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‘Sarah liked your post.’ An average executive receives 46 such smartphone notifications a day and as per estimates based on a recent UC Irvine study, each notification causes a distraction of ~23 minutes. Assuming one picks up their smartphone even 20% of the times they receive a notification, it could lead to a 211 minutes worth of refocusing effort a day! Well, this is a huge plausible productivity fall. These push-notifications are sapping our ability to get in the flow and really focus on the task at hand.
Why are notifications so ruthlessly plaguing our lives one may ask. For starters, digital survival is all about stickiness — a product’s ability to attract users, hook them to the product, and to make them return again and again. Stickiness has a compounding effect, in which a small early edge in growth creates a huge long-term gap. This is what the digital products are leveraging. In the current hyperconnected world, our attention is used against us so that we become the customers of a product/service. However, this very attention is scarce. As the firms are realising this, they are racing to build their competitive advantage by creating offerings that can grab our attention better and for longer durations. Why do people pay for ad free premium accounts on Spotify or YouTube? Because, they very well understand that their attention is a limited resource. How are firms capitalising on this? These paid ad-free services are one revenue stream. Some products like Netflix capture data about your viewing history and curate a recommended for you list. This helps the customer save their time and redirects their attention to the titles that the algorithm decides the user may like.
Most product managers will swear by the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by behavioural design expert, Nir Eyal. In this book, he attempts to explain how this scarce resource, attention, can be grabbed and used to form habits in users. A product draws the user by some trigger (like a notification), leading to an action (like scrolling the feed) expecting a variable reward (like a friend’s life update). This makes the user hooked as he/she has become invested and they continually begin to commit their energy to the product. This variable reward becomes an addictive hooked cycle. This is how attention-based products are surviving, subsequently taking control of screen habits from the user. Nir Eyal suggests that tech companies are using Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner’s well-known study that rewards, especially at variable intervals, increase one’s anticipation. As anticipation increases, such reward-seeking actions that technology companies have capitalised on to capture attention turn to instinct. As more and more digital products take over our lives, we are inching towards what psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon termed ‘attention economy’ where the currency isn’t money but our attention! Isn’t this how Facebook took on the world and no competitor stood a chance? Isn’t this how Instagram is the leading media sharing social media app?
The economic model of demand and supply can well be used to explain this new shift from material-based economy to attention-based economy. The supply of attention remains constant however, the demand from the products keep increasing.
A testament to this is the fact that the cost of buying consumer attention, has increased seven- to nine-fold in real terms since 1990. Products are vying for our attention but a person has only so much of it. Per Simon, it is a bottleneck of human thought. A wealth of information created by this digital world is creating a poverty of attention. As Simon puts it, multitasking is a myth. It is on us, the users, to know better and pay more attention to what we’re paying attention to!