Experiences with finite variability become less engaging because they eventually become predictable.
A practice followed by Breaking Bad, a show that once held the Guinness World record for the highest-rated TV series of all time.
In 2003 a television show, Breaking Bad, began receiving unprecedented critical and popular acclaim.
The show followed the life of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who transforms himself into a crystal meth-cooking drug lord.
As the body count on the show piled up season after season, so did its viewership.
The first episode of the final season in 2013 attracted 5.9 million viewers and by the end of the series, Guinness World Records dubbed it the highest-rated TV series of all time.
Although Breaking Bad owes a great deal of is success to its talented cast and crew, fundamentally the program utilized a simple formula to keep people tuning in.
At the heart of every episode–and also across each season’s narrative arc–is a problem the characters must resolve.
For example, during an episode in the first season Walter White must find a way to dispose of the bodies of two rival drug dealers. Challenges prevent the resolution of the conflict and suspense is created as the audience waits to find out how the storyline ends.
In this particular episode White discovers one of the drug dealers is still alive and is faced with the dilemma of having to kill someone he thought was already dead.
Invariably, each episode’s central conflict is resolved near the end of the show, at which time a new challenge arises to pique the viewer’s curiosity.
By design, the only way to know how Walter gets out of the mess he is in at the end of the latest episode is to watch the next episode.
The cycle of conflict, mystery, and resolution is as old as storytelling itself, and at the heart of every good tale is variability.
The unknown is fascinating, and strong stories hold our attention by waiting to reveal what happens next.
In a phenomenon termed experience-taking, researchers have shown that people who read a story about a character actually feel what the protagonist is feeling.
As we step into the character’s shoes we experience his or her motivations including the search for rewards of the tribe, the hunt, and the self.
We empathize with characters because they are driven by the same things that drive us.
Yet if the search to resolve uncertainty is such a powerful tool of engagement, why do we eventually lose interest in the things that once riveted us?
Many people have experienced the intense focus of being hooked on a TV series, a great book, a new video game, or even the latest gadget.
However, most of us lose interest in a few days’ or weeks’ time.
Why does the power of variable rewards seem to fade away?
While Breaking Bad built suspense over time as the audience wondered how the series would end, eventually interest in the show waned when it finally concluded.
The series enthralled viewers with each new episode, but now that it is all over, how many people who saw it once will watch it again?
With the plot lines known and the central mysteries revealed, the show just won’t seem as interesting the second time around.
Perhaps this series might resurrect interest with a new spin-off show in the future, but viewership for old episodes people have already seen will never peak as it did when they were new.
Impact of infinite variability on businesses
Businesses with finite variability are not inferior per see; they just operate under different constraints. They must constantly churn out new content and experiences to cater to their consumers’ insatiable desire for novelty.
It is no coincidence that both Hollywood and the video gaming industry operate under what is called the studio model, whereby a deep-pocketed company provides backing and distribution to a portfolio of movies or games, uncertain which one will become the next megahit.
This is in contrast with companies making products exhibiting infinite variability--experiences that maintain user interest by sustaining variability with use.
Hence, in your business too, Experiences with finite variability become less engaging because they eventually become predictable & customers may start losing interest in it.
Any other example of finite variability that you can think of? Let me know in the comments section.