In Designing, Fast or Slow, I borrowed Daniel Kahneman’s framework for how the brain has a fast, emotional decision center, and a slow, analytical, deliberate one. I gave examples of how we can design digital products to activate one or the other, how the “engagement trap” is about designing for System 1 over System 2 deliberately and how we should use this power responsibly.

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Reddit and HackerNews have similar mechanics, but optimize for System 1 and System 2 responses through design decisions.

In this follow-up, I’m going to look for that sweet spot, making products that are both viscerally appealing and are valued upon long-term reflection. [1]

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A recap of System 1 and System 2 thinking

I’m going to structure this through examples from outside of web or apps because as a relatively new media type, mainstream user generated content products still bias towards designing for simple System 1 thinking. Meanwhile, other media types and distribution channels have taken decades or centuries to find a healthy balance. As a field, software products are constantly struggling to measure and compare short and long-term value. So I think it’ll be more effective to show you examples from more mature fields and let you make the leap to social systems software.


Case Study 1: Games

This might seem counterintuitive given that games get a bad rap for addictiveness but great games are deep, change the way you think, and give you skills and strategy that transcend the medium. Think chess, or poker, or Starcraft.

But above all, any good game needs to be fun to start playing and game designers have dabbled in psychology for a very long time, learning many of the same lessons but in their own language. Video games are in particular a great subset to study because they let you build rich worlds, many deep storylines.

Video games are always trying to keep you in a state of flow. Flow is the same being being “in the zone” or really engaged, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book is the seminal volume on it. My favorite part of the book is this diagram that highlights when an activity produces a state of flow.

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In general, Game Design is a field that has a lot to teach us about taking difficult tasks and breaking them down to make it enjoyable, and I have a handful of recommended readings in a footnote below[2].

Case Study 2: Teaching

Education tries to encapsulate as much valuable human knowledge as possible and transfer it to the next generation. Faced with this extremely difficult challenge and the reality of students’ varying motivations the best teachers inspire more than they regurgitate in order to be effective. They call upon storytelling skills, effective metaphors, variable rewards, progressive disclosure, level design, etc.

In other words, they trigger System 1 to get you to invest in an activity that’s ultimately very System 2 intensive.

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Duolingo’s progress map, which progressively fills out as a learner understands increasingly complex concepts.

As you see, effective game design and education have a lot in common! I have a handful of recommended readings in the notes for game design too [3].

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