The Psychology of Usefulness: How Online Habits are Broken

google-searchLast post, I talked about how Google became a habit – Google being the most extreme case of online loyalty based on functionality I could think of. But here’s the thing with functionally based loyalty – it’s very fickle. In the last post I explained how Charnov’s Marginal Value Theorem dictates how long animals spend foraging in a patch before moving on to the next one. I suspect the same principles apply to our judging of usefulness. We only stay loyal to functionality as long as we believe there are no more functional alternatives available to us for an acceptable investment of effort. If that functionality has become automated in the form of a habit, we may stick with it a little longer, simply because it takes our rational brain awhile to figure out there may be better options, but sooner or later it will blow the whistle and we’ll start exploring our options. Charnov’s internal algorithm will tell us it’s time to move on to the next functional “patch.”

Habits break down when there’s a shift if one of the three prerequisites: frequency, stability or acceptable outcomes.

If we stop doing something on a frequent basis, the habit will slowly decay. But because habits tend to be stored at the limbic level (in the basal ganglia), they prove to be remarkably durable. There’s a reason we say old habits die hard. Even after a long hiatus we find that habits can easily kick back in. Reduction of frequency is probably the least effective way to break a habit.

A more common cause of habitual disruption is a change in stability. Suddenly, if something significant changes in our task environment, our  “habit scripts” start running into obstacles. Think about the last time you did a significant upgrade to a program or application you use all the time. If menu options or paths to common functions change, you find yourself constantly getting frustrated because things aren’t where you expect them to be. Your habit scripts aren’t working for you anymore and you are being forced to think. That feeling of frustration is how the brain protects habits and shows how powerful our neural energy saving mode is. But, even if the task environment becomes unstable for a time, chances are the instability is temporary. The brain will soon reset its habits and we’ll be back plugging subconsciously away at our tasks. Instability does break a habit, but it just rebuilds a new one to take its place.

A more permanent form of habit disruption comes when outcomes are no longer acceptable. The brain hates these types of disruptions, because it knows that finding an alternative could require a significant investment of effort. It basically puts us back at square one. The amount of investment required is dependent on a number of things, including the scope of change required (is it just one aspect of a multi-step task or the entire procedure?), current awareness of acceptable alternatives (is a better solution near at hand or do we have to find it?), the learning curve involved (how different is the alternative from what we’re used to using), are there other adoption requirements (do we have to make an investment of resources – including time and/or money?) and how much down time will be involved in order to adopt the alternative. All these questions are the complexities that can be factors in the Marginal Value Theorem.

Now, let’s look at how each of these potential habit breakers applies to Google. First of all, frequency probably won’t be a factor because we will search more, not less, in the future.

Stability may be a more likely cause. The fact is, the act of online searching hasn’t really changed that much in the last 20 years. We still type in a query and get a list of results. If you look at Google circa 1998, it looks a little clunky and amateurish next to today’s results page, but given that 16 years have come and gone, the biggest surprise is that the search interface hasn’t changed more than it has.

Google now and then

A big reason for this is to maintain stability in the interface, so habits aren’t disrupted. The search page relies on ease of information foraging, so it’s probably the most tested piece of online real estate in history. Every pixel of what you see on Google, and, to a lesser extent, it’s competitors, has been exhaustively tested.

That has been true in the past but because of the third factor, acceptability of outcomes, it’s not likely to remain true in the future. We are now in the age of the app. Searching used to be a discrete function that was just one step of many required to complete a task. We were content to go to a search engine, retrieve information and then use that information elsewhere with other tools or applications. In our minds, we had separate chunks of online functionality that we would assemble as required to meet our end goal.

Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine we’re going to London for a vacation. In order to complete the end goal – booking flights, hotels and whatever else is required – we know we will probably have to go to many different travel sites, look up different types of information and undertake a number of actions. We expect that this will be the best path to take to our end goal. Each chunk of this “master task” may in turn be broken down into separate sub tasks. Along the way, we’ll be relying on those tools that we’re aware of and a number of stored procedures that have proven successful in the past. At the sub-task level, it’s entirely possible that some of those actions have been encoded as habits. For an example of how these tasks and stored procedures would play out in a typical search, see my previous post, A Cognitive Walkthrough of Searching.

But we have to remember that the only reason the brain is willing to go to all this work is that it believes it’s the most efficient route available to it. If there were a better alternative that would produce an acceptable outcome, the brain would take it. Our expectation of what an acceptable outcome would be would be altered, and our Marginal Value algorithm would be reset.

Up to now, functionality and information didn’t intersect too often online. There were places we went to get information, and there were places we went to do things. But from this point forward, expect those two aspects of online to overlap more and more often. Apps will retrieve information and integrate it with usefulness. The travel aggregator sites like Kayak and Expedia are an early example of this. They retrieve pricing information from vendors, user content from review sites and even some destination related information from travel sites. This ups the game in terms of what we expect from online functionality when we book a trip. Our expectation has been reset because Kayak offers a more efficient way to book travel than using search engines and independent vendor sites. That’s why we don’t immediately go to Google when we’re planning a trip.

Let’s fast-forward a few years to see how our expectations could be reset in the future. I suspect we’re not too far away from having an app where our travel preferences have been preset. This proposed app would know how we like to travel and the things we like to do when we’re on vacation. It would know the types of restaurants we like, the attractions we visit, the activities we typically do, the types of accommodation we tend to book, etc.  It would also know the sources we tend to use when qualifying our options (i.e. TripAdvisor). If we had such an app, we would simply put in the bare details of our proposed trip: departure and return dates, proposed destinations and an approximate itinerary. It would then go and assemble suggestions based on our preferences, all in one location. Booking would require a simple click, because our payment and personal information would be stored in the app. There would be no discrete steps, no hopping back and forth between sites, no cutting and pasting of information, no filling out forms with the same information multiple times. After confirmation, the entire trip and all required information would be made available on your mobile device.  And even after the initial booking, the app would continue to comb the internet for new suggestions, reviews or events that you might be interested in attending.

This “mega-app” would take the best of Kayak, TripAdvisor, Yelp, TripIt and many other sites and combine it all in one place. If you love travel as much as I do, you couldn’t wait to get your hands on such an app. And the minute you did, your brain would have reset it’s idea of what an acceptable outcome would be. There would be a cascade of broken habits and discarded procedures.

This integration of functionality and information foraging is where the web will go next. Over the next 10 years, usefulness will become the new benchmark for online loyalty. As this happens, our expectation set points will be changed over and over again. And this, more than anything, will be what impacts user loyalty in the future. This changing of expectations is the single biggest threat that Google faces.

In the next post I’ll look at what happens when our expectations get reset and we have to look at adopting a new technology.

One thought on “The Psychology of Usefulness: How Online Habits are Broken

  1. Pingback: The Psychology of Usefulness – Part Five: A Recap | Out of My Gord

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