I’m a big fan of Foursquare. It’s not because of the game or even the possibility of getting deals at nearby locations when I check-in. What’s fascinating about Foursquare, and in my opinion, at the heart of its success to-date, is the fact that it has created a new, automatic user behavior.
Remember Pavlov’s dog?
Ivan Pavlov developed the concept of the “conditional reflex” after studying how dogs would salivate in response to a stimuli (other than food). Turns out according to the Wikipedia article he might not have even used a bell, although that’s what we all remember in popular culture. But anyway…
Conditional reflexes. Conditional responses. The basic idea is a reflex, response, or action that is automatic, without thinking, based on some repeated stimuli. It’s pretty powerful stuff. We’re talking mind control here. Imagine if you could condition people to respond the way you wanted, say, when they saw you in a blue shirt, they automatically gave you a $20 bill. Or, every time you clapped your hands your partner (wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, roommate, etc.) would stop what they’re doing and get you a beer. Sweet.
And the beauty and huge potential with Foursquare is the fact that they’ve done exactly that; creating a conditional reflex in people to “check-in” when they go to a location. I bet if you asked people who use Foursquare what’s the first thought they have when they go into any location (other than their home), it’s, “I have to check-in.” Even if you don’t check-in (because you don’t want people to know, for example) you still think about it.
That’s a completely new behavior. And it’s practically automatic. You go somewhere, you check-in. That’s just what you do.
Creating new behaviors in people is very hard. Most of the time, if the success of your product depends on creating a new behavior you’re screwed. It’s just that hard to do. Yet Foursquare — and other mobile apps like Gowalla — have managed to pull it off.
If the “check-in” behavior sets into our brains to the point where it becomes a true conditional reflex, it will be amazing. The company that dominates that new behavior will have a significant amount of power on their hands.
I’d argue that any new mobile application will need to create a conditional reflex behavior in people to be successful, both in terms of attracting new users, but more importantly with respect to repeat usage. You want to create a situation where every time someone sees X (or X happens) they do Y (with your mobile app). Without that level of simplicity and conditioning (whether via a new behavior or not), you’re going to get lost in a sea of other mobile applications and things people can do with their time.
image thankfully provided by shutterstock