The Rubber Band Effect

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When AI researchers Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin tried to explain generative AI to journalists in early 2022 —when just a few hundred researchers and early adopters were toying with the new tech and long before it became mainstream— journalists would nod along while being shown how a prompt would generate a never-before-seen image. “Oh yeah, cool stuff. Images are being generated. That’s exciting!” And then, right after the demonstration, they would ask which image database that picture had been pulled from. They just couldn’t fathom that this was not a pre-existing image.

Their minds had snapped back to what they knew, even in the face of something spectacularly novel.

Or maybe it’s BECAUSE they were looking at something spectacularly novel. Raskin and Harris call this the Rubber Band Effect. At some point, our cognitive capacity to understand something entirely dissimilar to what we already know just implodes, and we return to the safe defaults.

Entrepreneurs face the same issue.

When you build something significantly different from someone’s lived experience, their capacity to truly understand how the thing works is surprisingly limited. They push the boundaries of their minds while you show them, and they might nod along, but they snap right back to where they were just a short time later.

Experience this article as a podcast, a YouTube show, or as a newsletter:

The moment your product becomes “different enough,” people will have a hard time projecting its usefulness onto their own lives.

And for a business owner, this means a lost customer—a customer who didn’t even try because they couldn’t find themselves in the future you envisioned.

So, how can you try to encourage them to use your product anyway?

Instead of focusing on the magical internal workings of your product, focus on the results. Show just how impactful your product can be. When John ‘Plini’ Eremic served his first customers in his business EndCrawl, he didn’t hype up the fact that his movie end credits rendering product was particularly well-coded (it wasn’t, there was only a massive Perl script running on top of a spreadsheet.) But he sold the magical consequence: instead of waiting for days to get a rendered cinematic video, it would now be done in hours. For much cheaper. John sold the results, and many AI-focused businesses of today have found this to work for them as well: they sell the speed and variety of content they produce, not the complexity of the technology that makes it happen.

And these businesses have understood something else that’s critically important: their products fit into the existing workflows of their customers. Plini’s cinematic end credits don’t come in some unique video format. These titles are delivered in industry standard sizes, ready to be thrown right into the rough cut for further processing. EndCrawl looks at the inputs, too: they provide a SaaS to input all kinds of names and job titles, and they offer a spreadsheet-based end credits template, too. They make it easy to get your data in and your movie out.

That’s what the product-workflow fit is trying to accomplish. Ideally, your customers don’t even want to risk pulling apart their mental rubber bands. They want a service rendered, a result for a specific set of inputs.

And they likely don’t operate in a vacuum: they have colleagues, peers, competitors, and a whole host of professionals in the industry they work in. Leverage that. Find people who are more adventurous —the early adopters and innovators— and use their interest in finding new and exciting things to eventually cross the chasm to your regular customers. When you listen to the people “who get it,” use their words to describe your product to those who still have snapping rubber bands. Figure out the jargon that makes sense to people in your field and deploy it in your marketing and sales pipeline. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or rather, talk to them in Latin. Or Italian, depending on just how modern your product is.

So, if you see your own prospects snapping back from your lengthy excursion about why your product is so revolutionary, refocus your positioning. Don’t go for novel; go for efficient. Show how much you care about making sure their workflow isn’t interrupted. Signal that you know exactly what job needs to be done and that your product —however magical it is— will do that and just that.

While I’m all for stretching that rubber band a little —in ourselves and in the lives of our customers who deserve better tools to do their jobs— let’s not forget that what we want is not the hammer, the nail, or even the picture on the wall: we want to feel good looking at our loved ones.

Make it easy for people to understand how your product gets them to where they want to be, and they won’t have to stretch their imaginations.

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