How often does your product deliver good news?

In high school I babysat a sibling pair; the girl was around eight and her younger brother three or so. After hanging out with them for a couple of months, I noticed an interesting pattern of behavior.

The girl, let’s call her Mia, would come running to me with news that her brother, let’s call him Jack, had done something remarkable. These praiseworthy acts ranged from uttering a difficult word like “helicopter,” to walking down a flight of stairs unaided, to solving a tricky puzzle.

A simple story of a precocious toddler and his doting sister if it wasn’t for the fact that Mia’s recounting was often exaggerated, if not entirely made up. Jack never seemed able to repeat the feat with additional audience members. This didn’t deter Mia from retelling the stories to her parents when they came home, usually with more gusto than she had the first time.

I never fully understood the motivation behind Mia’s behavior until I picked up Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence. One of Cialdini’s key principles of influence is how much we like someone, which is determined by five things: attractiveness, similarity to ourselves, flattery, repeated contact in cooperative situations, and degree of positive association.

Positive association comes in many flavors: sensory (a scent reminds you of your mom’s perfume), temporal (you first met so-and-so during a particularly happy time in your life), spatial (you were standing at the corner of Perry and Hudson when you got the job offer), etc. A less salient type of positive association, and one that I imagine a lot of older siblings grasp early on, is to be the bearer of good news.

Like our tendency to shoot the unfortunate messenger who tells the King of battlefield defeat, we can’t help but project positive feelings on those who bring happy tidings. In Mia’s case, she had learned that a reliable way of earning goodwill and some of her parents’ increasingly divided attention was to play up her brother’s achievements.

As adults, this same impulse is at work when we brag about our successful friends, delay bad news longer than we should, and use the first-person to discuss sports victories (“We won last night”) versus the third-person when we suffer defeat (“The Seahawks lost”).

How can you take advantage of this dynamic when designing your product experience? Look for opportunities to be the bearer of good news, e.g., LinkedIn’s “Top 5% most viewed profiles in 2012” email; Zappos’ habit of expediting shipping times; Airbnb’s holiday card campaign that let hosts and guests send each other digital cheer.

Alternatively, you can replace an unpleasant association with a pleasant one. Take Uber as an example. If you’ve ever tried to hail a cab in the rain when you’re late for a meeting, you know the experience is exasperating at best and demoralizing at worst. The first time you try Uber, the convenience, control, and speed of it all stands in such stark contrast to previous memories that it feels like magic. And recreating this sense of magic is what brings you back to the app.

Or look at Dropbox. Many of us know the frustration of pouring hours into a presentation or group project only to encounter an “Upload failed” or attachment limit bounce back right at the moment when we’re ready to pack up and call it a day. Dropbox showed us that this process can and should be painless, if not even a touch whimsical.

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