Sunday, December 22, 2013

Does the Economist read my blog?

Great story in the Economist (actually from last week, but I am a little behind in my reading) that makes exactly the point I made.  The story is about how many environmental groups are conveniently in the "follow the scientific consensus" camp when that fits their gut instinct but in the "better safe than sorry" camp when that one fits better.

The two examples in the Economist article are GMO crops and global climate change.  When it comes to climate change, environmentalists have a strong argument that the scientific consensus has shown that climate change is caused by human activity.  So we need to do something about it.

But then when it comes to GMO crops, the scientific consensus is that there are tremendous benefits (e.g. Golden rice filled with beta carotene, doubled crop productivity in arid regions of Africa) and the only negative evidence was recently retracted because the study was poorly done.  But what is the response from a large set of European and Asian environmental groups (and some in the U.S. too)?  What if the scientific consensus is wrong?

 I was just going to mention this as a comment on the previous post.  But then I read this.  The main conclusion of 60 years of studies?  Human judgment on complicated topics really sucks compared to scientific consensus.  Our heuristics are great for short term, simple, straightforward cause-effect decisions.  But once you get more than a few factors involved or have to make short term sacrifices for long term gains, we really truly suck at it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Bentley rocks the future of UX

I was beaming with pride as I read UX Magazine’s Top UXpredictions for 2014.  No, they didn’t ask me for my prediction.  But several of the top predictions from some of the leading thought leaders in UX are exactly what we focus on in the Bentley MS in HFID and BS in IDCC programs.  It is almost like we looked into the future ten years ago (actually Bill Gribbons should get the credit here) and tailored the curriculum for today’s future (one of my favorite oxymorons :-)). 

Here are the ones I am talking about:

#1.  More UX designers will develop expertise in marketing and business.  That is a no brainer for Bentley, we are one of the only UX-related programs that are housed in a business school.  Both our BS and MS programs, of course.  In fact, we are not just a business school, we are a Business University.

#2. More programs will appreciate the importance of customer experience (which is a wider concept than user experience). Yup.  We do that.  Again, both BS and MS programs.

#3. UX will be blended with content strategy.  I just finished teaching our undergrad content strategy course and 90% of my students were in the IDCC program. 

Most of the predictions after #3 are too specific to describe any particular program.  Things like responsive design and mobile first design.  And some are negative predictions so I am glad we don’t reflect those.

Then when you get towards the end:

#15 and #16: Positive Computing and Conscious Experience.  These focus on considering more than just utility and usability in design – also thinking about what will improve the lives of the users on a broader scale – emotional health, intrinsic motivation, human connection.  We don’t have courses in these specifically but they are the areas where I have been focusing my research lately so we are poised to be leaders there too.

Yeah Bentley!!!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Liberty or Safety first?

As anyone following my blog knows, I love investigating situations where people clearly hold opposing views at the same time and experience no internal conflict.  So I found the recent ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court as a good lead in for a new post.

Think about this general philosophic question:  When the government is considering a regulation that would constrain some kind of freedom, should the burden of proof be on proponents to prove that there is no harm or opponents to prove that there is harm?  In other words, do you believe in a “better safe than sorry” standard where we should prevent anything that isn’t proven safe?  Or do you believe in a “liberty unless proved otherwise” standard” where we should allow everything, in the name of liberty, unless there is a clear government interest in banning it (e.g. it is dangerous)? 

It is important to think about this in in the abstract because of the human irrational thought processing that I blog about so much.  Once we focus on a particular topic, we first think about what we want to be the policy and then rationalize that it is the proper philosophical stance.

So before you read on – make your abstract decision.  Which is the correct philosophic stance?  Better safe than sorry?  Or liberty unless proved otherwise?  Who has the burden of proof?

OK, now think about specific examples and see if you are indeed a real human – i.e. a hypocrite (which is our natural state – sorry to break it to you).   I know you will say, "but there is evidence for #1, there isn't evidence for #2!!!  But I am asking the question in the abstract.  What would have been your starting point before the evidence was in?

WARNING – these are touchy subjects.  You will definitely have emotional reactions just to asking the questions.  That is my point!  Emotional reactions trump your philosophic stance.  You will rationalize contradicting what you said earlier on at least one of these? 
  • Do we allow genetically modified foods until there is evidence of some kind of harm?  Or do we ban them until there is evidence that they are safe?
  • Do we allow new pharmaceuticals on the market based on efficacy trials until someone proves they have long term harms?  Or do we require drug makers to do long term studies, holding drugs that could be helping patients, off the market until they are proved safe? 
  • Do we regulate greenhouse gases just in case we are destroying the world with them, even at the expense of economic growth?  Or do we wait until the evidence is clearer?
  • Do we allow the NSA to collect telecommunications metadata until we can prove it doesn’t combat terrorism?  Or do we prevent it until they can prove it will help?
  • Do we allow same sex couples all of the rights and freedoms of heterosexual couples until there is evidence of harm? Or do we hold off until there is clear evidence there is no harm.

In case you were wondering about the earlier reference to the NW court ruling, they found that the state could not ban same sex marriage until they could prove that there was a clear government interest.  In other words, liberty first. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Social Reinforcement on

Graham likes the notification on where it says something to the effect of “This hotel has been booked 8 times in the last 24 hours.”  Why is this relevant?  There are two possible purposes.  One, if a lot of people are booking it, it must be a good place.  This is social reinforcement.  Second, if a lot of people are booking it, it might be full soon.  So you better hurry up.  This is an urgency cue. 

Both of these are basic survival motivators.  We evolved to be sensitive to scarcity because if there was only a little left of something important (and all resources could be in scarce supply 200,000 years ago), it was important for survival to get some - just in case.  We evolved to be sensitive to social cues because being part of the tribe was also a key to survival.  So viscerally, these techniques are effective.  This also makes them effective as sales techniques, at least in the short term.

I like urgency in games because I am not suspicious of the ulterior motive when it comes from a salesperson.  I see urgency in a sales context as the equivalent of those infomercials that scream at you “Buy Now!” and they have a 30 second countdown when the deal will end. I wouldn’t buy from those just out of spite!!  So I prefer designs like Kayak that give you a simple notice of remaining inventory.  “3 Tickets left at this price.”  It is still urgency, but it seems more honest.  The design is also clear because it is within a list of flights where some have 2 left and some have no notification at all (more than 5 left I guess).

Social reinforcement can serve two purposes from a sales context.  For one, it is a signal of quality. If many people are buying something, then you won’t look like a fool if you get one too.  The signal is even better if it comes from your social network – 8 of your friends have bought this.  When it comes from your friends it adds a dimension of appropriateness.  If my friends like it, and I have things in common with my friends, then there is a better chance that I will like it to.  This is a closer match than 8 random other people. 

So urgency and social reinforcement cues can be effective, but only if they are designed right.  Urgency has to be relevant and seen as authentically intended to help you rather than to pressure you.  If a shopper is just at the beginning of the search process and is not ready to buy, then urgency is oppressive.  This is the fundamental psychological motivator called “The need for autonomy.”  We want autonomy, and we rebel from anything that seems intended to constrain us.  So urgency cues should be very subtle at early parts of the shopping funnel and more salient later.

On the other hand, social reinforcement might be better at the beginning because it helps the shopper narrow down his or her choices.  At the end it is too late.  If I have spent five screens browsing and comparing different products and once I have it narrowed down enough to get to the final add-to-cart step, I don’t want to find out that none of my friends like this.  So social reinforcement cues should be salient early in the shopping funnel and perhaps more subtle later.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mining for help

I am going to generalize Graham’s fourth UX element a little bit to make it a better topic for discussion.  He likes the way Gmail scans your email text for the word “attachment” and if you don’t attach anything it pops up a notification asking if you meant to.  As someone who forgets to attach files to emails all the time, I can really appreciate the value of this. And given that I know lots of other people who also do, I think the feature is a no-brainer on value.

But what about similar features?  What else could an email system search for and warn you about?  Here is one that I think might be valuable.  Semantic analysis systems are getting pretty good at judging blocks of text for their emotional valence.  I think the state of the art know is that they can tell if something is very or slightly positive, very or slightly negative, or neutral.  They miss some things like snarky sarcasm or culturally specific metaphors.  But overall they are not too bad and getting better.  So what if your Gmail account notices that you just wrote a critical email to your boss or your mother and pops up “Are you sure you want to send this?” kind of message?

I am sure many of you are more creative than I am – what other good search-based notifications can we come up with for Gmail?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

History, memory, and reconsolidation

A great discussion this morning on On Point with Jay Parini got me thinking about human memory and what I have learned recently about re-consolidation of episodic memory.

The topic of the show was the history, mythology, and religion surrounding our knowledge of who Jesus really was.  There is a lot there, so I am just going to focus on one piece.  The Gospels were written 20-40 years or so after the events occurred.  The recent anniversary of JFK's assassination and the death of Nelson Mandela provide some good modern analogies.  Out of everything you heard last month about JFK and last week about Mandela, how much of it was perfectly true, patently false, or totally ambiguous?  I think a lot of it falls into that latter category. 

Here is where re-consolidation comes in. Every time we recall a memory (for example of JFK's actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis or Mandela's actions to give the black South African's the vote), the memory gets reframed in the context of our current situation.  This is not intentional nor is it a good or bad thing, it is just a function of the way the hippocampus and frontal cortex are wired together.  They are using this phenomenon to treat PTSD by having soldiers recall painful experiences in an environment where they feel peaceful and safe.  The two feelings get mixed together and the memory becomes less painful. 

We can do the same thing with details surrounding a memory.  Imagine yourself running around the playground when you were in grade school.  You are either remembering a photo of yourself at that age or you are imagining what you currently look like only shorter.  This second option is reconsolidation.

So what does this have to do with Jesus, JFK, and Mandela?  With the cold war over, we can think of JFK's decisions in a much more positive light.  With Mandela's subsequent leadership of South Africa, we can do the same thing with his earlier terrorist activities.  I saw a lot of this reframing going on in the past months.  The same thing most likely happened with all historical figures, including Jesus.  Those days were very exciting to say the least.  There was chaos in much of the Middle East.  The various sects that were splintering off the mainstream Jews were looking for messiahs.  In those 20-40 years, a lot happened that would have affected how Jesus the historical figure was seen. 

So no matter what you think of his religious identity, everyone who remembered him would have a very different perspective depending on their frame of reference 40 years later.  Even if Jesus was divine, the people remembering him were most definitely human and had brains wired for reconsolidation.  Their memories could not be anything other than blended, muddled, mixes of actual memories, imagined memories, and current ideas.  Contradictions in the Gospels is not evidence of lying, cheating, or exaggerating, just reconsolidation at work.  Not much help when trying to decide what to believe.

Easy product views on hover

The second two UX elements that Graham points out are fundamentally the same idea – using the hover function to support effective browsing.  He notes that on Lilly Pulitzer (which sells women’s apparel), when you hover over a product photo (such as a model wearing a Lilly Pulitzer dress) on a search results page or on a category page it shows you the rear view.  On Land’s End, you can easily see an item in a variety of colors.  Underneath each product photo there is a palette of colors that the item is available in.  When you click on one of them, the item photo changes to that color without reloading the page.

For a wide variety of shopping use cases, seeing the rear view of an item and seeing the item in different colors are both very important.  Using the hover control makes it easier and faster.   How many times have you looked at a browsing function, estimated how long it would take for the page to load, multiplied this by the number of times you would have to use it while browsing the variety of products you want to consider, and then decided not to bother?  To use this function, you would either have to invest a lot more time than you planned or you would have to consider just a few items.  Not worth it. 

I think the logic behind this is pretty generalizable.  Any voluntary experience is a constant effort/benefit evaluation.  How much physical and mental effort will it be and what will I get out of it?  So any UX element has to be a net positive on this equation to be used and valued.  Changing to a hover function from a page load reduces the time and the frustration levels for the same benefit (additional views of the item).  There are some users on one extreme who would have used either version because they value the additional views very highly.  There are some users on the other extreme who would not bother with either version because they don’t value the additional views much at all.  But for those in the middle, we can add to their shopping experience and increase sales and satisfaction. 

The vendor would have to judge the number of users in this middle category given its demographics and product category and compare that to the programming cost of the hover function.  If you have decent data on these, it is a clear decision.

We can complicate this by also throwing in a variable like the time it takes for the hover effect to kick in.  If it is too long, the user may never realize that the function exists.  If they click and get taken to a detailed product page from the gallery page, then it defeats the purpose.  But this is a subject for another post.