“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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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?”
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.”
One important thing Rory Sutherland’s book Alchemy did was remind people about the importance of subjectivity. In her talk, Balancing Order and Chaos in UX, Katie Dill (Lyft, Airbnb) talks about how Virgin Atlantic made people feel different even though their seats are the same size and material.
Mohnish Pabrai said something similar about Southwest, “I go on a Southwest aircraft and I’m in coach and I usually find I’m happy. I’m in a happier state of mind in coach in Southwest versus business in American. Why is that? I don’t know.”
On the easy metrics, Pabrai is getting less value. But he’s happier. There’s hidden metrics at play.
Companies like Virgin and Southwest or Disney, Dill explains, have an advantage because they own the experience. For marketplaces, like Lyft and Airbnb, Dill has advice on what a business operator can do to create the same perceived value advantage as “full stack” companies.
Zoom out, “have a perspective on what you are trying to deliver, it’s not just one moment.”
Look out, “where can the shit hit the fan and where can we solve for it prior?”
Set the stage, “use guardrails.”
Don’t overstep and smother the user’s quirks.
Open up, “the community is the key.”
Good design (and its rewards) aren’t about the finished style but the production style. Design is about collaboration. Dan Lockton said, “When people feel they are being influenced in a way that doesn’t match their understanding of the situation they will rebel.”
The best designs serve users. The best designs pave desire paths.
We focus on design because of the potential upside. In his talks on The Hungry Brain, Stephan J. Guyenet brings up the optimal foraging equation.
That same approach works for design. The cost for a good design is relatively low and the gained value—especially because all value is perceived value—is relatively high.
Good design is why Pabrai likes Southwest, even though the seats are smaller. Good design is often hard to measure but the results show there’s something there.
On the 99pi episode, #385 Shade, Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt talk about the trend of trees on terraces. Kohlstedt said:
“One of the things that always cracks me up when looking at their (architect’s) renderings is that you’ll see all the trees on the sides of the buildings and they’ll depict the plaza below with a couple of trees. I can’t help but think; if you want to go all green, the easiest way is to add more trees on the ground. Which makes you wonder, what is the purpose?
What’s the purpose? That’s a good question. Here’s a YouTube video of some ‘plans.’
I call this fancy recipe syndrome. It’s the idea that if a chef blogger shares a recipe it needs to be distinguishing. It’s hard to stand-out with simplicity, efficiency, and time-tested recipes. Though my favorite cookbooks, are just that.
Okay, okay. They’re standing out. What’s the big deal?
Well, on net, these green buildings are a zero. They cost more to build and maintain than they offset. Yet they persist. What’s up with that?
Whenever we see the illogical, it’s an invitation to dive deeper. Everyone is locally logical. Bob Moesta said, “the irrational becomes rational with context.”
There are multiple part-of-the-reason explanations but I’d guess the predominant one is the contrast between the visible and the less-visible and the idea of importance and unimportance. We tend to think that visible = important and when the entire side of a building is covered in trees our thinking fast reaction is, wow, that building must be green.
However so much is working against us, including how we see vertical versus horizontal spaces.
It’s helpful to remember that action doesn’t always mean effective. In productivity circles there’s the Cal Newport deep work ideas. In investing there’s the advice to, ‘don’t just do something, sit there.’ In architecture it might be to just plant more trees on the ground.
I was talking to a neighbor about refinancing a house and shared these calculations. Looking back, a re-fi is like putting trees on a building. It’s flashy, it’s easy to count, it makes sense. But in the scope of a personal budget there are much easier and effective things worth doing.