The dark side of engagement | Thinking Product

Today’s post, on retention, was supposed to be the final one in the “building blocks” series where we bring together the various aspects of great technology products and the questions that can guide our thinking through this process.

But, before I spent time on retention, I thought I’d take a detour and share a few notes on the dark side of engagement from the author of a book on the subject, Nir Eyal. Nir Eyal had a thought provoking post on this in which he called out the dark side of aiming for engagement – unfortunately, making things more engaging also makes them more potentially addictive. 

We’ve all experienced this with some of our favorite technology products. They are engaging to the point where we can’t really access them without experiencing that daily hit. His suggestion is to build in safeguards within our products. Here are a few examples –

For example, instead of auto-starting the next episode on Netflix or Amazon Video, the binge-inducing video streaming services could ask users if they’d like to limit the number of hours they watch in a given weekend.

Online games could offer players who cancel their accounts the option of blacklisting their credit cards to prevent future relapses.

Facebook could let users turn off their newsfeeds during certain times of the day.

And rather than making it so fiendishly difficult to figure out how to turn off notifications from particularly addictive apps, Apple and Android could proactively ask certain users if they’d like to turn off or limit these triggers.

We saw real life examples of these issues recently when a 13 year old in China jumped off a building after being denied access to the very addictive “Honor of Kings” game by Tencent. Then, a 17 year old nearly died of cerebral infraction after 40 hours of continuous playing. So, Tencent responded with time limits for anyone upto 18 years of age. Of course, one would hope that companies won’t wait for a tragedy before creating such safeguards.

These examples aside, there have been studies on the negative effects of social networks on teenagers’ self worth and body image. And, we’ve all likely experienced meals where we wished there was a sign like this.

Nir Eyal concludes his post with this –

Of course, tech companies won’t be able to “cure” addictions, nor should they attempt to do so. Nor should they act paternalistically, turning off access after arbitrarily determining that a user has had enough. Rather, tech companies owe it to their users simply to reach out and ask if they can be helpful, just as a concerned friend might do. If the user indicates they need assistance cutting back, the company should offer a helping hand.

With the data these companies collect, identifying and reaching out to potential addicts is a relatively easy step. A harder one, it seems, is caring enough to do the right thing.

For anyone part of a team or company that’s involved in building technology products, this responsibility to care is on us.

Being a leader vs. acting like a leader

Being a leader involves exhibiting deep care about people, processes and results. This care manifests itself in many small ways –

  • Following up on commitments
  • Ensuring the customer’s needs are represented in the room
  • Respecting people’s time by showing up on time and, in connection oriented jobs, responding to them in time
  • Showing up prepared
  • Running great meetings
  • Never hesitating on asking the tough questions – but always doing so in a constructive manner
  • Documenting thought process and rationale thoroughly
  • Bringing a positive attitude
  • Seeking to understand and then to be understood
  • Demonstrating great care for team members by enabling them to learn and grow

There are occasions and roles when you have to act like a leader more often than not- e.g., lead from the front and be the decisive voice in the room. But, these are fewer and increasingly not the norm.

Instead, most jobs are a lot more about being a leader versus acting like one. Exhibiting deep care doesn’t require you to lead from the front. Instead, it works best when you lead from behind – that is the kind of leadership required in most roles anyway.

Finally, what is often forgotten is that you have to first be a leader to earn the right to act like one.

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

The work never stops

The law of conservation of energy says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It just changes from one form to another.

I think work works similarly. Work is always present – it just changes from one form to another.

In our lives, we need to work hard to understand ourselves, our priorities and design a schedule that works in alignment to them.

At the office, work involves carving out time for deep thinking, staying engaged in the many meetings we attend and making every hour we spend “at work” count.

At home, we work to keep our homes clean, to cook good food, to take care of ourselves and to pay attention to each other.

There may be a few weeks of vacation every year when we don’t need to worry about doing all this work as much. But, it is the work we do the rest of the time that enables us to get those few carefree weeks.

Anything of value requires work. Thus, the work never stops.

And, that’s a beautiful thing.

Indomitable spirit

One of the most fascinating parts about observing children is their indomitable spirit.

Have you watched a child learning a new skill? They just never stop trying to learn. It is a constant cycle of try, fail, learn and repetition of that cycle again and again and again.

We were fortunate to observe a kid learning how to stand up the other day. She kept falling. But, no matter – she refused to give up. No amount of falling was going to stop her trying. Her enthusiasm to learn was contagious. I was excited to learn something, anything, after watching her.

I wonder what kills this tireless quest for new experiences and learning. Is it parents who quash the enthusiasm? Teachers? Friends?

When I see kids hurl themselves into new learning experiences, I remember the quote – “9/10ths of education is encouragement.” What if  we, as parents and teachers, sought to educate less and chose to encourage more? Would we see more instances of indomitable spirit?

I don’t know. But, it certainly seems worth a shot.

The Shinkansen story

In the 1950s, during the lingering wake of the devastation of the Second World War, Japan was intensely focused on growing the nation’s economy. A large portion of the country’s population lived in or between the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, which were separated by just 320 miles of train track.

Every day, tens of thousands of people traveled between the two cities. And in addition to the thousands of people who traveled on these trains, tons of industrial goods were transported on them, too. But, because Japan had so many mountains spread throughout and in between the two cities that it made an already old and outdated railway system even slower due to the rough and mountainous Japanese terrain the trains were forced to travel on; making the trip as long as 20 hours.

So, in 1955, the head of the Japanese railway system issued a challenge to the nation’s finest engineers: invent a faster train.

Six months later, a team unveiled a prototype locomotive capable of going 65 miles per hour—a speed that, at the time, made it among the fastest passenger trains in the world.

“Not good enough,” the head of the railway system said. He wanted 120 miles per hour.

The engineers told the head of the railway that this just wasn’t a realistic expectation—and was, in fact, a pretty dangerous undertaking because a train designed to go that fast (120 miles p/hr) along the sharp and mountainous Japanese topography would definitely derail if it turned too sharply, and end up killing everyone on board as a result. No way could they design a train to go that fast.

So, instead of 120 miles an hour, the engineers said that 70 miles an hour was a much more realistic number to shoot for, 75 if they were lucky. Any faster and the trains would just crash.

“Why do the trains need to turn?” the railway head asked.

“There are numerous mountains between the cities,” the engineers replied.

The railway head shot back—“Why not make tunnels, then?”

Tunnels, huh? The labor required to tunnel through that much territory could require just as many physical and financial resources as it did to rebuild the entire city of Tokyo after World War II.

Three months after that conversation, the engineers came back to the railway chief with an engine that could go as fast as 75 miles an hour.

You can probably already guess what the railway chief said – “75 miles an hour has absolutely no chance of transforming the nation!”

Incremental improvements would only yield incremental economic growth.

The only way to revamp the nation’s transportation system was to rebuild every element of how these trains functioned. Everything.

So they got to work, and over the next two years, the engineers experimented: they designed train cars that each had their own motors. They rebuilt gears so they meshed with less friction. They discovered that their new cars were too heavy for Japan’s existing tracks, and so they reinforced the rails, which had the added bonus of increasing the train’s stability, which added another ½ mile per hour to train’s speed.

There were hundreds of innovations, both big and small, just like these; each of which made the trains just a little bit faster than before.

And after tons of tiny tweaks and years of hard work and hustle under the Japanese railway chief’s go-big-or-go-home style of leadership, the very same team of engineers that thought it was impossible to build a 120 mile train—ended up building a 120 mile train.

In 1964, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, the world’s first bullet train, left Tokyo and made its 320-mile trip towards Osaka. Except this time, instead of taking twenty hours, the trip took only four.

A fascinating story about how the Shinkansen was built from “Smarter, Faster, Better” by Charles Duhigg. Often, the prerequisite for building great things is relentlessness and a willingness to question every current norm and start anew.

Stones unturned

The surest sign of a great process is knowing you left no stone unturned. That’s when you walk away knowing you did everything in your power to make it work.

A great process doesn’t guarantee a good outcome, however. The higher stakes the outcome, the more likely a good proportion of the result isn’t in your control. So, things can and will, on occasion, go south.

But, you don’t control that.

You control effort. And, an effort that leaves no stone unturned is the kind of effort that allows you to let go and completely accept the outcome.

That’s the thing with great processes – they don’t guarantee the outcomes you seek but, in allowing you to let go, they do guarantee long term happiness.

Avoiding bad decisions

You might want to avoid bad decisions.

However, avoiding bad decisions is a poor goal because you only develop judgment over time. So, achieving it would mean making less decisions, taking less chances, and beating yourself when something inevitably goes wrong.

Decreasing experimentation in the long term is a very expensive decision.

Perhaps our goal instead should be to make sure we avoid making the same bad decision twice. This way, we keep the experimentation but ensure we take the time to learn from our experiments.

As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience. And, experience comes from bad judgment.

So, here’s to occasional bad judgment.