Last week, I proposed the idea that each of us is walking around with a model of the world inside our heads. Every experience we have, every object we see, and every event we witness help build and refine this model, giving us the ability to predict future behavior and make decisions based on past knowledge. It's a great theory when you think about software development - building an "intelligent" script becomes a matter of giving it the ability to learn from past events and make corrections.
But you can also use this model in marketing ... perhaps even more effectively.
Some time ago, I mentioned a book by Neale Martin called Habit. It's a remarkable book that explains the difference between your habitual and executive minds - the part of your brain that learns and enacts ritual and the part that makes conscious decisions. When you think about it, we spend most of our days using our habitual minds. You don't actually think about drinking your morning coffee. Your car drives itself to work. And your computer boots itself and automatically enters your email password (OK, for some of you the third statement might be true, but you get the point).
Pair Martin's theory of the habitual and executive minds with my theory on environmental modelling, and you have a basic foundation for behavior prediction. An individual with a well-refined model of their environment needs not turn on their executive mind - just about every action they take can be governed by habit. It's when they come across a new situation or a less well-defined object in their surroundings that the executive mind turns on to analyze things, make a decision, and use the results of that decision to refine their model.
If you've ever designed a new product, you understand immediately the repercussions of this idea. It means that your widget, if it behaves similarly to any other widget on the market, will perform better after an initial launch if it follows the same rules as its predecessor. Don't move the power button to a different location. If accessing "system settings" was a 2-step process before, don't bury it.
Don't force people to change their mental model of the universe in order to use your new product, and they'll be more likely to try it. A few weeks ago, my friend spontaneously started laughing at me on our way to a meeting. He was driving, as usual, and just stopped to laugh at how oblivious I was. Apparently, he'd bought a new car. New year, new model, and, when I stopped to think about it, it was very different. But everything I needed to use was where I expected it to be. The door handle was in the same place. The locks in the same spot. The seats felt the same. The stereo functioned almost exactly alike. I was falling back on my mental model of his old car and letting my habitual mind navigate.
You want your customers to feel the same way when experiencing your product. The only features that should stand out should be the ones that make your product superior to your competition's. If you both do X, don't make X feel any different to the user so they can rely on their existing mental model. If you do Y whereas your competition doesn't, emphasize that fact so that your customer refines their mental model to expect Y when they use similar products. Then, not only can you leverage an existing model created by a competitor's product, but your customer will experience a subtle pain point when trying to switch back to the inferior one - they have to refine their model and consciously give up Y to do so.