Friday, February 27, 2015

Crowd Psychology

Le Bon’s book on Crowd Psychology was recommended to me as a means to better understand the way in which the mass market receives, interprets, and responds to advertising.   But having read it, I’m left with the sense that in most instances the two have nothing to do with one another, and the number of instances in which they do is decreasing.

The theory itself is rather interesting, albeit a bit depressing: that a crowd of human beings is in many ways like a herd of animals – unintelligent, impulsive, incapable of logic, reacting on negative emotions, short-sighted, and other unflattering adjectives as well.   Le Bon makes an excellent case for this, along with a plethora of historical examples, as well as coming to the unfortunate but undeniable conclusion that civilization is itself a crowd and all of human history has been shaped by packs of human beings at their very worst behavior.

The point at which this departs form advertising in the mass media is this: that while the advertiser may be broadcasting a message to a large number of people, they are generally not assembled as a crowd when they receive it.  They receive the message in different locations and often at different times, and as such they interpret and respond to it as individuals, not as a crowd. 

So the assumption that “mass” advertising reaches people who are in the same place at the same time is incorrect in most instances.  Advertising at sporting events is likely reaching a large number of people, who are assembled as a crowd and often behave as one – but for the most part, this is not the manner in which a person consumes advertising: they are reading or watching entertainment in a solitary state of mind.

And to Le Bon, it is that collective state of mind that causes a group of people to become a crowd – and until that collective identity forms, it is merely a group of individuals who are coincidentally in the same location.  So even if a television advertisement is played in a crowded place, the people it reaches are not in the mindset of a crowd, and do not react as a crowd.

There are likely instances in which this knowledge will serve me well – such as in dealing with teams and committees.  Le Bon has much to say about those kinds of crowds – though small and structured, they follow the same behaviors and act with as little intelligence, insight, and forethought of a larger group.   However, I remain unconvinced that these principles are applicable to advertising.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Employees as Vendors

There are three parties involved in the act of commercial production: the capitalist who provides material resources for a business, the laborer who contributes his efforts, and the employer who stands between the two.   Essentially, the employer is the mediator in arguments over who deserves what share of the profit of a business, as he apportions and disburses funds to both laborer and capitalist.

In so doing, he is constantly in a precarious position: both labor and capital are necessary to the sustenance of a productive operation.  Both must be satisfied in terms of the profit they derive for their contribution.  And the profit of each comes at the expense of the other.

This is not to say that the employer has sole discretion over how the profits of business are to be distributed, as he must be responsive to the market demand.  If he offers investors too low a return, they will withdraw their capital; and if he offers workers too low a wage, they will withdraw their labor.  And what constitutes “too low” is dependent on his competition – other employers who offer better returns on capital or higher wages for labor.

Of the two, the capitalist is at greater risk.  A laborer can generally withdraw himself and proceed immediately to another place of employment to begin earning a better wage.  A capitalist invested in a business must sell his investment to liberate his capital, and sell it to another investor who finds the investment worthwhile in a market in which there are better returns.  However, labor is only at liberty to find other employment if it is available and capital is only at liberty to find other investments if they are available.  For both parties, the tendency is not to be mobile, but to stay where they are – and even if they are dissatisfied, their preference is to wait for better times.

Getting back around to the point, the nature of labor is often overlooked: it is a factor of production, but it is also a commodity on the market.  Each worker is, in effect, a supplier of labor to a market of employers and the supply and demand of labor have more influence over its value than any abstract notion of what is fair pay for a given task.   The more people willing and able to do the task, the less must be paid to get one of them to do it – and vice-versa.  With this in mind, there is less call for antagonism between labor and employers than there is for separate competitions between laborers against other laborers and employers against other employers.  And in a free market, where labor is mobile, this is exactly what occurs.

It is also curious, and likely erroneous, that the relationship between laborers and employers claim that the employers are in a position of advantage.   As buyers, employers are at the mercy of their needs for labor, as their operations require a certain amount of labor to remain profitable.   But it is also fair to say that sellers of labor are also required to generate enough income to sustain their own operations (to provide for their families) and as such are desperate to sell.   The question of which party is in greater desperation varies according to market conditions.

It is fair to say that labor is a highly perishable commodity – if it is not sold, it is wasted.  This suggests that laborers are at a disadvantage in that they have a good that they are desperate to sell.   However, this perspective fails to acknowledge that if it is not sold, it can be used for something else.   That is to say that the way in which a man “spends” his time is according to his own priorities – he may choose to trade his time for money, or spend it doing something else.   It is the laborer’s responsibility to find a productive use of his time, though others may provide him with options.

All things considered, the sellers of labor are in the same position of the seller of any other product: it is their responsibility to offer a quality product, to find a buyer, to negotiate a price, to accept the risk of unsold inventory, etc.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Suppression of Creativity

It is often argued that studying creativity or even exploring what it means to “be creative” is an effete distraction from the more important business of “getting things done” in the moment.   This position is exceedingly ignorant and shortsighted.   There is nothing meaningful to be done by practical men until creative ones have told them what to do.

Certainly, it is necessary to deal with routine sustenance tasks in a competent manner, but this is a negative goal.  One may focus entirely on efficiency, but this accomplishes the same thing as before with fewer expenses.   Efficiency is accomplished in paying close attention to the existing processes rather than considering whether there might be a far more efficient and effective method of accomplishing the same goals – or whether there might be better goals to pursue.

The results of creativity, however, are significant accomplishments that effect dramatic changes and entirely new processes.  It seeks to solve, rather than ameliorate, the problems with traditional methods of accomplishing goals that are laborious, tedious, and unfulfilling.   What creativity creates, in effect, is greater satisfaction with less tedium.   It makes substantial, positive, and life-improving changes.

There is a conflict in each person when confronted with the risk entailed in doing something new and different, and it is particularly tempting to perpetuate a known and reliable method of achieving a goal – however onerous and wasteful its methods, it seems the safer choice.   Creativity involves a much higher degree of risk than following conventions, and people differ greatly in the degree to which they are willing and able to tolerate that risk.

So in the current culture a great deal of empty praise is given to creativity and innovation while actual behavior favors traditional approaches that yield more immediate benefits with greater certainty.   Some token effort is made to innovate, but this quickly gets dragged back to the existing practices with some consideration of minor improvements that do not change the nature but merely reduce the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of business as usual.

In everyday business, which consumers the majority of our waking attention, managers promote the idea of innovation while discouraging any risk-taking, and the system of rewards and punishments is rigged to discourage creativity even in organizations that loudly proclaim its necessity.   New ideas are actively discouraged in favor of business as usual, and even when they are adopted they are often mangled and stripped of their potential in sacrifice to preserving the status quo.

The same occurs in academic situation where students are encouraged to think, but rewards are bestowed on those who toe the line and follow the canon.   Academics who pursue unusual or disagreeable ideas are shunned and discredited by any means necessary.   Students are not taught how to think, but told what to think, and are tested and graded on their ability to memorize and repeat traditional knowledge rather than using their minds in an original and creative manner.

Even the “creative” arts in the present day does not explore new ideas, but instead reproduces the ideas of the past.  The most creative minds of our culture are not being creative at all - they are making sequels, remakes, mash-ups, and adaptations of the known.   The “alternative” is become mainstream and feeds upon itself rather than continuing to challenge traditions and offer new ideas.

As such, the suppression of creativity is not limited to boardrooms and business meetings, but is pervasive throughout current culture.   There is no single source of anything new, and the focus is on repeating the past in the safest and least distracting manner.  Perhaps that seems cynical - but in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is entirely accurate.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Engagement that Arises

In looking through comments about films, I noticed two reviews (which were really descriptions of personal experiences) of the same film:
  • An individual who thought the film looked interesting, but who stopped watching after about half an hour because she found it to be unengaging 
  • Another individual who was not interested in the film, but sat down to watch it with friends, and found himself drawn into it after a while
Neither of these experiences is unusual, but their juxtaposition got my wheels turning on a basic problem with the design of customer experiences. Specifically, it is assumed that people have a good sense of what interests them, and it is also assumed that they remain interested throughout an experience once they have engaged in it. 

The two comments above, while seemingly opposite, are actually quite the same in one regard: a person failed to accurately predict whether they would find something engaging and enjoyable.  Whether they thought they would not and then did, or thought that they would but then did not, it is a clear misidentification of one’s own interests.

This leads to a third and more troubling problem for experience design: the assumption that the moment a person who drops out of a flow has encountered an obstruction that caused them to suddenly become disinterested in completing the task.  There may be nothing at all wrong with the activity, merely that the person recognized only after beginning the task that it was not something that interested him – and that his initial prediction of interest was wrong.

Granted, there are instances in which there actually is a problem: there’s an awkward phrase that makes it difficult to understand how to perform a task or causes an individual to become anxious about whether what they are doing will achieve the outcome that is expected.   But there are also instances in which a person’s interest simply wanes, and would wane no matter what was done with the experience.

A good example of this would be the “landing pages” that are created for online advertising: when a person clicks an ad, they arrive at a page that is custom-built for their presumed interest based on the advertisement they clicked.   The bounce rate for these pages is extremely high and no-one has yet developed a reliable solution to the problem that applies in all instances. That is, there is nothing about the landing page that is scaring people away – but they came to the realization, after clicking through, that they really were not interested in the offer.

This seems like something that would be difficult to validate, as it is impossible to determine the real reason that someone decides to take an action (or desist from taking what we perceive to be the next action in a natural sequence) – and it also seems to lend itself to apathy, in that if we accept that it’s all up to the customer and we have no power to influence them, we may allow valid problems to fester.

But it does support the notion that sometimes there’s just nothing to “fix” and tinkering with the experience would do more harm than good.   Ultimately, we can derive intent from behavior, and it is likely that the instances in which an individual’s misestimating their own interest has a much smaller impact than a valid issue.  In all, it may deserve a bit more consideration.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Value of Pleasure

A number of sources have suggested the use of a person’s wage, either directly or indirectly, as a basis for estimating the value they place on leisure time.   It’s an interesting notion, but I have the sense that it is not entirely accurate and perhaps not as meaningful as it seems at first glance.

The basic idea is this:  if a person earns 15 dollars per hour (25 cents per minute) then they should seek to balance or maximize their consumption against their production by evaluating the cost of leisure activities against their earnings over the same period of time.   And so, if they engage in an activity they enjoy for two hours, they should pay no more than $30 for that enjoyment.

I could niggle the equation a bit, because time is spent in leisure as well as money, so in addition to the $30 they pay, they are also giving up two hours of time that could have been spent productively, which has a value of $30 – so in effect they are spending $60 rather than $30 in terms of actual and opportunity costs.   So the total cost of the activity, loaded for time as well as expenses, should be considered rather than just the money cost.

But what most concerns me is that this practice considers time to be commoditized.   It’s well understood that a person seeks a higher wage for unpleasant work: he may accept $15 an hour for something that is mildly boring and annoying, but to engage in something he finds to be onerous or distasteful he would demand a higher wage to compensate him for the greater displeasure.

Likewise in our spending choices we are often faced with alternatives that carry a premium because they are more pleasant.   People routinely pay double or more the price of the cheapest option available in order to gain greater pleasure from the experience of consumption: they will pay $5 for a cup of premium coffee when an equal amount of “regular” coffee is available for $1 – and when water (which is really what is needed to sustain life with no pleasure) is essentially free.

And so, the proposal that the value of leisure should be considered in proportion to the value of production seems flawed.   It would lead to the conclusion that a person who earns $15/hour should seek to enjoy a $2 cup of coffee whereas another who earns $30/hour should be willing to pay $4 for the same product.   But what if the person who earns less enjoys coffee more?   It simply doesn’t make sense that he should forego the enjoyment he takes of a premium product simply because of his income.

This seems to be attention to the metric without attention to what is being measured.   To ask "what is a minute worth?" is essentially like asking "what is a pound worth?" and refusing even to consider "a pound of what?"   Some things are more desirable than others and command a higher price - and this is as true of human experience as it is of any product (which, of course, is merely a means to achieve an experience).

All in all, this reeks of an accounting mindset, where things that ought not to be monetized are reduced to dollars and cents and their functional qualities completely ignored for the sake of balancing an equation in a manner that is mindless of anything but the arithmetic.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Revolutions: Political and Commercial

Sometimes, I go pretty far afield in my studies – but it’s my sense that it's necessary to step outside to bring fresh ideas into the mix.  If an architect looks only to other architects for inspiration, then now “new” ideas are being introduced – merely variations on a limited set of themes, which leads to commoditization.   To innovate, an architect must sometimes look to artists, to molecular biology, or to theatre to find something truly different that can be adapted and implemented.  That said, I’ve recently read Gustave Le Bon’s Psychology of Revolution as a means to find something truly different to introduce to the practice of customer experience design.  

What does a political revolution have to do with customer experience?   In some ways, they are quite similar.  A revolution seeks to change the behavior of a people, first by tearing down the old regime and then replacing it with a new one that is entirely different.   This is not so far removed to what we do when we introduce a new brand or product: consumers in the market have an established way of meeting their needs, and our task is to show them a new way to do so and convince them to adopt it, abandoning the old.    It is not quite as dramatic, and hopefully not as bloody, but the psychological processes are similar.

In essence, consumers are supportive of the existing brands in a market in the same manner as citizens of a nation are content with a political regime.  They recognize that it is not ideal, and in some instances quite disappointing, but are fearful of the unknown and resigned to satisficing with something that may be significantly less than perfect, but is at least familiar.   And so, they cling to their old products and their old patterns of behavior.  

When something truly new comes along, a small number of enthusiasts will want to adopt it immediately, but the vast majority of the market will remain disinterested for quite some time.   The enthusiasts become the core of a revolutionary movement, who mean to bring others around to their way of thinking.

There may be the argument that consumers are not as aggressive in promulgating their beliefs as are revolutionaries – but this is not strictly true.   Their desire to be accepted in their social circles leads them to show off their new possessions to friends and acquaintances, seeking their approval, and hoping that others will adopt what they have introduced to the group to validate their choice and grant them esteem.   Given the explosion of social media, the social circles of an individual consumer are much larger than they once were.

A rebellion takes place when the majority of people desire to adopt the new model for society, and must dragoon those whom they cannot convince of its superiority.  In the commercial markets, this fighting takes place between companies and is often limited to marketing, advertising, and promotion – using gentler means of persuasion than physical threat to convince the laggards to adopt the new product.  

And the revolution is complete when they have succeeded in doing so.   When practically everyone uses the new product, and those who do not seem weird and out-of-touch for their refusal to adopt it, then the old way has been overthrown and the new way has taken its place.

Perhaps it seems I’m being a little too clever and exploring a completely academic theory: but in many ways the analogy proves out and the psychology of consumers in a market revolution is very similar to that of citizens in a political revolution.   And it would stand to reason that the tactics of revolution can be productive in either instance.