Are you enhancing people’s experiences – or addicting them to your product?

There’s a deep, deep difference between the sorts of products that try to addict us into making themselves central in our lives, and those that just serve us.

I first read about the experience loop in Matthias’s book Transformational Products somewhat over the fringes of Asia, filling time on a deeply uncomfortable long-haul flight to Singapore a couple of weeks ago. I revisited it yesterday, reading the finished version of Martin’s post on dopamine loops. Both times I had the same experience of feeling that there was something just out of sight in my brain, a thought I couldn’t quite catch hold of.

There was something in the examples both in Matthias’s book and Martin’s post that seemed…

And so I did the things I do when a thought won’t come. I made coffee. I scanned old negatives. I read on my iPad.

And then it came to me.

Addiction versus hyper-comptent assistance

Aeropress coffee Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

There’s a deep, deep difference between the sorts of products that try to addict us into making themselves central in our lives, and those that just serve us. I made my coffee with an Aeropress. I scanned old family negatives with an Epson film scanner. I read on an Apple iPad. These are three products I enjoy using, I value owning, yet which I almost never think about when I’m not using them. But in each case, I will happily extol their virtues to anyone who asked.

Martin talked persuasively about the experience cycle being a deeper and more meaningful route to a profound connection between user and product. Addictive products, the social networks and their ilk, would claim that same connection. Indeed, there are deeply connected to the way many of us live our lives. But there’s a difference here, isn’t there? The services that are built on the dopamine cycle and the ludic loop try to make themselves central to our life. The products suited to the experience loop seek to make themselves central to a task in our lives — and there’s a world of difference between them.

One seeks to optimise for consuming ever-greater quantities of our most precious resources: time. The others seek to gift us extra time, either by improving the experience so it takes less time — think app-hailed cab rides — or by making it more pleasurable in of itself. The coffee-making rituals around using an Aeropress are very much a part of its appeal to me.

It is possible to have a deep, profound and habit-forming relationship with a product without the makers aspiring to claw ever greater quantities of a user’s time into its ever-hungry maw. In the longer term, it’s probably the route to a healthy relationship with a product.

The arrogance of primacy

It’s both deeply arrogant and deeply short-sighted to try and make your business central to a client’s life. Your product should be central to the experience you are trying to help them with, be it buying gadgets and books (like Amazon) or providing an easy way around a city (Uber). Part of the joy of a great product is that it gets out of your way when it’s not the focus of your attention.

Was there ever a better examples of this than the late, lamented iPod? It both transformed our relationship to music, by allowing us to carry our entire music libraries around with us, and reduced the impact on our lives of consuming the experience, by removing the faff of finding and playing physical media. You had thousands of songs with you at all times, in a device that you could chuck in your pockets and forget about.

Facebook does not want you to forget about it: it can behave like a naughty, attention-seeking child, constantly pushing at you with notifications until you succumb and slip back into the dopamine embrace of pulling to refresh in the app. People are hooked on Facebook – but often they resent the time they spend on it. There’s a good sign of a bad addiction.

The Virtuous Infinite Loop

The experience cycle is a counter to this: the virtuous loop that starts with an easy and swift route into the service or the app, and which ends with you as an evangelist for your product, makes the difference between a long-term committed relationship, and an obsession-fulled fling. How many digital services come across like needy insecure partners always pushing for more of our attention?

The best digital services — the ones I’m loyal to rather than addicted to — either simplify or enhance my life. The very best do both. And of course, the joy of digital services is they can get better. Amazon adds benefits to Prime that I get at no extra cost, that sustain its value, and create an effective lock-in.

However, that can apply even to physical goods. My AeroPress experience is enhanced by online coffee bean subscriptions services, and a brewing timer app. My iPad gets more capable with each major software update.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspect of the experience loop model is that it’s fulfilling for both the customer, but also for the provider. Being able to incrementally make the product better through this loop process is more satisfying that figuring out how to milk the customer more through addictive processes. With former tech company employees banding together to fight what they created, and AI companies pitching to games companies to find better ways of getting customers to open their wallets, that feels like an appealing work style, doesn’t it?

Disclosure: Matthias Schrader is the co-founder and CEO of SinnerSchrader, the co-host of the NEXT conference. I had absolutely nothing to do with the book. But I like it.

Andreas Klassen