What animal emotions can tell us about customer experience design

by marycw on February 14, 2009

book cover

Temple Grandin, in her new book Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals talks about the “core emotion systems in the brain” and that humans and animals have the same core systems.  Her discussion of the SEEKING core emotion system got me thinking about customer experience design.

The SEEKING system (always written in caps) is “the basic impulse to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment” (Grandin quoting Dr Jaak Panksepp, a famous researcher in this area).

Grandin continues:

  • SEEKING is a combination of emotions that people don’t usually believe go together…wanting something really good, looking forward to getting something really good, and curiosity….”

Grandin points out that SEEKING is a very enjoyable and necessary emotion in animals.  Animals whose brains are wired up will push buttons to stimulate their SEEKING brain area.  Animals who can’t express SEEKING behavior (for example, captive animals in badly designed environments) get depressed and mentally damaged.

So what does SEEKING mean for businesses and customer experience design?

First let’s look more closely at SEEKING — there are nuances that are important to understand.

The key elements of SEEKING are:

Satisfying curiosity. This is the investigation of new things.  People and animals are programmed to be pay extra attention to new things and investigate them.  This investigation is emotionally stimulating because there’s the risk that the new thing could be Bad, or the potential that it could be Good.  So part of the stimulation and enjoyment of this part of SEEKING, is the sense of danger and risk, but also the feeling of potential good new rewards.

Learning and performing actions that lead to rewards. Grandin talks about how animals actually enjoy training  — learning tricks and special behaviors — when the training method is properly aligned to SEEKING.  People and animals both very much enjoy interacting effectively with their environment to get good things for themselves.

So there’s two sides to learning and performing:

  • being faced with new challenges and new learning opportunities,
  • continuing to demonstrate previously learned behaviors and getting the rewards for that.

Grandin talks about the key to training an animal for a new behavior is to give a reward for the smallest initial action in the right direction of the behavior — once the animal starts beginning to do the right movement, you reward, and keep rewarding as they keep going.  So the learning animal gets a positive “blip” the instant they start doing the new behavior, and then more, and then more — that’s how the animal knows that they’re on the right track.

After the animal has successfully learned the behavior, the trainer can back off and only give the reward at the end, and the animal will happily do the whole behavior, in anticipation of the eventual reward.  In fact, the trainer doesn’t always have to give a reward every single time, after the behavior is learned.  The animal may be disappointed that one time but will continue to do the behavior, as long as they get a reward most of the time.

Getting rewards. Rewards are the final prize that motivates the SEEKING system — but it’s not just about getting the reward. Doing the action, making the effort, is essential.

Studies of two animals — a learning animal and an observer animal, both of whom got treats when the learner performed successfully — show that the learner animal is excited and engaged, but the observer animal is more blase.    Our genetics have evolved to make sure that we enjoy the action of SEEKING — not just the final reward.

We know this — people talk about how “it’s the journey, not the destination” and the “effort is what makes the prize worthwhile.”

It’s important that rewards be available but not too available.  Frustration is part of SEEKING. When an animal wants something but can’t have it right away, they get frustrated — just like a person.  Frustration is part of the “wanting-anticipating” energy in SEEKING that drives action and learning.

The secret is to have enough frustration to stimulate the action, learning and problem-solving — but not too much frustration, or the animal/person will get overwhelmed and shut down.  Good animal trainers become experts at noticing when a particular animal is getting overwhelmed, and they immediately change to a previously learned behavior so the animal can feel engaged and successful again.

If you buy into this SEEKING idea — there’s lots of implications for business.   I’ll be speculating about some of these in future blog posts.

Bottom line:  SEEKING is often a neglected part of many companies’ thinking about customer experience.   We talk about “customer satisfaction” and “delighting the customer” and “retaining the customer” and “brand loyalty.”     We tend to think of these as being about the customer having “the really good thing”  — i.e. the customer buying, owning, using and promoting our product.

But the customer’s SEEKING system isn’t just about “having” the reward (the product).    Customers SEEKING are investigating new things, learning and demonstrating skills, and getting some rewards from all that, along the way.   It’s not about the one big reward at the end.   It’s about a whole set of behaviors along the way, and a bunch of little rewards and promises and stimuli along the way.  Some businesses are very good at this, and design this into their product and customer experience. Again I’ll be looking at some of these companies in later posts, in terms of what they can teach the rest of us.


Steven Devijver 02.15.09 at 11:04 am

Hey Mary,

Great review! This reminds me of 'The objective of education is learning, not teaching.'

Thanks for sharing.

marycw 02.15.09 at 6:19 pm

Thanks Steven. I've enjoyed reading your blogs and your tweets.

And I agree with you about education. As industries and institutions age, they develop geological layers of sediment that can lock them into old ways of doing things…it becomes more about protecting the existing interest groups than evolving and moving forward. That's certainly a big problem with much of the US education system.

peter spear 02.18.09 at 7:04 pm


very happy to have found your blog and i especially enjoy this post because it animates the real need for empathy and attentiveness to the experience of the consumer/customer. i try to frame my thinking around notions of helpfulness for this reason. successful marketplace propositions are those that are helpful to those they are able to serve.

looking forward to keepin up with your thoughts.

marycw 02.18.09 at 7:19 pm

Hi Peter — thanks for reading and commenting. Completely agree with your point about the importance of empathy and attentiveness for staying in sync with the customer's experience.

Combine that with all the new Web 2.0 tools that allow for much more 1:1 interaction and grassroots organizing (a la Clay Shirky's observations) — and you get a very different power dynamic from the one that many of the traditional sales and marketing techniques were based on.

Helen_Driscoll 02.24.09 at 11:32 pm

One factor that has been left out — is the idea, picture, smell, whatever it is that drives the seeker. The primary mover of the seeker human. (We have lots of dogs, and they usually get a scent of something, then go looking for it. Our customers are primarily seeker types. I discovered early on, they came to us with a picture or sensory combination, in their mind, and my job was to anticipate what those pictures/combination of senses, will be, and design products for them. I remember one customer saying to me "I knew something better had to be out there." (She was an astronomer, so I guess "seeker" describes her well !) I'm a seeker type too, and I don't like the finding to be too easy.

Mary Walker 02.24.09 at 8:36 pm

I completely agree. Most of the enjoyment is in the seeking, not in enjoying the final prize. It's no fun when you find what you're looking for too quickly or too easily.

As you mention — you can observe this in animals. Dogs chase things because the chasing is fun for them. As the saying goes, if a dog actually caught a car, the dog wouldn't know what to do with it.

Ditto cats — one reason cats play with their prey is to make the hunting/seeking part last longer. Unless a cat is super hungry, it won't necessarily rush to kill. It's not as much fun when the prey dies too fast.

Fortunately humans have invented ways to fulfill our seeking drive without having to kill things (and we've even invented ways for us to redirect our dogs' and cats' seeking drive — into training, tricks, toys, etc.).

shimaa 09.30.15 at 2:52 am

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