Persuasive design: How Dopamine Labs is using machine learning and AI to help developers boost engagement

January 11, 2018

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By 2021, the total number of app downloads is expected to climb to nearly 400 billion, but incentivizing a user to download an app and ensuring they continue to use the app are two completely different challenges.


Using a strategy called “persuasive design,” Dopamine Labs is helping businesses avoid this scenario by leveraging machine learning and artificial intelligence. But as terrifying as the thought of a company using AI to influence our actions might seem, the Venice startup is able to use the technology in a way that positively impacts both its clients and their customers.


“Nobody wants to admit that they're being designed or programmed in some sort of way,” said Ramsey Brown, co-founder, and COO. But anyone who has stepped foot inside an airport, a car or a grocery store has been the target of a behavior designer. We’re leveraging the same approach with software. The idea that you can go beyond color schemes or gradient shading to thinking about human behavior as the core design building blocks — as opposed to pixels — means that this is the new normal for how people are going to be building tech. The question then becomes, 'How do we make this not suck for everybody?'”


Founded by Brown and CEO T. Dalton Coombs when the two were graduate students at USC studying neuroinformatics and neuroeconomics — respectively — the Dopamine Labs platform subtly entices users to interact with an application and gets them to do so more often by offering a reward in the form of a fun animation or message, helping developers increase engagement and retention.

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“Even though we all have personality differences — the unique characteristics that make us who we are — we also have this ancient wiring that's so common that we can build a system that leverages the behavior to pair new actions to it,” said Brown. It's about controlling the consequence of the behavior. If you want your kid to build a habit out of cleaning their room, you give them the ice cream after they clean the room, not beforehand. Our brains are wired to respond to the consequences of our behavior less than it is that, 'Hey, go do that thing you're supposed to do.' That burst of pleasure doesn't just feel good, it actively rewires as part of our brain stem.


As new breakthroughs change the ways that people live their lives, Brown said that he believed that the opportunity to positively influence human behavior will only grow, and it’s not hard to believe. Given the exploding wearables market and the success of products such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see other smart products take a leaf out of the Dopamine Labs' book to help users live happier, healthier lives. 


“Our stuff is becoming animate,” he said. “We're embedding these intelligent systems into our physical things and giving them a sense of purpose. If we can figure out how to align their intelligence with our human needs — say a fridge that prevents stress eating by making the handle a little stickier to open — we can take these persuasive techniques and embed them into our physical stuff. It’s going to help us align this technological revolution with the actual things we want out of our lives.”

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Since launching in 2015, the company has seen its platform boost and sustain user engagement by as much as 167 percent. Between the effectiveness of the product and the potential for its uses, the Dopamine Labs team often finds itself placed in the uncomfortable situation of having to turn down potential customers because they don’t support the product those companies are selling. According to Brown, the lead qualification process often ends with a “no thanks,” if The Dopes — as they refer to themselves — are uncomfortable with a company’s product.


“When we get talked about in the press, that's the thing that everyone wants to hone in on: 'these are the guys building these monstrous tools to make people worse off; to try to addict you to gamble or buy gems in Clash of Clans,'” admitted Brown. “We listen very closely to see if there is a value alignment with how potential clients talk about their customers and what they want their customers to achieve. We get a lot of calls that leave us feeling uneasy, but if there is no value alignment, we politely decline and move on.”