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.”


(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 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.”

Collaboration on Optimal Designs

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.

  1. Zoom out, “have a perspective on what you are trying to deliver, it’s not just one moment.”
  2. Look out, “where can the shit hit the fan and where can we solve for it prior?”
  3. Set the stage, “use guardrails.”
  4. Don’t overstep and smother the user’s quirks.
  5. 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.

Trees on Buildings are not Easy

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.