Landslides

One idea (Rory Sutherland and Nassim Taleb talk about it most) that’s perpetually interesting is that in real life 2 x 5 does not equal 5 x 2. One perk of Central Florida is the theme park day trip. Going to the theme parks seven days during the year is different from a seven day vacation once a year.

The heart of this idea is the balance of effect and time. Sun-skin damage is like this. It’s much worse to get sun burnt twice a year than it is to get the equivalent amount of sun spread over many days outside. Stress follows this pattern as well, and sleeping on it tends to always make things better.

This (via Reddit) is the best visual representation of the idea. The same amount of material flows down but it reaches the town at different times. We used to live in Athens Ohio which would periodically flood and it was the same idea: effect over time. Five inches of rain in one day was not equal to one inch of rain over five days.

Marc Andreessen commented on this too with regards to the culture of work: “I’ve never really got the water cooler conversation thing at the office. Maybe it’s because I’m too introverted but I always thought the water cooler conversations were so facile, light, and substance free…I wonder if the in-person setting of an off-site, over a meal, over a drink where we aren’t under pressure or in between meetings or emails, where we actually get to know somebody might actually create much stronger relationships than someone you see at the water cooler everyday.

If the mechanism is effect over time, we can consider how to extend, delay, compress, or shift some impact in time.

Liberty addressed this in edition #149 regarding self-driving cars: “If they’re all communicating at very low latencies, it’s trivial to make micro-adjustments to avoid animals, and all other cars around would know what your car is planning on doing before it does it…To a computer, it’s all happening in super-super-slow motion.”

Zombie revenue

One tenant of jobs to be done is that people tend to be not great at articulating the scope of a purchase. For instance, in early June 2021 the lumbar support on my car seat broke. There are no plans to fix it, and this deficit will be some kind of non-zero explanation for when it’s time to get a new car. Will I reason with this later? Unlikely.

JTBD exists in these moments. One moment is when users hack a product. For instance 60 jail broken iPhone features became part of the iPhone. Or even Instagram, lauded for the design choices, drew from teenage boys taking screenshots of solid colors, adding text, and posting as the first polls.

Another according to JTBD father Bob Moesta is zombie revenue. Gym subscribers may make their model work but other businesses can find future fruitful funds in dead accounts. Basecamp, Moesta said, noticed that archived projects were zombie revenues. Customers didn’t need to manage something but they did need to access it and Basecamp created something for them.

Source: Bob Moesta
Full JTBD post.

Thinking like an Economist: Costs

With computers, “the stories were coming in at six or nine-thousand words,” rather than the three thousand words courtesy of typewrites, “but there wasn’t much more story.” What was happening, recalled Neil Gaiman, “if you’re typing, putting stuff down is work. If you have a computer, adding is not work. Choosing is work.”

To think like an economist is to think about costs. Cheaper tends to equal more, not only price but ambiguity, uncertainty, time and whatever frame a person looks through. To consider costs broadly is to think about design.

Gaiman’s writing shed has no Wi-Fi. This raises the cost. This is the same idea that James Clear told Ted Seides: even though your phone is 10 seconds away that 10 seconds is a huge cost compared to remaining on your couch.

Design Ease

James Clear joined Ted Seides to talk about habits:

“Or you see a plate of cookies on the table and that’s a visual cue for the cookies. The practical strategy is to make the cues for your good habits as obvious as possible. Rather than having cookies on the counter have fruit or nuts or something you want to eat.”

James Clear

Clear has a good framework which boils down to ease. Make the things you want to do easier (access, reward, feedback, etc.) and make the things you don’t want to do more difficult. We faced this one Christmas, relegating the cookies and promoting the fruit.

When the cookies (bottom left) were on the island we gorged on them. When they were moved five feet away to the corner, and replaced by fruit the gluttony stopped.

Recently we noted influential words and a potential addition is the word ‘design’. That’s a heavy word. It carries too much.

‘Design’ gives the impression that something was cultivated and refined. It gives the air of investment and taste. Design can be that, but there’s a quick and simple design rule that works almost all the time—and worked for our cookie and fruit switch at Christmas.

Go from zero to one.

Not in the Peter Thiel sense, but in the behavioral economics sense. If something is understood as free, we do more of it. Make us pay even a tiny bit though, and we do much much less.

Clear gives an example in the podcast. He told Ted that he’ll keep his phone in the other room, a mere 30 seconds away. That’s a big old nothing-burger of cost, yet it is when it comes to actually doing the thing. Try this. Put your phone one place and sit down with a book/computer/project in another.

Well done. You’re a designer.

Is “wet bias” a bad thing?

“Bias” tends to have negative connotations. It’s the “wrong” answer.

The problem here is a translation issue. It’s going from the world of One Answers (mathematics) to the world of Many Answers (life).

Weather is a fascinating demonstration. Nate Silver writes in the 2020 edition of The Signal and the Noise, “The further you get from the government’s original data and the more consumer facing the forecast, the worse this bias becomes.”

Relatedly:

(John Gruber) “I staunchly believe that Fahrenheit is the better scale for weather because it’s based on the human condition. Who gives a crap about what the boiling point of water is, it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

(Ben Thompson) “The other thing is that Celsius is not precise enough. In the car it adjusts it by point-five because a single degree of celsius is too much for the car. Fahrenheit is more finely grained in a positive way.”

This is why we have a wet bias. We design weather for people.

Silver again, “It’s deliberate and it has to do with economic incentives. People notice one kind of mistake, the failure to predict rain, more than another kind, false alarms. If it rains when it’s not supposed to they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic. Whereas an unexpectedly sunny day is taken as a serendipitous bonus.”

One change in my thinking over the yeas has been to reframe ‘bias’ as ‘tendency’ and then consider what’s happening. Humans are only illogical in the game of optimization, which matters in the world of calculations rather than considerations.

Wet bias may be inaccurate but that doesn’t make it wrong.

The Three Design Rules at Facebook

According to Julie Zhuo (YouTube), there are three design rules at Facebook. 

  1. What problem do people really have?
  2. Is this problem real? 
  3. How will we know if we solve it?

These three questions have a very JTBD essence to them. Serving customers is not just about giving them what they ask for but giving them what they really need. 

For example, Zhou said, many people over many years have asked Facebook for a dislike button. If there’s a thumbs-up for things we like, why can’t there be a thumbs-down for things we don’t? 

But this isn’t really what people want. If the Facebook feed was too much thumbs-down material and not enough friend’s photos, easy recipes (Tasty anyone?), and photos from the past no one would log on. What people want, said Zhuo, is that “not everything in the feed is likable and I want to express other things.”

It’s odd to think that what people say they want may not be what they really want, but we can trust this idea because conditions matter. For example, when parents were collected and questioned in focus groups about what kind of medical information they wanted for a vaccine, they said they wanted more information. The thinking was something along the lines of: ‘this is science, let me weigh the facts.’ 

But when researchers created 84 Facebook posts that went on to reach three-and-a-half million users, the results were different. The most resonate posts were those with personal stories. 

In another example, people were asked if they would wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. The yes/no split was largely along party lines. However, when people were observed out-and-about, political preference yielded to prudence. 

In finance, Nassim Taleb rails, ‘don’t tell me how to invest, show me what’s in your portfolio.’ Tyler Cowen says to look at your actions, and then tell me what you think. 

Zhou’s other good point to add to our JTBD quiver is to think not in terms of supplier language but demander. It’s not about the click-through-rate as much as it’s about engaging content. Financial advisors should never bring up words like theta, Sharpe ratio, or quarter-Kelly. None of those are about the JTBD. 

What is an accident?

The way we frame things matters. People are relative thinkers: more, a lot, and sorta—only matter when we ask, compared to what?

One framing is words. Vegetables, innovations, saving and investing, solitary confinement, and designated driver all affect our actions. This idea was brought up in a NYT piece on Avalanche School:

“As we packed up our notebooks and travel mugs, however, I wondered why these case studies were called accidents. To call these deaths and burials accidents implicitly perpetuated the idea that the randomness of nature was the killer, not the shortsightedness, cowardice or hubris of people.”

Heidi Julavits

This approach to auto ‘accidents’ comes up in Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic too. Names matter.

Jocko Willink developed “extreme ownership” as an accident antidote. With avalanche accidents and auto-accidents we externalize the blame. It wasn’t my fault. But Willink’s idea enters and synchs our history to our actions. Sometimes it’s a weak coupling, but it’s never an absent one. We hurried, and we got sloppy, and the odds tipped against us.

If we were to extend the idea names matter and affect how we understand the world we’d get something like the movie Arrival.

We believe in design and words are one tool in that collection.

 

 

Hand Washing Design

Update, April 25, 2020: The Behavioral Insights team researched which infographics communicated the best

John Gruber posted at Daring Fireball that when he washes his hands, he turns the water off and feels less rushed and more likely to wash for the CDC suggested twenty seconds. “It’s very clear to me after just two days that doing so makes it far more natural to spend more time actually sudsing your hands up. When you leave the water running, it subconsciously puts you in a bit of a rush, because you know you’re wasting water.” 

Rationally whether the water runs or not shouldn’t matter. The most important thing (mid-March 2020) is to kill the harmful viruses and bacteria people pick up during their (limited) social exposures. Though the chances are small, the consequences are the largest. However we aren’t rational and we don’t always wash our hands. 

At one teaching hospital, the best predictor of hand-washing was attending physicians. If they washed, the medical students followed. Multiple meta-analysis (meta-meta-analysis?) suggest the best option might be “multifaceted” nudges, educational materials, and bedside hand sanitizers. Another showed that performance reviews (personal wealth) and access to hand sanitizer (ease) had the strongest though-not-super-duper-strong effects. Incentives (personal health) also kept hand-washing levels high after the 2003 SARS outbreak.

What’s so interesting is that even though one path is clearly better, people need help following it. Hygiene is like diet or investments

This randomized control trial in India found a way to increase hand-washing 30X, even twelve months after the intervention. 

A study of 802 Kenyan households offers the model that makes the most sense to me for why people do anything. Those, “significant predictors of observed hand-washing behaviour: having the habit of hand-washing at particular junctures during the day, the motivated need for personal or household cleanliness, and a lack of cognitive concern about the cost of soap use.” 

Like finches, people are influenced by their environment. If we want to encourage actions like hand washing, social distancing, and factfullness we should design conditions that make those thing easy.

Design a minibar with Tim Harford

Like engineers, we sit around and think about ways to make the good easier and the bad harder. In December of last year this happened when I swapped a tray of cookies into the pantry and replaced it with dried fruit, fresh fruit, and nuts. Though the cookies were still an arm’s reach away, they were out-of-sight behind a door the cookie consumption crumbled.

As a fan of design, it was a treat to see Tim Harford’s approach in his FT article about adjusting his mobile phone usage:

Trying to get some work done with an internet-enabled device is like trying to diet when there’s a mini-fridge full of beer and ice cream sitting on your desk, always within arm’s reach

Tim Harford

Harford removed apps from his phone and installed software on his computer. Both actions increased the friction. It was a good nudge (Harford appreciates Thaler’s work), Harford had access, but had to work for it.

Design is not divine. Design is a messy process of interviews, prototypes, iterations, and all kinds of other stuff. Designing is like any other verb. It’s a skill people learn and like learning the guitar, it’s ineffecient at first.

Designs encourage the easy. There are no pull-up bars in hotel rooms. If there were, we’d do more pull-ups.

Designs encourage the easy. There are mini-fridges in hotels rooms. There are internet enabled devices in our pockets. To change an action, try to change the design.

A New POV

A new perspective can be invaluable. One expression is that a change in point-of-view is worth forty IQ.

In her Masters in Business podcast with Barry Ritholtz, Barbara Tversky highlighted research about design and creativity. She said:

“In order to design we have to get rid of old ways and think in new ways. We just finished an experiment asking people to think of new ways to use old things. The good answers come at about the ninth answer. The way we got people to generate these new ideas—how to use an umbrella in a creative way—was to ask them to think of differing roles of people. How would a doctor use this? How would a gardener?”

Barbara Tversky

Host Barry Ritholtz said it reminded him of the props portion of Whose Line is it Anyway.

A new perspective tends to help because it’s a new way to look at an issue. Even though we may be well versed in an area, we also may be on a blocked trail. Our familiarity with one path could be our hinderance.

When Bill Gates was asked why he could contribute to something like polio research, besides just dollars, he said that sunk costs and biases seep in along with the work. Instead there has to be an outside perspective that asks, have you considered this?

Part of the reason comedy, like Whose Line, works so well is because it offers a contrast from a different point of view. Ricky Gervais’s joke about guitar lessons is just that. He reframes Twitter into a physical message board. He reframes followers as passersby.

It’s great to hear about Tversky research because it provides a framework for how this can happen. Think of ten jobs, pretend you’re that person, come up with one answer for each. That’s it.

Other quotes from Tversky I liked:

  • “We have to learn routines to get through the day. If everything is a new problem it’s going to take too long.”
  • “Memories start getting distorted the minute you use language because they don’t happen in language.”