Sometimes the illusion of choice is all that matters

Part I

I was in Golden Gate Park the other weekend when I overheard a debate between a dad and his young son, Caleb. The gist was whether Caleb should clean his room later that afternoon. After some back and forth where it was clear neither side was convincing the other, dad changed the subject.

Dad: Omar’s coming over tomorrow, right?

Caleb: Yup!

Dad: What do you guys want to do?

Caleb: Play in my room.

Dad: Wouldn’t it be nice if your room was clean when he came over?

Caleb: (pause) We can play outside. With the copter.

Dad: Where is the helicopter, by the way? I haven’t seen it in a while.

Caleb: (longer pause)

Dad: I bet you’ll find it pretty quick if you clean your room.

Caleb: (pause, then sigh) Okay. Can you help me?

Part II

As part of a redesign of their shipping centers, FedEx hired a consulting firm to understand how customers ship packages. The research led them to develop four personas based on how prepared people were when they arrived at the center, and how much help they wanted from FedEx employees. The most interesting customers were the “Confirmers.”

I am a classic Confirmer — generally well-prepared but nevertheless anxious about all the things that could go wrong. I’m the person standing next to you in line thinking, “Do I have the appropriate size box? Did I pick the right shipping speed? Did I fill out everything on the label correctly? Did I put the label in the right place? Should I get insurance? What about delivery confirmation?”

Confirmers, in case you couldn’t guess, like to be reassured. And there was one aspect of the FedEx experience that made Confirmers particularly nervous: After they handed their package over to an employee, the agent would turn around and place it in a gigantic pile of other boxes (“the leaning tower of packages”).

Even though the leaning tower had no impact on whether packages made it safely to their intended destination or not, the mere sight of it gave Confirmers the impression that the process wasn’t very reliable.

To put Confirmers at ease, FedEx placed a divider with five presort windows behind the service counter. Agents were instructed to take a package from a customer and slide it through one of the windows, signaling that it was safely on its way.

Of course, behind the dividing wall was the same leaning tower of packages.

Part III

The illusion of choice is just as applicable to designing software as it is to parenting or comforting nervous FedEx customers. Product teams tend to think in terms of actions or features they want users to try. But people don’t wake up in the morning with an urge to “Add a file to Dropbox” or “Install the Pocket browser extension.” They’re trying to solve a problem — share a video with grandparents or save an article to read later.

Your goal is to draw a clear path from that problem to your solution, integrating the product actions you need people to take along the way. The better you are at crafting this story, the more successful you’ll be in motivating someone to act. The optimization challenge is to deliver the right message, at the right time and place, to the right person.

The good news, as demonstrated by Caleb and the FedEx wall, is that there are often multiple ways to nudge someone towards the same outcome, whether it’s a clean room or peace of mind. The key is to bring people along willingly and to make them feel like joint problem solvers instead of helpless order takers.

From a product design perspective, this means that the words you use and the reasons you give are just as important as picking the right next action. For example, let’s say the first thing you want all new users to do is to install your desktop app. You should still frame it in a way that resonates with their particular use case:

  • Back up photos on your computer faster [by installing Dropbox]
  • Share files straight from your desktop [by installing Dropbox]
  • Access your stuff even when you’re offline [by installing Dropbox]

Another implication of the “Focus on the journey, not the destination” approach, is that you should look for multiple places in your product where you can encourage the same action through a different value prop. Even if people don’t bite the first time, you’ll eventually find a message that resonates (or just wear them down, depending on your POV). So if you’re trying to get users to auth their email provider:

  • At signup: Create an account in one click –> connect Gmail
  • When sharing: Make it easier to share with your contacts –> connect Gmail
  • When editing your profile: Have a consistent profile photo –> connect Gmail

Sometimes, the illusion of choice is all that matters.

The app that wouldn't go away

For an app that’s all about disappearing content, Snapchat just wouldn’t leave me alone. The routine went something like this:

  1. Read seventh article about “hot new messaging app” that teens are flocking to
  2. Download the app
  3. Hem and haw over what to snap and who to send it to
  4. Delete the app

A couple of weeks pass.

  1. Overhear friend exclaim, “Did you see Matt’s snap with the cat? Soooo funny!”
  2. Re-install the app
  3. Wait around for someone to send me a snap. *Crickets*
  4. Delete the app

…this happened four or five times.

But then it finally stuck. Like white on rice.

A lot of smart people have talked at length about Snapchat’s secret sauce — making it fast and easy to create content, limiting that content’s shelf life, mimicking the personal and immersive quality of in-person conversations, feeding our curiosity for variable and unpredictable experiences, etc. I won’t rehash these. But I think two aspects of the experience have been overlooked.

Multiple ways to create content: Active messaging vs. passive publishing

The thing that finally made Snapchat stick for me was the release of their “Stories” feature. Up until that point, I was a passive consumer, basically only opening the app when I received a snap from someone. There was too much friction to publishing my own snaps — the issue usually wasn’t coming up with the content, but deciding who to send it to.

My Snapchat graph in the beginning was pretty small and composed mainly of friends I had met recently in Seattle; many of my closest friends weren’t using it yet. The personal nature of the medium can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s an immediacy and casualness to the interaction that makes it extremely engaging. On the other hand, it can inspire anxiety at the thought of imposing on someone who might not feel the same level of familiarity. The fact that you had to individually check each recipient’s name when sending snaps amplified this feeling of “I’m interrupting someone,” in addition to making it tedious to send snaps as your network grew.

But the ability to passively publish snaps and have them viewable to all your followers for 24 hours changed things. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about the “who to send it to” part. I just posted to my Story and went on with my day. The key is that Snapchat closed the feedback loop by showing me the people who viewed my Story. Once I could see who was already looking at my stuff, it felt natural to send them a snap directly. Oh hey, a positive feedback loop!

Besides turning consumers into creators, “Stories” gave people another reason to open the app beyond receiving direct snaps, which meant more frequent and longer sessions. It also opened up a monetization channel for brands.

Matching emotional payoff with required investment

“It’s confusing.”

“How was I supposed to know how to do that?”

“I don’t get it.”

I hear this a lot from friends. Admittedly, Snapchat doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to straightforward UI, often burying new features in the settings, disabled by default. This would be a death knell for most products; people don’t have the time, patience, or attention to sit down and learn the intricacies of yet another messaging app. But Snapchat not only seems to get away with it, it actually thrives off of this dynamic. A few hypotheses as to why:

  • Snapchat’s seed audience, which evolved into its current base, is teens. This demographic likes to be the first to try new things and the density of their social circles ensures that interesting ideas spread quickly.
  • A novelty-loving user base is a big advantage, but it’s not enough. People will only invest in learning your UI to the extent there’s a proportionate emotional payoff to doing so. This is where Snapchat delivers — explorers unlock new filters, gigantic emojis, topical geotags, and other Easter eggs that make their snaps richer and more engaging. And as they discover and play around with these features, they spread it organically through their networks, piquing the curiosity of those they interact with.
  • Once people have sunk a bit of time and effort into your app, they feel more attached as a result of this investment. They’re more likely to tell their friends and take the time to bring them up the learning curve.