Friday, April 13, 2007

unintended consequences

Here is a good one about unintended consequences and multi-functional devices. The obvious benefit of multi-functional devices is that you only have to carry around one device instead of several. So in theory, you are more likely to use a function because you are more likely to have it with you when you feel like using it.

But companies have discovered there is leverage involved in this relationship. Sometimes, people use the device just because they have it, even if they don't really have a specific desire for the function. The cliche is that when you are holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Another product use insight is the risk curve. People are comfortable with a certain level of risk. So if you reduce the risk associated with a product, it does not make users safer. Instead, they use the product more aggressively or more often so that the experienced risk stays the same. This was seen in tests of non-lethal weapons given to soldiers and police. Because the person being shot was not killed, users lowered their threshold for use. In other words, they didn't need to be quite as sure an adversary deserved to be shot in order to use the weapon because they didn't have to worry that an innocent person would die. They would just be hurt/inconvenienced. This occurred with weapons such as stun guns, laser guns (that shoot bursts of intense heat that don't actually burn the skin), etc.

So here is a new proposal that I think would do wonders for public civility. A company proposed combining a taser with a cell phone. Imagine if everyone not only had a taser with them, but it was often right in their hand. Want to shut up that annoying person on the subway? Taser them. Your friend giving you a hard time across the table at the restaurant? Taser them under the table. How long would it take for us to start being really nice to each other????

Thursday, April 05, 2007

fictional schema

One of the challenges that we face when working in the real world is that people have all kinds of experiences in a variety of contexts. Because schema develop unconsciously in a non-differentiated way, except when there is a specific reason to differentiate them. So if we think of a reason to differentiate after the fact, it is too late, even when the aggregation directly violates a task objective.

That is a complicated way to describe the following example. When people watch Law and Order, the develop an opinion of Fred Thompson's character. On the show, he is strong, tough on crime, and several other good qualities. But of course, these are written by the scriptwriters and director, not Fred himself. But since viewers only know him as the character, they have no reason to have two schemas of him, one of the character's attributes and one of his real attributes.

But now that he is running for president (his real person), it is too late for people to associate the older episodic memories with "fictional" and the new ones with "presidential candidates." They can when they concentrate on it, but most people generate gut instincts without this kind of concentration. In fact, that's what makes it a gut instinct.

In studies of this kind of situation, people will attribute the fake qualities to the real person when asked to describe the real person. When pushed to report how they know, they will try hard to think of real events, and failing this, stretch the truth until something matches. This is not an intentional deception, but a natural, unconscious, brain function.

So in effect, people will be evaluating his qualifications for president based on his Law and Order characteristics.

I even find myself doing that. I like the show and I like his character on it. On the other hand, I don't like his real politics (he actually was a Senator from Tennessee for 8 years). But when I see him, I can't help but like him because of his character. Even though I know the difference.

I guess it doesn't really matter though. People get elected for a lot worse reasons than that.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Easy and simple

There have been a ton of articles lately in all of the business magazines, newspapers etc that discuss how products that have tons of features and are complicated to use are losing out to simpler products with fewer features but that do a few things well.

There are examples in video games (the Wii), cell phones, portable word processors (the Neo), and many others. I love reading stories like these because it shows that usability beats sexy technology every time (at least as soon as customers figure out which models are the usable ones).
The research studies that look in more detail into this phenomenon find that new customers make their first purchase based on the number of features because they don't know what is usable and what isn't. This is especially true for "early adopters" who care more about bragging rights than use anyway. But the bulk of the customer base cares more about usability because they need to use the core functions on a regular basis. If they were unlucky and purchased an unusable model, they switch on their next purchase. So new customers get suckered, which explains the popularity of the sexy models at first, but the usable ones win out in the end.

Go Team!!!