Book Review: ‘Decoding the Why’ by Nate Andorsky

This book “Decoding the Why: How Behavioral Science is Driving the Next Generation of Product Design” by Nate Andorsky can be summed as the one attempting to bridge the gap between what is loosely known as gamifying the product experience and a typical product development in non-games companies. As you would have observed, even before Covid – product companies were focusing on driving user engagement and retention through non-monetary interventions. In a horizontal product world – everyone trying to do almost everything else – user attention is literally a currency!

Image 1: Book Cover of “Decoding the Why” by Nate Andorsky

In author’s own words, the book is intended to give readers a baseline understanding of how behavioral science integrates into the product design. What now follows is summary of the book in Q&A format

What are the limitations of an archetypal user research oriented product development process?

Basic flaw with user research could be that most of the time, one is asking users to provide explanations of behaviors they don’t truly understand themselves! OTOH, mimicking competitors’ products creates an echo-chamber of product design

Our innovations will only live up to their full potential if they are built on an understanding of the human experience. While context plays a significant role in how our behavior manifests, the underlying mechanisms remain constant and this is where behavior oriented process gives an advantage

How does the human brain function?

Tversky and Kahneman’s seminal paper, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” proposed that we attack complex problems using a limited number of heuristic principles—basically shortcuts. The brain typically operates in one of two modes: automatic and reflective, often referred to as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 runs on autopilot and it’s possible for these systematic errors to be understood and “predicted”. System 2 is slower, more methodical, and dedicated to solving complex problems

How does one get started on this new approach? 

The author introduces three kinds of data points one should be cognizant of

  1. SAY data: subjective information collected from users
  2. DO data are the analytics—what users are doing on the website or product
  3. The WHY data. If you understand the WHY data behind the DO and SAY data, it unlocks a world of possibilities

How do we fight inertia wrt current user behavior?

We have a bias toward the present, giving stronger weight to present payoffs than those that will happen in the future. Present Bias ties into another theory, Hyperbolic Discounting, which states that we have time-inconsistent preferences

The way we perceive our future selves is similar to the way that we perceive a stranger. The further out into the future the loss or gain happens, the more heavily we discount it. To offset Present Bias, we must close the gap between our current selves and our future selves

In general users who perceive more personal stability over time tend to behave in a more future-oriented fashion—one that aligns better with their future self. However when the reward is too far off in the distant future, one needs a substitution to fill the void

OTOH users need guidance when they make decisions. Without guidance, they can fall into Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice i.e. when presented with too many options, we have a hard time making a decision. This is why good on-boarding and product tutorials may be sometimes critical to product adoption!

How do we design for a reward cycle?

It is important to first consider the desired action before one integrates the reward

The fundamental building blocks of a reward cycle are: trigger, action, investment and reward. Nir Eyal notes that the reward should be variable, and there should be an investment component where the user puts something into the product such as time, data, effort, social capital, or money

Dopamine is the high you get from experiencing something new and exciting. The nervous system produces dopamine during the experience of reward, but even more interesting is that the production of dopamine also happens in anticipation of a reward. The closer we get to receiving a reward and missing it, the more likely we are to engage in said behavior again. Overall, rewards and incentives don’t necessarily have to be financial as anyone who has watched Tik Tok’s growth can vouch for!

How to choose between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators?

Daniel Pink, NY Times Best Selling author opines that the three elements he believes make up true motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Intrinsic motivation drives creative tasks that are open to interpretation.

A good rule of thumb is to leverage external rewards to promote interest in an activity that is easy but may not initially interest a user. If it is a specific, relatively easy task with a concrete outcome, easy to do, and with an endpoint, extrinsic motivators would be a good place to start

Then, if possible, trigger intrinsic motivations to reinforce the action over the long term

How do we get people to keep acting on their intentions?

Commitment devices help us follow through on our intentions. A common form of a commitment device involves a person voluntarily giving up something of value that they can only regain access to by following through on their commitment. It’s more effective to structure a commitment contract where the reward money is theirs to lose rather than gain. Think of an example, of incentivising student participation in class by tying higher participation to a picnic the school will organise later in the year

Commitment contracts don’t always have to come in the form of money. These commitments can be to another person or a group of people. Goals should not be so big or far in the distant future that they feel unattainable

One should not underestimate the power of cues in precipitating an action. Others give us cues regarding what we should do. Even a small subset of a larger group making a confident move can influence the rest of the group. Social norms and the pull of the crowd can help your users follow through on their intentions. The way to drive behavioral change predicatively is by changing norms and changing the rules, effectively changing someone’s environment. Important part is to understand how to change the behavior, and the outcome will follow

Why are goals so powerful?

Regulatory Mode Theory studies the development of goal-pursuit as well as motivation. The theory lays out two main approaches from a social cognition perspective regarding the pursuit of goals: one is assessment, and the other is locomotion. Scoring high on assessment means you evaluate your options before making a decision and while scoring high on locomotion means you need to always be doing something

Streaks are a powerful way to incentivize action. They provide a sense of progress that plays into the natural way we see the world, our desire to avoid loss, and our need for growth and accomplishment

For example, the primary focus of Duolingo is to make the long-term benefits of learning a new language more immediately salient. Winning streak that increases its attractiveness as it lengthens, becoming a self-reinforcing system. On Duolingo, the grouping of these streaks is completely arbitrary. However, streak loss can be demotivating for some participants. Duolingo has countered this by allowing learners the ability to restore a broken streak

In short, people who set goals make more progress!

How do we signal trust?

We have a natural inclination to trust people who look and act like us, a bias called similarity bias. Aribnb used this to build trust between two people who have never met before in the absence of multiple reviews by creating similarity between the renter and rentee. However, if users share too little or too much about themselves, acceptance rates go down

So how did they design for this? Airbnb nudged users to write an introduction of the correct length and to include the right details about themselves. Airbnb also discovered that at a certain point, reviews trumped similarity bias. When a listing accumulated more than ten reviews, everything changed, people started trusting ratings more!

How to retain motivation?

Leaderboards spur competition, but they have weaknesses. Leaderboards can backfire. If a user gets too far ahead or too far behind, they disengage. In games, there are techniques employed like Dynamic game difficulty balancing (DGDB), also known as dynamic difficulty adjustment (DDA) or dynamic game balancing (DGB), which is the process of automatically changing parameters, scenarios, and behaviors in a video game in real-time based on the player’s ability, to avoid making the player bored (easy game!) or frustrated (hard game). Overall, a competition between users is a powerful technique to motivate action

How to leverage loss aversion to our advantage? 

Losses psychologically feel twice as great as an equal gain. Only prospective (future) costs are relevant to a rational decision, but we fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. IKEA effect which describes the increase in the valuation of self-made products. While the participants weren’t experts, they saw their creation as ones created by experts. The more of a hand we have in creating something, the less likely we are to part with it. Fitness app Noom uses this to its advantage in their onboarding flows

Peanut effect as a way to counter big loss aversion!

The peanuts effect is when we fail to consider the consequences of small losses. In this case, it is a good thing. The peanuts effect is part of the reason slot machines steal all of our money. The decision to save is easier when framed in a way that spreads the potential losses into smaller increments. Momentum leverages the default bias and the peanuts effect to help everyday people close their intention-action gap

How to use emotions?

We process information about one identifiable person differently than information about a group of people. Identifiable Victim Effect, which seeks to understand what moves us to offer help. Think back to a powerful marketing campaign, and it would have revolved around stories. To move people emotionally, tap into layer two and convey the emotional experience to your audience. We are visual machines. The brain can identify images seen for as little as thirteen milliseconds. All types of companies can help users achieve their goals by making them the hero of their own journey – the way Pain Squad does for its users

How to integrate behavioral-first approach while building products?

The process is quite simple and can be summed as a series of steps below

  1. What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  2. Collect the SAY and DO data
  3. Compare SAY and DO data
  4. Identify potential behavioral drivers
  5. Identify potential behavioral solutions
  6. Create interventions
  7. Test interventions
  8. Iterate

As one can see, steps 4 and 5 are the most crucial ones and this is where learning and having an opinion about behavioral theories may help

Overall, we are just getting started in this interesting domain of marrying behavioral insights with product design. Academic understanding of what drives behavior precedes the implementation by about ten to fifteen years. Product managers and designers learn by taking theories and putting them into practice. Hopefully one should be able to discern where assumptions break down and where they start to work and then hypothesize why and fine-tune it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s