A few weeks ago, I told my friend that I was preparing to speak at the first-ever MoNage event in Boston, an event that’s focused on the future of communications.

“So what’s your topic?” she asked.

“The emotional side of how we communicate now.”

“Like what?”

Good question.

I started explaining one example: the way how, when you start a relationship, every text you get from that person is this exciting new opportunity to learn a little more about them, or to reveal something about yourself, so you really look forward to seeing your phone light up every time they send you something…

But then, if the relationship starts to fizzle, those texts feel completely different.

Gradually, that little flashing light on your phone that used to mean “hey, something exciting is here” now means “uh-oh…” But the light itself hasn’t changed. The app is just doing what it was always programmed to do: tell you that you have a new message.

The app doesn’t know or care how you feel about that message; it’s indifferent. What’s changed is the emotional aspect of how you feel about that light, the app, and yourself personally. And because that shift affects how you’ll use that app going forward (either in the short term or for good), smart designers and developers need to take that into account as they design for long-term user experiences.

“Oh, I get it,” my friend says. “It’s like Snapchat.”


The Snapchat Honeymoon

“Right now my inbox is full of white noise,” she says. “All these pointless notifications. Oh, someone liked a photo of me, or someone liked a comment I’m tagged in, whatever. I’m a mom and a CEO; I don’t have time for all this bullshit. But Snapchat’s different.”

She explained that she used to get excited about Facebook ten years ago, when it was new and there was just a small group of early adopters using it, the people in her life that she was actually interested in trading information with. But now that everyone on the planet is on Facebook, most of those notifications come from weaker and more distant connections, so the emotional payoff of those Facebook notifications drops considerably.

(This is one aspect of the network effect that no one talks about: yes, the functional value of a service increases as the size of its userbase increases… but the trade-off is that the emotional ROI drops off a cliff because the perceived value of those connections generally diminishes as our social circles expand.)

And yet, for my friend, Snapchat is different.

That’s because Snapchat is still just catching on among adults, so her Snapchat audience is mostly comprised of some close friends and other “early adopters” in her circle — in other words, a small group of people she’s actually excited to share little moments with. Just like Facebook was for her ten years ago.

And yet, as we both acknowledged, she’ll probably be on to something else in a year or two, because Snapchat will burn itself out as it grows.

“That’s just the way it is.”

This got me thinking about the user adoption cycle, which mirrors a long-term relationship.

Dating Advice for Businesses

As creators of apps, websites, businesses, stories, and experiences, I think we all need to be conscious of the realities of our audiences’ expectations.

In the beginning, your experience is new, exciting, personal, and private — the kind of thing you only tell a few people about. Your mutual experience is a UX mystery of one another, with new secrets to be learned one thrilling day at a time.

But over time your once-thrilling experience becomes predictable, even mundane. As this continues, the emotional ROI of each experience is diluted. Instead of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, you settle into a steady buzz somewhere in the middle.

It’s the equivalent of a relationship once “the honeymoon period” transitions into “the new normal.” (AKA, wait until gradeschool acquaintances you haven’t spoken to in decades start adding you on Snapchat.)

For some people, the new normal is all they want. They’re content, they’re satisfied, and they’ll stay there forever until something forces them to change.

But for others, the new normal isn’t fulfilling. They miss the thrill of the introduction, the unraveling of the mystery, and the spark of exploration that only happens during the getting-to-know-you stage. So they start looking for something new.

Some of this change is inevitable. Very few relationships remain endlessly thrilling all the way from day one through “’til death do us part.” People’s needs change, their desires change, and market realities change. If you’re expecting everyone to remain infatuated with you (or your app) throughout the entire lifecycle of their interaction with you without you having to work for it, you’re delusional.

But you don’t have to plan for a breakup from day one either.

Three Ways to Keep Your Spark Alive

So, what should designers, developers, business owners, and relationship partners really be focusing on to ensure that their emotional ROI remains high? I’d say three things matter in every situation:

Adapt Your Offering to Your Audience’s / Partner’s Needs

Your core value proposition may stay the same, but the specifics of your transaction will change over time because the nature of market availability, user experience, and mutual interests change. This means you need to listen and gather feedback based not just on what they say but what they do. (Hint: Don’t just mine that feedback for reasons to justify why you don’t need to change.)

Strive to Remain New and Interesting

Your customers / partners were originally attracted to you and excited about your potential because you were new and interesting when they met you. Granted, half of that equation has a ticking clock hanging above it by nature; you won’t be new to them forever, and that’s okay. There is a definite value in providing reliability and routine. But that doesn’t mean the other half of your equation has to end. Being interesting is a perpetually evolving state of aspiration, action, and experience — but mostly action.

Don’t Take Your Customers / Lovers for Granted

Your relationship with your audience / partners is never so secure that you can just coast, believing that your past successes are sufficient to enthrall them in the future. There’s a big market of people out there who are looking for new attention, and they’re willing to work harder to earn and keep your customers’ / lovers’ attention than you are. If you get complacent, don’t be surprised if they find someone else who makes them light up like new all over again.

Image: “Romance” by Mike Leary

1 Comment

I Can’t Believe I’ve Been Doing This for Ten Years – Justin Kownacki · October 17, 2016 at 12:22 am

[…] relationships change over time, because people […]

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