anxiety” as that moment when anxiety and fear are so overwhelming that they can start to negatively impact a person’s ability or desire to face a function head on.

One of the most common causes of fear is simply being unable to name the elephant in the room. When you get in a situation that is heading south, you’d rather be in denial than admit it. Say, for example, you’re in debt and everything you try to fix it, just simply isn’t working, but you’re surrounded by others also working hard at it and succeeding. What do you do? These things can go on for months or even years and in the end you’ve made it worse by prolonging not being in control.

It’s my belief that we need to start taking a different approach to services like “PFM” (Personal Financial Management) and create experiences that call upon a different set of principles, those used within Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Designing CBT led experiences offer up a way of helping audiences understand the thoughts, feelings and attitudes that influence their behaviour. The ones that prevent better behaviours happening, which would allow a person to progress even in the face of fear.

There’s a common misconception that ‘tools’ will fix a problem, they can’t. They can show you the semantic facts, but there needs to be more. We need to codify counselling.

The core principle of CBT is addressing fears and bad behaviors head on and then finding new paths to alter your course – So in the instance of Debt & PFM, often the response of getting honest, brutal feedback is scary enough to spur someone into action.

Fear in a lot of cases, is so overwhelming emotionally, that people often don’t take a straight approach to sorting it out.

With that in mind, the core principles of designing services that set out to change behaviour and conquer fear should always be “Transparency” and “Truth“.


Developing services that have a self-awareness to know when fear is dictating a decision is an important first step in taking control of the design. Let’s call it the ILF – Internal Lookout Function – the ability for a digital service to recognize when a user is hesitating or not behaving in the way we expect or want them too, and then reminding them not to make a rash decision in response to the fear that might be causing that behaviour.

It might be that when we notice erratic or even negative behaviour we simply ask the user what it is that they’re struggling with. Once we know what that block is, then we can start to prepare for those situations before they happen. If you know, for instance, that they become extremely defensive about their debt because of a fear of not being the best at budgeting their monthly pay, then we can prepare and serve up features in advance that don’t let that fear take over in the moment and create a sort of ‘self fulfilling prophecy‘.


Fear stifles our thinking and actions. It creates indecisiveness that results in stagnation. I have known talented people who procrastinate indefinitely rather than risk failure. Lost opportunities cause erosion of confidence, and the downward spiral begins.

Often experiencing one of your biggest fears is the best way to learn to cope with it. Say you’re biggest fear is losing your family because of debt and everything you do is a response to that fear – then trying to simulate what would actually happen in the predicted situation will often show a different, more palatable reality.

The best way to learn to deal with a fear is for it to happen and for us to realise we’re still alive the next day to tell the tale. If you stop avoiding the thing you fear and get close to experiencing it, you often find it’s not nearly as bad as you think. So start designing fear into the actual scenarios you’re designing to fix the situation. Don’t just design a PFM tool that shows the audience the output of adjusting their behaviour, start by showing them the behaviour that they fear that is causing the actual problem in the first place.


It’s really important as neuro-designers that we don’t take an audiences fear in a given situation as negative. Fear is a healthy and natural human reaction. Understanding and recognising that our audience have fears and then encouraging the audience to confront the thing they fear will help us prevent it hijacking situations completely. So design your service to be scary.

Compassion is also our greatest weapon in the fight against an audiences fear – “You’re doing the best you can and that’s okay right now” – is probably the most powerful statement we can tell people while they face down fear.

Starting to get to know what are the one or two driving fears an audience has and what are the situations that tend to bring those fears out is a key principle in designing for behavioural change so factor it into the planning stage when you’re identifying the qualitative and quantitative pain points you’re going to set out to fix. You’ll find that once you get the audience through fear, you’ll have changed them for the better and your service will become a deeper, more meaningful experience.


The hour between Dog and Wolf

I was recently pointed in the direction of an incredible book called ‘The Hour Between Dog and Wolf‘. It is an excellently written piece about how human biology contributes to the alternating cycles of irrational exuberance and pessimism that destabilise banks and the global economy – and how the system could be calmed down by applying biological principles.

The author John Coates is a senior research fellow in neuroscience and finance at the University of Cambridge. He previously worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs, and ran a trading desk for Deutsche Bank. In 2004 he returned to Cambridge to research the biology of financial risk-taking.

In his book he goes into meticulous detail about the way the body reacts to experiences and the idea that they can sharpen the mind and call forth an overwhelming biological reaction we know as the ‘fight or flight’ response, which I previously wrote about.

The world is now littered with millions of seemingly irrational reactions to fake, un-important experiences such as apps, games, grinding and virtual socializing. It’s not just about recent advances in technology either – Winston Churchill recognized the power of these so-called “non-lethal experiences” when writing of his early years. He recounts a regimental polo match played in Southern India that went to a tie-break in the final chukka: “Rarely have I seen such strained faces on both sides,” he recalls. “You would not have thought it was not just a game at all, but a matter of life and death. Far graver crises cause less keen emotion“. He is of course referring to ‘the zone’ that people enter when they’re engaged in an activity so deeply that they lose all sense of reality.

When I talk about neuro mechanics and functions that might fire up the reward center, I’m talking about trying to keep people on a winning streak and stimulating (simulating?) feelings of euphoria. When we’re aroused by success, our appetite for opportunity expands and we want more of it. The ‘Tinder‘ generation are chasing a new kind of dragon. The dragon that goes PING and tells them there’s a match. There’s a flip-side too, on a losing streak we might struggle with a kind of digital fear – reliving the bad moments over and over. In those cases stress hormones linger in our brains, promoting a pathological risk-aversion, even depression. John Coates warns that during the down cycles of losing or being withdrawn from the highs, the stress hormones can circulate in our blood, contributing to recurrent viral infections, high blood pressure, abdominal fat build-up and even gastric ulcers.

‘Digital’ is now as much a biological activity, with as many medical consequences, as facing down a grizzly bear.

Recent advances in neuroscience and physiology have shown that when we engage in deep experiences, for example JawBone Up24, our bodies are doing a lot more than just ‘thinking’ about the outcomes and not just because it’s linked to physical activity. We actually start to crave the lessons we learn from the data it shows us. Our bodies, expecting action, switch on an emergency network of physiological circuitry, and the resulting surge in electrical and chemical activity feeds back in to the brain, affecting the way we think and behave. In this way body and brain twine as a single entity, united in the face of the approaching data storm. We’re talking about micro-milliseconds of cognition and excitement too. Most of the time we’re not even aware it’s happening. But it’s just enough to keep our sub-conscience aware that it’s something worth repeating.

One of the brains regions responsible for this early-warning system is the Locus Ceruleus (pronounced Ser-u-leus), so called because it’s cells are cerulean or deep blue. Situated in the brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain, sitting atop the spine, the Locus Ceruleus responds to novelty and promotes a state of arrousel. When a correlation between events breaks down or a new pattern emerges, when something is just not right, this primitive part of the brain registers the change long before conscious awareness. By doing so it places the brain on high-alert, galvanizing us into a state of heightened vigilance, and lowering our sensory thresholds so that we hear the faintest sound, notice the slightest movement. Athletes experiencing this effect have said that when caught up in the flow of a game they can pick out every voice in the stadium, see every blade of grass.

Welcome to the Engine Room

You get that all too familiar notification push PING sound from your pocket…. Your body automatically starts to create fuel, and lots of it, in the form of glucose. The body also needs Oxygen to burn this fuel, and it needs an increased flow of blood to deliver this fuel and oxygen to gas-guzzling cells throughout the body, and therefore you need an expanded exhaust pipe, in the form of dilated bronchial tubes and throat, to vent the carbon dioxide waste once the fuel is burned. Breathing accelerates, drawing in more oxygen, and the heart rates speed up. Our bodies, unbeknownst to us, are preparing for the experience when we sense it’s approach. Metabolism speeds up, ready to break down existing energy stores in liver, muscle and fat cells should the situation demand it. Cells of the immune system take up position, like firefighters, at vulnerable points of our bodies, such as the skin, and stand ready to deal with injury and infection. The nervous system, extending from the brain down into the abdomen, has begun redistributing blood throughout our bodies, constricting blood flow to the gut, giving us butterflies, and shunting blood to major muscle groups in the arms and thighs as well as to the lungs, heart and brain. Again, often so tiny a reaction we’re not even aware it’s happening at all.

The very fact we can design experiences that create excitement and anticipation that can change people physically is a remarkable feat. In that millisecond it’s taken for Tinder to fire you a push PING notification to say someone has matched with you we just made Digital become physical. Just think about that, it’s insanely cool.

“YOU HAVE A NEW MATCH” …Bang… rising levels of testosterone increase production of hemoglobin, and consequently your bloods capacity to carry oxygen; the testosterone also increases your state of confidence and crucially your appetite for risk.

This is a moment of total transformation, that the French since the middle ages have referred to as “L’heure entre chien et loup” which translates as “the hour between dog and wolf”

The phrase refers to a specific time of day, when the light is such that one can’t distinguish between a dog or wolf. Under extreme, artificial circumstances we can lose our true selves to this virtual world we swim in.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf

In the last 15 years we’ve created dozens of new ways of firing up the parts of the body I describe above and at a mass scale. Do we even know what the effect of that might be? For millennia we’ve evolved without this wave of artificial stimulants and suddenly it’s introduced into society, globally, and in vast vast quantities. In fact it’s really only since the advent and mass adoption of the smartphone that things have got really juicy.

My name is Pete, and I’m an addict

There’s more too. The hormone, adrenaline, produced by the core of the adrenal glands located on top of the kidney, surges into your blood when this artificial stimulant – the push notification – is triggered. Another hormone, the steroid Cortisol, commonly known as the Stress Hormone, trickles out of the rim of the adrenal gland and travels to the brain, where it stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical operating along neural circuits known as the pleasure pathways. Normally stress is a nasty experience, but not at low-levels. At low-levels it thrills. A non-threatening stressor or challenge, like a sporting match, a fast drive, being matched on a dating site, seeing our portfolio increase in our trading apps or beating the system in an app, game or experience, releases Cortisol, and in combination with dopamine, one of the most addictive drugs known to the human brain, delivers a narcotic hit, a rush, a flow that convinces you there is no better moment in the world than this one right here.

It’s all happening inside us every day.


In that hour between dog and wolf, we can’t know if we’re safe or threatened. We can’t be sure if our eyes deceive, if we truly know what we think we know. We’re caught somewhere between comfort (ignorant bliss?) and fear. It’s good, of course, to be able to distinguish between the two, but… Most people have never mastered that. It’s why the body reacts in the way it does. Irrationally. Uncontrollably. Even just on a micro level.

John Coates book analyses the phenomenon that occurs in intense periods of time on Trading Floors of major banks. The phrase “The hour between dog and wolf” feels like an appropriate description. It’s about these big heavy bursts of insanity that change people in incredible ways for good and bad. But in the world of small micro interactions we’re creating, maybe the more appropriate phase needs to be;

The SECOND between PING and POW

It feels somehow more appropriate to the Gen Y crowd.


Keep all this in mind when you question why we are becoming more and more fascinated in the biology behind experiences. It might seem silly and overkill, even benign, to start breaking these things down so deliberately, but the the body really is a marvelous machine and the potent potential we have to manipulate it with the creation of digital experiences is not just incredible but also potentially destructive. Nobody is really sure what this new surge of artificial stimulants is doing to society and biology.

A lot of people are asking me why I’m going down this path of bringing biology into the story – It’s really very straightforward – It is simply very fascinating! A story of human behaviour spiked with biology can lead to some particularly vivid moments of recognition. The term recognition is commonly used to describe the point in a story when all of a sudden we understand what is going on, and by that very process understand ourselves better. For when we understand what is going on inside our bodies, and why, we are met with repeated Aha! moments.

Today, NeuroCX more than any other subject, throws a light into the dark corners of our lives and every time I learn something new about the biology behind design and experience I get a little hit of Cortisol that keeps me wanting to learn more. :)


Neuro Mechanics and the power of Experience Engagement

Choosing, implementing & designing the right mechanisms is the key to successful NeuroCX and experience design. There are a whole heap of ways of doing it and as previously discussed, it’s the nexus of these events that create real behavioral change and sticky engagements. Let’s take a look through some of the theory and mechanisms here in this article.

MAJOR INCLUSION: You can now download and use my Mechanics Mapping tool (in excel, sorry!) by clicking here. The framework will allow you to look at the ‘ZEN‘ of your mechanisms. What you’re punching for is a nice even spread of functions and features around the entire circle. You can also use the framework to benchmark against a competitor. Simply add in a ‘1’ against a feature in the columns to start visualising the balance of what you have. The second tab is a glossary of the functions for you to use offline.

I mentioned ‘Zen‘ as a term because zen teaches us about simplicity and balance. Sometimes in order to grow we must subtract.

  • When using the framework above ask yourself are there any Features that don’t add to the experience? Would the experience benefit from removing it or replacing it?
  • When you add New Features do you take into account balance to insure the experience remains fun?


The growing buzz about NeuroCX can be confusing at best and downright dizzying at worst. For marketers, it takes some effort to wade through the hype and figure out how to extract what really matters. The right strategy will take you beyond badges and leaderboards to dozens of alternative little mechanics that reward attention rather than demand it. These can be combined in different ways to create powerful new experiences that tap into basic motivations.

It’s the little things that give everything meaning. Life is an accumulation of puzzle pieces that make a spectacular picture, or the collection of letters to make words to make sentences to fill pages to complete a story. Ultimately, a thousand little things make something big — and what’s more, small beings united to make something immense often lend a certain grandeur to themselves — all the more for not having done so through any intention.

So imagine the completed puzzle – a stunning picture. Imagine being awed and mesmerized by its image, and then imagine if you were able to elicit such an appreciation of every piece along the way – how much fuller and more magnificent the completion of it becomes. This is the philosophy behind NeuroCX and behind the NeuroScience of Experience Design. It’s all about learning to love the little things to create new behaviors and habits.

While we’re creating a service or product we should really ask ourselves, the team and the client some of the following questions continually throughout the process of the experience design. Keep in mind, these questions will not apply to every situation and should be taken in context to what we’re trying to achieve.

  1. What is the main reason for pimping a product / service?
  2. What are the goals?
  3. What are the main benefits we expect to achieve?

Your reason for adding neuro mechanics into your product / service has a huge affect on how you should go about designing it. If you just want people to spend more time on your website, major distractions from your core product might be fine. If not, you may want to tone down some aspects to ensure it doesn’t take away from the pre-existing experience of your more standard features. Don’t pimp a shopping experience, it’s just shopping! Nobody wants to master mine-fields when they’re buying bras.

First, actions and rewards are fundamental to engagement. The simplest form of rewards are points. The very first thing you need to do is figure out what all activities you want to reward users for and what is most important to you. You need to do Value Weighting planning to determine what is most important so it’s rewarded accordingly and in comparison to each other appropriately.

Next, you need to think of what rules your service may need to ensure you are getting the behavior you want. You may set time limits and other rules to limit users from repetitively doing something over and over when you only want to reward for it once, etc. You really need to take cheating into account to ensure the experience is fair for all users.

You also need to see things from your audiences point of view.

  1. How does it benefit the user?
  2. Do they enjoy it?

There are a lot of ways to engage and pimp elements of your experience to trigger those happiness inducing dopamine bombs to drop. Here’s an A-Z of the possible things you might want consider;


Achievements are a great reward if implemented correctly that collectors or perfectionist type users will really love and keep them engaged as long as new Achievements are created.

  • Do you give Achievements often?
  • How long would it take for a user to get every Achievement?
  • Do you have Achievements a user would be proud of or share?
  • Do you allow them and others to see the coolness of the Achievement? Rarity?
  • Have you implemented a place for user’s to collect and show their Achievements on a profile other users can see?
  • Do you have a way for users to show off their favorite Achievements?
  • Do you have an Achievement Map to show you the Achievements you have, ones you could earn and when available info on how you can earn them?
  • Have you implemented Achievement Tiers such as the common ones like “Easy, Medium, Hard, Insane and Unknown?”
  • Do you use clever names and graphics on your Achievements to add Character? How about humor or wit not only in the names or graphics but also in how you obtain the Achievements?
  • Have you kept your users in mind and created Achievement styles that are catered towards them?
  • Do your names for Unknown Achievements (Achievements that you don’t know how you earn them) inspire curiosity/envy in users without prematurely revealing how the user earned it?
  • Do you have Achievements with real depth that require a combo of actions / variables to Unlock?

Example: a badge, a level, a reward, points, really anything defined as a reward can be rewarding.


With great power comes great responsibility.

Online Experiences can be used for good, bad and many shades of gray. Product owners should take a moment to consider the health of their users as well as ways to use NeuroCX for Social Good.

  • Do you have methods to show the users how long they have been engaging?
  • Do you warn them when they’ve been engaging too long?
  • Do you give them substantial reasons to take a break such as a maximum on points per day, or a bonus for returning after a certain period of time?
  • Have you thought of ways to leverage your influence to have users do good in the real world through donations or other creative means?


Constant Analysis of performance and user behavior has become the norm in the Iterative Design Process.

  • Do you have the right analytics tools and goals set in place to gauge your progress?
  • Do you know where users drop out of your experience? Where they lose interest?
  • Do you know when and where users are having the most fun?
  • How can you use the data you’ve gathered to optimize your Gamified Experience?
  • Are there new Features you can add or non-performing ones you can remove?


Anticipation is a strong psychological motivator that when used properly in your product can get users excited and allow them to endure longer play time at a higher level of enjoyment.

  • How can you use anticipation to motivate your users?
  • Do you “dangle a carrot” so users know what they are working towards?
  • Do users know the result of their next level, achievement, status title etc.?
  • Can you use chance to have users anticipate some random event or reward that might happen?
  • Can you use time to build anticipation?

Appointment Dynamic

A dynamic in which to succeed, one must return at a predefined time to take some action. Appointment dynamics are often deeply related to interval based reward schedules or avoidance dyanmics.

Example: Cafe World and Farmville where if you return at a set time to do something you get something good, and if you don’t something bad happens.


The act of inducing player behavior not by giving a reward, but by not instituting a punishment. Produces consistent level of activity, timed around the schedule.

Example: Press a lever every 30 seconds to not get shocked.


Balance is important to any good product to insure the experience is fun, has longevity and is fair.

  • How frequent are your rewards?
  • Will users get bored because your rewards are too easy to obtain?
  • How fast do users max out(max level, etc.)?
  • Will users obtain some benefit from being max that will be enough for them to continue to participate?
  • Is there a way to allow a user to “restart” while keeping what they earned? For example, users in WoW have multiple Level 70 Characters.

Behavioral Contrast

The theory defining how behavior can shift greatly based on changed expectations.

Example: A monkey presses a lever and is given lettuce. The monkey is happy and continues to press the lever. Then it gets a grape one time. The monkey is delighted. The next time it presses the lever it gets lettuce again. Rather than being happy, as it was before, it goes ballistic throwing the lettuce at the experimenter. (In some experiments, a second monkey is placed in the cage, but tied to a rope so it can’t access the lettuce or lever. After the grape reward is removed, the first monkey beats up the second monkey even though it obviously had nothing to do with the removal. The anger is truly irrational.)

Behavioral Momentum

The tendency of players to keep doing what they have been doing.

Example: From Jesse Schell’s awesome Dice talk: “I have spent ten hours engaging in Farmville. I am a smart person and wouldn’t spend 10 hours on something unless it was useful. Therefore this must be useful, so I can keep doing it.”

Blissful Productivity

The idea that engaging in a experience makes you happier working hard, than you would be relaxing. Essentially, we’re optimized as human beings by working hard, and doing meaningful and rewarding work.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk wherein she discusses how World of Warcraft players play on average 22 hours / week (a part time job), often after a full days work. They’re willing to work hard, perhaps harder than in real life, because of their blissful productivity in the online world.

Cascading Information Theory

The theory that information should be released in the minimum possible snippets to gain the appropriate level of understanding at each point during the narrative.

Example: showing basic actions first, unlocking more as you progress through levels. Making building on success a simple but staged process to avoid information overload.

Chain Schedules

Definition: the practice of linking a reward to a series of contingencies. Players tend to treat these as simply the individual contingencies. Unlocking one step in the contingency is often viewed as an individual reward by the player.

Example: Kill 10 orcs to get into the dragons cave, every 30 minutes the dragon appears.


Challenge is fundamental to creating engagement.

  • What are the challenges in your experience?
  • Do they require skill or luck? or both?
  • Is there enough variety and depth in the challenges that users will stay engaged?
  • Do you have multiple types of challenges throughout?


Lotteries are popular for a reason, everyones loves chance, the unknown. Treasure Chests in games like World of Warcraft are a great example of chance on multiple levels because you have a chance to get a treasure chest when you kill a monster, then there is a chance of how rare of a chest you will get, then when you open it there is randomness on what item you will get.

  • How might you use the anticipation of a chance to increase fun and the engagement duration?
  • How can you implement multiple levels of chance such as the example with Treasure Chests?
  • Do you show users the likelihood of a chance happen or keep it a mystery?
  • Are chance %’s set in stone or variable based on actions or some other variable?
  • Do you have insanely rare, unique or personal rewards that can be won by chance?


The reward avatar in Nike Fuel a classic example of using humor in an experience to build Character. Having unique and weird quirks can cause users to talk about your Experience. Digital enables some interesting possibilities to build Character that people will remember. In most current iterations of experience design this concept has been entirely ignored.

  • Does your company’s pre-existing brand and attitude shine through in the Gamified Experience?
  • Have you aligned your brand’s character with the User Experience to insure consistency?
  • Can you use humor, satire, etc. to build character?
  • Have you created customized content such as Achievements, Avatars, Virtual Goods etc. to match your brand that users will remember?
  • Do you use feedback or other interactions to build character?
  • Have you created content unique to your brand that users will be surprised by, such as Easter Eggs?
  • Have you implemented any features or created content that is so outlandish or unique that users will talk about and want to share?


Cheating goes hand and hand with this stuff if you don’t properly design against it. Before and during the design process you must try to fathom how users could possibly cheat or exploit some flaw in your design. Like anything tho, if your anti-cheating measures are overdone you can hurt the User Experience. users may employ many methods to cheat such as Bots, Multiple Accounts, their own personal time and in extreme situations where real cash or valuable real world rewards are at stake they may hire people for low wages.

  • Are there repetitive tasks that are rewarded with no restrictions that users might try to exploit?
  • If so, might you limit the task with per hour, per day maximums? Perhaps you could require a combination of activity before the user gets rewarded again to create an environment that bots couldn’t exploit.
  • Have you thoroughly thought about your experience design from a cheater’s perspective to see possible exploits they would see?
  • Do you have tools and analytics in place to possibly detect unusual behavior?
  • Have you taken into account how excessive anti-cheating efforts might hurt your User Experience such as excessive captcha usage etc.?
  • Could you require users to use facebook or some other name verification method to verify their identity in the hopes that users wont cheat if people know who they really are?
  • Can you make user activity public so that users might worry others will notice unusual activity?
  • Can you enable the use of Web Reputation Systems and promote users to flag users who have unusual activity?
  • Can you create a system to reward users with points/badges etc. for catching a cheater? Do they lose a little bit of points if they’re wrong to discourage excessive flagging?
  • Do you have legal protection in place to allow you to delete user’s accounts or remove rewards if they have cheated?
  • Do you have social systems in place to reduce points dramatically if an activity was obviously done just for points without caring about quality? Such as if a user left a comment just for points and other users voted it down the user could receive no points or actually lose points.


Choices empower users, make them feel engaged and ownership over their choices.

  • Do you give users meaningful choices? Would you benefit from making them more or less frequent?
  • Do users get feedback on their choices? Do they see the effects of their choices?
  • Would your users benefit from more or less options when making choices?


Collectors will work persistently to collect everything in your experience. If you give Collectors rare achievements and items to collect they will keep on until they have them all regardless of how difficult. Not everyone is such an extreme Collector, but most people still enjoy collecting to some degree.

  • Do you have a wide variety of things for users to collect?
  • Can you create collectible content that is very difficult that will take the users a long time to collect in order to increase longevity of engagement?
  • Do you have “sets” such as item sets, achievement sets etc.?
  • Do you visibly show the user their progress in collecting? Perhaps what % they have completed of the set etc.?
  • Can you create limited edition items or other things that Collectors would go crazy for?


Creating a strong bond between users, a Community is critical to long term success, virality and more.

  • Are you doing enough to promote community?
  • Do you use social network integration to leverage existing social graphs?
  • How can you give your users more ways to contact or interact with one another?
  • Have you properly implemented competition and/or cooperation so users have a need to band together and discuss?
  • Do users have a need to form groups to help each other on specific tasks or large quests, contests etc.?

Communal Discovery

The dynamic wherein an entire community is rallied to work together to solve a riddle, a problem or a challenge. Immensely viral and very fun.

Example: DARPA balloon challenge, the cottage industries that appear around McDonalds monopoly to find “Boardwalk”


Competition is the basis for most of humanity’s progress and evolution. With that being said, different personality types have different feelings about competition and sometimes competition overdone can make users shy away or hurt cooperation.

  • Do your users want competition?
  • Is there a way you can allow users different options so if they don’t want to compete, they don’t have to?
  • Have you taken into account the balance between competition and cooperation?
  • Are there opportunities where users can be competitive and cooperative at the same time?
  • Do you have multiple ways for competitive users to compete, with both others and themselves?


We all want to be in control of what we do. It makes us feel important, safe and most importantly free.

  • Can you give your users more control over their experience?
  • Are there things you currently dictate to your users that could be opened for them to control or vote on?
  • Can you give users more control or power as part of a reward or status?


Cooperation is paramount to building a strong community. Do you have Features enabled that will allow users to collaborate?

  • Do you have various methods of collaboration, both big and small?
  • Can users collaborate with both close friends and strangers?


The dynamic in which players are only given a certain amount of time to do something. This will create an activity graph that causes increased initial activity increasing frenetically until time runs out, which is a forced extinction.

Example: Bejeweled Blitz with 30 seconds to get as many points as you can. Bonus rounds. Timed levels

Cross Situational Leader-boards

This occurs when one ranking mechanism is applied across multiple (unequal and isolated) gaming scenarios. Players often perceive that these ranking scenarios are unfair as not all players were presented with an “equal” opportunity to win.

Example: Players are arbitrarily sent into one of three paths. The winner is determined by the top scorer overall (i.e. across the paths). Since the players can only do one path (and can’t pick), they will perceive inequity in the scenario and get upset.


Curiosity is one of the basic human emotions that should be heavily considered in the Experience Design Process.

  • Are your users curious about anything that might be mysterious to them?
  • Are there any ways you could increase or create curiosity with mysterious locked items, treasure chests, or other Mechanics or Features?


Data is king. In experience design users can become addicted to pouring over data about the engagement and their actions, achievements etc. users love stats.

  • Are there stats you are invisibly collecting now that users would benefit from seeing?
  • Have you given users methods to see stats from the entire experience, their personal stats and those of other users or groups?


It is important to Dazzle your users, take them on an experience and insure it’s visually pleasant. Beauty and wowing a user keeps them engaged and makes them remember you.

  • Have you spent enough time on your User Interface and insuring users really enjoy the graphical elements of the Gamification?
  • Are there ways you could visually make things more exciting or interesting to increase engagement?


People inherently love to explore. Consider giving more opportunities in your experience for users to discover something new.

  • Do users currently benefit from exploring your experience or content? Do they get bonuses for finding content for the first time, personally, globally or in their group?
  • Are there things users are already discovering for the first time and you’re just not telling them?
  • Could you create new content just for the purpose of users “finding it”?
  • Can you create challenges, quests etc. that use discovery as an element?
  • Can you enable users to compete or collaborate on exploring?
  • Can you provide special recognition for a user to be the first who found something?
  • Do you take advantage of data to show a user how much they have discovered and what’s still out there and undiscovered?


Economy in your Gamified Experience can add immense loyalty as users begin to care about their Virtual Currency. Just like in real life, your Economy can be difficult to balance. You must plan carefully and take many things into consideration or it will become worthless.

  • Do users value their virtual currency or goods?
  • If not, how can you make it feel more valuable?
  • Do you allow users to trade any non-merit based goods such as money, items etc.?
  • Do you have tools and analytics in place to watch for inflation and other problems in your economy?
  • Could you benefit from implementing a Dual Virtual Currency?
  • Have you created enough Sinks to help curb inflation? Such as, paying for a right to do X, or to take a risk that net sum results in the loss of currency or items.

Endless Scenarios

Experiences that do not have an explicit end. Most applicable to casual experiences that can refresh their content or experiences where a static (but positive) state is a reward of its own.

Example: Farmville (static state is its own victory), SCVNGR (challenges constantly are being built by the community to refresh content)

Engagement Curve

Engagement is one of the most important Gamification Benefits. You can expect Engagement to spike or fall off at different parts of the experience and the life of the user.

  • Do you monitor engagement so that you know the parts of your Gamified Experience that users enjoy the most?
  • If users are dropping off at a certain spot in the experience, can you remove, replace or tweak that part of the experience?
  • If users get bored after X months, can you add content at that time to re-engage them?


Envy is not always bad. users may aspire to do better due to envy of another user’s status, possessions etc and other users might try harder because they want users to envy them.

  • How do you currently use envy to motivate users?
  • Do users have easy access to see information about other users?
  • What creative ways can you devise to leverage envy without making users dislike each other?
  • Have you taken into consideration the social implications of making users too envious of one another?
  • Do you give users something special or unique that would motivate other users to earn or find it?
  • Do you give users an easy way to compare themselves to others?
  • Do you have various depths of visible status, such as shallow at a glance(not much data) and in depth if you want to see?

Epic Meaning

Users will be highly motivated if they believe they are working to achieve something great, something awe-inspiring, something bigger than themselves.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s Ted Talk where she discusses Warcraft’s ongoing story line and “epic meaning” that involves each individual has motivated players to participate outside the experience and create the second largest wiki in the world to help them achieve their individual quests and collectively their epic meanings.


Extinction is the term used to refer to the action of stopping providing a reward. This tends to create anger in players as they feel betrayed by no longer receiving the reward they have come to expect. It generally induces negative behavioral momentum.

Example: killing 10 orcs no longer gets you a level up


Fairness is important to the long term viability of your experience. If users feel things aren’t fair they will feel cheated and it could result in negative results instead of positive results. Designers should plan accordingly to create fairness and monitor user sentiment.

  • Do you have feedback mechanisms to see if your users feel treated fairly?
  • In competitions that require skill, can you insure users are matched or judged based on users with similar skill?
  • Do you try to sale any virtual goods that users might consider an unfair advantage such as XP Boosts, Special Items etc.?


Feedback is your communication to a user of what they should do, what they did etc. Without proper feedback a user could feel lost and un-engaged.

  • Do users understand the experience and it’s rules?
  • Do they clearly know what to do next or if open ended understand the possibilities?
  • Do you properly communicate to users when they’ve accomplished something?
  • Do users see visible feedback on all of their actions that earn rewards?


Everyone likes to have fun, some say it’s the reason we live. While not always required in Gamification ( see section on Invisibility ), fun is a critical aspect of Gamification Design and should be one of your metrics for success.

  • What might your users find fun?
  • Are you overlooking something simple? Simple can be fun sometimes.
  • Could you create more mini experiences, chances or moments of skill to increase fun?

This part has less questions because it’s so open ended, we just know it’s something you should focus on. Get creative!

Fixed Interval Reward Schedules

Fixed interval schedules provide a reward after a fixed amount of time, say 30 minutes. This tends to create a low engagement after a reward, and then gradually increasing activity until a reward is given, followed by another lull in engagement.

Example: Farmville, wait 30 minutes, crops have appeared

Fixed Ratio Reward Schedule

A fixed ratio schedule provides rewards after a fixed number of actions. This creates cyclical nadirs of engagement (because the first action will not create any reward so incentive is low) and then bursts of activity as the reward gets closer and closer.

Example: kill 20 ships, get a level up, visit five locations, get a badge

Free Lunch

A dynamic in which a player feels that they are getting something for free due to someone else having done work. It’s critical that work is perceived to have been done (just not by the player in question) to avoid breaching trust in the scenario. The player must feel that they’ve “lucked” into something.

Example: Groupon. By virtue of 100 other people having bought the deal, you get it for cheap. There is no sketchiness b/c you recognize work has been done (100 people are spending money) but you yourself didn’t have to do it.

Fun Once, Fun Always

The concept that an action in enjoyable to repeat all the time. Generally this has to do with simple actions. There is often also a limitation to the total level of enjoyment of the action.

Example: the theory behind the check-in everywhere and the check-in and the default challenges on SCVNGR.


The world is a big place. Gamification in many ways is a connector. Connecting the real and the digital, the local and global. Designers should take into consideration their audience and potentially untapped audience.

  • Is your content suitable for a global audience? If not, could some minor tweaks change that?
  • Do your rewards take into consideration global tastes?
  • Can you create personalized experiences for different countries while still keeping them connected at the global level?
  • Can you use Patriotism at a local or global level to inspire competition and collaboration?


Goals are fundamental to good experience design. Goals provide a reason to play and way to feel progression and accomplishment.

  • Do users understand the goal of the product and the purpose of it’s existence?
  • Can you allow users the ability to set their own goals? Can you suggest goals to them to motivate them to excel?
  • Can you use goals at a global level that everyone can help work towards to inspire collaboration? Such as how some websites have raised money for charity by showing their goal to everyone and how close they are to reaching their goal.
  • Can you use goals to promote competition?


Grinding, or doing a repetitive task to progress in experience, is fundamental to most behavioral change models and if done with the right frequency of intensity with needed breaks from Grinding, can result in dramatic increase in time spent. But Grinding if too difficult can cause users to leave.

  • Are there repetitive tasks that might be appropriate for your Gamified Experience to encourage Grinding, such as viewing of content or other tasks?
  • Do you give something fun and rewarding to break the monotony of grinding?
  • Is this change induced based on time, chance or accomplishment? If only one way could you implement other ways?
  • Can users easily see their progress, short term objectives and long term objectives/progress?


Influence over actions is a major benefit of Gamification. Most of the time you want to do this subtly and carefully as not to be too pushy with users. Give them goals or challenges that require them to do something that is important to you or reward them more points for doing something that at that moment is of the most importance to you.

  • Can you influence actions of users through the use of Neuro Mechanics without it ruining the experience?
  • Can you tweak your User Interface to influence users?
  • Can you set rules to get users to do what you want?
  • Can you set goals to get users to do what you want?
  • Are there other creative means to influence users without them feeling you are controlling and interfering with their experience?


Imagination captives and spires. We want to stimulate our user’s imagination but also Designers will be able to use their imagination to create creative solutions to problems.

  • Are there ways you can stimulate your user’s imagination?
  • Have you created unique and imaginative content that users will remember?
  • Does your Gamified Experience have toy like attributes that inspire child like joy and curiosity?


We live in the age of instant, on demand and A.D.D. Assuming you have the technology , it’s a powerful tool in your experience design arsenal.

  • Are there aspects of your experience now that are delayed but could be more exciting if they were real-time?
  • Has your UI/UX taken into consideration the power of instant?
  • Could you create content in real-time that users would be surprised and engaged by?


Sometimes you’ve got to be Invisible. The beauty of Gamification is it can be weaved into every part of our lives. Some people will want to see every detail of the experience while others will not want to be bothered and they just want to see the results and rewards.

  • Are there some aspects of your Gamification Design that could benefit from being less visible or entirely invisible?
  • Can you give users options to make things visible or invisible through settings or more temporarily and situational with modes so if I want no feedback today for a specific reason, I can switch modes?

Leveling Curve

Levels are an important method in experience design to show progress and status. When designing you should take into account how fast users will level, will they reach max level and when and does the difficulty change per level?

  • Have you researched the various types of level curves such as wave, straight, progressive etc. and found the one that works best?
  • Are there rewards for levels you could give that would make the level meaningful?
  • Do you foreshadow to show users what they can earn the next level or future levels?
  • Can you create “Tiers” or milestones so that for example every 10 levels could have some major importance with a new status title, power or some other reward?


Creating experiences that have Longevity and long term appeal takes skill and persistence.

  • Do you have a plan to continue generating interesting content and rewards so users stay interested?
  • Have you made users feel ownership over their achievements and possessions so that they will not want to lose them if they left?
  • Do you have mini experiences and meta experiences outside the main goal that will keep users busy?
  • Do you have some rewards that are insanely hard to obtain that can take a tremendous amount of time and effort?
  • Have you gave collectors content to keep them busy?
  • Are you properly monitoring how fast users progress so you will know when users need new content?


A dynamic in which the winner is determined solely by chance. This creates a high level of anticipation. The fairness is often suspect, however winners will generally continue to play indefinitely while losers will quickly abandon the experience, despite the random nature of the distinction between the two.

Example: many forms of gambling, scratch tickets.

Mini Experiences

Mini Experiences are a great way to add character to design and give a change of pace to break monotony. The classic Nintendo game Zelda is famous for having mini games including fishing, racing and more. Mini Experiences can be obvious or sometimes are entirely hidden almost like an Easter Egg.

  • How might you create a simple mini experience that adds value to your Experience?
  • Do you closely integrate the mini experience into the main experience or just have it be a stand alone way to earn more points etc.?
  • Can you use mini experiences to increase social interaction or virality?
  • Are mini experiences constantly available, time limited or unlockable?
  • Are there creative ways you could use your mini experiences such as “Events” , Competitions etc.?

Meta Experiences

Meta Experiences are experiences played above the “experience”. Meta Experiences can be a great way to make data interesting, to show progress and much more.

  • Do you have meta experiences that give the user an extra reason to participate in the main experience?
  • Can you create a meta experience that requires no extra effort but visually is an interesting way to see your progress?
  • Can users Unlock Meta Experiences?

Meta Experiences require a lot of imagination. The possibilities are wide open to how you can use all this Product Data and Life Data in interesting and possibly fun ways.


Micro-Transactions have opened a lot of untapped potential in experience design by helping to support Freemium Business Models and allowing users to pay for uniqueness, status, boosts and more. Micro-Transactions like many things can be implemented poorly with harmful results. If over used or implemented too early or pushed too hard, users might become unhappy and feel the game is unfair or all about money.

  • Have you created a clear set of goals to monitor the engagement etc. of your users to insure they already care about their points, status and other rewards before implementing micro-transactions?
  • Is there a way you can gradually roll out micro-transactions to ease users into it and monitor results closely?
  • Are there things that users have expressed a desire for that you could possibly charge for?


An item that when used affects other actions. Generally modifiers are earned after having completed a series of challenges or core functions.

Example: A X2 modifier that doubles the points on the next action you take.


Playtesting in traditional gaming happens very early in the design process and is important not only for finding bugs, but for determining what is fun, if experiences inspire the feelings you thought they would etc. Playtesting is different in the context of Gamification , tho still very important.

  • Are you testing your Gamified Experience privately before your release to the public?
  • Could you perhaps release to a limited set of top users to get feedback from your most trusted fans?
  • Do you play with potential new features privately before rolling them out to the public?


Progression drives engagement. Users want that next level, reward and to see how far they’ve come.

  • Do you constantly give users feedback on their progress via stats, progress bars or other means?
  • Is there more data you could surface to show users their progress for multiple things, in multiple views?
  • Could you use progress data in creative ways to entertain the user such as using the data to power a meta-experience?


Punishment has always been used in game design to keep users from doing something you don’t want them to. In traditional gaming if you make a mistake, you might die. In Experience Design, you should use punishment carefully as it could turn off some users.

  • Are you currently punishing your users for actions you don’t want them to do?
  • Do the users feel it’s fair?
  • Can you use decay in your experience so that users must return or they begin to lose something?
  • Are you currently using any form of punishment that is excessive and users generally dislike that you could remove?


Quests lead users on a journey. In many experiences this really ends up being just a list of tasks you should complete, ordered or not, to receive X reward.

  • Can you create unique quests that help build character?
  • Can you create many quests of varying levels of difficult and time length requirements so that you have some that take only minutes and others that take months to complete?
  • Do you give difficult appropriate rewards for the completion of Quests or perhaps a unique reward for the most difficult ones?
  • If users have completed parts of a quest they don’t know about, are they informed?
  • Can you create Quests that create competition and/or collaboration?


Rewards are fundamental to good Experience Design. Having the right Rewards is key to making sure users feel their is value to their actions. Keep in mind rewards are not necessarily physical or even things like points, sometimes acknowledgment and status are the most important rewards.

  • Do users care about your rewards?
  • Do you have unique rewards that users will cherish?
  • Do your rewards seem to be appropriate for the level of difficulty it takes to acquire them?
  • Can you possibly give users a choice in what kind of rewards they get?

Real-time v. Delayed Mechanics

Realtime information flow is uninhibited by delay. Delayed information is only released after a certain interval.

Example: Realtime scores cause instant reaction (gratification or demotivation). Delayed causes ambiguity which can incent more action due to the lack of certainty of ranking.


Risk stimulates our instincts and can make things seem more exciting when something is on the line.

  • Can you create more opportunities for users to take a risk?
  • Can you make the risks optional so they have meaning and users can chose to participate or not?
  • Can you use risk to simultaneously increase engagement and fun while also providing a Sink to help balance your Virtual Economy?
  • Do you have limits to risk set to protect against users losing too much and burning out?
  • Does risk add to your Gamified Experience or does it create a sense of unfairness to users if elements of chance are involved?

Rolling Physical Goods

A physical good (one with real value) that can be won by anyone on an ongoing basis as long as they meet some characteristic. However, that characteristic rolls from player to player.

Example: top scorer deals, mayor deals


Rules make experience engagement possible. As with many things, rules must be carefully planned to insure balanced and fun engagement.

  • Do users clearly understand the rules of the product?
  • Do you have some rules that are community policed?


Self-Expression if properly done leads to a feeling of accomplishment and ownership which can result in loyalty.

  • How do you enable and encourage self-expression?
  • Do you allow users to make meaningful choices which might allow self expression?
  • Do your users have the ability to use a picture of themselves or character as an avatar?
  • If so, can they customize the avatar?

Skill / Chance Balance

Skill is the core of most engaging experiences. An “Experience” requiring no skill will eventually become boring. users love to feel they’ve became better or mastered a scenario. Some users love chance whereas others despise it and want everything to be based off of skill. The vast majority are perfectly fine with a nice balance of both.

  • How might you add more skill to your experience?
  • Is Skill optional?
  • Do you accommodate beginners while still providing a deep challenge to experts?

It is critical to balance skill/chance in your Experience. You may decide to have only one or the other but typically it’s best to have both. The balance really depends on your product Target and your goals.


Status is of immense importance in experience design. It separates “them” from “us” and gives loyal users a feeling of belonging.

  • In your “Experience” how can you empower users with meaningful status?
  • Does status give them anything of reward?
  • Do other users know this?
  • How do you show the change of status? Do you show it just to the user or to others?
  • How can you give a user the chance to indirectly flaunt their status?
  • Have you taken advantage of multiple forms of visible status, such as status titles, levels, tiers, rank?
  • Can you find a way to give users status not just globally but locally based on friends, geography or some other creative way?

Social Interactions

Social Interaction is important to build a community, increase virality and encourage competition and collaboration.

  • Is your Experience enabling Social Interaction?
  • Are users rewarded for interacting with their friends?
  • Do you give users ways to compete or collaborate with one another?
  • Do users know how to contact each other and have open communication channels?
  • Do you have social interactions that take into account multiple “friend spheres” such as facebook, twitter, local users etc.?
  • Do you enable users to do light social interactions or “ping” one another through some action in the experience? If so, is there some substance to how you enable this and various ways to achieve it?


Story is one of the most important aspects of Experience Design. While typically not so important in digital design, there are opportunities to have story elements in the new Experience economy.

  • Can you produce episodic content that is unveiled as the user advances?
  • Can you generate a story based on the Achievements and Facts about a user?
  • Can a meta experience be created that uses the data from the original experience to create a new experience that has a story-arc?
  • Can users create their own story content and share with others?


Surprise seems simple, but it’s very important. People love to be surprised with something they didn’t expect and surprises are known to have an emotional impact on us that we remember.

  • What can you do to surprise users in a positive way?

Get creative, surprise is one of those areas that is so broad that you’ve really got to open your imagination.


Time is our friend and enemy, a relentless and inevitable force.

  • How do you use time to your advantage?
  • Do you use scarcity of time to your advantage?
  • Do you use features such as countdowns, timers etc. to maximum effect?
  • Do you use cool downs so users will come back again and again when an ability, action or event is available again?
  • Do you use decay over time to insure users return?
  • Do you give bonuses based on time spent engaged or in any other creative way?
  • Experiences where your time is the score?


Unlockables are a great way to show progress in a cool way. users can unlock areas, specials, levels, status, achievements etc.

  • How might you implement locked content and unlockables to make users excited when they’ve unlocked something?
  • How can you create artificial scarcity with locked content in order to enable unlocking?

Urgent Optimism

Extreme self motivation. The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope of success.

Example: From Jane McGonical’s TED talk. The idea that in proper experiences an “epic win” or just “win” is possible and therefore always worth acting for.

User Experience

User Experience has become an art form and just like with other technology is very important to insure users have a pleasant experience. When pimping a non-experience you must keep in mind the original user experience and how Neuro Mechanics will affect that experience in a negative or positive way.

  • Does your design hurt or help the original Experience?
  • Do users clearly understand the Experience, it’s purpose, Rules and how to participate?
  • Can you empower users to change how they use certain features?
  • Are you properly using your UI to influence users to take the actions you want them to?
  • Is any part of the experience painful for a user and reducing fun?


Mirror, mirror… Many users love recognition and love to hear about themselves.

  • What features can you create to feed user’s vanity?
  • Can you create a “Customer of the Week” or similar concept so users will want the chance to be recognized for their efforts?
  • Can you do something to make users most important Achievements known to their friends, or everyone?
  • Is there a way you can more personalize feedback and communications to target the specific user so they feel special?


Virality is important to growth of user base which if done right should enrich an experience.

  • How can you increase virality?
  • How might you encourage users to “recruit” new users willingly?
  • Are your viral mechanics fun and natural or do they interfere with the flow and experience?

Virtual Goods

Virtual Goods help to build community, economy and a sense of ownership.

  • Have you created virtual goods that users care about?
  • Could you create virtual goods that actually serve some function?
  • Can you use the power of “Vanity” to make items seem more special?
  • Can you create scarcity to drive demand for items?
  • Can virtual goods be traded, gifted etc. to help build a community?
  • Do you allow users to customize their virtual goods?


It’s a wondrous thing the new world of Digital Engagement and your options are limitless. Just stop and have a think about some of the above before you crack on design things… you might find once you’ve launched you get a bit more engagement  and a bit less attrition.

(Based on an original article at Badgeville)

[MARKETING MAGAZINE] : #SXSW14 Neuromarketing is the next step in engagement

SOURCE: Marketing Magazine, 13th March 2014

Pete Trainor, associate director, UX, part of Sapient Nitro

Successful brands today are manipulating consumers’ minds to better their sales in new and developed ways, claims Pete Trainor, associate director, UX, part of SapientNitro. Here he walks us through his SXSW talk, “Is there a neurological recipe for success?”

Even before the age of Mad Men, marketers were trying to tap into the human subconscious to influence consumers to buy their products. You could argue that we, in the marketing industry, are in the habit-forming business – we build products meant to persuade people to do what we want them to do.Since advertising began, the mass public has been influenced by the images they walk past, see in the press and have beamed into their eyes through their TVs.

Smirnoff as an example used a technique called ZMET – Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique – in their advertising throughout the 2000s. Images were manipulated in the shape of the Smirnoff bottle to make the passer-by stop and study the shot.

The essence of ZMET reduces to exploring the human unconscious with specially selected sets of images that cause a positive emotional response and activate hidden images, metaphors stimulating the purchase.The major thinking part of human activity (over 90%), including emotion, takes place in the subconscious area that is below the levels of controlled awareness. In today’s new technological landscape, it’s now even easier to reward that part of the subconscious brain and influence behaviour towards engagement.

Turning brands into habit

Turning brands into daily or weekly habits is the key in the next stage of consumer engagement. It’s what I call “Neuro CX” or Neuro Customer Experience. An experience with a brand that is immersive and can quickly become a habit.

Personalisation is starting to get really prescriptive because of big data in digital experiences.

A lot of the branded utilities that we’re creating are also something that we want to use to make the public’s life better, by facilitating a healthful habit. Nike Fuel, for example, is a habit-building product that, at its core, aims to create loyalty whilst reminding us every time we hit the button that Nike is still a brand that’s relevant.

Nir Eyal, who wrote the book ‘Hooked’, says “If manipulation is a designed experience crafted to change behaviour, then Weight Watchers, one of the most successful mass-behaviour change products in history, fits the definition”. Manipulation and influence can’t be all bad.

Personalisation is starting to get really prescriptive because of big data in digital experiences. The data is there now to create highly relevant experiences which in turn can enrich a consumer experience. Amazon targets products at you that they think you’d like based on your spending patterns for example.

Old retargeting methods are out

Instead of using old retargeting methods, such as showing someone an ad for a car that person just viewed online, brands are using new technologies to help them decide, often in advance, whether a consumer should be shown an ad for, say, a luxury car or an inexpensive car, or any car at all.

Social media companies work with advertisers to help segment users based on their Facebook data. Facebook can tell an advertiser that a group of mothers using the site are talking about sending their children to a festival, and a big manufacturer of say, sun cream, could create an ad campaign that focuses on children using their product at a festival.

Facebook can also help the manufacturer categorise consumers as heavy or light buyers of sun cream and determine the number of ads each group will see. Those who buy less may see fewer ads than those who buy more.

Online retail is one part of the economy that is really doing well in this space. Indeed, the statistics show it is a substantial success story bringing in record business for firms like John Lewis.

The psychological approach

Retailers often talk about offerings, design and functions. But that focuses on the website and its mechanics. The companies that are doing well online lay their focus at the other end of the relationship; they focus on their visitors and customers, relegating the website itself to the lesser part of the equation. In other words, the successful retailers focus on online customer behaviour, taking a psychological approach, rather than a technical one.

Brain scanning research shows that website visitors make the decision as to whether to stay or to click away within 600 milliseconds.

This is evident in online retailers such as ASOS who changed their strategy a few years ago. Their website has several psychological triggers which show their visitors they need to stay. The same is true for Next or John Lewis. These firms provide psychological signals that the visitor can interpret within seconds. Brain scanning research shows that website visitors make the decision as to whether to stay or to click away within 600 milliseconds.

Traditional retailers are used to having several minutes in which to engage their customers. Plus they can manipulate things like lighting, temperature and sound, to make the shopping experience more enticing. But online retailers have only seconds and they cannot manipulate those environmental factors that increase the likelihood of buying.

Neuromarketers: exploiters?

Other examples of the manipulation of the mind to better advance product sales are; Microsoft mining EEG data to understand users’ interactions with computers including their feelings of “surprise, satisfaction and frustration”.

Google made some waves when it partnered with MediaVest on a “biometrics” study to measure the effectiveness of YouTube overlays versus pre-rolls. Result: Overlays were much more effective with subjects. Daimler employed fMRI research to inform a campaign featuring car headlights to suggest human faces which tied to the reward centre of the brain.

All the successful brands are doing it. But the practice is not without its critics and issues. First, consumer advocates and other groups have claimed neuromarketers are exploiting people to “sell us stuff we don’t need” and creating unhealthy and irresponsible addictions and cravings.

Ian Bogost, the famed game creator and professor, calls the wave of habit-forming technologies the “cigarette of this century” and warns of equally addictive and potentially destructive side-effects. However, I believe the customer is smart enough to make up their own mind and we’re simply helping them make better, more relevant decisions.

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