Monday, June 21, 2010

Being bored sometimes is a good thing

Another great Harvard Business Review blog post this week, this one from Peter Bregman. The focus on the iPad is a little tongue in cheek, but the conclusion (the second half of the post) is really important. All of the technology we are surrounding ourselves with and multi-tasking around it is causing a constant attentional focus that reduces creativity. It is when you are bored that your brain has a chance to process what it has learned ("consolidation" in the HF technical lingo) and to link concepts that were not linked in our day to day activity (the precursor for creativity, innovation, and other good stuff).

So whatever technology you are surrounding yourself with, make sure to take an hour or two each day to put it down and just process. Take a walk (without it) and stare at the trees. It's good for you physically and mentally. And it will increase your productivity in the long term so you don't have to feel guilty about it.

Big goals and small goals.

Bob Sutton has a great blog post at Harvard Business Review this week. It makes a subtle but very important point.

There is a lot of research (such as the work of Locke and Latham that he cites in the post) that show the advantages of setting goals that I refer to as Cinderella goals. They are challenging enough to require hard work, focus, creativity, etc. But not so challenging that you get frustrated of give up. You have to believe that they are attainable.

Locke and Latham's research describes all the advantages of these goals. But Bob makes an important point. You can't focus on these on a day-to-day basis because they tend to have more of a long term focus and because you would burn out if you try. So he talks about balancing them out with some short term goals that are a bit less challenging.

When you hit these short term goals, you feel good, motivated to start on the next one, perhaps tangibly rewarded (i.e. by a bonus from mgmt). Long terms effects of regular goal achievement are less stress, more life (and or job) satisfaction, and general happiness.

I am certainly not suggesting to give up the Big Hairy Audacious Goals (btw this term was coined by Jim Collins in "Good to Great"). But balance is important.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Faceted Navigation

If you are interested in designing web navigation, please read this from A List Apart. It's an excerpt from Morville and Callender's new book on search patterns and it is about Faceted Navigation, which is a powerful way to support users navigating through a large content space, such as a huge store, news archive, or library.

If you use Kayak to find plane tickets, you are familiar with faceted navigation. But this article has great advice how to do it right (not that Kayak doesn't, this is just more complete).

Avatars and assimilation

There is a great research study that just came out in the journal "Computers in Human Behavior." For the non academic readers, these are the basics:

Previous research has shown that we have simultaneous needs to conform and to be unique. So when we are deliberating in a group, we try to balance being agreeable and promoting our own opinions. Think about when you are deciding with your family or friends about where to go for dinner - part of you really wants Italian and part of you wants to get along and just accept the group decision.

This study looked at virtual deliberations when you are represented to the team as an avatar. They looked at cartoon characters where everyone either had the same avatar or different avatars and whether the avatars were human or animals. Then they gave participants dilemmas to solve - first on their own, and then to deliberate with four other people. But unbeknownst to the participants, the other four people were confederates who always took the other side as the participant. So each person found themselves one against four.

What they found is that some people had a need for group identity and were more likely to conform. Others had more need for individualism and were less likely to conform. No one was ambivalent.

But when it came to the avatars, they found some interesting results. When everyone had the same avatar, people had a very high group identity and were more likely to conform. Something about thinking of yourself as the same as everyone, even subtly like this, impacted deliberation behaviors. This was true whether the avatars were humans or animals.

But when everyone in the group had their own avatar, there was a difference. When the avatars were a group of human cartoons that all appeared about 30 years old and were one of each major ethnicity and 50/50 by gender, the group identity was the same as when they were all the same. But when they used cartoon animals (a lion, dog, bird, cat), there was a dropoff. Something about the similarity of the human avatars allowed participants to bond to the group that didn't happen with animals. We must have some kind of innate need to affiliate with humanity. Or maybe it was the age similarity (because ethnicity and gender were different).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hagel on Florida

You can't do better than reading this. When one brilliant forward thinker reviews the book of another brilliant forward thinker, you get two for the price of one. And when he posts it on his blog, the price is free too. Rather than comment, I will just let you enjoy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Smart clothes

This is an interesting design idea. Basically, your clothes are fitted with physiological sensors that use data mining to model your emotional state. Based on your emotion, your iPod or other device can be tuned to a song/image/even maybe smell some day that is tuned to it. When you are sad, you can get a happy song or a funny video. When you are angry, you can get a soothing song or the image of a cute baby. Depending on how good the modeling is, perhaps it can sense when you are enjoying the experience of wallowing in your sorrow (i.e. after a relationship breakup) and amplify it with a sad song. There are many directions to go with this.

But the question is whether the user would accept the software deciding for them. How hard is it to select your own song to fit what you are feeling! Is this the kind of automation we need? It may depend on whether we are talking about mood or emotion. Mood is a general feeling that lasts for some time. Emotion is something that hits you fast. When you are experiencing road rage after some idiot driver cuts you off, perhaps automation is a good idea. But when you are just feeling sad, selecting the sad songs is half the fun and probably just as therapeutic as hearing the songs.

This is new, so there are no companies actually offering the product yet. But I hope they do some ethnography to make sure they are targeting the right user contexts.

Friday, June 11, 2010


Now that 3D TV is on the horizon (it's even here for some early adopters), I was thinking about some of the consequences if glasses are needed:

1. If you break your 3D glasses, you can't watch TV. Is that a high enough risk to make it not worth it? How sturdy would they have to be?

2. If you misplace your 3D glasses (they are next to the remote, the car keys, and the extra sock from the drier :-D), you can't watch TV. How much of a hassle is that?

3. How many pairs of 3D glasses would you need? When I have friends over to watch the "big game", it could be 20. Does that mean I need 20 pairs? Could they bring their own, or would each brand of TV have different glasses? Is it worth getting 3D if it means not having parties any more? I know lots of people over the years that did the same thing with Lost, Sex in the City, and many other shows.

4. Would the 3D glasses make you look goofy? Personally, this isn't a big deal for me (watching at home), but for some people, especially with friends over, it could be.

5. What other negatives are there? Could all of these slow down the adoption of 3D TV??

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Burning your Bridges

I was just reading an article about something totally unrelated, but they mentioned the old saying "don't burn your bridges" and it got me thinking. I was just teaching in my HF course about decision making and how we think that having more options makes for better decisions, but it actually makes us worse. The cognitive heuristic of loss aversion makes us fear making a mistake in choosing one option over another. The more options, the more fear and the harder it is to make decisions. Not only does it take longer and require more cognitive resources, but the negative emotion also fundamentally changes the way the decision is made - forcing attention to small details and losing the big picture.

So my thought was that it is often good to burn your bridges when it reduces the number of options we have to make important decisions. Whether you are choosing a major, a job, a relationship, or even what to order from a restaurant menu. By eliminating some choices from the consideration set, you make the decision faster, easier, and more reliable.

So if you leave an interview thinking you don't really want the job, tell them "no" as soon as possible. Don't leave it on the table thinking "well, maybe it would be a fallback position" or "maybe I will change my mind later." I realize with the current job market, this may be difficult and a bad job is better than no job at all when you have mouths to feed. But in general, I think it is a good approach - at least a better approach than we think.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Marketing Strategy on National Donut Day

Today is National Donut Day.

Krispy Kreme is giving away a free donut just for walking in.

Dunkin' Donuts is giving a free donut with a beverage purchase. The beverages cost 5-10 times what the donut does.

Which one shows an appreciation for its customers? Which one makes you feel good about being a customer? Which one makes you want to go back?

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

False Affordances

I recently bought a multi-pack of peanuts (20 bags of 100-calorie packs). But one of the packs was overstuffed. The packaging was the same size, but it was bulging. I figured maybe it was spoiled, but when I opened it, it just seemed to have a lot of extra peanuts and a bunch of peanut powder. I thought maybe this was the "bottom of the barrel" but fine to eat. In fact a benefit - I got a 200-calorie pack!!!

I will let you know tomorrow if I get food poisoning :-D. But my purpose today is to wonder about affordances. When you get a product, the various attributes tell you a lot about it - either explicitly through instructions and labels or implicitly through design. In this case, I was wondering if a bulging package indicated spoilage or just an error in the filling process.

This got me thinking about how much of our interaction with everyday products are based on such implicit affordances. Implicit affordances are much more efficient than explicit ones - there is only so much room on the package for labels and we often don't read them anyway. And when we do, we misunderstand them (don't get me started on nutrition labeling!!).

When the affordance is false - i.e. gives us the wrong information - it can have real consequences (from personal injuries to damaging the product, to just general product failure). Like in this case. Would you have eaten the peanuts? They tasted delicious, but I feel my left pinkie going numb!