„Breathing is the best product in life.“ – Behavioral Psychology in Product Management

Behavioral Psychology in Product Management
How Uber applies the competing pressure model

In one of my favorite podcast channels This is Product Management I recently found a great talk by Matt Wallaert, former director at Microsoft Ventures and chief Product Officer at Thrive, in which he shares how to apply psychology to drive behavioral change. Matt Wallaert is a behavioral scientist who is fascinated that product people can build the world in a way they want it to be. In his talk about behavioral psychology in product management he takes Uber as example of how to apply competing pressure models to make people do something by communicating only 3 strong messages. You will also learn why deep data access does not foster inspiration and services that provide us with too many options sometimes fail to serve a simple need.

The problem with solutions

Design Thinking and Business Model Canvas are only two techniques to lock creative potential and generate innovative solutions for customer problems. However, it´s a rather artificial way to lead people to the right thing without understanding why that is the right thing. If one considers the goal of a product to change behavior of its users then thinking of the product as behavior change problem is the better way to go. Regardless of what is being designed the output needs to be blank when you start with the change of behavior as end goal. In doing so more interesting and innovative ideas will be the result.

One of the most common issue with product people is that they get attached to their solution very quickly. Answer the following question for yourself: how do you react if you found a great solution for a problem, and then another Product Manager comes around with an even better solution? Often people feel offended. Instead a Product Manager should embrace the opportunity if another Product Manager comes with a solution for a problem that’s better than the own idea. As Product Manager you live in a world of the possible. You can change things that you think they do not have to be the way they are. Hence, product is the denial that the world is how you acknowledge it. From his scientific point of view Matt compares Product Management with running experiments in psychology: you want to have a prediction of an outcome and you need to find a way to proof it.

Product is the denial that the world is how you acknowledge it.
↬ Matt Wallaert

Product Managers use data access to reveal customer problems and deriving solutions for these problems. Matt criticizes that deep data access does not inspire behavior change. What inspires behavior change is insight and intervention. People either care about things or they do not care. If you want to watch a movie there are thousands of places you can go to. But if you just want to be entertained after a long day going to Amazon or Netflix is exhausting, because you have – to be honest –  too many choices. It usually takes me about 40minutes to find a movie that has an adequate rating, is matching my current mood and I haven´t watched yet. Being spoiled for choice spoils the party. Product people often overestimate the degree of choices people want to have when using a product. A lot of services are predicated of options while the pure love of doing something is neglected. Again, Product Managers live in a world of the possible. If we want people to do things more often or less there are ways to promote or inhibit a certain behavior.

The competing pressure model

In order to drive behavioral change Matt applies a model that he calls the “competing pressures”. In essence there two opposing forces that have an impact on people´s behavior

1. Promoting Pressures: encourages a user to take a desired action

2. Inhibiting pressures: discourages a user to show a certain behavior

A good example that probably everybody knows just too well is the M&M trap. Why do we eat M&Ms? Yes, they are colorful, tasty and easy to snack. This a typically promoting pressure, the reason to do something. Availability, on the other hand, is a strong inhibiting pressure: if M&Ms are in the room you will most likely eat them, but not because M&Ms are the most delicious chocolate chips in the world, but simply because they are available. Thus there is no additional promoting pressure, but rather an inhibiting pressure. Product Managers sometimes ignore the inhibiting pressures if they want people to do something. Instead they reward users in order to do take a certain action. If you phrase the problem to “I want people to do something more” it turns out that you rely on a solution that aims for promoting pressures and rewarding people for doing it. And if you want your users to do something less, you´ll rely on solutions for inhibiting pressures.

Uber vs. Netflix: competitors and partners at the same time

Let´s look at an example: Uber is applying the competing pressures model well. Uber users are not asking for a super fancy car driven by a famous person while being served nice drinks. There is only one promoting pressure that is going from A to B; while a strong inhibiting pressure is payment. Removing the pain of payment is making the experience so much better. However, removing payment does not get you from A to B. It´s not a promoting pressure, but it´s the removal of an inhibiting pressure that makes users happy. Uber drives a good marketing on that by communicating mainly 3 messages:

1. Getting from A to B is now cheaper than it was before ↬ removal of an inhibiting pressure, that is cost

2. There are now more drivers on the streets so you get to your destination faster ↬ removal of an inhibiting pressure, that is time to wait for a cab

3. You can go to a place where you couldn´t go before ↬ removal of an inhibiting pressure, that is going to forbidden areas

Uber simply removes barriers that usually keep people away from calling a taxi. When Uber was still only transporting humans they were in a struggle with Netflix. So, how is Uber conflicting with Netflix users? It´s simple: what does Netflix wants you to do on a Friday night? – Stay in. What does Uber want you to do on a Friday night? – Go out. They have opposite behavioral goals, so they are in competition with each other. However, that kind of competition holds a huge potential for partnerships. Companies can foster co-operations: who else wants to go out on a Friday night to watch a movie at a friends´ house? Let´s order a pizza with UberEats from our favorite pizza place for the movie night with Netflix. And even a third player could step in to leverage partnership effects. Just as Lazada did in Singapore. The Lazada- Uber-Netflix alliance launched a membership program called “LiveUp” which offers free deliveries and rebates. The idea is simple and follows the psychological Amazon Prime approach: when users pay in advance for a service, they committing to the view that it´s worth paying for. And there is one more huge benefit for the companies: loyalty. As people tend to redeem sunk costs they are more likely to repeat an action in order get their moneys´ worth. However, Alexis Lanternier, CEO of LiveUp, states “the goal of LiveUp is less about revenue, and all about getting as many online lifestyle natives to sign up.”

Psychological Biases

This leads to another psychological principle: logic biases. Human beings want to fit in and they want to stand out at the same time. We want to feel special and unique, but also being connected to others and belonging to a group. In that case it´s essential to know how your product fits into somebody’s self-identity. Excel is a very good example how a product has been built in a way it fits its user’s identity. One could make a simple stupid version of Excel with only the main functionalities. Instead it´s complicated. And why is it complicated? Because people that pay for it want to feel like power users. Even if they never use features they feel like they could, so it should not be hidden. Another example: breathing. Breathing is the best product in life as it provides the strongest promoting pressure that is central of your life. And there is a minimal inhibiting pressure as you automatically do it even if you are knocked out. Breathing requires very little of brain space. It does not require any of your attention. That´s what you want to achieve. Sometimes you just want people´s attention in specific ways, in specific situations, feel in a specific way. To make people do what you want them to do think about their mental resources and when they spend them.

Breathing is the best product in life. ↬ Matt Wallaert

Applying behavioral psychology principles in your daily work

If you want to change the behavior of your customers you need to truly understand why they are taking a certain action. You need to take in their perspective. Sympathize with their situation and circumstances they find themselves in. And take a close look at their self-identity. User research should not be like one of the boxes to check, but rather an intuitive thing that fits in your process. Create a framework with the goal to identify the pressures that causes people do what they do. As an artefact create a pressure map that feeds your design process. Reconsider how you ask your users to receive feedback on a specific behavior. If you want to find out whether a certain functionality is being used in a banking app, instead of asking “Did you click on this button?” rather ask “How do you feel about money? How often do you pay in cash? How do you budget? How do you do that? Do you use envelopes or money socks?” In that example it´s about finding out what´s the function of money in their lives. Out of these insights you can design products that will make your customer show a desired behavior.

There is one last personal advise from Matt: read science fiction books as it´s the world without boundaries. What happens if we remove the boundaries? – This is what brings you ahead.

Written by Sabrina Rzepka


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