I’ve directed a research lab at Stanford University for over 20 years. During that time, I was also doing practical hands-on industry innovation. Based on that work combined, I can summarize in two sentences the most important insights about what leads to product success. Yep. I can pack 20 years of learning into just two sentences, which I call maxims.
If you want to engage your customers for the long term, you must do two things:
Fogg Maxim #1: Help people do what they already want to do.
Fogg Maxim #2: Help people feel successful.
When you follow these two maxims, you can avoid the most common pitfalls of early-stage ventures. These maxims will have clarity about what to do—and not to do—when creating your product.
Helping Founders Find Solutions
For some odd reasons I won’t explain, I have a reputation as a “Millionaire Maker.” While I don’t think of myself this way, it is true that many of my Stanford students have created successful companies. Students in one of my classes created Facebook apps that engaged over 16 million people within a 10-week period. In another class of mine, a small team created a futuristic concept that eventually became Instagram (more on that later).
As a result of these successes, for over 10 years, lots of people have reached out to me for guidance with their new ventures. If people are working on life-enhancing projects, I welcome these phone calls. Each team gets 15 minutes, and I help them, with no upsell or hidden motive. It goes like this: I answer the phone, I assess the problem, I try to give clear direction, and then I hang up and take the next call.
Some time ago, a founder called me to get help on his struggling venture. The idea, in a nutshell, was to give people a way to leave audio messages in specific geographical locations. Let’s call this idea “HiddenVoices.” For example, when you go to the Eiffel Tower, you can use HiddenVoices to leave an audio message at that precise spot.
Sounds great, right?
Well, maybe not. Here’s what happened.
The founder was an engineer, and he had figured out a new way to make HiddenVoices a reality, However, the app wasn’t catching on. And he was frustrated. In fact, he was sort of angry. After all, he had worked many months to create this cool technology, but new customers would dabble with it a time or two and then never return. User retention was terrible.
As I listened to him explain his frustration with HiddenVoices, I was making mental notes about two things. First, I was listening to see if the new product helps people do what they already want to do. Next, I was listening to see if the product helps people feel successful.
Yes, in that phone call and in the dozens of other free calls I do each month, I am listening for the two maxims. I know those are pivotal.
On the phone, the founder was rambling (and that’s okay—he was nervous), so I guided him by saying, “Tell me about what you want a customer to do with your product. What is the ideal behavior?”
The founder explained that, for example, when someone in San Francisco walks past their favorite restaurant, they would stop and leave an audio tag at that location using the HiddenVoices app.
Okay. Got it. But I knew there was a problem.
I couldn’t think of any normal person who would wake up in the morning thinking, “Wow, I want to leave audio tags at physical locations!”
So I asked him straight up: “Why would someone want to leave an audio message using your system?”
He stumbled a bit.
Ultimately he talked about bonus points, reputation scores, achieving status in the audio-tagging community.
Ugh, I thought.
So I asked him, “Do people naturally want to tag locations with audio messages?”
“Well, I don’t know,” he said.
I continued: “Think of it this way: Do people wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Wow. I really want to get some bonus points today using a new app!’“
He replied, his voice revealing his frustration: “Today, no they don’t think that. But in the future they will. I am going to gamify this to the max. And points will be currency.”
Oh no, I thought.
When founding teams tell me about plans to gamify something, I know the team is in trouble.
Because this signals the team is not helping people do what they already want to do. They are violating Maxim #1, and to cover up this flaw they have to add points and levels and challenges.
The Winning Patterns for Startups
Hey, founders. Forget about gamification as a fix (unless you are actually designing a game).
Instead, study the winning patterns all around you. Look at any consumer-facing product that has gone big, and you’ll see they all have one thing in common: They helped people do what they already wanted to do.
Google → Helps people find information
Amazon → Helps people order products they wanted
Uber → Helps people go from point A to point B
Tinder → Helps people find dates (and maybe more)
LinkedIn → Helps people make more money
In each case, you can see how millions of people naturally wanted information, products, transportation, sex, and money. These motivations are built in to us as human beings living in social contexts.
To succeed in your new venture, you will need to fit the winning pattern: You must help people do what they already want to do. Otherwise, your startup is doomed.
Action Item #1
Ask your team: What are we helping people do that they already want to do?
If your team doesn’t have a good answer, then you know you have a deep problem within your venture. You need to change direction. And that’s okay.
But if your team insists on continuing down a precarious path, then I suggest you follow up with this question: Can you name one big company, just one, that has succeeded in getting people to do things they don’t already want to do?
When your team fumbles for an answer, then say, “Well, we won’t be the first. And that means we need to rethink our plans.”
Spock is Not Your Customer
In the early 2000s, there was this buzzy new idea that people called “quantified self.” It seemed to resonate mostly in tech centers like the Bay Area and Boston. And it blossomed into something of a movement.
The premise went like this: If we give people information about their health, their activity, their sleep, then people will change their behaviors. Yes, it’s that simple! It’s all about giving people data.
So innovators who bought into this movement started creating solutions to quantify stuff—track your movements, log your diet, measure time spent sitting, and so on.
I was invited to speak at a few quantified self events back in the day, but I always politely declined. I certainly liked the people involved, but I knew the movement was on a dead-end path.
The quantified-self products mostly were about “helping people do what they already wanted to do.” (Lose weight! Sleep better! Be more productive!”) And that’s good. However, I could see that the solutions mostly failed to deliver on Maxim #2.
These quantified self products did not help people feel successful. In fact, they seemed to do just the opposite.
Barry Meets the Bathroom Scale
Consider a typical bathroom scale as an early form of quantified self. Let’s say someone named Barry decides he wants to lose weight, and he believes the bathroom scale will help him do just that. So he buys one.
For the first few mornings, Barry gets on the bathroom scale, eager to see good results. But much of the time he sees no change, or perhaps he’s even gained a fraction of a pound.
In general, do you think the bathroom scale helps Barry feel successful?
Does Barry then change his eating behavior because of what he sees on the scale? Maybe temporarily. However, this data doesn’t create engagement or lasting change.
You might know from your own experience that stepping on a scale does not lead to lasting change in how you eat. Instead, the more likely result of seeing your weight each morning is to stop using the damn scale. In other words, the product experience leads to attrition.
Why? Because it affirms that you are failing.
That was the central problem I saw with the quantified self movement. Data alone doesn’t change behavior, despite what rational Spock-like engineers want to believe. And if hard data confirms that we are not progressing in what we want, then we feel all the more awful.
No one wants to be told, in clear, hard data, that they are failing. To avoid feeling awful, we stop using the product.
Action Item #2
Ask your team: Are we helping people feel successful?
If your team says, yes, we are helping them feel successful, by giving them points, that’s not good enough. The feeling of success needs to match what your customer already wants (See Maxim #1). And those are aspirations like getting fitter, making more money, saving time, and more.
Maxim #2 is just four words: Help people feel successful. But putting that into practice successfully is truly a challenge. What helps one person feel successful isn’t what helps another person feel successful.
But there’s good news. You can start by tapping into general themes that resonate with most humans. We want to be admired by others. We want to feel financially secure. We want to have positive impact on the world. We want to feel our lives have meaning.
If you help people feel success in any of the above areas, then you open the door to creating a product that will engage and retain customers.
Instagram Won Big Because of Emotions
Consider how Instagram helped people feel successful in its early years. Long before Instagram became a platform for showing off the (supposed) awesomeness of our lives, the product experience was much simpler: You took a photo, you applied a filter, and you shared it.
The co-founder of Instagram was a student of mine, so after he graduated from Stanford I tracked his pivot from the failing startup Bourbn to this new thing they called Instagram. Immediately I recognized he had a good thing going.
Yes, he kept Instagram super simple but that’s not all. As people applied filters to their photos, I saw how this simple experience would give Instagram users flashes of success. Ah, those bursts of positive emotion were a gamechanger.
Using Instagram in the early days, as I clicked from filter to filter to filter—boom, boom, boom—I would see my ordinary photo transform into something more, something like a work of art, something with a point of view. And then I would think to myself (along with thousands of other early customers), “Oh, wow. I’m not just a dude with an iPhone camera. With this Instagram thang, I am now an artiste. I have superpowers.”
So simple, yes. But powerful. Those Instagram filters helped people feel successful, and that emotional reaction in turn opened the door to Instagram’s massive success.
Emotions Create Habits—and Engaged Customers
As I’ve personally coached over 40,000 people in creating habits since 2011, I’ve uncovered what actually creates habits. It’s not data. It’s not motivation. It’s not repetition. The real answer is this: emotions.
When you do a behavior and experience a net gain in positive emotion, then your brain rewires and that behavior then becomes more automatic. In other words, it becomes a habit.
When people used Instagram and felt successful (wow, I’m such a great photographer) then using that app became more automatic in their lives. Instagram became a habit. The emotions early users felt created a new photo-taking habit that then took customers away from Flickr, Hipstamatic, and more.
Why? Because Instagram did the best job of helping people feel successful.
That’s exactly what you are shooting for in designing your product experience: Help people feel successful. The stronger the positive emotion, the faster the new habit wires in.
The First Time Matters Most
If you’re like most people, you have dozens of apps on your mobile phone that you’ve opened just one time.
The app description appealed to you: It promised to help you do something you already wanted to do. So you downloaded it.
But then when you launched the app, it either didn’t actually map to what you wanted (Maxim #1). Or it didn’t help you feel successful (Maxim #2).
Most mobile apps get one chance to impress. And that goes beyond mobile phones. Your first time eating at a chili-dog restaurant, a first date with your cousin’s groovy roommate, your first impression trying on skin-tight clothes at Lululemon.
If the first time doesn’t go well, then there is no second time. Customers move on to other restaurants, groovy dates, and clothing stores.
And in today’s high-tech world, we’ve all gotten very good at moving on to new apps and digital services. If you don’t deliver delight quickly, in just a few clicks your customer is off to explore another solution, never to return.
As a founder, you should obsess about the first experience your customers have with your product or service. Make sure it helps them do what they already want to do. And make sure it helps customers feel successful.
Build on What’s Working
Every startup makes mistakes. That’s normal and expected. Along the way, you’ll burn through some customers who will never return. That’s okay. Instead of grieving over mistakes and lost customers, keep iterating to find what works before you run out of money (or energy or patience or confidence).
When you identify a winning solution, then turn up the volume. Big time. In other words, identify your most successful customers and amplify what they are doing.
Here’s a real world example from Instagram that I believe has never been shared before . . .
The First 10 Minutes
After Instagram reached the first million customers, the founders hired another student of mine. He was a brilliant designer, coder, and data scientist. I’ll call him Gifford. He was employee #11 at Instagram.
One weekend Gifford came to my home on the Russian River to catch up.
“Hey, Gifford,” I said. “Tell me what you’re learning at Instagram. Um, don’t tell me anything confidential, however, because that constrains my research.”
Gifford told me his story: When he got hired to Instagram, they had no analytics in place. Because Instagram was growing like crazy, the core team had to work overtime just to keep the machine going, and growing. No time to do much else. So they brought in Gifford to put systems in place to analyze the data.
Gifford looked at the user data and found that Instagram’s most devoted users all did similar actions. In fact, he found that these devoted users did the same things in the first 10 minutes of using Instagram. In the data, Gifford saw a clear pattern for successful onboarding.
Now Gifford didn’t tell me what those magical first 10 minutes included. That was probably confidential. However, he went on to say they made changes that exploded their growth. The tiny Instagram team revised their onboarding experience so all their first-time users could easily do the action patterns from their most devoted customers.
Thanks to Gifford, the Instagram team surfaced what worked best, and they re-designed the system to make those “first 10 minutes” behaviors the default, not just a happy accident.
Systematize Your Way to Success
In my work at Stanford and in industry, I’ve discovered that there’s a system behind all of human behavior. From that system and following my two maxims, I derived the Tiny Habits method, which is the fastest and easiest way to create new habits. Some people say the method is magic, and that makes me smile.
From my perspective, I know that Tiny Habits is the most elegant derivation of the fundamental components that drives human behavior.
You can learn this system. You can leverage it to create winning products and services. But most of all, I challenge you to use what you learn about human behavior to bring more health and happiness into the world.
In this short article, I’ve skimmed off two high-level takeaways from my work—The Fogg Maxims. That’s the miniscule tip of the iceberg. However, I believe this is a great starting point for innovators. I hope what I’ve offered here gives clear guidance as you and your teammates invest your precious time and amazing talents to create life-enhancing innovations for people around the world.