On the “near miss” versus the “home run” in digital product design

In the design of digital products we talk about the concept of the “near-miss” as a means to make experiences more addictive.

When I visit my home town, I take my father to the casino. And each time we go, he loses all his money. The machines prey on his feeling of “I can do it” with near-misses galore as he empties out his wallet.

As for the WHY of his desire to win, it’s because since he retired from the tofu store twenty years ago he lost all of his ability to earn. He didn’t know better to save a nest egg for retirement, and he had no assets in his small business that could be made liquid at the time he retired, so he accidentally fell dependent on his children. And it bugs the heck out of him that he is no longer empowered to be the bread winner that he once was.


A post shared by John Maeda (@johnmaeda) on

So for all the near-misses my dad’s experienced at casinos that I have taken him to, it was fun to watch his bewildered shock when he won $150 on a dollar slot machine yesterday. Note that I am not advocating for gambling or anything — as he has lost a lot more than that in his casino goings. And just read “Addicted by Design” to go deeper into how the gambling industry has perfected the art of addiction — which the tech industry seems to revel in borrowing from its precepts.

But in any case, this winning moment with my 83-year old dad felt like the mythical, “promised reward” for him after so many near-misses. After he got his jackpot, I suggested that he stop gambling so that he gets to keep all his winnings. Luckily he did so.

It made me think that digital products should be creating *these* moments instead of just a bunch of near-misses that suck you of all your time (= money). Immediately afterwards, and to distract my dad from wanting to gamble more, we ate at the $15 buffet in the casino. And although he is a man of v few words (he didn’t go to high school and left home to work when he was 15 — which was common at the time) I could tell he was so happy he couldn’t contain himself.

It was almost as if the last ten years of “losing” had melted away — he kept recreating the moment as he excitedly talked, and said he knew how unlikely it was for him to win at the casino.

I gently explained to him that he had lost so many times in the past that the money he won didn’t really add up to all that he has lost over years. And I could see that he understood that (phew, fortunately!). This will be the last time I take him to the casino. And I’ll now just focus him on this one moment of winning — so he can remember and savor it. It’s a fine ending to my donations to the gambling industry (smile). For more content on my father, this is an old blog post I wrote about him.

Overall, this experience made me wonder how we can consciously design and engineer the “home run” moments versus the addictive, yet insincere, “near miss” moments that now stand at the foundations of a successful digital product.


A post shared by John Maeda (@johnmaeda) on

I other words, “How do we assure that customers for digital products are always hitting home runs?” like my dad here managed to do for once. —JM