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Creating sticky features

For a digital product, your reputation is built entirely off of your digital experience. Unlike real-world retail, there is no gorgeous space or personal warmth with which to welcome your customer and build up a relationship and loyalty to your brand.

Or those intimidating eyes. Instead, you are dealing with an entirely new material that is both powerful and fragile: attention.

However, when you do get the design of your digital experience right, your customers spending their attention freely and obsessively on your platform. Last year alone Android users spent 68 billion hours on Tik Tok. Whether Tik Tok and NetFlix is doing good or harm compared to social media is a whole separate conversation:

Regardless, the discipline that understands how to craft attention best is cinema and television. They have the same constraints, to develop loyalty with its audience and make them return while having only a large screen to relate to. How then do they manage to create binge-watching as a predictable phenomenon? In feature films, it's a common saying that the script is the real hero of the film because that is where the attention is really crafted and where the hooks to make you return are put in.

The discipline that understands how to craft attention best is cinema and television

The smallest unit of a script is called a beat. A beat is a cycle of action and reaction in the script. Here is the last beat from Gone With the Wind :

Scarlett: Rhett! If you go, where shall I go? What shall I do?

A beat is a diagnostic tool. If a scene doesn't work, you can resolve it to a specific beat that doesn't work. What does this have to do with designing a digital experience?

Digital experiences are also a series of beats between your customer and your interface. Your customer asks the interface for something and the interface responds. Depending on the response, your customer may ask a few more questions of the interface. They go back and forth and in a few cycles, the interaction comes to a halt, ideally because the interface satisfied the customer's asks.

A good beat either reduces friction or creates value. It cuts to the chase and the interactions are pleasant and snappy. A bad beat does the opposite. Even with the introduction of design systems and A/B tests, the ability to sense whether you are adding friction or value is a human one. You don't need a computer to tell you this. Like a performer going into a show, you should know where the speed bumps and roller coaster rides are in your experience before you enter and only check if your customers reacted as you expected they would at these moments when you measure.

A good beat either reduces friction or creates value

Here are a few examples of removing friction and adding value: A common beat is the sign-on sequence. Assuming you've signed up, here's how a typical sequence plays out:

Interface: Hey ! Welcome! Enter your name and password and I'll let you in (subtext: It's your account and you room, but I have to know it's you so I'm going to ask you for your password every single time you come here )

Customer: Um.. what was it? I know the password, they're all the same, but I forget which email I used to enter.

(Subtext: This is so frustrating! Why can't you just let me in ?!)

Interface: No problem, I'll send you a few links, reset your password, and try again.

Customer: Ugh, well okay.

( Subtext: I hate this ! )

Here's a variation on this sequence :

Interface: Hey ! Welcome! Just put your finger right here and I'll let you in

Customer: Great, here's my finger!

Interface: Hi Rana! Welcome back!

While the most elegant version of this beat, assumes Apples' TouchID, there could've been several other ways that achieve the same effect. The password keeper in Chrome, the auto password suggestions in Chrome & Safari, as well as apps like LastPass all are pointed in the right direction: to reduce friction.

A small number of beats, typically two to three, is a good indicator of quality interactions. If it takes too many back and forth to move ahead, this is friction in the interaction.

Let's take an example of adding value. The situation: Your inbox.

Customer: I'm just trying to get to the really important emails and look at all the junk I have to wade through!

( Subtext: why can't you find a better way to keep my focus?!)

Interface: Sure, let me sort your inbox into Focused and Other, so you can get to the good stuff right away

This is not a bad solution, right? Outlook does a pretty good job of detecting junk and if you find it in your focused inbox you can mark it as junk or block the sender and it never turns up there again.

But you can always find the next level solution, that removes even more friction and adds even more value. I recently signed up for Hey! the new email solution from Basecamp and here's how it handles the same interaction :

Essentially the response by the Interface is :

Interface: Sure, help me understand just once which ones are important to you? After that, I promise you will only see the good stuff in your imbox.

This is a better solution because it is more respectful of the customer's attention. It does not ask you to take the same action twice and helps you handle this upfront, even before you get sucked into to your inbox. This is worth repeating: It is always possible to level-up and add even more value to an interaction.

A small number of beats, typically two to three, is a good indicator of quality interactions

The question of course is how do you arrive at these interface responses which feel intuitively better than what came before? The answer is to not think in terms of features, but instead in terms of functions. Features lock us into images, a phenomenon designers call form or design fixation, from which it is very hard to step back. It's like a form of low-grade hypnosis :

Yep, that's what it feels the features are doing to you when you try and figure out options.

Think in terms of functions, not features

Instead, take a step back from the feature, whether its a box, icon, thumbs up or thumbs down. Just focus instead on the function that would add the most value or eliminate the most friction for that beat and sequence. When you do that, the responses the interface returns sound different. For example :

Customer: I'm trying to stay focussed through the day, but I have back to back meetings all days and am completely drained by the end of the day

( Subtext: why can't you find a way to help me conserve my energy ?)

This is a common experience today. What kind of functions might be helpful that speak to the action and subtext of the customer?

It is always possible to up-level and add even more value to an interaction.

If you thought in forms, you might start with suggest scheduling breaks into the calendar and using a timer to take breaks every ninety minutes. All very prescriptive and it doesn't really do anything for the actual experience. It's up to the user to find ways to integrate a completely new workflow into his routine, all on his own. You've added friction instead of reducing it.

Instead, if you start with functions, you might arrive at a "breather" function and a "take five now" function. Reducing friction would mean integrating it into his daily workflow., a scheduling tool I use, that allows me to add breathing time between my external meetings and does not schedule them back to back. It is a tiny, but mighty feature:

There is still no "take five now" function that would force me to walk away from my computer after 90 minutes ( the ultradian cycle). Ideally, it would lock me out with a short countdown to the lockout and turn up the music on my computer or send me message on my phone after five minutes to remind me to return to my computer. If you build this, I imagine it will be one of the more significant interventions for these times. You have my money if you do.

What makes a feature sticky, is not so much that you tricked your customer psychology by offering them dopamine hits disproportionate to the actions they took. That makes them addicted to applause. What makes a feature sticky is that you create value for her by respecting and preserving her attention so that s.he can apply it to creative pursuits and creative expression through your digital experience. That you created what Steve Jobs called " a bicycle of the mind" for your customer :

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