The Craft of Stickiness

Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller, The Tipping Point (Back Bay Books, 2000), has an extensive chapter on The Stickiness Factor. Children’s TV shows like Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues are carefully engineered to be “sticky”, so that children can’t help but keep coming back to those shows. This post will examine the craft of “stickiness” in these two children’s TV shows, in conjunction with another show, Teletubbies. Then it will show how the craft of “stickiness” could be and have already been applied to games.

First, a brief description of each show for those either too young or too old.

Sesame Street

Sesame Street

No ink (or bytes) need be wasted here since Sesame Street, premiered in 1969 and featuring live actors and puppets known as Muppets, is the longest running and most beloved children’s TV show.

Blue’s Clues

Blue's Clues

Blue’s Clues was created By Nickelodeon during the 1990s and features a single live actor, Steve, who guides the audience of preschoolers to solve mysteries involving Blue, a blue cartoon dog with spots and floppy ears.

Teletubbies

Teletubbies

Teletubbies is a British production aimed at the youngest of television watchers. The show features four imaginary creatures named Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po.  They live in a dome shaped house on a lush grassland they share with live bunnies, silk flowers, underground periscopes, and a baby sun that giggles and gurgles. Controversies like Tinky Winky’s sexual orientation and toddler TV watching aside, it is one of the most revolutionary and successful shows for children.

In addition to interesting and creative content, these shows share a few fundamental “sticky” tricks:

1. Know Your Audience

The 1960s and 1970s was when people started studying children’s psychology seriously. Psychologists working with Sesame Street believed that preschoolers have a very short attention span, thus the show was created in “magazine style”, where each segment is short and bursty. Through pilot testing, the creators furthered realized that children have no problem mixing fantasy with reality. In fact, the children were often bored with the segments that only had live actors. To battle the boredom, the creators added Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to bridge the chasm between Muppets and humans.

Blue’s Clues learned from the success of Sesame Street and took it one step further. Sesame Street is a one hour magazine-style show parents could watch with their preschoolers. Blue’s Clues, on the other hand, is a half hour show made exclusively for preschoolers. The producers understand that children’s attention span could be sustained if they are appropriately challenged and rewarded. The content of the show is void of clever adult jokes and instead aimed that helping children solve problems through literalness. Not a great show for mommy or daddy, but the children are nearly under-spell as Steve guides them through solving mysteries such as “what’s Blue’s favorite animal?”

If Blue’s Clues was made exclusively for preschoolers, Teletubbies was made exclusively for toddlers. The world of Teletubbies is so fantastical that most adults would find it bizarre and difficult to comprehend. To a toddler, the entire world is novel, so it makes no difference to them whether the TV show showcased real people or brightly colored creatures in a fantasy land. The producers understand that babies like looking at other babies, so the show has a baby sun that giggles when something exciting is about to happen. Furthermore, all of the Teletubbies do baby things (ex. twirling), explore the world the baby way (ex. splash on water puddles), and talk babytalk (ex. eh-oh” for “hello”). The show shocked parents at first and almost all derided the babytalk, but after a while, parents started to turn around. “I must admit that I originally found the tubbies quite ugly. But, due to my son’s fondness towards them, I grew to like the tubbies,” says a mom on an internet discussion board.

2. Use Repetition To Promote Learning

Gladwell cited a segment from Sesame Street known as the James Earl Jones alphabet recitation. The kids started by repeating each letter after Jones, then they would respond to the letter before Jones recited it, and finally, the kids were able to anticipate the sequence and shouted out the next letter even before it appeared it on screen. The James Earl Jones recitation did not change, but the children’s responses did. Repetition is a very effective sticky trick if the audience can derive something different (like a feeling of satisfaction or reward) each time.

Blue’s Clues again took repetition to another level by showing the same episode Monday through Friday. This repetition helped the children digest the progression of the mysteries, often lengthy and complex. After enough repetition, they were able to anticipate the host Steve’s questions even before he asked them. Gladwell explained that this “gave children a real sense of affirmation and self-worth…They feel like they’re helping Steve out.”

Repetition is, not surprisingly, also a hallmark of the Teletubbies show. The show always begins with the same rhyme and ends with another rhyme. About midway through each episode, a short film is shown to the audience through the selected Teletubby’s tummy. The scene depicted in these short films are often complex and advanced like the mysteries from Blue’s Clues. Examples of clips: a group of young children blowing bubbles or a little girl taking care of her pony with her mother. The Teletubbies would scream “Again! Again!” and the short film would repeat. Not only do children feel excited screaming “Again! Again!” with the Teletubbies, the rerun helps them digest the advanced content.

Laa Laa receiving signal for the short film

3. Pay Attention to Structure and Format of Content

Sesame Street is the longest running children’s TV show and Big Bird has become a household name. Blue’s Clues became the highest rated children’s TV show, overtaking Sesame Street, and received nine Emmy awards. Teletubbies won BBC BAFTA awards and has a best selling single that reigned in the Top 75 for 32 weeks after its release, selling over a million copies. None of these sticky successes were coincidental or even the automatic result of great content. The creators took care to maximize the stickiness through tweaks in structure and format of the content.

As explained previously, much of Sesame Street’s stickiness could be attributed to the addition of two characters – Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Instead of scrapping the real world part, occasionally blurring the boundary between fantasy and the real world was all that was needed to maintain the children’s attention.

The writers of Blue’s clues understood that the order of the clues were of the utmost importance. It was crucial to keep the children in “the flow” so that they’re neither too bored or too stumped. For example, the mysteries always opened with an easy clue, so the children can amass the confidence to keep going.

In the case of the Teletubbies, the underground periscope comes out to make important announcements, such as transitions, to give the show structure. Like the narrator, the periscope speaks rhythmically and clearly in adult voices, so even the youngest of children can understand what is happening.

The Craft of Stickiness and Games

Games that profit through micro-transactions depend on the stickiness of their games to keep users playing (and transacting). The aforementioned stickiness tricks from children’s TV shows often work for games, too.

Farmville, by Zynga

Restaurant City, by PlayFish

“Facebook is designed for everyone,” said a Facebook designer once. If the platform is for everyone, how does it Facebook game designer get to know its users? The answer for Zynga, the largest Facebook game maker, is empirically. Mark Pincus of Zynga’s Customer Development, describes the process as “ghetto testing”,

We put it in a feature we can build in a week…We built a data warehouse with a testing platform so we’re running several hundred tests at any given time for every one of our games.  And no single user has more than one test. So, one example, we just turned on flowers in Farmville.

The method of ghetto testing may sound strange, but it’s not that different from the pilot studies the TV shows do. It’s a lot more difficult to study “everybody” (can you even get your hands on a psychologist who is the authority in “everybody”?), so the best way is to probe the audience nonstop until you know enough about them. If the players like something, you keep it. If they don’t, you change it. It’s as simple as that.

Repetition seems like a strategy that only works for children. In fact, Gladwell mentions that older children prefer novelty over repetition. In actuality, games like Farmville(by Zynga) and Restaurant City (by PlayFish) make exhaustive use of repetition. The players are trying to master the skills of a farmer and restauranteur in these games, so repetition is essential. Imagine if players were always asked to new things; the game would become incomprehensible! The farmer must keep planting and harvesting crops and the restauranteur must keep serving customers. It’s perhaps more correct to say that instead of just repetition, novelty is also essential since the players are rarely preschoolers. The novelty comes in the form of rewards, new items and new skills as players advance in level. One of the most effective “sticky” features Zynga ever implemented for Farmville was the addition of achievements (08/2009) – the broadcasting of ribbons earned in the player’s newsfeed. Players, just like preschoolers, feel affirmed when they master a skill and feel even better when their friends know about it.

The structure and format of game content is important, too. Restaurant City makes it really easy for a brand new player to advance to the second level, similar to how Steve’s first clue is always easy. Then it gets harder but also more interesting. This strategy keeps players in the flow. Another interesting features for these social games is the ability for players to visit their friends and “snoop” on their friends’ progress. Visiting a friend’s more advanced farm gives you a sneak peak into the “future” game content like new items and new privileges. If you like that future, you will keep coming back to play the game.

Conclusion

Humans may get older, but the fundamentals of human psychology doesn’t change that much. Game designers can learn a lot from children’s TV shows when it comes to the stickiness factor. After all, children will never pretend to be interested in something they’re not; their brutal honesty will help designers hone in their craft of stickiness.

________________________________________

Sources

Gladwell, Malcom, The Tipping Point, Back Bay Books, 2000

von Coelln, Eric, How Big Social Games Maintain Their Sticky Factors, http://www.insidesocialgames.com/2009/11/04/how-big-social-games-maintain-their-sticky-factors/, retrieved March 30, 2010

Gratt, Matt, How Zynga Uses Minimum Viable Products, http://grattisfaction.com/2010/01/how-zynga-does-customer-development-minimum-viable-product/, retrieved March 31, 2010

Bedford, Karen Everhart, Eh-oh!, http://www.current.org/ch/ch803t.html, retrieved March 30, 2010

maceyr, A good infant’s show, http://www0.epinions.com/review/kifm-Network-PBS-Teletubbies/kifm-review-C65-38E371B-39340B25-prod5, retrieved March 30, 2010

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