Friday, May 30, 2014

Trustworthiness Trumps Intelligence

I've been reading a bit on social psychology, and stumbled upon a concept related to interpersonal relationships that I think has a great deal of applicability to brand marketing and customer experience design.   The general notion is that people do not wish to engage with others because they are intelligent, but because they are trustworthy - and moreover, intelligence can be a liability.  And I think the same goes for companies as well:

Trust in Personal Relationships

Assessing the degree to which we can trust other people is fundamental to every human relationship, and a necessary survival skill: we assess whether another creature poses a threat before we begin to consider if there is any possible value in interaction.   While we are drawn to others because we recognize the efficiencies gained by collaborative effort, and while we must often depend on others due to the differentiation and specialization of labor, our first question is merely "will this person do me harm?"  That is, we are distrustful immediately, and develop trust afterward.

Only once we have satisfied ourselves that the other person means no harm can we consider whether working cooperatively with them will be beneficial to ourselves, or if it is merely a one-way street in which we are being manipulated into serving the other party's interest rather than our own, or even to the detriment of our own.   It doesn't take very much experience to recognize that not everyone is truly collaborative, and pretensions of altruism are often a method of deception.

At this point, intelligence works both for and against our willingness to trust in others.   We feel confident that the outcome of cooperation is positive if the other party has the intelligence to formulate a sound plan (though realistically, this is more in terms of insightfulness - their ability to perceive something we do not - rather than intelligence, because it is our own intellect that is used to assess the plan they are proposing).  On the other hand, we have the distinct sense that clever people use their intelligence to deceive others, which causes us to question the confidence we have in a plan that seems intelligent, but may merely be clever.  It is for that reason that we value intelligent people, but are reluctant to trust them.

After the initial encounter, trust has less to do with our gut reaction to a person, and more to do with our experience dealing with that individual.   If previous engagements have, indeed, been mutually beneficial then it is out expectation that future engagements will follow in the same line - and we spend less time scrutinizing the person and their plan and place greater faith that this time will turn out like the last time.   Even so, we remain apprehensive to some degree, until we have had sufficient experience with a person to take it for granted that they are likely to be fair with others.

Trust in Brand Relationships

The way in which we relate to brands and companies is entirely analogous to the way in which we relate to people and groups (respectively), with one marked difference: we are well aware of our interests and theirs.   The customer has a need or aspiration that he wishes to address, the brand or company offers him a promise to serve that interest while meanwhile having its own interest in receiving money in exchange.

The customer is well aware of the primary risk that he is taking on - that the product he is being offered will fail to meet his needs, and that in spite of consumer protectionism and any guarantee or warranty the seller might intimate, he stands to lose the amount of money he gave to the seller - which is significant only in that its loss will prevent him from purchasing an alternative product that would have been successful.  In certain instances there are secondary risks, such as having to take on the disposal cost to rid himself of the product or the damage that may be done to him or his property in the course of using it, but these tend in most instances to be relatively minor.

Germane to this topic, however, the problem is not that companies are unable to convince their intended customers that their products are capable of addressing their needs in a cost-effective manner.  This has been the thrust of advertising and sales promotion all along, and while its success rate is dismal, this is likely the best that can be done given that most of these messages take the intelligent approach and fail to build trust.

That is to say that customers are aware that, in order to get money out of them, companies wish to give them the impression that their products are capable of meeting their needs at a price that's comparable to or less than other alternatives.   But until trust is established, these claims are not regarded as being truthful or reliable, but instead as subterfuge offered by a party whose primary interest is in getting what it wants from others, and doing as little as possible for them in return.

While companies often engage in "brand marketing" or public relations campaigns in order to build trust, it is with some sense of irony that it can be observed how little of the marketing budget is devoted to these initiatives - the majority is spent on promulgating claims that no-one will believe rather than investing in developing the trustworthiness for those claims to be believed.  Hence, the dismal success rate for promotional and product advertising.


A few topics came to mind during this meditation, but I set them aside to avoid clouding the fundamental issue:

  • Experience - The degree to which past interactions cause us to give trust to someone without as much consideration of their present proposal
  • Reputation - The degree to which we grant trust to an unknown person because other people have positive opinions and share anecdotal evidence
  • Groups - The degree to which the behavior of some members of a group causes us to regard the entire group
  • Cross-Wiring - The degree to which a person is similar in incidental ways (they have a similar appearance, voice, etc.) to another whom we have positive or negative experience

There are likely other topics as well, as trust is a very complex issue, but a critical one for customer engagement.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Human Behavior and Organizations

I recently read A Manager’s Guide to Human Behavior, a book that’s draws attention to several areas in which the psychology of individual employees (perception, cognition, and motivation) is critical to the effectiveness of a commercial organization, but which stops short of offering much in the way of useful information about the topic of behavioral psychology itself.  I found this highly annoying, yet likely necessary given the scope of the topic.

In essence, a commercial organization, or any other form of organization, is a system of people who collaborate toward a common goal.   The buildings, equipment, materials, and all other resources that are listed as “assets” on a balance sheet are largely inconsequential to the value that the firm creates – even the extreme instance of a fully-automated production facility where all labor is performed by machines depends on people to design the machines, keep them running, monitor their operations, provide their inputs, and sell their outputs.

But in order to collaborate toward the common goal that is proposed by the firm, there must be motivation on the part of each employee to achieve it.   The simplistic view that people work only for compensation, and are indifferent to the nature of the duties placed upon them for that sake, is an entirely nineteenth-century concept that presumes that both people and jobs are commodities – that anyone would be equally happy with any activity, any job can be satisfactorily completed by any able-bodied worker, and the only difference between one job or one worker and the next is the amount of compensation provided.

There likely remain many instances in which that is true, on the lowest levels of present-day society: there are people who don’t much care what they do for a living so long as they make the income they require, and jobs that are so facile that anyone is capable of doing them with a few hours’ instruction.   But such instances are rare: even the most menial minimum-wage job requires some level of knowledge and skill, and even the lowest orders of human society require some level of engagement and motivation in their work that stems from non-economic needs.

As to the identity of those non-economic needs the book could only provide a vague notion along with a small handful of well-trodden theories of motivation – and that’s likely where it falls short.   A “guide to human behavior” should likely go into greater depth on that topic, and as such this is more of an argument as to why human behavior should be considered important – but likely that’s not as marketable a title.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Loyalty and Sales Promotion

I read a rather damning case-study about Groupon and the way in which participating in this program (which offers discounts of more than 50% off of regular price when a sufficient number of people indicate an intention to take advantage of a deal) will create a very brief spike in sales, but have a long-term negative effect on customer loyalty.   Not only do those who show up to take advantage of the deal fail to become loyal customers, but the deal itself and the flood of bargain-seekers makes existing loyal customers feel cheated.

I couldn’t disagree with the premise of the study, but it does not seem entirely fair to single out one company for consternation.  Nor does it seem entirely fair to suggest that Groupon is to blame for the problem – but instead it is the retail establishment, desperate to drum up business, that leverages this service that is likely most to blame – just as we do not blame the automobile or the alcohol for an incident of drunken driving, but the individual who failed to exercise good judgment and self-restraint.

Long before the internet came into existence, retailers used sales promotions of various types to bring in the hordes: coupons, sales events, direct-mail offers, and other similar tactics had the very same effect, just on a smaller scale and over a longer period of time: they brought in people who were only interested in an advantageous offer, for only as long as the offer was valid, who would not later be willing to consider purchasing the product at its regular price.

Likewise, long before Groupon came into existence, retailers bewailed the manner in which they were hoist by their own petard: those who held regular weekly sales events found their shops empty on dates when they were not offering deals, and those who offered coupons regularly found that no-one would order their product unless they had a coupon.   That is to say that customers had no loyalty to the retailer, and only came looking to take advantage (in every sense of the phrase) of a discount offer.

Not only does sales promotion attract shoppers who have no loyalty, it also diminishes the loyalty of customers who are willing to shop the retailer for reasons other that price.   After all, it seems foolish to pay full fare when a discount is available, or would be available in a very short time – and in that situation anyone who is loyal to the brand feels that they are being punished for their loyalty, whether it is the financial loss they feel they have incurred by purchasing at full price or the shame they feel at having been so easily deceived.  (It is in fact quite common for these very same brands to include copy in their promotions that is very insulting to those who pay full price.)

It is in that way that brands that bemoan the loss of customer loyalty but continue to discount merchandise as a matter of course that seem rather foolish – as their own behavior has done much to discourage and destroy loyalty to their brand, to drive away loyal customers in catering to the demand of bargain-seekers, and thereby to ensure that no-one purchases from them except in instances where they have set themselves up to as an attractive mark for the kind of person who seeks to take advantage of them - and they get exactly what they worked t ogain

So in the end, it would be just to suggest that retailers who smother loyalty by offering special deals are getting what they deserve –they are reaping exactly what they have sown and have worked hard to earn the low grade of customer that they have chosen to pursue.

Tell Me Where it Hurts

A speaker at a customer experience conference remarked that website designers should react to customer suggestions in the manner of a parent whose child has walked into the room, announced that he has leukemia, and needs a cookie or he will surely die.   As much as I loathe metaphors that compare customers to children or animals (in that they fail to show the proper degree of respect for the most important party to any business transaction) I have to admit she makes a very good point.

Customers, and internal stakeholders for that matter, are fond of demanding a specific design solution when they do not understand the nature of the problem, even to the point of misrepresenting the actual problem in order to get what they want.   It would be as irresponsible of a designer to pander to their child's every desire without pausing to consider whether it's appropriate to do so.

Particularly when it comes to customer complaints and executive directives, a suggestion is not proof that a problem even exists.   It is not uncommon for people who want something to invent a reason it should be given to them.  To the original metaphor, the child simply wants a cookie, and is grasping for some reason that you must cater to this desire - to be a good parent means denying the request, particularly because giving into it would have negative consequences to the health of the child if he were given junk-food on demand.

In the same way, implementing a solution without considering the possible negative side-effects simply to accommodate a suggestion is very bad practice.   Sometimes, you can tell right away that it's a bad idea and should push back immediately - other times, it might seem to have some merit, but usability testing or a champion-challenger test in production will bear out that it does more harm than good.

Of course, sometimes you can't help it, particularly when the suggestion comes from a ranking officer in your own organization.  There's a distinct difference between giving a cookie to a child simply because he asked for it and giving a cookie to a child who's holding a loaded pistol so that he will put down the pistol (which itself is an excellent metaphor for certain executive personalities).  The first is inadvisable pandering, the second is necessary for survival.

On the topic of survival, the problem with implementing a suggestion without due consideration is that ultimately you will be held responsible, and rightly so.   Being a professional means exercising judgment and developing sound tactics, rather than acting upon random and unsound ideas from other sources.

And so, whenever someone suggests a problem exists, your first inclination should be the investigation of the problem rather than the hasty implementation of a solution.   When the child says he has leukemia, ask him to tell you where it hurts.   Listen, observe, and diagnose to make sure that you know what the problem is.   Exercise your own judgment in determining whether the problem is real or imaginary, and in deciding the course of action to take.

Unfortunately, all of this caters to the arrogant school of design, in which the designer fancies himself a maestro who doesn't have to listen to anything that anyone else has to say - but that extreme is just as wrong-headed.   Consider the metaphor of a doctor who ignores a patient's obvious wounds and instead decides (without even examining the patient) that because of their age, gender, weight, and so forth that they fit the profile of a patient who has hypertension.  That may well be, but it isn't the biggest problem of the moment, nor the reason they are seeking treatment.

As in many things, there is a balance to be achieved, and no shortcut to the solution.   You must pause to ask the questions to diagnose the problem rather than accepting the suggested solution, and you must give fair hearing to the complaint and deliberate over how the problem can be effectively solved - by the suggested means or otherwise.   Very often, people do know exactly what is wrong and have a pretty good idea for how the problem can be solved - but "very often" is neither always nor never.

The "always" and "never" of dealing with customer complaints are this:
  • Always listen to suggestions
  • Never implement them without due diligence
Ultimately, it's just as simple as that ... which is to say it's painstaking and difficult to have to constantly use your intelligence and judgment.  But because others don't, it falls to you as the gatekeeper who is charged with the decisions of what is done and what is not.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Desire for Tedium

I recently received a direct-mail promotion for a house cleaning service, the thrust of which was that the service would rescue me from the tedious tasks of cleaning my own home.   I think that copy point might resound with most people most of the time, but at just that moment, it struck me as something that was utterly unappealing and even undesirable.

Perhaps it was the state of mind I was in at the time, or my own perverse habit of busying myself with menial tasks at the end of an unproductive day to gain some sense of accomplishment.   There are many days, and sometimes entire weeks, in which my activities at work have been so frustratingly unproductive that I came home and set myself to some chore that would give me the satisfaction of having done something: I may have spent nine hours in back-to-back meetings in which people merely chewed the cud without making any real decisions, but after thirty minutes effort the kitchen floor is clean, and it was the only productive thing I had gotten done all day.

In that sense, their offer to relieve me of my tedium struck me as wholly unappealing – in that it would rob me of the opportunity to engage in a task that would give me a sense of accomplishment.   Granted, housework is menial and not generally regarded as particularly enjoyable – but like most menial tasks it conveys a sense of satisfaction in being able to take action and immediately perceive the benefits.

I also have the sense that this may also be true of the tedium of certain commercial interactions: that in some instances individuals expect to invest a fair amount of unpleasant effort in obtaining something that they need, and that the product is a reward for the acquisition process.   I don’t expect this is universal, and for most low-cost and low-involvement purchases a tedious or unpleasant acquisition process would cause them to reject the offer as requiring too much cost (in terms of effort rather than price).    But when a given product comes at a high cost and high involvement, there is the expectation that effort will be required.

Moreover, simplifying the acquisition process diminishes the value of the product as a reward for the effort of acquiring it – much in the way that a person who rides a cable car to the top of a mountain does not have the same sense of satisfaction as someone who climbed the mountain.   It could even be speculated that making the process easier makes the goal less appealing simply because it is effortless to achieve.

The example of mountain climbing takes this meditation on an odd turn, in considering that most recreational and leisure activities are undertaken for the satisfaction of accomplishment.   The person who bakes a cake from scratch feels they have done something, while the one who uses a boxed mix enjoys the same benefit (though quality is arguable) at less effort, and does not feel a sense of achievement (or if they do, the first individual would consider that to be unwarranted – having done nothing, they have no right to claim their work is a valid “accomplishment” afterward).

To shift back to the commercial realm, this is likely the pleasure in shopping.   The customer who finds the perfect outfit for an occasion is pleased to have the outfit, but the effort she put into shopping for it accentuates the value of the reward.  Compliment her on the outfit, and she will tell the story of the various stores she visited and the other effort she placed into finding it.  The achievement is more important even than the item that was obtained.

My sense is that this grants a certain trophy-value to possessions that are difficult to obtain, but also diminishes the emotional attachment to those that are easy to obtain.  In the clothes-shopping example, the outfit itself causes less satisfaction than the experience of obtaining it.  Had the shopper found the outfit in the first store she visited, she would have no story, and regard the outfit as just another set of garments – perhaps clothing that was “appropriate” for the occasion but not “the perfect” because achieving perfection requires effort.

It may merit further consideration, or research to support this hypothesis, but I have the sense it would bear out – and as such it begs the question as to whether making something cheaper or easier to obtain might be counterproductive to creating customer satisfaction, and that the assumption that cheap-and-easy is always better should likely be abandoned in favor of a more deliberate consideration of the degree to which a customer is not only willing, but also quite interested, in experiencing tedium or difficulty for a given purchase.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Interrogation and Experience Design

I recently read a manual of interrogation tactics, as a means to consider whether a structured conversation can improve information gathering in digital media – the kinds of fill-in-the-blank forms that predominate interaction design, which have not changed very much at all in almost two decades, and which seem particularly clumsy to mobile and other emerging interfaces that don’t provide (or poorly include) a keyboard interface.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get what I was looking for: it turns out, as could be expected in the first place, that a human interrogator has capabilities that the digital media do not presently provide: the ability to interpret information from an open-ended question, the ability to recognize when details are being withheld, the ability to adapt questioning to draw out significant detail where needed and avoid asking redundant questions, and the like.   If anything, the manual confirmed how primitive technology still is, and how far it must evolve before the digital channels can be as natural and effective as human beings in responding to another person.

In spite of periodic interest in “artificial intelligence” computer systems remain painfully unintelligent.   They are formulaic, and their “conversation” consists of reading from a script that, while not totally on rails, have very little ability to adapt to a flow of information in a logical way.  For the most part, they are unable even to respond to a simple question: consider Apple’s “Siri” technology and the frustrating experience of dealing with a voice interface that doesn’t pay attention to your questions and doesn’t remember what you told “her” five seconds ago.   The human user has to learn to speak to technology, because technology has not learned how to speak to human beings.

So the notion of designing a user interface that uses natural language and follows a thread of conversation in communicating with a user is still years or decades away – barring some leap of innovation, they will remain limited to being able to accept only that information that is anticipated, and a gangly and halting manner.   Until the capabilities are there, designing as if they were is an exercise in futility.

If there’s any value to be salvaged from the field of interrogation, it is this: a good interrogator should interrogate himself first.   It’s not a matter of strolling into a conversation with a random person and trying to figure out, on the fly, what it is you want to know.  To be effective, a good interrogator must ask himself several questions before approaching a subject.
  • What am I trying to achieve in this conversation?
  • What is the other person trying to achieve (or avoid)?
  • Where are our agendas at odds with one another?
  • What do I really need to know?
  • How will knowing this information enable me to take action?
  • Can I take action without knowing this information?
  • Does this question tell me what I need to know?
  • Does this person even have the information I need?
  • Why might they be reluctant or unable to answer?
  • Is there a better way to obtain that information?
  • Is there a better source from which I can obtain this information?
That seems entirely applicable to experience design, and it’s likely that the questions that you ask, even through a clumsy medium that permits only formulaic kinds of questions to be used, will be improved.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Third Screen

I recently read The Third Screen, a book about marketing to customers in the mobile channel, and found it to be a great deal more reasonable than other titles I've read on the same topic.   Instead of marveling at features (most of which languish unused) or citing aggrandized statistics about urban Japanese teenagers to suggest that the world will follow in their footsteps, the author takes a more reserved and sober look at the channel - and particularly the way in which people actually use it - to consider the possibilities and limitations of the channel.

Mobile is an important channel - which has gained popularity on a global scale faster than any of its predecessors, and which is used far too widely to be dismissed as a fad - but its impact is far less sweeping than many enthusiasts proclaim, simply because users do not see the potential of it and service providers fail to consider it as a thing unto itself.   In essence, mobile is another channel, but not a substitute channel.  Much in the way that the Internet has not killed television, mobile will not kill the Internet - but it will be used as a method of accessing information and using services in times and locations where the user is unable to feasibly access the Internet.

The author's sense, with which I heartily agree, is that mobile is different to previous channels, and it is only when those who provide content and services recognize its capabilities and uses and leverage them appropriately that it will become truly successful.   For the most part, is presently being misinterpreted as a clumsy but portable version of the Internet, but a few innovative companies have grasped the nature of the medium and the value that users seek to obtain when they leverage it, and shown the way that others might follow (but which many will be slow to adopt).

Some specific examples:
  • Text - Mobile is excellent at delivering a few sentences of content that provide a quick answer to a question.  It is terrible at reading long passages of text or browsing large collections.
  • Video - Mobile is excellent at delivering short video clips that an individual watches alone.   It is terrible at delivering longer video programs that individuals want to explore in a non-linear way, or to experience in the company of others.
  • Audio - Mobile is excellent at delivering music and other brief clips to an audience of one.   It is terrible at delivering audiobooks and other long programs, or for sharing the experience of consumption.
  • Services - Mobile is excellent at enabling the user to perform a simple task that requires less than a minute and requires little thought.  It is terrible at performing more complex tasks that require focused attention.
With this in mind, mobile has little hope of being used for some tasks and people will continue to leverage other channels (people will not huddle around a smartphone to watch a movie together); it will likely be a substitute for others (it is faster and easier to check the weather on a smartphone than on the Internet), and offers some capabilities that no other medium does well (finding a restaurant that is currently open within a few blocks of when the user gets hungry in a strange city at two in the morning).

This has less to do with the technology and its features than it does with human needs, which are the drivers of adoption.   Rabid enthusiasts aside, most people will seek to do things in the most efficient, effective, and convenient way possible and will not suffer inconvenience for the sake of using a technology simply because it exists.   In fewer words: it doesn't matter if mobile can do something - its capabilities will only be used if the channel itself provides utility to the user in a way that enhances the task they are attempting to perform.

And this is where many companies, and the technology enthusiasts who egg them on, get mobile entirely wrong: they attempt to provide content and services simply because it is possible, and assume that users are so enthusiastic about the channel that they will use them.   Few pause to consider whether there is any advantage to the user in using this specific channel.

Those brands that recognize the potential of mobile realize that the greatest value of mobile is in doing some things well - and as such their mobile presence is distinctly different to their Web site, because the way in which customers engage with them will be distinctly different.   But at the same time they recognize that it is exceptionally bad at other things, and remove them from the experience to prevent distraction and clutter from the few things of actual value - that, or reengineer them to be mobile-friendly experiences when possible.

I do hope that enough of my colleagues in the CX profession look into this book and adopt a more sober and realistic mindset in regard to the mobile channel - it will remain cluttered and choked with bloated and clumsy applications and services until that happens, and will fail to deliver actual value to the user.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Dark Ages of Commerce

The age of "mass" represents a dark age in the history of commerce.   Mass production, mass consumption, and mass everything have not resulted in a particularly pleasant era in which to be a consumer (or producer, for that manner).   That's not to say this period of time has not been beneficial - the ready availability of cheap goods has done much to raise the standard of living from what it had previously been, in a strictly material sense.

But that's much like saying the animals in a circus are better off than they were in the wild: they have been better fed and cared for, promoting their health and extending their lifespan, but have given up much in exchange.   In the same way, human beings in their roles as producer and consumer have benefitted in a material sense by the age of mass-everything and, quantitatively, life in the standard, commoditized market of the past few centuries has provided more material wealth, but at the cost of depersonalization and, to some degree, dehumanization.

Mass Production

Individuals in a market trade the goods they produce for the goods they consume.  This is as true in the present world as it has even been, since before history and civilization itself, individuals have produced goods for consumption, and traded their output with others who had things that they preferred to their own product.

The problem, initially, was that individuals are not particularly good at everything, but only at a few things: a farmer was effective and efficient at producing quality food, but not at weaving quality cloth or sewing quality clothing - for this, he would trade his food product to someone else who was more adept at producing clothing.    As this progressed, work became more specialized: the producer of clothing became a tailor who devoted significant time to a specific product and developed proficiency in producing it with unprecedented quality.

But then the tailor became a factory worker who performed an even smaller part of the work; hence, the modern profession of the sweat-shop laborer who merely sews one seam of a garment, over and over.   So instead of making clothing, the worker spends years or decades of her life sewing the inseam of a pair of trousers, never handling the finished product nor ever coming face-to-face with the customer who would benefit from her work.

The benefit of this level of specialization is efficiency and effectiveness in performing one component task in the production of a standardized product.  The factory worker can sew her single seam quickly and efficiently, and when teamed together in an assembly-line, a few dozen individuals performing minute tasks can generate a higher level of output than the same number of people doing the whole task.   They produce an amazing amount of clothing, which means that there is more clothing available more cheaply to the mass market, and everyone is happy in the benefits they receive as consumers, though the satisfaction of their work in their role as producers is considerably diminished.

Mass Consumption

However, we are not entirely cheery in our roles as consumers, as what we get for out money is seldom satisfactory.    The counterargument that the consumer is in control of quality is largely a myth: buying decisions are limited to the range of products available - i.e., the fact that someone purchases an item doesn't mean they're entirely happy with it, but merely that it was the best choice among undesirable or imperfect alternatives.

And given that efficiency, not quality, is the goal of mass productions, producers compromise greatly on the quality of goods: to produce efficiently means streamlining the production process to eliminate any unnecessary task to include any unnecessary feature and to reduce the finished goods to the lowest level that will be acceptable to consumers. In so doing, a great deal of quality has been sacrificed.

In the present day more people can afford furniture, but mass-produced furniture is cheap particle board; more people can afford clothing, but mass-produced clothing lacks durability; more people can afford food, but mass-produced food is unpleasant and often unhealthy.  Granted, goods produced by competent artisans and craftsmen are still available, but outlandishly expensive by comparison.

So consumers of the mass age have to choose among cheap and low-quality goods for the majority of their purchases, those that will imperfectly address their needs that represent the best among cheap and shoddy options that they are presented by mass producers, with the occasional option to splurge on items of quality now and then, and that craftsmanship has not been entirely reduced to the lowest common denominator.

Waiting for Dawn

We are still to a large degree living in the dark ages of commerce: working monotonous and unfulfilling jobs to earn money that we will spend on cheap and shabby goods.   And while it cannot be denied that everyone has more in a quantitative sense, one must wonder whether the price has been paid out of our satisfaction and our basic human dignity.

There are some signs that the culture is evolving toward the next phase in our economic evolution.  While it is unlikely that we will return to the age of mercantilism, the "mass" market provides us with greater choices in terms of our employment options as producers and our purchasing options as consumers, and some individuals are showing signs of considering their quality of life in the choices they are making.

As consumers, there remains the possibility of making the choice to pay more for better quality, and the move away from the cheapest alternatives is causing producers to rethink their profit models.   As producers, there remains the possibility to accept less pay for more fulfilling work, and it has already been shown by satisfaction surveys that employees are amenable to this compromise.

It is, as in many instances, a delicate balance: to fulfill our need for the basic necessities of life with the most economical alternative, or to fulfill our need to have quality in life by choosing an alternative that is less efficient but more satisfactory - and even, in rare instances, quite pleasant.

So it will be interesting to see, in the next few decades, how the world of commerce evolves, and the degree to which the choices people make in regard to their production and consumption influence the general welfare and the cultural environment.   I don't believe that anyone can state with confidence whether things will move in one direction or the other, or whether there will be any motion at all - but it does seem inevitable that a change of some manner will occur.