Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Sleeping Watchdogs

It’s fairly well-known that older generations (Silent and Boomer) are more easily influenced by advertising than younger generations (X and Millennial).  The various explanations for this phenomenon, such as media saturation, rang hollow – but a chance conversation with a few members of the Silent Generation led me to better understand their relationship with advertising.  They believe the watchdogs are still awake.

More explicitly, when asked why they believed the claims of an advertiser, the response was invariably that “they wouldn’t let them advertise it if it weren’t true.”
When asked who “they” are, these watchdogs that would prevent advertisers from making false claims, their answers were the media and consumer protection agencies.

Older generations believe that the media is selective in accepting advertising: that when an advertiser buys a magazine or television ad, the publication or network reviews the advertisement and validates that the claims will be delivered upon.  They also believe that consumer protection agencies are proactive in doing the same – that there is some mechanism by which claims are tested and only those which are true are allowed to be communicated to the general public.

Perhaps this was true in the golden days of their youth – I cannot speak to the past – but in the present day, the notion that the media, consumer protection agencies, or anyone stands between a deceptive advertiser and the general public seems incredibly na├»ve.  

The media are paid by their advertisers, and will run almost any advertisement that anyone is willing to pay them to run.   The one exception is that if an advertisement would be offensive to their audience (by whatever standard), the medium realizes that it would do them financial harm (by causing member of their audience, whose attention they wish to sell to other advertisers, to tune out).   I am unaware of any instances in which a television channel, radio station, magazine, billboard rental, or any other medium was ever held accountable for the content of the advertising it helped to promulgate.

Consumer protection agencies, even those backed with government authority, are not proactive.   They do not have the mechanism to be proactive (there is no required review of an advertisement before it is published), nor do they have an interest.   In the same way that the police can only respond after a crime has been committed, so must the protection agencies wait until deception has occurred and damage has been done before they have any basis to take action – and even then, they bear the burden of proof that there was deception, and that any damage was a direct result, both of which are very difficult propositions.

In all, it is more a matter of faith than fact: the older generations rest on the assumption that the watchdogs are awake and that any advertising message that reaches them can be believed – so they do believe it.   Meanwhile the younger generations are skeptical of advertising and have no such assumptions, nor are they likely to become more trusting and gullible as they age.

And understanding this premise, it makes better sense why advertising is less effective with younger generations in the marketplace, and unless the watchdogs wake, it is doubtful that advertising will ever regain its credibility.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Research for Innovation

While I am general a strong proponent of research-based approaches to innovation, I often see research being misused in a way that prevents research.   Either the wrong kind of research is conducted, or its results are used in the wrong way, and the result is that an innovation effort becomes an efficiency improvement: no significant changes are made, but the results are marginally improved.

This is because research, by its very nature, is focused on present practices and present results.    The researcher seeks to discover what people are doing right now (or more accurately, he seeks to discover what people have done in the recent past) and those who consume the research use it to propose methods by which existing customers can keep doing what they are already doing and new customers can simply imitate the behaviors of existing ones.   It’s more of the same, perhaps slightly different.

To be innovative, one must disregard what people are presently doing and define a new way to achieve the ultimate result toward which their behavior is intended.  That is, rather than considering the things that people are presently doing, an innovator must seek to discover why they are doing those things – what goal they are attempting to achieve by their actions.

It could well be (and often is) that people are doing the wrong things to achieve their goals, or at least things that are not as efficient or effective as they could be.     Even if people claim to be happy with what they are doing and the results they are getting, this is not to be taken at face value.  There is the psychological tendency to justify past decisions and defend current practices, as well as the tendency to satisfice and accept a margin of frustration or disappointment.

And if the outcome of an “innovation” effort is to keep doing the same thing with minor adjustments, then the customer is being supported in the existing behavior without a substantial improvement.   It will be easier to “sell” the new idea because it isn’t really new at all, and the customer will experience a slightly lesser degree of frustration and disappointment than he presently does, but with less need to change.

In this sense, most of the existing secondary research is not suited to innovation: it tells us what people are doing, but not why they are doing it.   And that information is difficult to collect and even more difficult to quantify.   It requires probing deeper than a multiple-choice questionnaire, and applying greater effort to the analysis of the data collected – which may be one reason that so few sources are conducting the proper kind of research for innovation, and cling to the methods that gain information that justifies a continuation of business as usual rather than disruptive change.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Customization as the Abdication of Design

In an earlier post, it was considered that customization is a form of satisficing, an unhappy compromise between the cheapness and availability of mass-produced products and the expense and patience that must be abided to have something personalized.  But very often, customization represents an abdication of design: the maker provides an array of options for customers to customize the product to their own liking, because the designer has no idea what that might be.

The drawback to this approach is that it assumes that the customer has expertise.   To choose the product options that would best serve their needs, the customer must be highly familiar with the product, their needs, and the correlation of the two.   Where customers are not experts, their choices are made almost randomly, or at best on specious and superficial reasoning: the customer may choose a frivolous option (the color of a vehicle) over a more functional one (its cargo capacity).   

A second drawback is the additional effort necessary to learn the customization tools, which can often be overly complicated, again resulting in poor choice that will be discovered later.   This may be manifest in the inability to use a specific tool for a specific reason, or in the cognitive overload that results from too much choice, which causes customers to disengage or make a superficial decision to simplify the buying process, to the detriment of the ownership experience.

While the company may feel that it is exonerated from dissatisfaction due to the skill and choice of the customer, the customer still regards the product as unsatisfactory holds the maker to blame for his dissatisfaction.   The company is not typically held liable in the legal sense, but this is merely a short-term mitigation, as the customer’s perception of the maker is diminished considerably.  A disgruntled customer is seldom a repeat customer, and often a dissuader of other prospects.

There are of course mitigations to this risk: the maker may help the customer to understand their options and their impact on the ownership experience, or to visualize the totality of their choices before the purchase is made, but a mitigated compromise remains a compromise – it is “less bad” rather than “better” in terms of having a meaningful impact on the outcome.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Influence for Interaction Design

Traditional design education focuses almost exclusively on matters of aesthetics – the way that things look and behave, generally following current (or somewhat outdated) fashions in digital deign.   What seems to be entirely neglected is the far more important topic of influence.

That is not to say that aesthetics are to be altogether disregarded: it has been shown that users are more likely to show initial interest in interacting with an attractive interface than an unattractive one – but this tends to be superficial: if interacting with the attractive object renders no benefit, or turns out to be more difficult than expected, it is quickly abandoned.  And this is the reason many websites and mobile applications fail to achieve their business goals.

In its most basic sense, influence is about guiding human behavior toward the achievement of a desirable outcome.  And in the commercial world, this desirable outcome must be mutually beneficial – the firm seeks to gain a financial benefit, and to do so it must deliver a practical benefit to the user.   Influence is a matter of convincing the customer they will receive that benefit, reminding them as they progress of the benefit they will receive, and demonstrating to them afterward that the promised benefit was indeed delivered.

It seems rather simple, but in reality is quite difficult – and even more so when designers focus on the attractiveness of an interface and ignore its purpose, or understand its purpose only in a superficial way.   To succeed at influence, designers must have deeper knowledge of purpose and intent.   To be more specific: 
  • The designer must know what the customer wishes to achieve
  • The designer must assess how much time, effort, and money the customer is willing to expend
  • The designer must convince the customer that their solution will deliver the desired outcome for an acceptable cost (or change their perception of what is acceptable)
  • The designer must convince the customer that their solution is in some way superior (better benefit, less cost, less risk) than alternate methods
  • To maintain engagement, the designer must keep the customer mindful of the connection between action and result and maintain a positive cost/benefit proposition
  • To gain re-engagement, the designer must ensure the customer appreciates the results and is satisfied that they were worth the costs.

All of this is quite difficult, given that each customer’s perception of need, cost, and risk is idiosyncratic.   And this is the reason it is so difficult to be influential, and likely the reason that influence is disregarded in favor of aesthetics, which are much easier to assess and achieve.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Demotivating Creative Workers

“Motivation” is often spoken of as if it is something that one person can do for another – to inject other people with a will to succeed and excel.   It is this sense that the football fan, shouting at the television from his living room chair, feels that he has contributed to the game – that his favorite team would have lost the game, or sat sleepily on the bench, if it weren’t for all his cheering.   In a similar manner, a boss who feels he has “motivated” his people by barking orders at them, telling them to do what they already know how to do, and nagging them to do it better and faster without providing any means of practical support erroneously feels that he has practiced leadership and caused his employees to perform better.

Browbeating people can “motivate” them to do something they are not interested in doing, but only to the degree that is necessary for them to escape nagging.   People who are truly motivated to excel do not need a cheerleader or slave-driver, and in fact such people often distract them from their goal and detract from their performance.    You can direct a person’s enthusiasm to a specific course of action (only if they had none in mind), you can clear barriers to their success, and you can provide them with the resources they need to succeed – but you cannot make them want to succeed if they are not already motivated from within.

Ironically, most methods for motivating people tend to demotivate them instead: telling them to do things that they already know that they need to do, giving vague encouragement (or threats) to do things “better” or “faster” without specific guidance or additional resources, and otherwise interfering with and distracting from their ability to do the good work they might have done if they were left alone to do it.

Consider that the things that people do in their leisure time is not so different from the things that people do for a living – the difference between a gardener and a farmer, between a woodworking enthusiast and a carpenter, between a home cook and a restaurant chef, between an amateur golfer and a professional athlete is negligible.   

Some highly motivated employees have chosen a profession that matches their interests, but more often the motivated employee has taken an interest in what they happen to do for a paycheck.   There are many people who are quite happy working as janitors, a job that is often regarded as low-paying, tedious, and unpleasant – but a janitor who takes interest in the work, who finds  mopping a floor an engaging challenge and believes he has served others by doing the work, can happily carry on for years.

Creative people are drawn to professions because they love the activity, but lose their passion because of the lack of autonomy: they cannot create at their leisure, and cannot create work that is “good” by their own standards.  Instead, they must work to deadlines and satisfy specifications, and are often beset by meddlers who have less knowledge or expertise – yet who still feel that it is their role to tell the creative worker how to do his job. 

This is where a domineering manager or a toxic work environment can drain the enthusiasm of creative workers.   Many people bounce out of “creative” jobs quickly.   Others persevere for a number of years but are worn down and burned out over time – they attempt to contribute but are unable to do so, they hold out hope that the next project will be better, and over time they realize that they will never be able to contribute in a meaningful way and resign themselves to becoming hacks.   And by so doing, the overbearing manager can drive performance metrics (which have more to do with quantity than quality) while undermining the morale of his employees and the quality of the work of his department.