Remember the last time you spent all Sunday afternoon trying to beat your highest score in a classic game of Pac Man? Or what about that time you stayed up way too late, repeatedly binging just one more episode of Stranger Things on Netflix? You were fully engrossed in what you were doing. You blissfully lost track of time as you immersed yourself in an alternate reality.

At the time, the connection between this level of engagement with these diversions and your B2B product probably didn’t occur to you. After all, what could a business app possibly have in common with a Pac Man marathon or a Netflix binge? As it turns out -- more than you might think. As you’ll see, the science behind the way our brains react to engaging games or binge worthy tv isn’t so far removed from the reasons some apps are deeply engaging -- while others flop and fail to hold our interest.

What’s In A Game?

In his book, Game Theory, Morton Davis explains that the theory of games is, at its heart, a theory about making decisions:

[Game Theory] considers how one should make decisions and to a lesser extent, how one does make them. You make a number of decisions every day. Some involve deep thought, while others are almost automatic. Your decisions are linked to your goals—if you know the consequences of each of your options, the solution is easy. Decide where you want to be and choose the path that takes you there.

It’s pretty straightforward to translate this concept of game theory to Pac Man. The ostensible goal is to eat all the pellets, avoid the ghosts, get through the maze, and progress to the next level. The lure of gathering more points leads to the decision to continue playing. The desire to not get killed in the game leads to the rapid fire decisions to run through the maze and try to stay alive and in the game. But let’s dig deeper. What’s really going on here?

Remember Jobs Theory? We talk a lot about it when it comes to product development. In a nutshell, the idea is that people aren’t really buying a product -- they’re hiring something do a job they need to accomplish. In other words, people don’t want a drill, they want a quarter inch hole. People are “hiring” Pac Man (and other video games) to entertain them while providing a sense of accomplishment (staying alive and getting a high score). The successive decisions they make in the game, then, serve the ultimate goal of doing the job they hired Pac Man to do.

Now let’s think about this in terms of your product. Are we saying you should turn your app into a game? Not at all. But the reasons that people enjoy -- and become so deeply engaged in -- games can offer a useful way to think about how to make apps that are just as engaging, albeit with a different job to be done. People make a series of decisions when it comes to interacting with your app. They decide first and foremost whether to hire your product at all. Then they decide whether or not to interact with it, whether to continue after onboarding, and whether to become avid users -- or abandon the product and churn. And they’ll make these decisions based on whether or not their goals are being met by your product. Understanding the job your users are trying to do -- just like with a video game -- is foundational to understanding how to help them meet their goals.

It should be noted that the way we make decisions in games and apps differs from how we make decisions in “real life.” In his book, Davis explains that in game-based decisions, “While decision makers are trying to manipulate their environment, their environment is trying to manipulate them.” In Pac Man, this means that your decision to move in a particular direction is influenced( or manipulated) by the location of the ghosts who are coming to eat you.

When it comes to your product, rather than trying to manipulate, think of guiding your users. You’re helping to guide users along the best path to remove their obstacles and struggles and help them make progress. That said, users must still make decisions in an app. Do they continue on? Or abandon the product? This choice will be based in large part on whether or not they’re able to perceive the value you’re providing in helping them achieve their goals. And the most important way you convey your value is through design.

Mental Models

Before we talk about the role of design in conveying value, let’s first review the concept of mental models. The Gamasutra blog defined the idea as it applies to games succinctly:

[Mental models] mirror a real life activity only in its most most important aspects, they are (under the graphics) the same mental model that our brain creates when dealing with that activity. Useful data, possible actions, nothing more. This gives the brain a relief because it doesn't have to draw the model itself, so it can concentrate on the gaming, on the goals, on the ways to achieve them.

In other words, our brains create models that help us make sense of external processes. It’s the job of a game -- or an app -- to reflect those mental models in a way that we can easily grasp the rules of gameplay, or how to perform tasks to make progress towards our goals in an app. 

It’s important to note that mental models are based on how people believe something should work -- not necessarily how they actually work. Game and product designers can help improve -- or expand -- a user’s mental model by very clearly explaining how something works so that the user’s mental model begins to reflect the reality of how things work in your system.

Given the role of mental models in understanding how to interact with a product, it’s tempting to fall into a trap and conclude that simply making a product visually easy to use will provide all the necessary value in order to keep users engaged. After all, Pac Man has an incredibly straightforward interface and it’s simple to grasp the fundamentals of the game. But that’s not the real secret to its success. If Pac Man were simply easy to use and didn’t help users reach a goal, it would never have become popular. The key lies in usefulness rather than ease of use.

In 2015, the business schools of two Korean universities conducted a co-study examining the role of mental models on motivation among smartphone users. One important finding was that ‘ease of use’ did not have a significant effect on ‘intrinsic motivation’ (of users). On the other hand, ‘perceived usefulness’ was found to have a significant impact on ‘motivation.’”

In other words, ease of use is simply an entry level requirement for any successful product. If you want users to be sufficiently motivated to become avid users -- of a product or a game -- your design must convey that your product is useful. It must demonstrate and reinforce to users the value that you’re providing in helping them reach their goals.

Becoming Binge Worthy

Have you ever wondered why you binge on your favorite Netflix shows? What is it that causes you to get so deeply engaged? Sure, you’re hiring a particular series to do a job -- to entertain you by allowing you to become immersed in a longform narrative. It feels good to escape reality and experience empathy for your favorite characters. But why are some shows bingeworthy, while others aren’t? The answer to that question is another piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding how to convey value to your users.

Princeton psychologist Uri Hasson has pioneered a new field that can help explain the appeal of the binge. It’s called neurocinematics, or the study of how the brain interacts with TV and film. He observed the brain activity of subjects while showing them four distinctly different types of viewing material: Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm; Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Alfred Hitchcock's Bang! You're Dead; and a 10-minute, unedited, one-shot video of a Sunday morning concert in New York's Washington Square Park.

Hasson wanted to see which films were able to elicit the highest number of responses in different areas of subjects’ brains. Of all the clips the subjects were shown, te Hitchcock film evoked the highest number of responses -- by a long shot. Hasson concluded that the better a clip was able to control what the audience should be looking at, the more engaged the audience became. 

As Psychology Today put it, “While the one-shot park clip allows viewers to attend to anything they find interesting, Hitchcock was a master of orchestrating everything: what you're watching, what you're thinking, how you're feeling, and what you predict will come next.” Bingeworthy shows -- think Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones -- are similarly skilled at directing and holding the attention of viewers.

So how can the field of neurocinematics play a role in your product design? Well, when you design, try to think like Hitchcock or the writers of Breaking Bad. Don’t distract your users with unnecessary bells and whistles. Make it clear what they should be paying attention to and why, and make sure they can anticipate the outcome of every action they take. Thinking like Hitchcock when it comes to app design means understanding your users’ goals and clearly conveying value every step of the way ... just like a bingeworthy Netflix show.