UX Virality Week: 4 of 7

In real life, like in nature, if your virus can’t adapt to its environment it will not survive as long. You can design that characteristic into your creations so it will change as it spreads. So today we will learn about:

Designing Adaptability


(Missed the first three lessons? Start here.)

In nature, a virus will mutate and adapt as it encounters resistance. The strong versions of it spread more while the weaker versions spread less.

The same is true of digital viral things. But how can you make them adapt?

Many people will tell you that being able to personalize your product or features is a good thing, even if those same people usually can’t tell you why.

Personalization does work when it is done properly, but there are other, more subtle ways to achieve adaptability, so each person has a reason to share your product or content, as if they were the first user.


Let them customize.

Real viruses often use your existing biology as a “host” for their greater purpose.

As a designer, it is better to work with the user’s quirks than against them.

The most straight-forward version of this idea is to design features that let each person customize the experience to their own needs. 

The downside of customization is that only power users do it in real life, and it takes extra work, so you have to make it meaningful and valuable. 

Stardoll (where I worked, once upon a time) is a game community for young girls. The main part of registration is to create a doll; your avatar. i.e. — it represents you. So, of course, everybody makes it look like an ideal version of themselves.

And you’re not just going to hide that perfect version of yourself in a closet, are you? No! You’re going to show it off and invite your friends to do the same.

And before you say that example doesn’t apply to you, you should know that the highest-paying customers of all time on Stardoll are adults. And I don’t mean 20-year-olds.


Create a template for DIY simplicity.

Real viruses are made of DNA, so they have a built-in ability to replicate and mutate as they spread. You need to design the same quality into your work to make it super-viral.

The Harlem Shake exploded onto YouTube last year, and everybody wanted to be a part of it.

Actually it spread because everybody wanted to be a part of it.

What you may not have realized is that “doing your own” Harlem Shake video only means something if everyone understands what it means to “do” a Harlem Shake video.

In that case, there was a template or “rules” that were easy to copy:

One person starts out dancing weird, in a place full of still people dressed up as crazy as possible. Half way through, the music shifts and everybody freaks out. Then, in the final seconds there is a brief moment of slow motion.

Copy, paste, post, and voilá: A meme was born.


Open source it. 

The idea of “open source” is essentially giving away the code or the resources to build something again. It is a way to “give away” a piece of talent, but it is also a way to let people continue a project in a direction that wasn’t originally planned.

This could be anything from a complex program to a tool that helps you copy memes — just add text!

Ultimately, the reason open source makes sense in business, is that the original creator often becomes the center of the conversation, if not the provider of the service. You will have hundreds, thousands, or millions of people adding value to the original creation.

More value, more users. More users, more value.

That’s a viral structure. 


Make it easy to parody.

Imagine yourself doing a “funny version” of your product, or campaign, or trying to list the things that make it recognizable. Is it easy or hard?

Steve Jobs used to wear the same clothing for every presentation, because it made him a character of sorts. The black turtle neck, jeans and glasses were his look. A kid could go out as Steve Jobs for Halloween pretty easily.

The Harlem Shake was the same. Buzzfeed quizzes are the same. Gangnam Style is the same. Pharrel’s “Happy” video was the same, and Weird Al DID do a parody of it.


By designing features or characteristics like these, you allow each user to have a personal reason to share, or to re-create your virus in their own image.


Tomorrow we will learn why some things with viral characteristics spread like the plague, and some just seem boring: Viral Emotion.