UX Virality Week: 1 of 7

Every day this week we are going to learn something about the ingredients that make one design more viral than another. But what do we mean by “viral”? Well, that’s actually the first lesson:

The Difference Between Virality and Popularity

(To see all 7 topics in this series, start here.)


You don’t have to be online very long before you hear or read people talking about something “going viral”.

What they usually mean is that it became very popular, very quickly. 

If you’re around startups, everybody thinks their shit is going to be “viral” even when there is no reason to believe that.

The reason: most people don’t actually understand what “viral” means, and it does not mean “popular”.

Something can be popular without being viral, like [insert celebrity sex tape scandal here] or [insert latest trendy mobile time-waster game here] or Reddit.

It might just be good. 

And something can be viral without getting a billion views on YouTube or being an overnight success, like Pinterest, or email, or Quora.

Virality often starts slow, but its momentum can become much more powerful.

(If you’re an investor, I would humbly suggest that you use this week’s lessons as a checklist every time someone pitches you a “viral” business. If it is missing more than a couple of these ingredients, the odds are against them.)

I have probably already broken your head a little, so let’s look at where the word “viral” comes from, and it will make a little more sense.


virus is a real thing. I am not talking about a computer virus — which is a program, and often is "viral" — I am talking about the medical thing. The organisms that invade your body and make you sick.

A living, multiplying, contagious, adapting, virus.

There are people that study real viruses, and they know that some viruses are more effective than others, in nature. They can predict how fast a virus will spread, or how dangerous it will be, based on its “design”. 

Some will spread through a population of people in days. Some spread slowly over a generation.

Sometimes nobody dies. Sometimes lots of people die.

Sometimes a virus infects almost everyone. Sometimes only a handful of people are effected.

So what’s the difference?


Virality is built on certain characteristics of the virus itself. Or in our case, the product, content, or idea that we create as designers, marketers, or developers.

Viral things also spread in a somewhat predictable way when you analyze the data — especially on social networks — although it feels unpredictable and crazy while it’s really happening.

Being viral — regardless of popularity — means your design has viral characteristics; viral structure. Or, it means you’re distributing it through something with viral structure, like Twitter.

Being popular just means a lot of people like it.


Over the next six days we will look at several of these viral characteristics, and how you can design them into your work to increase the chance that your creation will spread like Ebola. Hopefully with nicer symptoms. 

Tomorrow we will learn why your designs should have a short Viral Cycle.