“Dopamine is not about pleasure; it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself.”
- Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Professor of biology and neurology at StanfordDopamine is infamous for being the brain’s pleasure chemical… for good and bad. It plays a crucial role in the development and maintenance of addiction. Traditionally, it was believed that dopamine levels spiked the moment a reward was presented after a task was completed. However, as Dr. Robert Sapolsky points out, it’s actually the anticipation of the reward that turns us on. Furthermore, the element of outcome uncertainty plays a crucial role in the addictiveness of something. In Sapolsky’s chart below, you’ll see that when the subject is 100% certain of the reward, there is still a spike in the dopamine levels, but it isn’t as drastic as when the subject is only 50% certain of the reward. We are essentially addicted to uncertainty.
In regard to social applications, notifications predominantly represent a trigger point for communication to occur between two or more parties. Unlike heroin, where the user has predetermined expectations of the outcome, notifications from social applications have a high unpredictability coefficient that makes them far more addictive. This is simply for the fact that human interaction is unpredictable… at least for the most part.
Maximize engagement by creating more trigger opportunities with meaningful context
Context is created through meaning. The level of meaning something has in your life is determined by the Four “I” Factors:
1. Investment - How much you’ve invested into something. Whether it be a romantic relationship, financial investment, a co-founder relationship, a friendship, or simply time spent working on a project or using an app, it becomes more meaningful to you when you invest more time and/or resources into it.
2. Interest - The level of interest and passion you have in something.
3. Intrigue - How much you can’t help paying attention to something. Uncertainty creates intrigue
4. Indispensability – How much anxiety is caused by not having something anymore.
The reason why notifications you receive on Facebook are some of the hardest to resist checking is because your Facebook network is almost certain to be comprised of the people you’ve invested the most time with over the course of your life. A notification on Facebook is likely to be one that holds meaning in your life because of the ‘Investment’ factor explained above. If you’ve payed attention to Facebook’s iterations over the years, you’ll notice that their most successful iterations have increased the frequency of notifications to the user without diluting the value of the notifications by sacrificing the meaning behind them. The best example of this was their introduction of the ‘Like’ feature. The ‘Like’ feature gave users the ability to acknowledge one another’s posts without having to fully engage in conversation. From Facebook’s standpoint, it reduced the effort required to trigger a meaningful notification for the user, thus increased engagement because each additional notification would get the user back to the site, where they’d get suckered in for another 15 minutes.
The thought process we used to design our new WingMan feature in order to maximize engagement opportunities through meaningful notifications
Since our site, Cliqie – The social utility for your real social life, is a social discovery application that helps you venture beyond your existing network of friends, we realized we were in a unique position to take advantage of the 3rd “I” in the Four “I” Factors listed above – Intrigue!
We recognized the addictiveness of the private two-way matching interface design and the opportunity it presents to drastically increase the number of meaningful notifications we could send to our users.
Here’s how it works… You’re shown a random group of friends (or professional groups if you’re using it for business) who you have a lot in common with and you’re asked if you’d hang out with them.
If you tap “Yes”, it will ask you select which of your groups of friends (Cliques) would hang out with them
This is private, so the other group won’t be notified that you liked them. However, if someone from their group of friends had previously tapped “Yes” on any of the groups of friends you selected to hang out with them, then it will create a match.
Whenever a match is made, all the members of both groups will be notified. They’ll have the option to create a new group to combine their groups so they can chat, recommend things to do and organize get-togethers.
It’s incredibly hard to stop once you start because you quickly develop this “just one more” mentality as you swipe through. This is because it effectively utilizes the third “I” – Intrigue… the endless pursuit of discovering something new and promising. There are some important details to point out about this design that led to our decision to implement this new feature:
- Boost Frequency of Meaningful Triggers: It will allow us to send out meaningful notifications to the users whenever any of their OR their fellow group members create a match for them (they’re a successful wingman/wingma’am). So, it’s an opportunity for us to engage with passive users regularly in a meaningful way.
- Boost Engagement: The private two-way matching interface is a powerful one psychologically because it’s driven by the first and third “I’s” – Investment and Intrigue. The Intrigue comes from the fact that each group you see is someone new, so there’s a high uncertainty factor involved. The Investment comes from the fact that each group you swipe through is a potential match later on, so the more work (time) you put in, the higher your chances will be of finding what you’re looking for… a match!
- Exposure: The one by one format of the two-way matching interface is effective in getting the user to do more by breaking down what you want them to do into bite-sized decisions. This will help them discover and interact with groups they probably would have never interacted with in the regular feed type interface. It seems counter intuitive, but people will explore more if you make it look like they’re doing less.
Earlier I discussed the role that uncertainty plays in dopamine levels while the brain is anticipating something. Because Cliqie itself and the WingMan feature are helping you explore the unknown, the uncertainty factor is very high, since the next notification you get could be anything from a close friend sending you a message to an alert notifying you of a matched group in which your potential husband/wife could be a member.
This all sounds reasonable in theory, but how did adding this feature pan out in terms of real world results? Let’s look at the data:
The month prior to adding WingMan (this was consistent for previous months also):
The month after adding WingMan:
Since launching the WingMan feature, we’ve seen over a 3x jump in average time spent on the site and 2x jump in average page views per visit. Additionally, we saw a 20+% drop in our bounce rate. This represents a clear and significant improvement in our user engagement. No other functionality of the application was changed… the only thing that changed was the format in which we presented our data to the user.
Other examples of successful iterations that increased engagement through more meaningful notifications
Notifications come in different forms. While we’re used to obeying them in their white number with contrasting red background form, they can really be defined as anything produced by the company whose purpose is to trigger the user to use their application. Examples of this are Facebook’s News Feed and Ticker Feed. They are great examples of iterations that increased engagement substantially. They essentially provide a stream of meaningful notifications.
Another great example of increasing engagement is a tweak found on several dating sites. They started to notify their users when other users visited their profile. This meant that now the users would be triggering notifications for other users by simply using the site as they had been. Again, this small tweak boosted engagement significantly because it substantially increased the number of triggers to get the user back to the application, but did so without sacrificing user experience. Users love getting notified when someone is interested in them, because well… we love to be validated.
The goal is to maximize frequency without diluting the value of your notifications
The goal when optimizing your engagement should be to maximize not just the frequency of notifications, but the frequency of meaningful notifications. Maximizing the frequency is crucial, but you don’t want to dilute the value of those notifications by bombarding your users with notifications they don’t really care about… otherwise they’ll become numb to them and categorize you as spammy in their head. Be mindful of the context of your notifications and how best to maximize engagement by creating inescapable anticipation for them.