The TikTok Vortex - Part I Acquisition

Science and Psychology in Product Design

I got lost in a writing vortex and the length of the post got a little out of hand. 😬
I’ve split it across three editions.
Find Part II here and Part III here.


TikTok is a black hole.

It sucks you in and captures you in a whirlwind of content. If you manage to escape, it expands the dimension of time from minutes to hours.

I resisted the TikTok trend for months before I downloaded the app. I spent countless hours watching dance, volleyball and cute animal videos and deleted and re-downloaded the app for a third time this week.

Reflecting on why that’s the case made me realise that science and behavioural psychology is working against me at every step. We can learn some state-of-the-art lessons about product design.

Let me break down the vortex of
Acquisition >> Algorithm Feeding >> Shareability
which feeds back into Acquisition.

Part I - Acquisition

Do you remember the first time you got onto TikTok?

Chances are a friend posted or sent you a hilarious TikTok video she even created.

Well, it’s a 15-second video. Of course, you watched it.

Ha - that was a hysterical.
You’re about to reply to your friend, but wait - the next video started playing.

A cute, fat puppy is stumbling over its feet and chasing its own tail. Captivated by the chase, it's about to take a courageous leap catapulting itself off a ledge… pause.

Do you want to watch the final five seconds?
NO, you need to get back to work.

You reply to your friend - haha, that was hilarious.
You put your phone away and start working again…

Is the puppy going to fall? Will it bite its own tail?

Three seconds later you’re back on your phone downloading TikTok to watch the ending.

There are two genius concepts at play here.

1. Magic Moment - Micro-Laugh//Micro-Love

Every good software has a magic moment. It’s the user’s ‘aha - this is epic’ moment. It’s the moment the user understands what value and joy your product brings to their life. 

For Canva, there are many great moments throughout the creative journey. The simplicity of drag/dropping pictures, editing, rotating, colouring and cropping. Any of these stages provide value. But it’s not until the moment you finish your design and you hit “share” that you unlock the world of possibilities. A final, beautiful design you are about to share with the world.

That is a joyous experience - the magic moment!

That’s the moment you want to optimise for. It is the one product metric you should obsess about.

The genius of TikTok is that every 15-second video is a magical moment. 15 seconds to evoke a deep emotion - Micro-Love or in most cases a Micro-Laugh.

Even if you watch one video you have a complete and beautiful end-to-end product experience.

Founder Jingle: What is your product’s magical moment?

PS: The even more important magical moment is when a user creates their own content. More about under “Shareability”.

2. Memory Wedge - Zeigernik/Ovsiankina Effect

When you watch half a commercial you remember it better than when you watch the full one. 🤯

In 1927 a Russian scientist noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders. After the completion of the task – after everyone had paid – he was unable to remember any more details of the orders. Along the same vein, scientists observed that an interrupted task creates an intrusive thought (a "quasi-need") aimed at taking up the task again.

Your brain wants closure. It wants to know how the video ends and for you to finish the task.

Have you ever received a TikTok video from a friend?
Sidenote: the following is my favourite growth hack I’ve ever come across.

It’s a moment of joy. You don’t even need to download TikTok. You click play and it gives you the full experience. You laugh… and it automatically plays the next video. Oh - interesting, that’s also a great video. It stops just before it gets funny.

This is when your behavioural psychology works against you:

  1. You interrupted a task - will you give in to the compulsion for completion?

  2. You watched half a video - what will happen? You recall the video better because you didn’t see the full one and your brain didn’t get closure.

Either way - I guarantee it - you go back to the video and to watch the rest you have to download TikTok.

Welcome to the black hole.

Good luck, my friend.


Find Part II here and Part III here.