Thursday, December 20, 2012


There was a great interview of Nassim Taleb on the BBC Daily Business broadcast that very succinctly summarizes his concept of anti-fragility.  As an industrial engineer, I have always promoted system robustness so seeing a fundamental flaw in it is a great piece of learning.  I find this rewarding for two reasons.  Most importantly, I am a better engineer and consultant as a result.  But also, experts have a notoriously hard time giving up ideas that have been a core part of their world-view so it is great to know I can. 

So what is anti-fragility?  Contrasting it with robustness is the best way to explain.  Systems are made up of many components.  Fragile systems are those where the failure of one of these components causes a failure of the whole system.  So robustness is an approach where you try to make each component resistant to failure.  If you prevent these small failures, you don't get the system-wide failure.  But this is where you get Taleb's Black Swan.  When you get a problem big enough to fail one of your robust components, the whole system fails so completely that it becomes a disaster.  The 2007 banking crisis is the example that made Taleb famous.  We also see it in modern forest fire prevention.  The more we prevent small fires from breaking out, the more disastrous the eventual state-wide wildfires we get.

So anti-fragility takes the opposite approach.  Let's design the system components so that they fail easily, but so that the system as a whole gets better as a result.  Small and frequent forest fires made the whole forest safer.  The more companies that go bankrupt in a country, the less risk there is that the whole economy will crash. 

Here is an example I have been considering in my personal life.  Many new parents are trying to prevent their infants from getting sick in any way.  Don't let them anywhere near a peanut, piece of dirt, germ . . .   But what seems to be happening is that the kids grow up to be more fragile rather than less.  They are more likely to have allergies, asthma, and other immune-system related diseases.  I like the old way better.  Let our kids grow up playing in mud, eating dirt and 15-second rule Cheerios.  I read somewhere that the Chinese have such a low incidence of peanut allergies because their kids start eating boiled peanuts at such a young age they haven't had a chance to develop an allergy yet. Plus, this seems like a less stressful way to live. 

Where else should we anti-fragile rather than robust?

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The solution to climate change - rapid evolution

If a species becomes threatened with extinction due to rapid changes in its ecosystem, is it possible for evolution (natural selection) to speed up?  In the past, researchers have used microbes and yeasts because they can test many generations in a small period of time.  They hoped to apply what they learned to things like islands after tsunamis, forests after fires, the earth after the meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs, and that kind of thing. 

It is now getting personal because of the impending climate change.  Will humanity be able to evolve through the changes that are looking more and more inevitable?  A special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society summarized the findings on what researchers have termed “rapid evolution” (RE).  This is not my area of expertise, but I think I can adequately summarize the basics. 

Here are the factors the help a species evolve rapidly:

·         Starting with a large population.  I think seven billion is pretty large!!
·         Genetic diversity.  I think we have that too,  There are some real bizaros out there.
·         Rapid intrinsic mutation rate. Thanks to all the crap we now put into our bodies, I think we got that too.
·         Strong natural fitness.  Definitely not all of us, but there are some incredible specimens out there.
·         Space in the ecosystem.  Since we are killing off the other species in advance, I think we have done this for ourselves.
·         Some luck.

Hmmm.  Maybe there is hope for us.  Well, some evolved version of us.  I wonder what that humanity would look like . . . .

Friday, December 07, 2012

Cognitive Resonance in a funny comic strip

I have blogged before about the phenomenon of cognitive resonance.  This is when we explain something we have done so that it makes rational sense, even when the real reason might not have been all that rational.  This is not a conscious thing (well, at least it doesn’t have to be).  It is just a natural way our brain works.

This makes sense from a long term adaptability perspective because we often make decisions or behave in ways that are based on emotion, instant gratification, and other suboptimal reasons but it is better not to think of ourselves as irrational.  For our brains to naturally do this and not even let our ego know about it works pretty well.

The most famous (at least among us behavioral science geeks) example is a study where people were asked to do a really boring task, either for free or for $20.  Then they asked them about the experience.  Which ones do you think thought it was most boring?  Their hypothesis was that the $20 people would because of the reward.  But the opposite happened.  The $20 people knew that they did it just for the money so it was OK for it to be boring.  But the people who got nothing had no justification. So their unconscious cognitive resonance retroactively convinced them that the task was not so boring, allowing them to feel better about having done it.

As a behavioral engineer, my job is to figure out how to use research results like this to design better systems, jobs, consumer products, or whatever.  And as usual, a comic strip says it better than I ever could.

Usability of post office delivery cards.

Usability of post office delivery cards.

I received a package through the US Postal Service that was sent Certified Mail.  It was delivered while I was at work (as I imagine happens a lot), so when I got home there was a postcard in my mailbox with an “Attempted Delivery” notice.  It seemed clear enough.  It gave me a few options:
  • They would redeliver it, again requiring me to be home (for security).
  • They would redeliver it without requiring me to be home (more convenience, less security)
  • I could pick up the package at the Post Office (the most security but the least convenience).

So why am I writing about this on a Human Factors blog? Simple, I signed the card, left it in my mailbox, and . . . .  nothing.  What day are they supposed to deliver it? 

I could imagine that it would take a day or two because the Post Office doesn’t know what my choice would be ahead of time.  They could have kept the package at the PO in case I came to pick it up, but then not been prepared for options 1 or 2.  But then they can’t deliver it.  Alternatively, they could have sent it with the carrier to cover either options 1 or 2 and not been prepared for option 3. 

Better service would have allowed me to log onto the USPS web site in the evening, input the package tracking number, and let them know in advance what to do with it.  Then I would have it just one day later.  But they don’t have that.

So it should have come the next day, right?  But for some reason, it did not.  Did they return it to sender?  That would be crazy to do so quickly, but you never know (it has happened to me in the past).  Is it being held at the Post Office despite the fact that I signed the card?  That would suck because I returned the card and so I have no tracking number.  Can I pick it up at the PO just with my ID?  No way to know. 

And on the original postcard it didn’t even say who the package was from, so I couldn’t call them to see if they could help.  Did they have a tracking number as part of their receipt?  Probably.  But who was it?  And since I returned the card, I may not have been able to check that for the sender contact info anyway. 

This is not a hard UX problem.  The card could have more information.  They process could be simpler.  There could be a web solution for everything.  UPS and Fedex seem to have these problems solved.  I hate to say it, but no wonder the USPS is going out of business.  They wouldn’t be losing such market share if they could just get the basics down.

Guest blogging on EID

I was asked to guest blog for the Ergonomics in Design journal, which is a publication of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.  These should show up about once a month and will be a little more specifically focused on human factors issues.  My first one is here.  I know I range a little wider on this blog.

I am looking forward to getting some new readership and I will cross link those posts here to get some good discussion going.  Don't worry, you won't miss anything by following me here :-). 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Amnesty for file sharers

Again, my favorite thought leader on the foibles of human decision making strikes again in his blog.  This post focuses on downloading media, in this case a book.  Or even more importantly, his book.

He was always in the camp that "information wants to be free."  You know, the justification people have been using for years to download music without paying for it.  But now that he is a world renowned author, there are people downloading his book for free.  Suddenly, he is not so sure.  He can laugh it off because he is so successful that it probably doesn't matter too much to his bottom line.  It also allows his to evaluate his own feelings a little more objectively.  The ability of people to rationalize their judgments according to their own self-interest is not surprising and fits into the models of information processing he has been advocating for years.

He goes on to talk about the long term impacts, specifically on the ideas of social proof and moving baselines.  Mom was right - just because "everyone is doing it" doesn't make it right.  But the social proof of a common behavior makes it easier to rationalize and so you can convince yourself that it is right for totally different and more supportable reasons.  This is a slippery slope of moral deterioration.

Another problem is that when we start down the slope, everything is relative.  Are you more ethical if you download only 5% of your music for free compared to someone else who is at 10%?  Probably not.  So once you start rationalizing it for one or two songs, it becomes easier to rationalize the rest.  5% become 10%.  10% becomes 50%.

How do we get this to stop?  Just like alcoholics can't just drink a little, to stop this kind of slippery slope requires abstinence.  We need to convince people to stop downloading media illegally cold turkey.  But how?  If you stop today, you still have your past behavior hanging over your head and filling up your self-image schema.  Once our self-image considers ourselves "polluted" by this past behavior, or we rationalize the past behavior as OK to make ourselves feel better, there is little incentive to change.

This is where Dan comes in.  He suggests that the content owners should declare an official amnesty.  Every past illegal download is hereby forgiven if you commit to quit.  We all get a fresh start.  It would have to be framed to make people feel good and/or proud of their commitment.  Branded properly, this could make a big difference in the prevalence of many unethical behaviors - including downloading Dan's book without paying.

Friday, November 16, 2012

False memories and positive user experience

There is a great guest blog on this week that summarize the recent research on false memories and how easy it is to implant them.

Of course, there were those famous cases from the 1990s where therapists “recovered” repressed memories of abuse in some of their patients.   They later found out that the events never happened, but not before destroying many families after false accusations, lawsuits, criminal cases, and more. 

The blog focuses mostly on more controlled studies where false memories are implanted during an experimental protocol.  The simplest example is a study where participants are shown a video of a car on car impact and asked either “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” or “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”  Using the stronger term “crashed” changed the way that the subjects encoded the video, even after a week delay.  For example, they falsely remembered that there was broken glass at the scene.

A more recent study the blog describes looked into the domain of eyewitness accounts of criminal acts.  This is a very important topic because false memories could lead to innocent people being convicted of crimes and guilty people getting away.  In the study, participants were shown videos of a man stealing a wallet from a woman and hiding behind a tree.  Then a witness reports that the person hid behind a door.  When tested immediately, the participants correctly remembered the tree 61% of the time and falsely remembered the door 31% of the time.  But after 18 month delay (which is no unusual in our court system), 45% of the participants correctly remembered the tree and 39% falsely remembered the tree.  Almost a 50/50 split.

My some lucky coincidence, Koen AT Claes published an article in UX magazine titled “Should we focus on user experience?”  The message of the article is that it doesn’t really matter what a user’s actual experience is while using a system, just what he/she remembers.    So if we can design our user experiences so that the memory is positive, there can be as many frustrations, confusions, or whatever along the way – it just doesn’t matter. 

I have blogged before that the emotion attached to the memory of an event depends on the strongest emotion experienced and the last emotion experienced.  So if you are on vacation and have one really great day and end on a high note, the rest of the vacation could have sucked – you will remember it fondly.  And the opposite is also true if you have one really bad day or end on a low note.  The advice I gave at the time is to make sure you schedule one really kick ass thing to do during any vacation you take.  And the vacation can be really short (saving time and money) as long as you get the kick ass activity in.  And make sure you don’t schedule the flight home at some miserable or stressful time. 

So how do we put these two together?  We can design user experiences into our system so that it ends really positively and we implant a false positive memory into the user and we don’t need to worry as much about the rest.  The details would depend on the system, but one example would be putting a lot of work into your confirmation screen and perhaps a thank you follow up.  After a long, frustrating, confusing purchase we can send the user a note that they are awesome, your favorite customer, give them an intangible but meaningful perk of some kind, and then still end up smelling like roses.

I am typing this somewhat tongue in cheek – I don’t think we should ever design bad process flows or screens and make up for it with some lipstick on the pig.  Better for both to be good – the real experience and the remembered one.  But it is good insight in terms of allocating limited resources around the process.  More on the later steps, even if it means less on the early ones.  Unless of course you get user drop-off before they even get to the later good stuff.  So it is complicated.  But good to keep in mind.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Open government - the good and the bad.

 I wasn't sure whether to put this post in Public Policy or Human Factors because it is a great example of both.  Also great examples of why I love TED.  These two talks are from TED global 2012. 

Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian who talks about the folly of how democracy is not working.  But his main point is not about Bulgaria, but about open democracy.  My favorite quote is from the President when they decided to put all ministerial meetings online.  Rather than worrying that this would open up their deliberations to the public he thought this was the best way to force all ministers to keep their mouths shut.  You never know when your words can come back to haunt you and this removes all plausible deniability.  You can't say the words were taken out of context.  The same thing that makes democracy better (transparency) also makes it worse.  It is all about how you manage it.

Beth Noveck's talk is much more positive.  She has studied how open government is practiced around the world.  Her main point is that you need more than just transparency.  You also need participation.  Information has to flow in both directions for open government to be useful.  Her examples are really uplifting when you think about the potential of matching a good objective, a good UI, and good crowdsourcing. 

I am almost intentionally not doing these TED talks justice so that you will have to go watch or listen to the originals.  They are both worth the 15 minute investment.

Beth Noveck
Ivan Krastev  

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Self-identity credit

Great example of the self-identity credit fallacy on one of my absolute favorite shows – Burn Notice (OK, I was watching a repeat of an August episode).  The spies offered a bribe to an arms dealer’s COO.  He was offended that they would even ask!!  For the next day or so, he felt very self-righteous and proud of himself for being such as honorable person.  He built up his self-identity for being honest and loyal.  Now, he had some self-identity credit to burn, which allowed him to accept the bribe the next day. 

This might sound hypocritical, but it is common.  Researchers have demonstrated this at restaurants.  The more salads that are on the menu, the more likely people are to order something less healthful (I think it was French fries in the study).  By imagining themselves ordering all of these healthy salads, they built up their self-identity for being healthy, allowing them to spend the credit ordering the French fries.  Note that this did not actually require ordering the salad, just imaging themselves ordering it.

Another study found this with smoking.  Just telling people that you plan to quit gives you self-identity credit for trying to quit.  So you don’t have to try as hard to actually quit. 

I find myself doing this all the time.  If I need to do something hard or unpleasant, I tell everyone how dedicated I am to doing it.  Then, after I have built up sufficient self-identity credit for my dedication, I can avoid it altogether and still feel good about myself.  Of course, nothing ever gets done this way.  But that is why it is “predictably irrational” (HT to Dan Ariely for the great appellation).