While product managing a mobile game recently, I’ve been thinking about core loops and compulsion loops. I haven’t been very satisfied with the quality of the theoretical explanations I’ve seen.
Compulsion loop. What is it. Two parts:
The compulsion part is due to the fact that the response is a part of a habit arc: some context cue triggers response from the subject, which leads to a reward. When the subject experiences the context cue, the response occurs automatically.
And the loop part is due to the fact that where one habit arc ends, another one begins, and the chain of arcs wraps around on itself. So it’s like this: Signal A, Response A, Reward A + Signal B, Response B, Reward B + Signal C… etc.
At GDC this year, Jonathan Dower of Supercell described the process that his team had used to build and ultimately kill a game called Smash Land. One thing surprised me more than the fact that they’d killed a game showing promising signals: the fact that they focused on look and feel early in the process.
After identifying the core mechanic that they wanted to build around (a slingshotty thing from a Japanese game called Monster Strike), they focused on gameplay: “the feeling of how the character reacted, the audio, the pops and all that.”
That surprised me. That stuff seems like polish that you add near the end, after you’ve validated that the game has what it takes to be a winner. But Jonathan’s team worked on that stuff first. Why?
Over the last couple of months I’ve been working on games for the first time. Today my team presented results of a game jam to a small panel of judges. And I understood why Jonathan’s team worked on that gameplay stuff first. The game creates a feeling in the player, and that feeling is either positively or negatively valenced. And the only thing you have to offer, as a game, is positive feelings. That’s what you’re delivering: an emotional experience that’s more desirable than what the player would otherwise be experiencing. If in your prototype you haven’t added the gameplay stuff that’s necessary to create a good feeling, you’re not going to be able to get much of a useful signal from your playtesters. They won’t like it. And the only thing you’ll be able to do is ask them to pretend they like it, which, as I’ve written, is the one thing you can never do in prototype testing.
From the research, here are two interesting features that distinguish habits from other automatic responses.
Habits are insensitive to short-term changes in the strength of contingency between the behavior and the outcome, and the value of those outcomes. This can be seen in the extreme in the case of addiction, in which addicts continue to perform the behaviors even though the value of the outcomes is lower than it was at first. In milder form, this can be seen in habitual use of Supercell games like Clash of Clans, in which the amount of labor between response and reward is very small in the early game, and very large in the late game.
Decision making in humans impedes habit formation. If a human in a certain context stops and deliberates before choosing and executing a response, this event will not serve to strengthen the habitual context-response association in the normal way. So if you want to cultivate a habit, do all that you can to remove the necessity of deliberation from the scenario.
So you’re thinking about leaving your job. Should you stay or should you go?Here are 5 things to consider, in no particular order.
People — fun. What percent of your moments are on the positive side, and what percent are on the negative side? Your coworkers probably play a huge part in this. Do you like them? Do you want to be more like them?
People — learning. Are there people around that know way more than you do about things you want to know more about? People with hard-won wisdom that you can’t get on Coursera? Are you learning from them?
Projects — learning. The stuff you’re working on — are you learning a lot from it? Or has it become rote? If you’re learning, how much is that learning going to serve you in the future?
Projects — alignment. The stuff you’re working on — how much do you care about it? Is it aligned with your goals and values? Does it matter? 10 years from now, will you look back and be glad that you were doing this?
Compensation . How much are they paying you? How much would you make elsewhere? How much room is there to move at your current place on base — would they pay you more? Suggestion: gain information by doing an interview somewhere else.
Rapid prototyping on real users is an incredibly effective way to search solution space for product configurations that will actually resonate with users. But there’s one critical mistake that I see rookie user testers making on the regular. If you do this, your test is bunk, and if you believe the bunk results of your bunk test, your product might be bunk too.
In a rapid prototyping session, you make a very rough approximation of the product use scenario. You can ask a user to fake lots of things. Pretend this piece of paper is an app on your phone. Pretend you’re on the bus. Pretend I’m not here. Pretend you’re 16 years old. Pretend you’re a mother. It’s actually fine to ask a user to pretend all of those things, as long as you help the user get into the state of mind that you’re requesting.
But there’s one thing you cannot ask the user to fake: motivation. The moment you ask a user to pretend that he’s interested, or pretend that he wants some outcome that your product is trying to deliver, the test is a charade. The user is now faking the very thing you’re here to test.
Usually it goes like this:
Researcher: What would you do on this screen?
User: I’d probably quit because I’m bored.
Researcher: …okay. Pretend you clicked “Next” and you saw this next screen. What would you do here?
User: Um…. I guess I’d click Sign Up?
No! Bullshit! The key question is whether the user cares. As soon as you ask him to fake it, you might as well just tell him to go home, because you can sit in your armchair and speculate about what he would do just as well as he can. You are no longer learning about the critical question: what do people care about? What gets them excited?
A rose by any other name would release the same chemical odorants, but if a rose was called “pukeweed” you probably wouldn’t buy one for your sweetheart.
Names are important. Product people often underestimate how important they are. And since naming a product or brand can be really hard, it’s easy to say we’re spending too much time on this. It’s not that important. Let’s just pick one and move on.
But names matter. A lot. If you’re trying to name your product and you haven’t found a name that feels right, you probably shouldn’t put the search to rest until you do.
Here’s why names matter.
Nearly every time a person encounters your product they encounter your name. That name creates a snap emotional judgment. This judgment occurs before declarative thoughts and conscious intentions. It’s a feeling that precedes conscious awareness (in the Blink sense), and it creates the context in which the brain goes about forming declarative opinions about the object. After that first instant, the thing already has established its emotional valence. All that’s left now is for the brain to find reasons to explain why the thing is so good or so bad.
That initial movement will start a feedback loop. You hear the name. You feel good. You look for reasons the thing is good. You find them. You declare them. Now, noticing those, and getting your ego wrapped up in it, you feel even more good feelings about the thing. And so on. Once that process starts, the ball will tend to keep rolling down the same side of the hill.
If the initial feelings are negative, the relationship between the person and product is likely to end right there. If the initial feelings are positive, the product has a foot in the door. The person is interested. Their brain is already at work generating reasons why this thing is cool or valuable. There can be further interaction. A relationship might blossom.
By this process the seemingly tiny factor of the first emotional, aesthetic response to the product’s name has an enormous effect on the final outcome of the relationship between the person and the product. I’m reminded of the cheesily awesome explanation of chaos theory delivered by Ian Malcolm to Ellie Sattler in the Jeep on Jurassic Park.
Consider virality. If I have a negative feeling about a product, it’s unlikely that I’m going to tell my friends about it. If when I say the name I feel a negative shadow, a twinge of embarrassment, an urge to defend or convince you that no, this thing is not what you think, it’s actually cool, hear me out — then I’m probably not going to talk about it. And the product won’t spread. But if I feel good about it, and am excited about it, I might be happy to talk about it.
That’s virality at the micro level. Now consider the macro level. For your product to be successful, it’ll need millions of people to hear about it, check it out, and develop a relationship with it.
How to test if a name is good
For me, there are two steps to a name. When you have a candidate for a name, here’s how to evaluate it.
First: Say it to someone. Describe your product, and use the name as if it’s already been decided upon. Choose a person whose judgment you trust, and who isn’t predisposed to like everything you say. Not your mother. Coworkers and critical friends are good. And when you say the name, pay very close attention to how you feel. Did it feel good? Did you enjoy saying the name? Did you feel embarrassed? Was it a bit of a strain? Your answer there is all you need to know, because as Don Draper says, “You are the product. You, feeling something. That’s what sells.”
Second: If your name passed step one, great. But it now it has to pass another step: the sanity check. Someone recently pointed out to me that “chlamydia” is actually a pretty word, if you separate it from its meaning. But yeah. That meaning. I won’t be naming my daughter Chlamydia. If the name is trademarked by your competitor, or if it refers to a venereal disease, keep looking.
Author’s note, November 2019: I originally wrote this article in January 2015. Two months later, I joined Lumosity’s growth team as a product manager and worked there for four years. I no longer work there and if I were to analyze Lumosity’s onboarding flows now, I’d write a different article than what follows. Nonetheless, I think there’s still valuable stuff in here so I leave it up for posterity.
At first glance, Lumosity’s onboarding flow seems pretty typical. There’s a landing page, a personalization wizard, an assessment, a summary, and then a payment screen. But on closer inspection, you’ll find that the whole thing is executed uncommonly well, and that key parts are startlingly original. In this post I’ll break down the entire flow and analyze it step-by-step.
A note: I don’t work at Lumosity, and all of this analysis is my own opinion drawn from publicly available information.
All of Lumosity’s acquisition activities are designed to funnel users into two places: the website home page, and the app store download pages. I’ll pick up the story at the website home page.
Today’s Lumosity home page looks like this.
If you’ve been watching over the last few months, you’ll know that this is a relatively recent update. In Q4 2014 they were A/B testing a major redesign of the home page. What you see to the left was the experimental variation, and it was the winner.
There are two key things to notice about this page.
The science. Of the five content areas on this page, four are focused on science. Lumosity is a company that tests principles rather than tweaks, and in this variation they tested the principle that foregrounding the science leads to subscriptions. Apparently it does. Compare this to the old version, which did emphasize science (this isn’t a new idea for Lumosity), but also focused on social proof (see the extraordinarily cool Lumosity members at the bottom — Sandy is literally shooting a gun while riding a horse).
Aggressive funneling. You’ll need to visit the page to see this, but nearly every single element on the page links to one place: the start of their onboarding flow. You want to learn more about Mike Scanlon, co-founder? Onboarding. Curious about that “Prestigious research network” or the “40+ scientific games”? Onboarding. Want to “Get started”? Oh good: onboarding. Lumosity is singular in its intention: they want to move users into the onboarding flow.
There must be something good going on in there. Let’s check it out.
The first phase of the onboarding flow is what I’ll call the ‘personalization wizard’. Here Lumosity collects data for the purpose of creating a customized training program.
Upon clicking “Get started” (or just about anything else on the home page), the user taken to this screen:
Let’s take a look at what’s going on here.
At the top, a headline: “Welcome! Let’s build your Personalized Training Program”. Sounds sensible — if I were starting with a personal trainer at a gym, he’d need to know what I want to accomplish.
The page then instructs: “Select all aspects of your memory that you want to challenge”. Let’s look at the options. I can apparently get better at:
Remembering patterns and locations
Associating names with faces
Keeping track of multiple pieces of information in my head
Recalling sequences of objects and movements
Hmm. Those all sound good. Can I select them all? Yep. Okay, I’d better prioritize. Which ones do I want most? How about remembering names — that’s something I often struggle with. And keeping track of multiple pieces of information in my head? Like upgrading my RAM? Sure, that sounds awesome.
On the second screen, I’m asked to select all aspects of my attention that I want to challenge. Again, all of these look pretty good. Who doesn’t want to be better at ignoring distractions?
As I continue through the next three screens, I’ll be asked about my desire to improve my cognitive speed, flexibility, and problem solving.
By the time I make it to the end of all five screens, I’ve now considered what my life would be like with each of 20 mental power-ups. All the while, the implication framing the experience was that these abilities would be attainable if I were to use Lumosity. Consider the effect that this experience has on my state of mind: I’ve been educated, and I’ve been motivated.
Let’s unpack it.
The purpose of an onboarding flow is to get the user to onboard — that is, to subscribe and pay. I haven’t subscribed. I haven’t even been given the option to subscribe. Why would Lumosity put extra work between me and the thing they really want? Do they really need to collect the data to personalize the training program I haven’t bought yet right now? Why not wait until after I’ve subscribed, or at least given my email?
Lumosity must figure that they’re going to get more of what they want (subscription and retention) if they guide me through this experience right now.
In other words, this experience is here because it improves subscription and/or retention. And if that’s the case, it means that the primary purpose of the personalization wizard is to modify the state of the user’s mind, rather than the state of a database on Lumosity’s servers. Basically, it has the same purpose as a standard product sales page.
And there’s the brilliance. The user experiences this as a survey, rather than a sales page. What does the user do when she’s taking a survey? She carefully reads the questions and considers the answers. In the experience Lumosity has created, the user applies her full, unguarded attention to imagining what her life would be like if she possessed each of 20 improved cognitive abilities, all while associating those visions with the instrumental path to realizing them — using Lumosity.
Let me just say it again.
While collecting data that will be useful for personalizing the program later on, Lumosity has made massive gains on two primary onboarding goals: education and motivation.
Education. For many people, the concept of brain training is unfamiliar. One of the boxes Lumosity needs to check off is that the user understands the benefits she can expect to gain by using Lumosity. How to do that? As soon as you get didactic about your product, you’re going to lose people in droves. This personalization wizard lets Lumosity educate users without boring them.
Motivation. As the user envisions a better version of her life (one in which she remembers faces, solves problems, and ignores distractions with ease), her motivation to take steps toward that better life increases. At the upcoming conversion phase where she’ll be asked to pay for the product, her motivation level is one of the key factors determining whether she will convert.
This dynamic is well illustrated by BJ Fogg’s behavior change model. According to that model, whether or not a person will take a given action depends on the person’s motivation level and her ability (the perceived difficulty of the task) at the moment of a trigger.
In Lumosity’s case, the behavior in question is the user subscribing to the product. The trigger will come when Lumosity presents the payment options at the end of the flow. Whether or not the user subscribes will depend on her motivation level and the perceived difficulty of the task (which comprises factors such as the cost and her expectation of whether she’ll be able to stick with the training program) at the moment of the ask.
The personalization wizard experience increases the user’s motivation by getting her to visualize the reward she stands to earn. As Lumosity product design director Sushmita Subramanian explains,
we know from our customer research and also from a body of neuroscience research that letting people reflect and introspect and then share and disclose information about themselves actually activates parts of the brain associated with reward — similar to those that you find from food, sex, and money. So we thought that having some parts of those in the product would help us out as well.
And sure enough, in an A/B test, the team found that directing users through the survey rather than sending them straight to signup increased subscription rate by almost 10%. This was despite the fact that the survey variation performed worse on conversion to the signup page. In other words, without the survey, more users made it to the signup page, but fewer users actually signed up. (There’s a lesson in this: make sure you’re optimizing for the right metric. Josh Elman calls it the only metric that matters. Avinash Kaushik’s Digital Marketing and Measurement Model is a great tool for getting your thoughts clear.)
Smart. Now that the user is all jazzed up on visions of her own imminent superintelligence, it’s a great time for…
Lumosity knows that many of its users aren’t going to pull the trigger and buy on the first visit. They’ll need to be nurtured. Everyone cites different stats, but this guide to lead nurturing by Marketo claims that
up to 95 percent of qualified prospects on your Web site are there to research and are not yet ready to talk with a sales rep, but as many as 70 percent of them will eventually buy a product from you — or your competitors.
If the user leaves without providing any contact info, Lumosity will have to rely on ad retargeting and luck to get her attention again. But if the user shares her name and email, Lumosity can send her targeted, personalized, optimized messages at any time. Think of these messages in Fogg terms: each message is a chance to increase the user’s motivation and sense of ability, and each message is a new trigger that might land at a fortuitous moment.
So it’s important that Lumosity capture the user’s contact information. After she completes the last step of the personalization wizard, here’s where she’ll be directed:
A form like this — asking a stranger on the internet to hand over her name and contact information — is one of the leakiest joints of any funnel. But the Lumosity user has just spent five minutes envisioning herself with mental superpowers. And she sees Lumosity as something scientific — ie, trustworthy. I’ll bet the conversion rate on this form would make any growth hacker envious.
As we continue walking through the flow, keep in mind that if the user drops out at any point after completing this form, she’s in Lumosity’s database. She’ll be getting regular emails until she unsubscribes or pays.
Now let’s fill in this form and go on to the next step in the flow, where Lumosity asks for…
Think back to Robert Cialdini’s famous principles of influence. Number 2 on his list is “commitment and consistency”. Cialdini says that humans are moved by a deep desire to be consistent. When we’ve committed to something, that drive towards consistency will make us more inclined to follow through with it.
At this point in the onboarding flow, the user has just just shared her name, email address, and birthdate. We could say that she’s made a commitment to seeing what this is all about. How likely is she to bail out at the next step? Not very.
That makes this a good opportunity to ask for some more information.
The text at the top tells the user that the reason Lumosity needs this information is to provide an additional level of personalization. I could write an entire post analyzing Lumosity’s use of Cialdini principles in this flow. To quote Cialdini: “A well-known principle of human behavior says that when we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.” Look back and you’ll see that Lumosity always provides a reason when asking for information.
Whether or not Lumosity needs this data in order to personalize the product, it’s valuable information for the marketing and product teams. Since the team found that adding additional complexity at this stage doesn’t hurt the onboarding metrics, how about one more page of survey questions before moving on:
After these survey questions, it’s on to the next step:
Reflecting user choices
Remember how we said that the personalization wizard isn’t primarily about personalization? So what is Lumosity going to do with the information it collected in that stage of the flow?
Here’s one thing. It will reflect that information back to the user, reinforcing the idea that this is personalized. Here’s what the user sees next:
First she gets a nice animation of a pie chart reflecting the categories she said she wants to prioritize.
This animation goes on to tell her that her priorities will be factored into her Personalized Training Program.
And finally, she’s prompted to get started on the next major phase of the onboarding flow, the Fit Test.
The purpose of the reflection phase is to satisfy the principle that personalization — or at least the expectation of personalization — will improve the user’s expectation of value and thus improve conversion and retention. In addition, it’s simply a matter of respect: the user has just answered a series of personal questions, and shows her that she was heard.
Next the user clicks “Start Your Fit Test”, and it’s on to…
Now we’re getting to something close to the actual product. Here Lumosity is going to have the user play three games “to calibrate [her] starting point”. Again, it sounds reasonable. If I were beginning with a personal trainer at the gym, he’d need to know my starting fitness level, right?
Each game takes a few minutes to complete. They’re fairly challenging, but are also adaptive — if the user screws up, it gets easier. Aside from being good game design, this ensures that everyone, including the sharpest test-taker, gets to see that there’s room for improvement.
Here’s why that matters. Lumosity just had the user imagine all the cognitive power-ups she stands to gain. With her aspirations set high, she’s now confronted with objective evidence of her current shortcomings. This assessment will make the difference between where she is and where she wants to be painfully obvious.
Assessment 1: Speed. As quickly as possible, decide if the card that’s flashed is the same as the last one shown.
Following the first assessment, the user gets a little bit of encouragement and education.
Assessment 2: Attention. Control railroad switches to direct train cars to their like-colored homes.
Following the attention test, some more reinforcement of the science messaging.
Assessment 3: Memory. Glimpse a pattern of colored tiles, and then recreate the pattern.
Following the three assessments, the user gets another overlay telling her that the system is setting up her personalized training program.
At the second screen in the overlay, the ‘Next’ button will take the user into the penultimate section of the onboarding flow, which we can call the ‘walled garden’.
Before going on, let’s pause for a moment and take stock. The user has been in this flow for 10 or 20 minutes by this point, and she hasn’t once been asked to pay. Come to think of it, she hasn’t even seen a price tag.
So what’s been accomplished?
The user is educated about the product and the concept of brain training.
The user is motivated to achieve improved cognitive abilities.
The user is aware of the objectively-measured distance between where she is and where she wants to be.
The user has committed 10–20 minutes of her time and attention, which creates momentum for her to continue in the flow in order to be consistent.
Lumosity has collected the user’s name and email address, which means that even if the user doesn’t buy today, Lumosity can communicate directly with her in the future.
Not bad at all. Closing time!
Now it’s time to close the deal. The user is deposited into a small walled garden of content — 6 or so pages that all flow downhill into the payment screen. In the name of saving space, I’ll show only the first page. If you want to see the others, here’s an Imgur gallery.
At the top, the user now sees her scores on the three assessments. Key point: these are not presented as contextless raw numbers. They’re presented as percentiles— how do I compare with others? This leverages the user’s natural competitiveness and curiosity about social status.
Below that, the user is again reminded of the science.
Here, the “daily workouts” line reinforces the gym-membership-like positioning and sets long-term training expectations that will serve retention.
And at the bottom, one last time, the page leverages our universal need to know where we stand compared to others.
Here’s how this walled garden works. Once the user has made it this far, any time she comes back to Lumosity on the same account, she’s limited to accessing these pages and a daily training session, which consists of three short games. The walls stay up until she either A) logs out, in which case she’s back to the beginning, or B) subscribes.
Lumosity would love for the user to proceed to the payment page and subscribe right now, but if she doesn’t, hopefully a seed will germinate in her mind. The emails she’ll be receiving almost daily should help to nurture that seed.
Finally, let’s go to the last step in the flow: payment.
When the user clicks Unlock, here’s where she’s taken.
There’s a lot of smart going on here. I want to focus on three key things.
A special offer is pre-loaded. First, notice that the page comes pre-loaded with a special offer to save 20% “today only”. (It’s there every day for new users.) This accomplishes two things. The first is that it adds a sense of urgency. I feel like I have to buy now to get that savings. The second is that it allows Lumosity to pre-fill the Promotion Code field below. That’s a fantastic idea, because these are a notorious conversion killer — users see the promotion code field and go off Googling for coupons rather than completing the purchase.
Multiple subscription length options. Offering four options for subscription length (monthly, yearly, two-year, and lifetime) accomplishes a couple of things.
First, it takes advantage of the contrast effect, whereby the subjective value of one object can be increased by positioning it alongside more expensive options. The classic example comes from a 1992 marketing research paper (sorry, no free version). Williams-Sonoma was selling a breadmaker for $275 in their print catalog. Sales of the machine were weak. Later the company introduced another breadmaker and began selling it for $429 on the same page. Sales of the original machine nearly doubled.
By offering a product for $239.96, Lumosity makes $11.95 seem cheap. In Fogg terms, this decreases the user’s perceived difficulty (of purchasing) without actually decreasing the amount of money Lumosity receives.
Second, offering multiple subscription length options allows Lumosity to capture the full amount of money a customer is willing to spend right now, rather than leaving some of it on the table for later. You can be sure that the lifetime subscription price, $239.96, is greater than or equal to the time-discounted expected lifetime value for a monthly subscriber. If a customer is motivated to spend that much right now, Lumosity will put that money in the bank.
Prices are displayed as monthly and total. Lumosity wants to make sure the user knows that she’ll save a lot by buying a long-term subscription. But Lumosity doesn’t want the user to balk because she’s confused about the total cost. So they display both, foregrounding the number that will contribute to a decreased sense of purchase difficulty.
When the user selects a plan, she’ll be taken to the checkout page.
This payment form is beautifully simple. It asks for name, credit card number, and expiration date; nothing more. At this point in the funnel, the rule is simple: minimize friction, maximize conversion.
Conclusions and takeaways
So that’s it — an onboarding flow that’s uncommonly well-executed and has at least one moment of brilliance.
What can we take away?
Simpler ≠ better. Sometimes adding more complexity to the flow results in a net win — particularly if you need to establish unfamiliar background. Just make sure you understand your user’s psychological state in that moment, and minimize the burden relative to her level of commitment.
Optimize on principle. Think about the deeper psychological and motivational forces at work during the user’s journey through your flow. Hypothesize principle-driven improvements to that flow, and test whether your principle was right. This results in powerful learning that will carry over into other parts of your product.
Don’t just climb hills. Or risk getting stranded at a local maximum. Include in your testing program an appetite for radical, principle-driven experiments.
That’s it. Any questions or comments, get me on Twitter @mgmobrien or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy onboarding.