The product is the feeling

Life’s meanings are often concealed behind facades of what we perceive to be reality. I have observed through time that what we perceive through our senses are just veiled representations of the underlying motives, emotions and patterns of truth. Just as there is a story beneath every piece of art and every classical symphony, there is a story behind every human, every facial expression and every action.

In seeking to understand how this could apply to the domain of business and product management, I arrived at the following two sentiments. The first being that the best products exist to evoke emotions in the people that use them, and secondly that people seek products that evoke emotion within themselves. And in this seeking, there is a story;  a primal craving, whether it is of an identity, belonging, status, love or sex. It is in seeking these emotional gratifications that humans derive purpose and meaning in their lives.

Humans don’t buy products, they buy gratifications.

In essence, people don’t buy products, they buy gratifications, and gratifications lead to positive feelings. People pay for products that make them feel good, or that provide solutions which forge a path to this same result.

THE THEORY OF GRATIFICATION

The theory of Gratification states that humans align their time and energy in accomplishing just two main goals; subsistence and gratification. Subsistence (the definition of which has been broadened for this article) entails doing necessary tasks for basic comfort and survival (e.g. jobs, commuting, managing finances, administration and other tasks of necessity), whereas gratification is centered around activities from which we derive pleasure and meaning in life (jobs that bring satisfaction and meaning, entertainment, love, sex, ego validation, status and more).

The theory of gratification states the following:

Humans will forever optimise their lives to minimise energy spent on subsistence, and maximise energy spent on gratification.

The evidence of this traces back thousands of years through the evolution of the human species. As neanderthals and hunter-gatherers, our predominant focus was on survival and subsistence; finding sources of food and shelter. It is only through time as we developed farming, irrigation systems and settlements did sociological constructs such as stratification begin coming to the fore. With the basic humans needs met as a collective society, religion, art, writing, music and social hierarchies began to form. Savage wars raged, empires were built and mankind flourished, scaling every corner of the globe.

The trend is still apparent in the modern day, where people dedicate increasing proportions of their free time to sources of gratification (e.g. entertainment, dating, Facebook, Tinder, Snapchat, Netflix etc) [source], while innovations in science and technology continuously seek to minimize workload on tasks of necessity (the Internet of Things, autonomous drones, self driving cars, etc).

Within the context of building a product or business, the theory concludes that the success of a product or service lies in its ability to either instill gratification in a human being, or to significantly reduce time and effort spent on subsistence.

THE DRIVERS OF GRATIFICATION

Gratification is simply feeling.

Gratification (from gratus, which means “pleasing, thankful.”) is synonymous to a positive feeling, and feeling can be emotional or physical (sensory). Some of the drivers of gratification are explained below, although this list is not exhaustive by any means. The aim of this article is not to criticise these drivers, but simply to highlight these psychological patterns. We are all equally susceptible to seeking gratification, and what differs is only in the specific gratifications we seek. There are no drivers of gratification that are more noble or worthy than others, as they are all simply means to the same end.

SOCIAL VALIDATION

Social validation is the affirmation of ones self-worth through seeking continuous approval of other human beings. We are all prone to seeking validation, whether it be from  our friendship groups or colleagues at work, but the advent of the internet and mobile computing has enabled social validation to be more easily accessible, and from a wider range of sources.

Products that satisfy and accentuate the ego through constant social feedback, and invoke a higher sense of self worth among an individual are among the most successful. Here are a few well known examples:

  • The Like button. I often wonder how Facebook’s growth trajectory would have fared if it did not feature the Like button. The power of the Like button is such that not only is it a wonderful dopamine-releasing social feedback mechanism, but also that the accumulation of Likes leads to the aggregation of status and power (see next section). It is likely that a significant proportion of Facebook’s (and similar apps’) growth is fuelled by the ravenous desire to feel validated than to share experiences. This is largely the reason why the Like button has become a ubiquitous feature of social and community related apps.
  • Tinder matches. It is of no doubt that the greatest driver in Tinder’s incessant usage is the simplicity and ease at which social gratification (the perceived sense of self worth over the number of matches one has accumulated) can be gained. Tinder is social validation on tap!
  • The desire for social validation is of such strength that many can be observed to take photographs and selfies with the sole intention of sharing them later on social platforms. It is fascinating that the desire for a future social validation could surpass the desire to enjoy the simple beauty of the present!

Like all other drivers of gratification, social validation is not a new phenomena. It is in play in the reality of every day life, where we are gratified when others respond positively to our interactions (whether it’d be agreeing with our opinions or laughing at our jokes). We habitually learn the interactions which have had the most positive social feedback and persist these behaviours in future interactions. This is no different in cyberspace.

STATUS AND POWER

Gratification through status is obtained through the attachment of labels to oneself. These labels are forms of social currency that are universally recognised and valued in a community. For example, these could include a degree, a job title, hierarchical position, qualifications, position in the leaderboard, or some sort of statistic attached to a person’s social profile. The current social framework dictates that these labels are to be compared against others’ to determine an individual’s importance, and gratification is gained in elevating ones’ importance by collecting more labels.

In similar vein to social validation, it is now easier than ever to collect social currency in comparison to the pre-computing era, where the options were limited to the more difficult to obtain; war medals, degrees or wealth. Some good examples of the effective use of status labels include:

  • StackOverflow’s ‘reputation’ meter, which can be incremented through activities of engagement (such as answering questions), has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in its success. The cleverness in StackOverflow’s engineering of Status is that ‘reputation’ can be incremented through all forms of engagement, including asking questions, voting on answers and choosing the best answer to a question. This is a win-win, as not only are these clever sources of gratification for users, but they are also very effective growth hacks.
  • Social profile counters, such as the Friends count in Facebook and Endorsements in LinkedIn; I have observed a great deal of social stigma attached to a person’s social profile attributes, to the point where it is often used to assess a person’s social competence. No doubt these simple counters on a profile can have a profound influence on how an individual’s social status is perceived among other humans, regardless of whether this consciously apparent to the human perpetrating the judgement.
  • Leaderboards across all domains and walks of life are simply status indicators; they are the catalyst for inculcating an environment of competitiveness and loyal engagement. It is no wonder that they are a prominent feature in mobile and console games, as well as in sports, and potentially even the workplace.

Our desire to create an impact on the world is no doubt a desire for gratification through Status, albeit one that has had tremendous positive and negative effects on mankind. The driver that has enabled us to scale societies and build prosperous civilisations is the same driver that has caused the historical annihilations of the same.

IDENTITY AND BELONGING

In addition to status labels, there is another form of an identity label that is derived from the association of oneself to a brand, group or cause. This is one of the more perplexing drivers of gratification, and there are two specific branches that protrude from this:

  • The use of an association as a proxy for elevating one’s Status. For example, investing in luxury branded clothing and accessories. All brands are effectively status symbols – when people pay £500 for a pair of jeans, they aren’t paying for clothing, they’re paying for status and an identity. There are no limits on what human beings are prepared to pay for gratification; a piece of artwork with a perceived value of £100 to one human being can be worth thousand times as much to another.
  • In contrast to the above, the second branch entails devoting and submitting oneself in a movement or cause, with the aim of removing focus from oneself and onto the higher cause. Meaning in life is thence regained from the higher cause. As excellently explained in Eric Hoffer’s “The True Believer”, this is often as a result of the individual losing hope in their ability to make someone of themself; a cognitive product of their own perceived sense of failure. The success of the indoctrination of extremist ideologies in ISIS fanatics is down to such a gratification being induced in its subjects.

SENSORY AND AESTHETIC PLEASURE

Sensory gratification is among the most primal of the bunch because it is accessible to any living organism that has sensory input, whether it’d be vision, touch, smell etc. It can be gained through something as simple as the gentle caressing of the skin by an afternoon breeze, to the breathtaking sight of a beautifully carved and ornamented landscape.

In the domain of modern technology,  the importance of beautiful, simplistic design, whether it is of a physical product or a software interface, cannot be overestimated. This is because the advantages are two-fold. Firstly, the simple pleasure of experiencing and interacting with beautiful design in itself can evoke gratification as well as instill confidence in a product. Secondly, good design can simplify a person’s path to a goal, reducing the time spent on subsistence and allowing more time to seek gratification.

Beyond aesthetic appeal, there are several other sensory routes to gratification at ones’ disposal, including touch and feel, taste, sound and smell. Examples of how companies have been able to capitalise on these include:

  • Apple’s products possess a refined elegance that is unsurpassed by most other companies in the industry. In addition to their aesthetic visual appeal and slick interfaces, they are pleasant to the touch, resulting in the continued dispensation of both visual and tactile pleasure in their day to day usage. I will be digging more deeply into Apple as an example later in this article.
  • Ever been to a café or restaurant where the atmosphere felt ‘just right’? It is unlikely to be a product of coincidence; companies have engineered their sensory experiences to capitalise on these drivers of gratification for centuries, from the ambiance of the background music, the residual smell of culinary pleasure hanging in the air, to the aesthetic soothing of the lighting and surrounding decorations.
  • Obesity is largely driven (in addition to genetics and other factors) by the ravenous desire for gratification through food. One could argue that the overweight derive more gratification from food than others’, and hence it is only with ignorance that many of us conclude that these individuals are lazy or uncaring of their own health. If only we could gain weight from seeking social validation! (We gain ego instead).

Personally, there are few things that gratify me more than the experience of soaring the skies in a small propeller plane. It is the resonance of sensory pleasure, brought on by the breathtaking beauty of the landscapes, the ant-like insignificance of vehicles as they creep along winding strips of grey, and the heavenly rays of sunshine that filter through broken clouds, all accompanied by the soothing hum of the propeller. The gratification is such that I can spend an inordinate amount of money in seeking it, and with a gladness unfitting of a rational man.

LOVE AND HUMAN CONNECTION

Man shall never feel such an uncontrollable deviation from rationality as whilst in state of infatuation over the beauty of another human being. The vigour with which love can grip an individual, regardless of how unflappable one’s general disposition may be, is astounding. Whether one interprets love as a cognitive blindness, or the source of all of life’s meaning, it cannot be denied that love and and the craving for connection with other humans, whether platonic or otherwise, is an incredibly powerful force.

It should be of no surprise thence that the greatest driver of happiness in humans is not money or success; it’s good relationships (See Ted Talk). And neither is it a surprise that allowing friendships to fade is among the top 5 regrets of those who lay on their deathbed [source].

It is a sad irony that, despite the vast array of friendship and dating apps that spring each year, humans could be trending towards having less close friends and less meaningful relationships. While these apps may be instilling some sense of gratification, as indicated by their significant usage, it is likely that they are more aligned with satisfying the ego and social validation rather than genuine human connection.

ALLEVIATION OF ANXIETY

Gratification may also be obtained in simply alleviating or preventing anxieties that can deafen and distract the mind from its main goals. As I know from my own experience, anxiety can be a debilitating mental state which, contrary to popular belief, is responsible for a sizeable proportion of drug and alcohol abuse [source].

  • Familiarity alleviates anxiety. Brands such as Starbucks and KFC have an advantage in using familiarity as a mechanism to alleviate the anxieties associated with venturing into new cafes and restaurants (Will they have food I like? Is the food going to be of good quality? How much is it going to cost?etc). I’d argue that this is one of the prime drivers of Nandos’s success, specifically in scenarios where the food is secondary to the occasion. How often do you have dinner where the food is the primary focal point? (e.g. as opposed to catching up with friends).
  • In a similar fashion to the above, anxiety can be reduced by reducing the amount of choice available in a product range. While choice is positive to a degree, excess choice can leave a human being anxious and in doubt of their ability to make the right decision. Ever browsed a company’s product range which had 15 derivative models of the same product?
  • Insurance and other similar financial products tackle anxiety by restoring predicability in the management of finances. In restoring this predictability and guaranteeing subsistence, the human can return to seeking gratification.

ENTERTAINMENT AND ESCAPE

When an individual’s life is riddled with the mundanity of constant subsistence, gratification can be obtained through seeking temporary escape; in immersing oneself in a parallel world that is altogether more exciting and free. Two well known routes of entry into this are entertainment and illicit drugs, both of which happen to be multi billion dollar industries, irrespective of their legality.

I feel it is not necessary to elaborate on Entertainment, as the examples are obvious (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, etc). The latter route is however particularly fascinating. Such a promising route to gratification, that it is the reason for the imprisonment of more than 25% of US prisoners, and directly responsible for more than 1100 homocides each year. Many of the most vicious and savage gangs in the world are built on the economic foundation of drugs trafficking. These organisations operate with a level of ferocity that can only be explained by the desire for gratification running amok. Our own surrender to the craving for gratification is our biggest enemy.

ENDING NOTE

To live a life without feeling is to not live at all.

Feeling is ingrained in the human psyche. I often joke of my robotic demeanour, but I cannot imagine my existence without feeling, for it drives a great deal of my investments of time and energy, whether it’d be my choice of career, the people with whom I spend my time or my fondness for travel. No doubt, I would not have written this article if I were not to gain some sense of gratification from doing so.

Feeling underpins all of human energy, and it is important not to ignore its importance in all scopes of life. Leadership, influence and emotional intelligence are all simply management of feelings, whether in yourself or others. This is no different in product and business management. In order to build a product that people want, one must build an experience that dispenses the same gratifications that humans have sought for thousands of years, and will forever seek.

The alternative is to make tasks of subsistence substantially easier or lower cost, thereby allowing humans more leverage to spend on seeking gratification. Hence, the elemental human problem is always gratification.

EXAMPLE – APPLE INC.

As much of a clichéd example as it may be, Apple is the epitome of gratification done correctly. Steve Jobs’s ingenuity lay in his understanding of the full spectrum of the drivers of human gratification, and this is what has driven Apple to be the highest valued technology company in the world. The whole Apple experience is beautifully engineered to dispense gratification from start to finish:

  • Browsing Apple products, whether in store or online is a delight, accompanied with personable staff and sales advisors.
  • The product itself, with its aesthetic elegance, refined visuals and tactile features, solves for both subsistence and gratification. Being both sensual and intuitive, it makes the correct assumption that the vast majority of the human population use smart phones simply as a means to an end (gratification). I.e. the solution is the feeling, not the device.
  • Apple over the past decade has moulded its brand into a status symbol, and is built upon and operated on a mission that inspires loyalty and belonging amongst its customer base. It is only in the promise of gratification that humans should queue for hours outside of a store in anticipation of a new release.
  • The experience is topped with excellent customer support that alleviates anxiety and imprints a positive emotional association with the brand, in turn inspiring devotion and loyalty yet again.

Redefining THE MVP

In order to offer something tangible along with this post, I would like to propose a slight change to how the concept of the Minimum Viable Product is interpreted. Instead of seeking to build an MVP, seek to build an MVP that evokes the emotion you seek in customers:

  • If solving for subsistence: make completing a task delightfully easier or lower cost than it is now. The savings in either time, effort or money should be substantial enough for reinvestment in gratification.
  • If solving for gratification: build the minimum experience that provides the emotions and gratification that you seek to evoke. How should your customers feel? What is the driver of gratification that is going to prompt them to share, or return to your product?

© 2019 Mo Shahenshah Khan. All rights reserved.