For years, Facebook trained us all to collect friends. Every girl you met at a party, every guy you chatted with at a coffee shop, every classmate you had a study session withwe friended them all. And we did this because our culture started to place significant value on friend count as a virtual scorecard for one’s popularity and, in a way, one’s life. The more friends you had, the cooler and more popular you were. The cultural force of keeping score made it a given that you would always want more friends, and it affected people’s perceptions and behaviors.
But as the years went on, another more skeptical cultural force started quietly growing and with it a subtle questioning in people’s minds of who all those “friends” were. In fact, the term friend lost its value, as half the people on friend rosters were basically strangers. Uneasy tension was subconsciously developing, and that’s where we came in.
Our agency, CP+B, was tasked with proving America’s love for Burger King’s Whopper, and we offered people a simple challenge: Unfriend 10 of your friends on Facebook, and we will give you a free Whopper. What better way is there to prove love for the Whopper than to have people sacrifice their friends for it? Oh, one more thing: Not only will your friend count fall, but the victims will also be notified that they are being unfriended and that they are essentially worth less than one tenth of a Whopper to you.
What happened? With almost no paid media support, more than 244,000 people were unfriended in a little more than a week of being live before Facebook shut the initiative down, and 35 million free media impressions were earned from coverage, ranging from CNN to the New York Times. All of this for a small microsite that was live for just over a week.
That’s the first time I really recognized the awesome power and potential of tension as a tool for interaction designers, and it’s what made me start exploring other ways of using tension in my experiences.
Although the word itself can be traced back to a mid-16th-century medical term denoting a “condition or feeling of being physically stretched or strained,”  tension has evolved to encompass a number of meanings that go far beyond its physical origins.
“A strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other”  proves to be a broader definition that allows for forces ranging from the physical to the psychological and emotional. Tension builds when opposing forces are aligned. Whether it be tectonic plates pushing against each other, religious sects debating ideology, or two suitors trying to impress the same girl, the tension builds.
However, as this tension mounts, something else happens as well: Potential energy is created. The more these forces push against each other, the more potential energy there is. Suddenly, a single trigger can release that energy all at once, whether as an earthquake, a holy war, or a bar fight. Our unfriending challenge triggered a national dialogue and cultural reappraisal of what friendship could and should mean in a post-Web 2.0 world.
Tension doesn’t just have to lead to destroyed homes and bruised egos; it can also be a force for incredible good. When used effectively, tension and those energy releases can lead to laughter, new (or better) friendships, and new perspectives on life and the world around you. It can lead to creative ideas and experiences that break through the clutter and create meaningful value at a personal and cultural level.
This is why CP+B is so interested in tension and why it is the foundation on which all of our brand ideas are developed. We find that the equities and truths inherent in our clients’ brands are often contrary to a cultural perception or temporary trend. Their product truths conflict with what people have come to understand as real and true. This creates tension that we can exploit. If we frame that product truth in a way that’s at odds with cultural convention, we create tension and potential energy that is eventually released in the form of cultural conversations and reappraisal of products, categories, and the world around us.
That approach has proven to be incredibly successful for macrobrand narratives, but what about specific executions? What’s the best way to leverage tension for a digital app, a Web-based platform, an installation? It starts the same way: Align emotional, cultural, or behavioral forces in opposition of convention or expectations, and you will catalyze interaction in a relevant and meaningful way.
You might be saying to yourself, “That’s great in theory, but how do I actually apply that?”
While there is no “right” application, we have distilled seven categories of tension techniques that can be considered when designing experiences. They are listed here, along with a few successful examples of each.
Create Social Pressure
Most people strive for social acceptance in some form. We want to be validated by our peers and avoid any situations where we are put down in public. Given that these are such strong, indoctrinated cultural forces, they are perfect areas to look for ways of leveraging tension to create interesting and engaging experiences.
Create competition through public validation. HotOrNot.com was one of the first online properties to use public voting to validate individuals. Today, Turntable. fm (http://www.turntable.fm) is using a similar technique with its song-feedback mechanisms. A great deal of social pressure can be applied as the heads stop bobbing and the thumbs-down votes start flowing in. Before long, the DJ might be very publicly “escorted off the stage.” But if you do well, all of the avatars, points, and praise will follow.
Publicly announce a goal or challenge. The goal can be a personal one (e.g., running 50 miles in four weeks; http://www.nikeplus.com), and the public statement is meant to create pressure on the individual to actually do it. Or the goal can be a community one (e.g., raising $1,000 for the AIDS Walk), and the social pressure can be on a person’s network to support the cause. Either way, the public declaration of a goal can create tension on the author and those around him or her.
Provide opportunities to help friends who are also part of the experience. One of the most interesting features of FarmVille (http://www.farmville.com) was the ability to help plow friends’ farms. It’s a feature that is in no way critical to an individual’s experience, but it creates fascinating social opportunities and pressure for friends. How appreciative will your friend be? How much is your time worth? How guilty will you feel if you don’t plow your friend’s field? When was the last time they plowed yours? The tension of social pressure causes people to modify their behavior.
Enable the Unexpected
Each of us carries preconceived notions and expectations into every experience we have. Some of the best tensions come when we force those expectations to coexist with the unexpected. For example:
Create environments that embrace the unexpected. Chatroulette (http://chatroulette.com) is an entire platform built around the thrill of the unexpected. With each click, the user never knows who will be on the other side next, and there lies the tension and the beauty that led this 17-year-old’s experiment to exponential growth with hundreds of thousands of participants in a matter of weeks.
Provide value in an unexpected and/or magical way. Why did Shazam (http://www.shazam.com) grow so quickly? It was partially because of the unique value it provided, but it was also because of the disbelief among many that it would actually work. It was such a magical and unexpected innovation when it came out that tension was created against the limited expectations of its audience.
Use data from actions and behaviors to tell a new story. Sometimes tensions can arise from taking existing data and using it in a new way. Mint (http://www.mint.com) attempted to do just this by taking your existing, fragmented financial data and weaving it all together into a new story with unexpected insights and recommendations that told you a new story about your financial behaviors.
Throughout our lives, we all develop instincts of what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. When we directly challenge those ingrained instincts and push you to do something in opposition of them, tension ensues.
Reimagine “sacred” spaces. Through theater announcements and dirty looks from other moviegoers, we have all been taught for decades that cellphones should never be used during a movie. It’s a sacred space that must not be disturbed by glowing screens. CP+B and Best Buy capitalized on this tension when they made Movie Mode, an app that pushed against those instincts and encouraged people to enjoy a complimentary experience on their phones during the movie Despicable Me. Start the app at the beginning of the movie to translate what the minions were saying, both during the film and throughout the end credits. The result? A sacred space was reimagined through tension.
Transfer an existing behavior to a different stakeholder. It used to be that when you bought groceries, someone scanned all of your items and bagged your groceries. You were taught to go to the first aisle with a light on and let them take care of the rest. Then there was the amazing tension that first time you saw a self-checkout machine. You mean, I scan my own groceries? And bag my own stuff, in bags that I bring with me? Crazy as it would have sounded 20 years ago, stores have now adopted “go green” narratives that create that tension and choice for shoppers every time they go to the grocery store.
Catalyze collaboration between competitors. The international space station (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station) is spectacular not just because of its engineering marvels but also because of its resulting from collaboration between two countries that had been in vicious competition for decades. Want to see tension arise? Force competitors to work together.
At first glance, it seems counterintuitive to limit the means to engage with an experience or property whose goal is to maximize engagement and regular usage, but sometimes that is the best way to build tension that leads to long-term success.
Let the audience determine who gets in to something exclusive. Gmail was one of the most successful digital product launches of all time, and its invite mechanism was one of the reasons why. It was a simple and effective way to limit access in a manner that would drive word of mouth and give its users a stake in how the service grew. It also created incredible cultural tension as demand for the invitations far outpaced the supply.
Limit the opportunity or means to engage. The mandatory growing and harvesting times of FarmVille necessitated that players engage in shorter bursts occurring at regular patterns. These quick-hit engagements were perfectly timed to fit short attention spans and always left you wanting more at the end of your sessions.
Put a deadline on the timing or quantity of the experience or opportunity. Time is one of the best tension builders there is. Find something that people want, and make them race against the clock and other people to get it. This simple mechanism is part of what is made Gilt’s exclusive sales so successful (http://www.gilt.com).
Whether you’re taking away someone’s control or giving them control over something they have never had before, the world of control is a ripe one for creating experiential tension.
Force people to give up control. Nextpedition (no longer live) was a travel product from American Express and CP+B that returned the sense of adventure to traveling by giving you a social-based profiling quiz in order to generate and book a trip based on the results and a few other parameters (price, time of year, travel history, etc.). The catch? It didn’t tell you where you would be going or what was planned for you once you were there. Rather, it sent you a handheld device that would reveal each day’s flights and activities as you went. In a world of Yelp, Street View, and online reviewing, this relinquishing of control was at the heart of the experience and was what differentiated it from a thousand other travel options.
Give people control they haven’t had before. It used to be a given that if you wanted to get a reservation at a restaurant, you had to pick up the phone and deal with the hostess or maître d’. That all changed when OpenTable (http://www.opentable.com) gave people control they had never had before: Book and cancel reservations for almost any restaurant you want without ever having to talk to anyone. This was a complete contradiction to the only system we had ever known. Restaurants hate the new middleman, but patrons never want to go back.
Necessitate the participation of others to get the reward. While FarmVille gave the opportunity to participate in other people’s farms, Groupon (http://www.groupon.com) required the participation of others to get the reward. In one way, control was lost, as individuals couldn’t take advantage of offers themselves. In another way, control was given, as individuals could enlist others to unlock the possibilities.
The fear of missing out (FOMO) is strong in most of us, since nobody wants to miss out on something rewarding. A quick path to tension is to play off of that human truth and force people to face the possibility that they may be missing out on something if they don’t engage.
Showcase other people succeeding or having fun around you. Few environments create FOMA tension quite like casinos. They do this by making a disproportional spectacle of those few who win. When others see these victorious fellows, they are further convinced that it could be them with just a few more spins.
Create the perception that something they have done is inadequate. You may think your résumé is perfect for what you want, but there’s that “profile completeness” bar telling you that you’re only 85 percent complete (http://www.linkedin.com).
Provide an incentive that is revealed only after a desired action. Many experiences are designed to tease the user with potential but reveal the reward only after a desired action. “Check in and win a prize.” Nobody’s sure what the prize is, but for many, the potential of the reward is worth the effort of the action (http://www.foursquare.com).
People like their lives to be organized, and they like having clear distinctions between the different areas of their lives and the behaviors inherent in each: work versus home, family versus friends, and, especially, digital versus real. Blurring these lines can lead to fascinating results and interesting tensions.
Tie real-life repercussions to your actions. What if every time you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock, it wirelessly connected to the Internet and donated money from your bank account to an organization you hate? That is exactly what the SnuzNLuz alarm clock (http://www.thinkgeek.com/stuff/41/snuznluz.shtml) proposes to do to help you wake up by upping the tension around the consequences of sleeping in.
Create dialogue and relationships with inanimate things. Voice control of a phone’s functions is a great engineering feat, but Siri (http://www.apple.com/ios/siri/) largely captured the country’s intrigue for a different reason: her personality. People’s expectations of digital utility were blurred with this personality-filled assistant who was “friendly and humblebut also with an edge” .
Create real-life manifestations of digital concepts. Instagram is a digital tool used by millennials who didn’t even know post offices still existed, and yet, Postagram (http://www.postagram.com/) aligned those two forces against each other to create custom physical postcards of people’s Instagram photos. The result is a beautiful blurring of the digital and physical worlds.
All of the aforementioned examples are tried-and-true tension techniques that have been successful for others and could be for you as well. However, there are a few things to keep in mind as you create or exploit tension in your experiences.
First off, know your audience inside and out. Tension is a delicate force to navigate and, if leveraged inappropriately, it can do far more harm than good. So make sure you understand who you’re talking to and make sure you’re confident you understand what will resonate with them and what will annoy them. User research and testing can be hugely valuable when working with tension to answer these questions.
Second, don’t forget to focus on the trigger. Tension is all around us, but the beauty lies in the smartly designed trigger that releases all of that potential energy. The meaning of friendship in the 2.0 world stays simmering without the Whopper Sacrifice trigger exploding it into the broader cultural conversation.
Lastly, don’t mistake this article as being an exhaustive list. Rather, use it as inspiration to find new areas of tension in the world around you. They are everywhere. Find them, abstract them out, and apply them in new spaces.
You (and your audience) may be amazed at the results.
Matt Walsh (@icecoldvideo) is EVP and executive experience director at CP+B. He founded, built, and continues to lead a team of 20 experience designers at CP+B as they strive to eliminate dead ends and create the greatest product journeys and experiences in the world. His work has been recognized by all the major award shows, including Cannes, the Clios, LIAA, the WebAwards, and the One Show.
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