“I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing they’ve built, they’ve built their own prison. And so they exist in a state of schizophrenia, where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made, or to even see it as a prison. – “Escape! before it’s too late.”

–  My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Triggers and Consumption Trances

Facebook Twitter Attention SyringeI’ve been thinking deeply about what BJ Fogg calls the “trigger wars.” When your phone buzzes to tell you “Someone has favorited your tweet!” or you receive an email that “Someone tagged you in a photo on Facebook” – those are triggers.

Triggers can be emails, push notifications, SMS messages or anything that interrupts people and lures them back into a product. Since people quickly forget what apps they downloaded last month, triggers are the dirty but standard tactic to remind them to come back.

The most successful companies use frequent triggers to acquire users, but there’s also a dark-side.

Beyond employing triggers to draw users back into the site or app, businesses need users to spend as much time as possible on their sites. As such, they develop techniques to draw users into what I call “consumption trances.” A consumption trance is when you log on to Facebook aiming to quickly look up someone’s phone number, but instead you get sucked into random photos of your friend’s BBQ last weekend. You click through photos for about 15 minutes before “waking up” and wondering how you spent all that time browsing photos.

Let’s be clear: It’s not that last weekend’s BBQ photos aren’t valuable to you, they just aren’t valuable to you right now since you were trying to look up someone’s phone number.

Consumption on Auto-Pilot

Jar of M&MsI want to identify two issues here: (1) triggers, and (2) consumption trances, which together form a dangerous combination.

Consumption trances are similar what Tim Ferriss calls domino foods in the food industry. You can try to eat just one, but good luck. Once there’s an open jar of M&M’s in front of you or some nice greasy french fries (both domino foods), you won’t stop eating. It’s almost as if your arm operates on auto-pilot as it feeds you each greasy fry. In the world of social media, infinite-scrolling news feeds or instant feedback photo slideshows work the same way. They create consumption trances through operant conditioning, creating addictive variable-schedule rewards as the next tweet that scrolls in, or the next photo appears in the slideshow.

Consumption trances are nothing new, but when you combine them with triggers that can reach you anywhere, they have a dangerous power to interrupt your day and put you into a consumption trance at any moment, and this is what really worries me.

Triggers are the new arms race

Even worse, suppose a new company wants to compete with existing social media companies: they can’t win without joining the trigger arms race. They will need to send just as many emails and notifications as everyone else to keep up. Just like Coca-Cola and Pepsi need to keep advertising to retain their position in consumer’s minds, Quora, Instagram, Sosh, Klout need to send just as many notifications to own a position in your daily routine.

Everyone has to play dirty to win.

Or look at Google and it’s recent decision to battle Facebook with its own social network, Google+.

Prior to the trigger wars, Larry Page and Sergey Brin said their goal was to get you off of the Google.com results page as fast as possible, and onto your destination. Now, Google needs you to stay on Google+ and come back as often as possible to post links, share updates, comment on friend’s posts, etc. They can’t do this without triggers and consumption trances. That’s why you see a distracting Red Notification box in the top-right corner of Google.com now, and it’s probably why you’re still getting all those Google+ email invites. It’s not great for users, but how else can companies compete?

Finding solutions at SXSW

So what are solutions to the trigger wars? Well we’re putting together a rockstar panel with BJ FoggLinda Stone and Kathy Sierra to discuss!

BJ is Professor at Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab and a leading expert on behavior change design. Linda has studied and written extensively about “continuous partial attention.” And Kathy is a leading expert on creating passionate users of products, and saw the trigger wars coming many years before any of us did.

We’ll defer to talking more in Austin 2012, but here are some of my early ideas:

  • Defining moral standards: We need better ways of reasoning about when triggers could be good or bad, and what ‘badness’ or ‘goodness’ of a decision regulating triggers might mean. This requires deep philosophical thought and understanding when triggers cross the line into being harmful or generative to addiction.
  • Moral commitments: Maybe we need a “hippocratic oath” for social designers or some type of Geneva convention to define ground rules for companies’ use of triggers, and ensure that they respect the privilege of user’s attention and focus.
  • Setting better defaults: We can come up with better defaults settings for notifications, or set caps on the number & frequency of notifications in a day, week or month. For example, it’s acceptable to receive emails when someone @replies you on Twitter if it happens once a month, but it’s horribly distracting if it happens multiple times per day.
  • Better awareness and education: Maybe we need educational media like “Countdown to Zero,” but instead of raising awareness about reducing our nuclear arsenals, it’s to raise awareness about the danger of addictions induced by triggers and .
  • Better attention-measurement tools: We need new quantified-self products like RescueTime that help us understand how we spend time or get interrupted. Or maybe we can build a Grand Central station for incoming notifications to happen at a later time.

At the end of the day, there is a physics to our brains. Constant interruption and quick jolts of pleasure will not produce happiness but cheap and possibly harmful addictions. That’s not a world we want to live in, so let’s design a better way!

⬇ Please vote up our panel!

vote her on sxsw panel picker

Speaker list:

BJ Fogg BJ Fogg
Trained as an experimental psychologist, Dr. B.J. Fogg directs research and design at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. The lab’s mission is to create insight into how computing products–from websites to mobile phone software–can be designed to change people beliefs and behaviors. BJ is the author of “Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do.”

Twitter: BJFogg

Linda Stone Linda Stone
Widely recognized as a visionary thinker and thought leader, Linda Stone is a writer, speaker and consultant focused on trends and their strategic and consumer implications. Articles on her work have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, Harvard Business Review, and hundreds of blogs. She has spoken at Supernova, the ETech conference, GEL, the Hidden Brain Task Force for the Center for Work-Life Policy. She was invited by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to speak to the Medici gathering of positive psychologists, an invitation-only gathering of leaders in this field.

Twitter: lindastone

Kathy Sierra Kathy Sierra
Kathy Sierra is the co-creator of the bestselling Head First books (the brain-friendly series from O’Reilly), and creator of the Creating Passionate Users blog. She has been interested in the brain and artificial intelligence since her days as a game developer (Virgin, Amblin’, MGM). Kathy’s passions are skiing, running, her Icelandic horse, gravity, and her latest favorite thing–Dance Dance Revolution.
Tristan Harris
Tristan is CEO & Co-founder of Apture, a company that makes it frictionless to get more information without leaving the page. Rated #16 in Inc. Magazine’s Top 30 Entrepreneurs under 30, Tristan was a Mayfield Fellow with the Stanford Technology Ventures Program in entrepreneurship. Prior to Apture, Tristan invented patented information navigation and browsing interfaces now shipping in the Mac OS X operating system. His work has been featured in the NYTimes, Economist, and he has given talks in conferences and universities across the world, including at MIT Media Lab and Stanford University.

Twitter: Tristan Harris


“We don’t have any competitors”

by Tristan Harris on June 5, 2010

I often get asked if Apture has any competitors, and have seen many of my friends who’ve started companies been asked to answer this question.

I think many entrepreneurs feel a temporary and passing uncomfortable *gulp* upon hearing it, because it’s never fun to answer.

If you’re  trying to build a new kind of company and change the world, your drive comes from the most sincere, genuine and burning passionate fire inside of you. It’s that burning passion that fuels you to drop whatever you were doing and have the guts to pursue the idea.

So for an entrepreneur, admitting that you have competitors is like admitting that your unique ideas and burning passion are the same as someone else’s. Artists don’t like to think that way, because the whole point is to do something that’s never been done before. Artists never believe that they’re just copying someone else’s work.

So when the founder answers “oh, we don’t have any competitors,” the audience rolls their eyes. It’s seen as a character flaw, because their ego or naïvité is manifesting in a failure to recognize other competing companies that could kill you.

There are always competitors. Everyone knows that you can identify companies in either a related space or ones that compete head-on. But when entrepreneurs answer the question, and they feel that discomfort, I respect their feeling that there is no one who is doing what they really do. Because there is no one who understands the vision and idea the way you do.

So what is the answer for Apture? We’re  trying to accomplish something incredibly unique, and I don’t believe that anyone else is working on the problem the way that we are.  I’m also aware of  more than probably a hundred companies doing related products that are sold to web publishers on similar value propositions.

Sure you could compare us to the annoying green double underlined spammy advertising guys, or search companies, or browser plugins, or “related content” companies, or “bar” companies that offer cute tools in some real estate. And as an entrepreneur, I must be dutifully aware of the features/benefits/customers/traction of each one.

But none aim to do what we do. In fact many of them in my mind are completely unrelated.

So I think there is the personal answer – “no one is doing this the way we are” – and the pragmatic one – “here are other companies working on various aspects of this problem”. But I think it’s important not to disqualify entrepreneurs who say “we don’t have any competitors,” because it’s these entrepreneurs who have a vision that is vastly unique and forward-thinking from everything on the market who push things forward. Sometimes it even means that you have to be a little crazy, and keep these two ideas in your head at the same time, the pragmatic and the personal.

P.S. I was surprised last year when I noticed someone came up to me a year ago acting strangely cautious and distanced. I questioned him about it, and he said that he thought that my company was competing with him. I hadn’t even heard of his company, nor did I ultimately think it was competitive when I found out what they did. It can go both ways.


Context: The Future of the Web & Inklings of SXSW

by Tristan Harris on March 10, 2010

This is an intro to my panel next week, exploring the Future of Context w/ Jay RosenStaci D. Kramer, and Matt Thompson. I’m writing this to share some early thoughts and get you involved in the conversation, so pls leave your feedback in the comments and come Monday the 16th!

Say you’re walking into the Metropolitan museum of New York on a sunny afternoon in May. You walk inside and stroll down a hallway of 17th century paintings from Italy. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t know much about the paintings that line the halls, or why a certain piece is particularly notable or revolutionary. You just sort of go along with it. You’re obeying an implicit social contract you have to the museum during that half an hour– “I’m in a prestigious art museum in NY and society says the paintings here are important, so I might as well pay attention for a little while.”

But the reality is, you don’t really know or care much about the paintings on the walls. While you might glean bits and pieces from the tiny yellow notecards appearing next to each piece – year, author, type of paint used – the whole experience is relatively flat. The paintings haven’t given you any reason to care about them. Put another way, if you peered into your brain during this experience, you’d probably see it light up pretty simple, low-order sensory areas: “look, there’s a black brush stroke on a giant white canvas.”

Compare that experience to this one:

Suppose you walk into the Met and an NYU Professor of Art History suddenly appears saying she wants to tell you everything about art in the museum. She grabs you by the hand and leads you through the hallways, enthusiastically explaining the different artistic periods, pointing out the significance of each flourish used by the painter, describing the life and economic status of the artist during the time they painted, and so on.  Equipped with this framework to understand the painting, instead of just seeing colors and lines on top of canvases, you now appreciate detailed information about each piece that you couldn’t have before… it’s almost as if you’re perceiving a different painting than the one before the Art History teacher showed up.

This is how I think of the word context.

Context is information that informs your understanding of the world, literally allowing you to derive more meaning from an experience. In the case of the painting above, it deepens the meaning of your experience in the Met by increasing the # of features, patterns and ideas you’re aware of in each painting. Even though the rectangle of colored brush strokes is the same as the one you saw before the NYU professor told you all about it, you actually see the painting in a different way after you have context.

Context in web-based news and storytelling:

So how does this relate to my panel next week on the Future of Context in publishing?

If you think about it, the way we read news on the web is much like walking down the hall of the Met without having context. Much that we read relates to big topical issues we probably don’t fully understand: the Health Care debate, the standoff between Iran and the United States, the Financial Crisis. We know we should pay attention to these topics, yet we’re massively under-equipped to understand their nuances and complexity of the issue, especially since it comes to us in a daily flood of headlines (e.g. “UN weapons inspectors are visiting Iran today…”). Articles like this are about as helpful as the little “yellow notecards” are giving basic information about each painting in the Met.

Re-inventing publishing around Context

As Jay Rosen put it, the word “context” itself implies something that information that is secondary or supplemental to the “main” text. But you can see from the examples above that that’s wrong.  Context is primary. You actually need context before you can make much sense of what’s in front of you.

The exciting thing is, the web is most incredible tool we’ve ever had to solve this problem. We’re at the point where there is always something out on the web – a video, a background story, a Wikipedia article, a set of photographs, or an idea in someone’s head – that could provide a greater context and understanding for the topic. Go ahead, think of any topic in the world, and there’s something out there.

A new approach to context

At our panel we’re going to explore a new context-oriented approach to publishing and user experience. As I see it, the problem breaks down into a few distinct challenges:

  • Repeatable & leveraged work: how do we provide context in a scalable way?
    • How can organizations leverage existing work and not re-invent the wheel each time they want to explain something or provide context? It bugs me that when NYTimes or BBC creates a fantastic infographic explaining how subduction plates cause earthquakes, they don’t re-use that infographic the next time an article runs about the next big earthquake or tsunami.
    • Coming from an engineering background & culture, you learn that you should never do work you can’t modularize and re-use.  This was the whole revolution of object-oriented programming in the 1980s. But journalism doesn’t follow this practice at all. Articles are written from scratch every time, never truly re-using or building upon previous writing to save time and money. What news needs is object-oriented journalism in which context is a basic building block upon which to create articles.
  • Personalization
    • When walking in the Met, maybe some of us know a lot about 17th century Italian painters, but a lot of us don’t know anything about it. Context needs to be personalized to the audience so we don’t waste time repeating information to those who already know a lot, while still giving fresh audiences a good entry point into the topic. Like Malcolm Gladwell once paraphrased at TED, the answer for creating the best experience isn’t about finding the single best article for everyone, it’s about finding the set of best articles so that there is a version of the story that suits each customer of the news perfectly.
  • Sources of context
    • What sources can we leverage to provide context, and with what guarantees of authority?  What about all the information harnessed in the vaulted archives of media organizations (all previous articles, photographs, videos, or interactive infographics)?
  • Brevity and hairstring attention spans
    • Suppose we were to invent the perfect way for people to be provided with context, as humans we are bound by the physics of shortening attention spans. People have less and less patience for articles that cause the scrollbar in our browser to shrink to a tiny little nib, and we have less and less time to invest in learning something new.
    • How do we design context for the attention-strapped psychology of our minds?
  • Structure & Design
    • What is the ideal structure to communicate context anyway? Is it just another web page, a contextual window appearing within the page, or a wiki? Many news organizations today attempt to solve the problem by providing “topic pages” with links to further materials… but everybody knows a page full of links is overwhelming and too web 1.0. Who has the time for more links to more pages, and inevitably more tabs? We need a content-oriented context architecture, one that aims in the shortest amount of time to give people the information they need, without leaving the page (sounds familiar, probably)
  • Business model and web economics
    • Changing how articles are written & published will inevitably affect how publishers generate revenue from advertising, and how it impacts things the ecosystem of link-love and SEO. We can’t re-invent news around context without respecting the business models that allow publishing on the web to thrive.
    • What we’ve found so far though, is that today’s most popular sources of context (Wikipedia, NYTimes Topic pages, fascinating blog posts smothered in link love) are largely rewarded by Google in SEO. If you Google for just about any topic, how likely is it that Wikipedia is in the top three results? This speaks good things to publishers if they were to succeed in re-orienting their content into SEO-rich, evergreen pages with persistent URLs that describe the bigger picture.

I’ve been fascinated by the role of context in our lives for more than four years and can’t wait to discuss them with you and several leading thinkers in this area next Monday.

What do you think? What else should we address in our panel?


Come see me speak at Stanford’s Leadership Seminar

by Tristan Harris on February 9, 2010

I’m honored to be invited to Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leadership seminar tomorrow February 10th. Some old friends of mine from the Stanford Mayfield Fellows program will be speaking too, Kimber LockhartJeff SiebertClara Shih who wrote “The Facebook Era”, Steve Garrity, and Josh Reeves. All of us have gone off to start companies at a young age, so the dialogue should be interesting.

And one of my favorite professors, Tina Seelig, will be moderating.

See you then! BTW, here is where we’ll be speaking (at 4:30pm):


The Right Answer

by Tristan Harris on December 12, 2009

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Live your life this way. Most important decisions in life are almost impossible to resolve. The right answer is usually the impossible simultaneous achievement of two opposing extremes. The intuitive answer to find an average solution in the middle, to be balanced, is a sure way to find mediocrity. More to come on this topic!


Keep Pulling with Vision

by Tristan Harris on November 27, 2009

Startups are tough. I’ve several friends doing different companies and projects. Some have been going at it for three years, others only six months. Some of my friends’ companies have been bought after 3 months of launch. I’ve seen others keep working for multiple years without any traction at all. How do you convince people to stay on board with you to keep pushing?

What I realized is this:

Your best substitute for traction is strong vision.

Statistically, most startups don’t make it. Most products that are launched require many, many iterations before they see even basic pickup in the market. But you have to substitute the lack of traction during those iterations with something else – and I think that’s vision.

Think back to when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. The company’s financials were a disaster. The company was corrupted by poor positioning, tons of confusing product lines, and lack of concise leadership. Talk about a situation where a company’s health does not look good.

Think about it. If you’re an employee of Apple in 1997, how can you ignore the market? What confidence can you have? How would you trust Steve to turn it around?  Phrases like “Macs suck” and “Apple is going bankrupt” dominated public perception. Arguably even Steve’s track record — at NeXT — wasn’t very successful.

So what have you got left? Vision and leadership.

And look what Steve did. He spent the next 10 years revolutionizing the MusicFilm, and Telecommunications industries — and perhaps soon, the Publishing Industry.

Watch it in action. Here’s one of my favorite videos of Steve demonstrating a simple idea, but presenting it with pure charisma.

Keep leading with vision.


(Sorry for the long blogging hiatus. I should be back to your regularly scheduled blog programming over the next few months).

This Halloween, I went to San Francisco Davies Symphony Hall with some friends to see a special screening of Nosferatu, a 1922 Dracula film that pioneered the horror genre.

But while watching the film, what struck me was just how innovative it was. F.W. Murnau ‘s crew invented suspense-creating techniques that are still used in film today (80 years later!).

First, let’s remember. This is a silent film. It’s all black and white. Made in the age of print and barely radio, not television or film. Made before directors used cut aways to retain teenagers’ 1 second attention spans. And despite the film’s scratchy, messy texture, it still manages to get your heart pumping into a pseudo fight-or-flight response which good horror films do so well. How did they do it?

These innovative techniques stood out to me. All are examples of Murnau’s ingenuity to shape the horror-genre with storytelling that took advantage of a new kind of medium:

1. Look and Feel: Shadows and Chiaroscuro

Sure, the film is already in black and white, but Mernau leverages the space between these two colors further to set the film’s dark tone. With chiaroscuro scenes of long dark hallways and half visible mysterious figures, and distant shots of the quiet and barren castle where the vampire lives, he makes the viewer mistrust the environment and have concern for the helpless man seeking to meet the vampire. The use of shadows for example enhances the hidden image of the vampire’s long claws.

2. Accentuating Physical Appearances: Costume and Makeup Design

The physical appearance of actor Max Shreck, who plays the vampire, is disturbing. The costume designers altered his nose to make it extra long and bent. His fingers are long claws. He has pointier ears. Bulging eyes (when used in longshots of the vampire). A warped ratlike mouth and teeth. And he’s a thin, stodgy creature whose shoulders placement don’t match a normal human body.

These tweaked facial features remind me of Stephen Jay Gould’s study of how Walt Disney evolved the character of Mickey Mouse to gradually look more cute over time by making the face rounder, with bigger cheeks, bigger eyes, smaller foreheads, and big ears to gradually match the way we evolutionarily perceive animals with these characteristics as “cute.” Mernau is almost using the opposite effect to make us detest Count Orlok’s appearance.

Of course, costume designers knew these techniques long before film (theatre, for example), but combined with moving images, chiaroscuro, and b&w cameras that can be repositioned to better exploit character’s unsettling features, the effects have greater impact.

3. Hiding Things Behind the Camera

You know the cliché horror movie effect of the villain’s shadow slowly looming over a victim, without ever seeing the villain’s body – guess what? These guys invented it. Why does this work so well? It’s because the audience can’t see the vampire behind the camera that makes the scene so terrifying. And it’s something you can only do in film. (See example clip below – you only have to watch about 10 seconds worth because I’m using the Apture YouTube clip time feature)

4. The Surreal: Unexplainable Characters

If you were told to make a story feel surreal in the medium or radio or printed text, how would you do it? You’d have to call surreal qualities explicitly — talk about strange characters’ visual features, or inconsistencies in the scene. But Murnau uses subtle techniques to make things not make sense.

For example, there’s a point in the film where the unknowing victim reaches the remove village near the vampire and accepts a ride from a mysterious horse carriage whose driver looks exactly like the vampire (who the audience will meet later). It’s as if the vampire himself is omnipresent, spying on him and existing in two places at once. This technique has been used in other films, but I believe Nosferatu is the first. (see clipped video below)

How would you have communicated that in radio? Or in words?

5. Making Things Stand Out: Extraordinary Physical Abilities

This one is a classic technique. At one point in the film, Count Orlok (the film’s vampire) is able to rise up magically from the coffin to being completely vertical. I’m not sure if they use a hook or captured this sequence in reverse, but either way the effect is chilling if you’re a movie goer in the year 1922.


The German crew who invented these techniques were mostly born in the 1870s and 80s. There weren’t many books on these techniques. All they were given was a new canvas and creativity. And when you look back on the innovation in the new medium of film, you wonder what new techniques and strategies people have pioneered in the new medium of ‘web’?


Apture wins AlwaysOn Global 250 Award

by Tristan Harris on July 19, 2009

It’s moments like these that it’s important to sit back and reflect on how far you’ve come after three years of long hard work. Congratulations to the entire Apture team for all that they’ve done to earn this recognition!


Watch Tom Wujec, Information designer at Autodesk discuss three key qualities of successful information design to create meaning. It is fascinating:

The video outlines how good Information Design builds meaning in the brain by activating three key areas: the ventral stream of the visual processing pathway, the dorsal stream of the visual processing pathway, and the limbic system to deepen the way people experience information. Tom’s message is identical to how Apture presents content and enhances the way readers experience information on the web.

Five years ago at Stanford University, I took Professor Kalanit Grill-Spector‘s classes on the Psychology & Neuroscience of Perception and read certain literature which influenced a lot of how I think about Apture’s user interface.

Here are the three take-aways and similarities I saw:

1. Use images to clarify ideas.

Apture let’s you turn flat phrases of text and flesh them out into visually rich and memorable representations: images, videos, slideshows, etc. For example, you can turn the word sad, into something rich. Turn the word happy into something more colorful.

How this relates to the brain: Wujec suggests that images activate the “what” part of our visual perception pathway, the ventral stream which deepens how those ideas get stored.

2. Interact with images to create engagement.

Apture doesn’t just let you present information, it lets you interact with it. You can open, close, drag and maximize any Apture window and move them around as you see fit. Try one now. We’ve found in user tests that readers frequently drag a window around and feel pleasure in having the control to rearrange them as they read. Interactive maps are an even cooler example.

How this relates to the brain: Wujec suggests that being able to spatially manipulate images (or Apture windows) activates the “where” part of the visual perception pathway: the dorsal stream and deepens the meaning of our engagement.

3. Augment memory with persistent and evolving views.

When we designed Apture, we chose to include animations so that users had a persistent and evolving view of a content object. As a window spawns or maximizes, it happens smoothly and creates continuity. But there’s another reason too: the right animation can literally cause an emotional response. It can be fun!

How this relates to the brain: Wujec suggests that animation activates the limbic system, which is the part of the brain responsible for feelings & emotions that are very core. If we’re doing our job right, you should say “oh wow, that animation just feels so nice!”

Other thoughts

Certainly there are many more ways to deepen a person’s understanding without depending on your visual senses, specifically. After all, we have four other senses we use to experience the world. But I believe there is something to this idea: that the more senses you can engage in a story, the more deeply you are able to process and experience it.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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My Interview with “The Deal” now posted

by Tristan Harris on June 19, 2009

Below is my interview with The Deal, who wrote up a great post about Apture’s fundraising back in March. Thanks Mary Kathleen!