The role survival instincts play in digital

StrategyGraham Robertson

“The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system.” - Jay Wright Forrester

The human brain is incredibly complex. Christof Koch, chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, calls the brain “the most complex object in the known universe,” making it no surprise that we we know every little about what really makes us tick. As a digital strategist, a large part of my  job is trying to decode the basic drivers of human actions and decipher the underlying motives that make a person favor one experience over another. With that in mind, I’d like to tell you a short story about an interesting line of thought I had.

While riding the train to work listening to the Vergecast as I do on most Fridays, my mind drifted to the concept of satisfaction. What makes one person love something that another despises? Sure, there are social factors, ethical values and an immeasurable number of other things to consider, but I think it’s important to pull back the covers on the human animal and build up concepts from the fundamentals of behavior.

The natural world, whose rules we have abided by for millions of years, has hardcoded some behaviors into our psyche. One of the strongest drivers we have is the need for safety and familiarity. We tend to analyze experiences, interactions, and things within our physical world, categorize them based on past experiences and place a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ label on them the best we can. As a species living in the wild, this ability obviously served us well – at it’s most basic level, familiar is safe, safe = live another day. Maslow even made this the second level of his Hierarchy of Needs, just above breathing, food, water and sex because it underpins everything we do.

If you think you’re above all that, ask yourself, why do we continue to watch movies with the exact same plot pattern over and over again? Why do some of us have to force ourselves to eat something new or unusual for lunch? Why do we even need a ‘comfort zone’ to start with? Because safety and survival have a symbiotic relationship, one that won’t be changed by the dominance of digital.

At this point someones backpack poked me in the side and derailed my train of thought (pun semi-intended).  Okay, so safety is important, but what does that mean for me as a digital strategist?

Experiences need to be grounded (at least somewhat) in the familiar

More specifically, inputs need to have an expected output. This is easy to do, but really, REALLY hard to do well. Think about this non-digital example: You are driving a car and you put your foot on the gas pedal – the expected outcome will be that the car moves forward. In reality, the car needs to convert your intention into a physical action that’s based on the amount of pressure you applied to the gas pedal and the force that you applied it with. The response from the car is limited by it’s build quality and design, something that is probably representative of the price you paid for it. You then pass the outcome of this action through your mental model where your entire past experience and preconceptions about this car, it’s advertising, how it was represented by the car dealer, your expectations about how a car should perform and it’s price point are mixed together to produce one simple feeling of “this seems right”.

It’s a lot to think about! This is one aspect of what strategy looks to solve when developing digital executions. Having an idea about the user’s mental model and how to make people feel ‘safe’ and grounded in their experience is all part of a solid strategic direction. Not doing so would be on par with saying “When the driver presses the gas pedal, the car should move forward” without digging deep enough to understand the complex set expectations that accompany the action.

As Steve Jobs famously put it, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” What he’s really saying is that people want to be safe and pass everything through a mental model based on past experiences. What made Apple products so elegant was the focus on natural human expectations, not evolving current trends.

At this point my train ride came to an end and I wandered off to work, ready to solve some of our client’s problems.