The Next Secrets Of The Web


 Editor’s Note: Nir Eyal is a Lecturer in Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and blogs about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business at Follow him on Twitter @nireyal and see his previous Techcrunch posts here.

Right now, someone is tinkering with a billion dollar secret — they just don’t know it yet. “What people aren’t telling you,” Peter Thiel taught his classat Stanford, “can very often give you great insight as to where you should be directing your attention.”

Secrets people can’t or don’t want to divulge are a common thread behind Thiel’s most lucrative investments such as Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as several other breakout companies of the past decade. The kinds of truths Thiel discusses — the kinds that create billion dollar businesses in just a few years — are not held exclusively by those with deep corporate pockets. In fact, the person most likely to build the next great tech business will likely be a scrappy entrepreneur with a big dream, a sharp mind, and a valuable secret.

Where are the Secrets?

According to Thiel, there are two types of secrets: those about nature and those about people. Thiel dismisses the former as less interesting because they are less practical. “No one really cares about superstring theory. It wouldn’t really change our daily lives if it turned out to be true.”

But secrets about people have immediately practical applications. I believe secrets about human behavior, which provide insights into the way people act even though they can’t tell you why, are levers for creating user habits and competitive advantage. These kinds of secrets are also relatively cheap to uncover but can be the basis of massive enterprises.

Once, only large companies had the resources to discover monetizable secrets. Throughout the twentieth century, companies like GE, Dupont, Chrysler, and IBM specialized in discovering the optimal form of physical goods and their insights lay largely hidden in the discipline of industrial design. For these companies, uncovering secrets required massive R&D investment to find the best way to create a better, cheaper, or faster product.

But today, as software continues to eat the world, service industries are being upended by upstarts. A new crop of companies like AirBnB, DropBox, and Square exploits secrets gleaned not from industrial design, but from interaction and systems design. These companies remedy old problems by designing interfaces to create new user behaviors.

Change the Interface, Change the World

Whenever a massive change occurs in the way people interact with technology, expect to find plenty of secrets ripe for harvesting. Changes in interface suddenly make all sorts of behaviors easier. Subsequently, when the effort required to accomplish an action decreases, usage tends to explode.

A long history of technology businesses made their fortunes discovering behavioral secrets made visible because of a change in the interface. Apple and Microsoft succeeded by turning DOS terminals into graphical user interfaces accessible by mainstream consumers. Google simplified the search interface, as compared to those of ad-heavy and difficult-to-use competitors like Yahoo. Facebook and Twitter turned new behavioral insights into interfaces that simplified social interactions online. In each case, a new interface made an action easier and uncovered surprising truths about the way users behave.

More recently, Instagram and Pinterest offer examples of companies which capitalized upon behavioral insights brought about from changes in interface. Pinterest’s ability to create a rich canvas of images — utilizing what was then cutting-edge interface changes — revealed new insights about the addictive nature of an online catalog. For Instagram, the interface change was cameras integrated into smart phones. Instagram discovered that its low-tech filters made relatively poor quality photos taken on phones look great. Suddenly taking good pictures on your phone was easier and Instagram used its newly discovered insights to recruit an army of rabidly snapping users. With both Pinterest and Instagram, tiny teams generated huge value, not by cracking hard technical challenges, but by solving interaction problems.

From Discovery to Domination

Along with capitalizing on behavioral insights discovered from a change in interface, Instagram and Pinterest also shared another key attribute. They both grew to stratospheric valuations because they came to dominate their respective markets through a network effect. Defined as a system where each additional user on the network increases the value to all the other users, the network effect is a common trait among record breaking tech business of the past decade.

But where the titans of twentieth century industry could build competitive advantage in a number of ways — owning intellectual property, building a brand, deriving scale cost advantages, and the network effect, for example — most young companies today can only afford the last option. The nature of interface-driven innovation is that many of the old competitive advantages don’t work. The byproduct of the massive investment required to building cars and turbines was an increasing market dominance with each sale. Each closed deal spread the fixed costs of protecting patents, building a brand, and manufacturing equipment, thereby making it harder for new entrants to compete.

But today, consumer web startups have no such advantages. They must quickly create habitual users and build a network effect before their competitors do; it’s their only hope. Software production doesn’t offer scale cost advantages, the patent system is a mess startups can’t afford to navigate, and spending on branding prematurely is foolish. Only after a network effect business has secured its place in users’ everyday lives does it make sense to build its brand through advertising. Twitter’s recent foray into television commercials promoting its NASCAR partnership is a good example.

Though we’re living through an age when new insights about user behavior abound, the methods for building a long-term business advantage has narrowed. The kind of secrets that build big businesses today must support a plan to build a network effect business. Without a network effect strategy, secrets don’t stay valuable for long.

Thank you to Jules MaltzJess BachmanMax Ogles for reading early versions of this article
Photo Credit: and


15 Steps to Superior Support

Saul CullenGoSquared employee Number 1, has been heading up customer support for the past year. In a recent internal hack hour he put together a guide to help the team be truly awesome when speaking to customers who have a support issue. 

GoSquared's 15 Steps to Superior Support Help Sheet


Emotionally Intelligent Interactions


What is it that makes us loyal fans of the websites and apps we love? When we sat down to answer this question for ourselves, we found that the websites and apps we truly love have one thing in common: soul. They’re humanized. They have emotional intelligence designed into the user experience. And this emotional intelligence is crafted through thoughtful interaction design and feedback mechanisms built into the website.

These elements give the website or app personality and earn a spot in our hearts. In our opinion, it’s not going too far to say that giving your website or app soul is the key to earning loyal fans. In this article, we’ll look at some of the best examples of these emotionally intelligent interactions and how they infuse personality and soul into the websites and apps where they’re found.

(Smashing’s side note: Have you already bought your copy of our brand new Smashing Book #3? The book introduces new practical techniques and a whole new mindset for progressive Web design. Written by Elliot Jay Stocks, Paul Boag, Rachel Andrew, Lea Verou, Stephen Hay, Aral Balkan, Andy Clarke and others. Thank you for your time and your support.)

What Are Emotionally Intelligent Interactions?

An emotionally intelligent interaction is any state (or change in state) of a website/app where the messaging or functionality includes attention to details that create a user experience that feels organic and human. These interactions can be a big experience (like when an entire website is down), or a very small experience (such as when an error state on a form element appears). They can be derived from different elements, including messaging and copy, color and design, and responsiveness to user inputs and system outputs.

Combining each of these crafted experiences creates soul and personality for a website. And it’s that emotional connection with users that builds lasting loyalty, and raving fans.


Note: Several of the examples and images are from this brilliant website: Little Big Details. It’s one of the many must-reads and I recommend adding it to your favorites if you haven’t done so already.

A new Web-based Twitter client that gives users a new way to explore and use Twitter. The app does a great job of walking users through the first run with the application, explaining the features in a way that is clear and humorous. The confirmation buttons use phrases like “Makes sense” and “Got it” which create a sense of personality and confidence with the user, a far better choice than the typical “Next.”

Bottlenose first run experience

Wufoo uses a combination of smart messaging and subtle touches on UI elements to create a more friendly and personable experience when creating Web forms. Here are just a few:

  • Each page title is accompanied by a line of poetry. While it may seem random, the poetry actually reinforces the elegance of the Wufoo solution. It’s a unique way to bring personality to an otherwise tedious task (creating forms).

    Wufoo adds a line of poetry under the page title.

  • The new report button’s punctuation. Think of the word “report”, and you’re next thought is most likely “TPS.” But Wufoo adds an exclamation point to the button. This gives it an element of energy and fun, reinforcing its value as a reporting feature.

    Wufoo's new form button

  • The reports screen with no reports. Instead of a blank screen, Wufoo takes the opportunity to deliver some true personality through its messaging, and gets you on your way towards building your first report.

    Wufoo blank report screen

As one of the best examples of emotional intelligence baked into a user experience, MailChimp takes every opportunity to infuse soul into its application, as well as giving you a pitch-perfect way to make it all disappear.

  • 404 Page:
    MailChimp’s 404 page is brilliant: excellent copy, empathetic design, and a prominent call to action to get users on their way. It’s clever, functional, and takes the sting out of 404’ing. Current MailChimp 404 Page.

    MailChimp's 404 page

  • Send Campaign:
    MailChimp celebrates and encourages the user just as they send out an email campaign. The copy “This is your moment of glory” is a perfect encapsulation of the fear and anticipation that goes into deploying this.

    MailChimp Send Campaign

  • Twitter Page:
    Recently when MailChimp went down, they deployed a special background on their Twitter page that showed a sad chimp working furiously to fix the problem. Because people naturally turn to Twitter to learn about why things are broken, the background extended the personality of that service to their Twitter account, creating an emotionally intelligent experience for the user.

This red-hot social network infuses personality into its website with a thoughtful interaction during account creation. Instead of using the typical password confirmation patterns, the app responds with “Looks good!” as passwords meet their requirements and match. It’s a small touch, but one that humanizes the sign-up experience, and empathizes with the user who is creating their account.

Pinterest login screen

On Path’s original website, the icon for the sign-up button arrow changed to a smiley face when it was clicked on. This small change created a personal and welcoming moment during one of the first interactions a user had with the application. It’s a thoughtful detail added to a step that is often overlooked by designers and users alike, and it set the tone for the rest of the user’s onboarding experience.

path sign up screen

The friendly owl mascot for Hootsuite is more than a cute face—the mascot is the representation of the service itself, much like the chimp from MailChimp. Hootsuite taps the Twitter API to pull data into its app, and because Twitter has API limits, Hootsuite intelligently stops making requests after long periods of user inactivity. When this occurs, the Owl lets you know that he has taken a nap, and will wake up when you need him again. It’s a clever way to turn a potential negative experience (non-continuous updates) into a positive one that brands the company, while providing the app with personality and soul.

hootsuite time out screen

For newly created RSS feeds in Feedburner, the stats page takes the lack of stats to create a personal interaction with the user. Many websites miss these opportunities because they feel this state isn’t core to the experience. But Feedburner knows that most new users are interested in seeing their stats right off the bat—stats that don’t exist yet. So when a user visits the page Feedburner has fun letting them know that stats aren’t quite ready yet, while creating an emotional connection with the user in this process. It’s a huge win for the company in light of the alternative: a lifeless, blank page with no data.


VisualHub takes advantage of the Mac installation screen for user interaction, encouraging users to get acquainted with their user manual. Move the app to the Applications folder, and move the manual to your brain. So often this install process is written, a necessary evil to get to the application. But as we’ve seen, smart developers leverage these initial interactions to set the tone with the user experience moving things forward.

Visual Hub install screen

Apple has long been about attention to details, but typically the details are in refinement (not necessarily emotional intelligence). But the Text Edit icon contains a small Easter Egg for Apple fans—the words of the “Think Different” manifesto are inscribed on the notepad. It pays homage to their legendary founder, and reminds people why they love Apple. It’s a small touch that makes Apple what it is.

osx thinks different

Highrise iOS
During the install of 37Signals Highrise iOS app, you can play a game of Tic Tac Toe against the computer. Not only is this a thoughtful way to give users something to do while the app undergoes the necessary evil of being installed, but it’s also an homage to the film War Games, a hacker classic. It’s a simple and effective way to display emotional intelligence during a typically “dead” point of an app’s user experience.

highrise tic tac toe
Mint’s website maintenance page creates a charming experience for users during what could be a stressful time. Not being able to access your finances can create anxiety, and Mint uses that opportunity to create a fun yet effective notice that lets you know that your money and information is safe, even if the website isn’t accessible. 404
Image via Sean Percival.

Deviant Art
Deviant Art uses the portrait metaphor as part of the interaction in setting up your Deviant Art profile. Not only does it tie in with the theme of the website (and connect with its artist community), but it also is a compelling metaphor and mechanic that encourages new users to complete their profile.

deviant art welcome

When listening to an audio file on Tumblr, the URL is appended with an appeal to its usersnot to download the audio file, so that they can continue to offer this type of content on their website. It’s a clever way for communicating to its users without the typical JavaScript pop-up warning.

tumblr url

Adding Soul To Your Website

Giving your website soul comes down to the interactions and the intentional craft you put into the design of those interactions. By being intentional about user experience in those small moments that are typically neglected, you can showcase the personality of your app, as well as building loyalty among users. Taking cues from websites and applications like those mentioned above will help you look for ways to infuse your project with emotional intelligence.

These services and developers have created loyal user bases due to their willingness to sweat out the details, and infuse their projects with emotional intelligence. The small things can really make a difference in the success of your website or application. Taking the time to create these well-crafted experiences is one of the most potent ways we know of to create fans, and bring your website to life with soul.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image used on frontpage: opensourceway

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