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Addictive design - using unpredictable rewards

Have you ever high-fived the universe? If not, let me introduce you to surfing.

Why is everyone surfing right now

Blame it to the lockdown or to a ton of YouTubers, surfing seems to have attracted a lot of people the last 6 months. Or maybe because I started surfing like a maniac. This is called by the way the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or frequency bias. It is the same as buying a car and then you keep noticing that there are so many people driving the same car are you.

I tried surfing as soon as I moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. And I sucked. I mean, I enjoyed it and was spending more than two hours fighting with the waves and making little progress but swimming + exercising + friends is a pretty sweet deal. Then, I stopped. Until 6 months ago.


I unlocked the next stage of surfing randomly, when I went to a beginners surfing point just to get some exercise, having zero expectations about riding a wave. Oh, little did I know. All of a sudden I could ride waves. I COULD SURF. It seems that trying to start surfing in a 3-4 feet waves which trust me are huge when you are confronted by them, isn't the best intro for surfing. It builds your skills though: balance, explosiveness, paddling in the water and knowing how to dodge waves.

That was it. I was hooked.

The sport of the Gods

Winds are traveling the universe and end up on Earth caressing the ocean to create waves, harnessing the gravity of the moon and the sun and then this powerful and majestic mass of awesomeness is calling you to try and ride it.

There is nothing similar to this feeling in the whole universe. You cannot be more connected with everything. You cannot feel smaller yet bigger than this.

But this is not why surfing is so addictive.

Dogs, cats and rats

Pavlof find out that

Any behavior that is rewarded, is likely to be repeated.

He figured out that when a bell rings and you immediately reward a dog with treats, the dog will be condition to expect a treat (and salivate) whenever a bell is rung. We all know how this works and applied to products but Skinner took it waaaaay further.

B. F. Skinner was the father of behavior analysis. If you don't know about Skinner, please read this excellent book.

Skinner figure out that he can boost the "salivating" (even though he was using mostly rats) by randomizing the reward. The rats were hitting a lever and they were getting a reward but not everytime. Sometimes the reward was small. Sometimes huge. Sometimes there was no rewards.

The rats were going crazy waiting for their random dopamine hit. This variable schedule of rewards is more effective that what Pavlof found out.

This is the reason why surfing is so addictive.


You are sitting on your board, waiting for the next "perfect" wave. Tons of waves come but none is perfect. Sometimes you spend 30 minutes just waiting. And then the universe sends you a wave. Randomly.

You see it and immediately you have an adrenaline rush. Dopanine is already hitting you, even before catching the wave. This is it.

You start paddling, you feel the gentle push that is becoming violent and as you are connected with everything, time stops. Nothing else matters. This is it. Your reward that you got sometimes was epic, medium or a face-plant to the water. Regardless of the reward though, you are hooked. You want to do it again. You crave for it.

Unpredictable rewards in products

Integrating this to a product is not as tricky as you think and it is used in almost everything already (gaming, social networks, casinos).

The main idea is making any reward that you have for the user variable. Not in terms of time but in terms of benefit.

Same examples:

For gaming, any rewards should be randomized. You completed you quest? Fantastic! Here is your random loot box. For a platform that uses badges (which surprisingly are very effective), a random badge should be awarded instead of a specific one. So many platforms are doing this wrong.

For anything that "unlocks" a next level - even buying a bigger plan, a random reward should be given. Users need to crave for the next cool thing that might get.

I am experimenting with a Startup Course that I am building from scratch (everything, including the platform) and I am seeing that random "powerups" have more than 60% engagement than predictable ones. Btw, if you want to participate in the beta of the Startup Course (The Donut Startup), sign up here, send me an email and I'll send you an invite.

Have you ever experienced unpredictable rewards that worked on you? I'd love to hear them.

Coming next: How to create an army of followers that love your product

- Sun 04 October 2020


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