From WunWun to Postmates, Can You Order Happiness On Demand?


DVRs, video-on-demand services, prostitutes, infomercials and fast food companies -- what do these things have in common?

They have mastered the art and science of manifesting desire and delivering what people want, when they want it. From massages by Zeel, to beer from Drizly, to a sweet ride to anywhere you want with Uber, companies are building on this on-demand trend, delivering whatever, whenever to wherever. WunWun, Postmates, eBay Now and Amazon Fresh are all-in, offering anything, period.

I just might be their top customer. Some on-demand delivery moments I've been delighted with recently:

  • Holiday gifts, including wrapping paper, ribbon, cards and even festive decor
  • Groceries, a dozen champagne glasses, and a great electric tea kettle for a fancy last-minute brunch
  • Three black dresses from Banana Republic delivered to my hotel room in San Francisco when I needed something to wear to a cocktail party

Done, done and done -- in just a few clicks on my phone. I think I'm addicted, actually. These delivery app companies and on-demand services are quickly adopting business models that build upon these types of strong user habits. You're enticed into believing that you need that thing right now. Suddenly, cost becomes a minor concern when immediacy and accessibility reign. Our user habits shift, flirting closely with attributes related to addiction.

Before apps like WunWun or Postmates, Nir Eyal presented the desire engine, referencing how dopamine surges in the body affect our habits, to explain how companies manufacture desire and encourage habit formation. The desire engine has four components: trigger, action, variable reward and commitment.

The trigger is the actuator of a behavior -- the spark plug in the engine. Triggers come in two types: external and internal. Habit-forming technologies start by alerting users with external triggers like an email, a link on a web site, or the app icon on a phone. By cycling continuously through successive desire engines, users begin to form internal triggers, which become attached to existing behaviors and emotions. Soon users are internally triggered every time they feel a certain way. The internal trigger becomes part of their routine behavior and the habit is formed.

Say Mom is coming for an impromptu visit. The apartment is a mess, and we're down to clementines and wilted asparagus. I see the Postmates app icon, an external trigger, on my phone and immediately feel relief (a cultivated internal trigger given my positive experiences with Postmates) as I imagine my concerns being solved. Postmates can deliver takeout, pick up dessert, and even grab fresh flowers for mom while I tidy the apartment. Done and done! Imagining and realizing these variable rewards create anticipation and excitement, causing a surge in my body's dopamine level. Yes, I'm willing to engage in a commitment with Postmates again and again, giving them my money and insights into my habits with each order.

Fulfilling Desires Does Not Equal Happiness
Before I move on I have to mention that these service and delivery apps could use some design improvements. Let's pick on WunWun for a moment. Forget the silly issues like the name, using poor contrast colors and fonts, using the word "Other" to label a main menu item, the lack of an order save option (especially when they are too busy to handle it), or the hidden pricing for "surge" situations. My main problem is that the app's flow is in the wrong order.

WunWun wants to know where to go before I can type in what I want. I just want to tell them what I want and let them figure it out. I don't want to think about it. Seamless does the same thing. You pick a restaurant before you indicate a menu item. What I want is awesome pad thai in 30 minutes; and even better, the Pad Thai that Caroline (our office foodie extraordinaire) raves about. So, what's the right order?

  1. What would you like? (give me the ability to pull up past orders)
  2. When do you want it? (with clear cost repercussions)
  3. Preferences (the ability to store/select favs like brands, locations, or friends' favs with upcharge details)
  4. Go (let me track you, ask questions, and see status; stop inundating me with unnecessary texts and phone calls)
  5. Answer (query price, color, brand, etc. while the purchase is happening)

Side Effects, This App May Cause...
Yet, as much as I wish this mattered in terms of overall usage and adoption, it doesn't. I still use these apps -- all the time. There's nothing that I can't have, and this comes with consequences. I've changed -- I don't like sharing anymore. I was stumped trying to teach my 4-year-old the importance of sharing. He's witnessed the on-demand experience and now expects that if he can get whatever he wants, his friends can too! There's no reason to share.

Secondly, these on-demand experiences are impacting my behavior, sentiment and mindset. The shortcuts I'm taking are taking something from me -- the time and ability to unwind, relax. For example, I either send our laundry out or have someone come do it (I know, ridiculous). I justify this habit by stating there's no time since I'm an entrepreneur managing two businesses and a mom of two young children. Emotionally, with some contemplation, I'll admit I miss the soothing smell of clean laundry, the tactile, repetitive and meditative task of folding clothes, and the sense of accomplishment. Doing laundry made me feel like I was taking care of my family, but my reliance on on-demand laundry services has caused this nurturing element to fade away and me to add more not less things to my day.

Is Happiness Available On Demand?
At first I thought I was so smart when I stayed inside all warm and cozy during one of this winter's many snowstorms and had WunWun helpers bring me my groceries. Today I think it might be me who's not so smart since I'm the person who pays $15 to get something right now rather than taking care of it myself.

Fulfilling desires and being happy are different. Often, we mistake happiness as a state that we achieve by focusing on accumulating wealth, status and power. It's hard not to strive for that perfect life predefined by society (or ourselves) that seems rooted in the need to consume as much as possible. Yet, happiness is a state of being, untethered from material things.

I get it -- a major goal of these tools is to move goods to people in dense cities more efficiently. Still, I wonder if these tools are helping or hurting people's ability to be happy. Are we happier than someone who lives in a town where these conveniences don't exist? Maybe we are happy, but are we lazier, more impatient? Maybe we are setting ourselves up to be frustrated and unhappy by duping ourselves into thinking that everything in life can be delivered, or even solved, on demand.