Manipulation Matrix | A tool to assess habit forming products


stumbled upon the game 'Flappy bird' when I was in college, and like everyone else, I got hooked on the game. I still remember spending hours playing the game to better my score. Eventually, realizing how much time I am squandering, I uninstalled the app to get some peace. However, a few days later, I realized that Dong Nguyen had taken the game off all app stores. The game was minting him $1M+ daily, and he just turned it down with the click of a button.

Today, we will figure out what drives such decisions by entrepreneurs, and is there a framework we can use to assess products? But before we do that, let's explore a bit more about the game.

What made Flappy Bird addictive?

Dong was a lifetime gamer, and his passion for games took him to Nintendo. He realized that most studio games are complicated, heavy on graphics with a convoluted storyline and challenging gameplay. He wanted to create simple games. So simple that even people commuting in trains or buses can play it with one hand while holding the support bar.

It led to the birth of a simple game that could be played with just one hand, the Flappy Bird. However, it did not become an instant hit. The game got highlighted after some time due to something unusual. What made the game loveable also made it strikingly addictive. The game was simple to play, but still, people could not score well, leading to frustration among users—how can I not play something so simple, and then started the unending quest to score well, and users got hooked onto the game.

Why did Dong pull off the game?

There can be multiple personal reasons for his decision but let's look at it through the lens of Manipulation Matrix (MM), a behavior assessment framework designed by Nir Eyal.

Figure - Manipulation Matrix by Nir Eyal

The manipulation matrix is a tool for entrepreneurs to assess the value of their product to the consumer. It is based upon two questions that the entrepreneur needs to ask himself –

  1. Would I use this product myself?
  2. Will it improve the lives of users?

For Dong, the answer of Q1 would be NO, and the answer to Q2 was initially YES but later turned as NO when he realized the game had become ultra-addictive. According to the MM in the figure above, Dong turned out to be a 'Dealer,' the worst ethical place for any entrepreneur. So, he decided to pull the plug.

Dong did what he did because he was an independent creator, with no burden of expectations from anyone. For a company to replicate the same thing would have been very difficult. Remember PubG? When the game faced vehement outbursts for its addictive behavior, the game reminded users if they had played more than two hours in a day. With a barrage of habit-forming products in the market, ethical behavior design has become pertinent for product building, especially for habit-forming products, to save the users from themselves.