Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Perception, Abstraction, and Brand Identity

One elementary quality that distinguishes the human mind from that of animals is in its ability to construct meaning.  Our perception and our memory are mechanisms by which we survive.  We do not react automatically by the superficial appearances of things – but instead we distinguish food from poison, threat from opportunity, and friend from foe by the use of our perception and memory

Our perception and memory are generally reliable – but at times they can lead us astray.   The greater the complexity of our situation, the more likely we will make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, by applying overly simplistic reasoning.   But it would be equally simplistic to assume that emotions overthrow the rules of logic.  Perception can be limited, and logic can be fallacious, but belief is inherently based on a rational process.

Abstract thinking can also tend to lead us astray – because an abstraction is based on a subjective assessment of what qualities are the most important.  Compare any sketch or drawing to the actual object, and you will quickly notice which features the artist considered to be significant and which he chose to ignore in creating his representation.

Abstractions are also not necessarily reductive – many can be additive.   Consider the tendency to anthroporphize things.   When we project thoughts and emotions onto animals, objects, organizations, and other non-human phenomena, we are adding to our beliefs based on things that are entirely imaginary.

In the same way, a “brand” was originally a mark burned onto an object to indicate its owner or maker.   The brand is a kind of mental abstraction – meant to represent something in minimal detail, in which we have ignored many of the actual qualities and added other attributes that are based on oru own imagination.

Brand exists in the mind of the customer, not the maker. Certainly, the maker wants customers to believe certain things about their brand and wishes to influence the way in which it is perceived.  But actual experience will override anything a brand had to say about itself.  A brand may claim to be high-quality, but our experience of it may suggest otherwise – as well as the reportage of others who claim to have experience.  

The maker is an external voice, suggesting what customers ought to think of his brand – but ultimately, customers decide for themselves, and they do so based on abstraction drawn from their limited and skewed perception.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

15 Decision-Making Flaws

In reading about customer behavior, I’ve put together a list of decision-making flaws.    Not much in the way of commentary here – just making a note of the list itself:
  • Ambiguity Aversion – Avoiding making decisions when the relevant information is unknown or uncertain
  • Anecdotal Evidence – Being persuaded by anecdotes that agree with beliefs, even when they are anecdotes of unusual situations
  • Availability Bias – Making a decision based on information that is readily available even if it is not the most relevant
  • Rules of Thumb – Applying simplistic rules to complex decisions, even when they do not apply
  • Status Quo Bias – Preferring the solution that causes the least change rather than a more effective alternative
  • Default Effects – Agreeing with what is suggested rather than considering other options
  • Self-Control – Seeking the easiest solution rather than the best
  • Procrastination – Refusing to decide or act when a situation is perceived as being too far in the future to matter
  • Hyperbolic Discounting – Grossly underestimating the negative or positive impact of events that are further in the future
  • Emotionalism – Choosing the option that has the most positive or least negative impact on the emotions during the decision-making process
  • Reference Dependence – Creating an arbitrary benchmark against which other alternatives must be weighed (without proving the validity of the benchmark)
  • Choice Bracketing – Making choices in isolation, ignoring the impact they have on other factors
  • Framing Effects – Limiting the consideration of a subject to the context in which it is framed
  • Choice Architecture – Constraining decisions to an arbitrary set of options
  • Cognitive Filtering – Making a quick decision and giving attention only to information that supports it
I don't expect this is comprehensive, just a listing of the ones that one author chose to mention, but it's a good start on a more extensive exploration of the topic.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Design as Conversation

I’m doing rather a lot of remote user testing these days – people use a site to view information about a proposed product and respond verbally to what they are shown and asked.   Most of the respondents follow a predictable pattern, reading a question, giving a brief answer, and moving on – but one of them took an unusual and rather interesting approach: she had a conversation with the product page.
“You say you are a [type of company] and that you want to talk to me about a new product called [product name].    I understand the kind of company you are and I do not know anything about the product.” 
 “You say that this product is supposed to [description of benefit].  I understand what you mean, and I think that what you’re offering is interesting to me because [her reason for being interested] but I am also suspicious about [certain aspects of the agreement].”
 “You say that [key selling point] and I’m not sure I believe you.   It sounds good, but right now it’s just a claim you’re making without proof.  I’ll be listening to hear if you provide any support for that claim later.”
She carried on throughout the test like this, “you say” the various information we presented on the product information page.  “I think” about what her reactions were.   It was very thorough, detailed, and useful.

I’d like to be able to coach others to do this, but my sense is it would be weird and artificial for them, and it might taint the results.   But I do think that this conversational model can be flipped to talk about the product and page design.   “We are telling the user [this], and we expect them to think [that]” – or for more interactive models, to say “We are asking the user [this] and we expect them to say [that]”

I’ll mediate on this a bit more later – for now I wanted to document the experience and its potential for use as a design method.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Prized Possessions

In conducting research into personal finance, an interviewer asked an odd question to put the interviewee at ease: she asked them to tell her of their most prized possession – a physical object they had purchased themselves rather than received as a gift.  It was not intended to be part of the study, just a non-sequitur to put them at ease and get them confortable talking about personal matters – but the results were rather interesting.

There was no consensus on the item itself – for one participant it was a wristwatch, another their car, another had a favorite pair of shoes, and so on.   But there were some common themes as to why they prized that particular possession:
  1. It was expensive or difficult to obtain – such that the act of purchasing it felt like a significant personal accomplishment
  2. It was related to their personal identity – something about owning or using the object was related to a character trait they admired
  3. They mentioned the brand – without prompting, every person named the brand of the item, and many knew the model name
There were a few other qualities that were repeated by some of the participants, but these three were the only universals that were mentioned by every single person when asked about their most prized possessions.  While the research was qualitative, I do think that this would stand up to the rigors of a broader quantitative inquiry.

I’ve meditated on this a while, and have no general conclusions or prescriptive advice.  My sense is that the qualities that make a given product into a prized possession occur by happenstance.   With the exception of true luxury brands, no brand seeks to make its product expensive and difficult to obtain – quite the opposite, in fact – and I do not believe it is within the power of a marketer to cause a product to correlate to admirable character traits: they can create this perception through advertising, but it’s only through ownership and use that the association will be validated.

However, it may help to understand the reason that many brands must struggle, and ultimately fail, to become the prized possessions of their customers.  It is highly unlikely that any mass-market product will be expensive or difficult to obtain, and some products have very little chance of being or becoming related to the expression of an essential character trait.   The mass-produced staple goods are brands of routine consumption that, while indicative of certain qualities of the product, have no special significance to the consumer - hence they have little chance of ever being regarded as a prized possession.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Disadvantage of Self-Service

The greatest advantage of technology is empowerment: it enables many people to perform a task in spite of their lack of expertise.   This is also the greatest disadvantage of technology – because while it enables people to do a task, it does not enable them to do it well.

It’s easy to observe when the results are visual: an accounting clerk, given a word processing program, can “design” documents.   He can lay out a document, choose typefaces and colors, decorate it with clip-art, and perform other tasks he has no skill or training at doing – and the result is absolutely hideous and unreadable because he doesn’t have the skills of a designer.

An in the spirit of fair play, it works both ways:  a designer, given a spreadsheet application, can do accounting work.  They can enter numbers, create categories, and do financial analyses with the software – and the result is just as awful, wrong, and dangerous to reply upon because he doesn’t have the skills of an accountant.

A hapless and unskilled worker with sophisticated tools does not become an expert, nor capable of doing the work of someone with skills and experience – though their ignorance and narcissism make many of them loath to admit it.   And a lazy or cheap manager, who does not himself understand or prioritize quality, will provide no discouragement – and may in fact be very supportive of having “Bob the Accountant” design the company’s sales brochures because he has the software to do so.   It’s certainly cheaper than hiring a real designer to do the work.

But take this a step further … the same attitude is taken toward the customer.   If the firm provides self-service capabilities, the customer can take on tasks that had previously been performed by skilled (read “expensive”) employees who currently provide them with service.  

This idea, while financially attractive, can only lead to disaster.   Some customers are capable of self-service, others are not.  And it will become clear which are or are not when they find that self-service does not lead to the fulfillment of their needs to a degree of quality they find acceptable.

And customers can be just as narcissistic and ignorant as employees in this regard: they feel that whatever they did for themselves must have been done right, and so if there is any dissatisfaction with the outcome, it is the company they did business with that is to blame.   It’s the solution that did not perform the job adequately, not their lack of expertise in using it, and they will switch to a different solution provider.

And while the economic efficiency of customer self-service will continue to attract firms to any prospect of reducing their labor, it must be done with the consideration that when any cost is saved, the quality of service is invariably diminished – so follows customer satisfaction, and so follows market share.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but they tend to be rare.