Category Archives: Design

Addicted to Data: How an Obsession With Measuring Can Hurt Businesses

This post was originally published in The Atlantic on February 29, 2012. It was republished in frog’s “15 Must-Reads from 2012.”

The Gospel of Metrics says, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But what if some companies are measuring themselves to death?

Here’s one thing I love about plumbers: whenever I hire one, they stick to the plumbing. Not once has a plumber fixed my kitchen sink, only to follow up with a credit card offer. No teaser rates, no plumber points, no “convenience checks.” Not even a customer satisfaction survey. They simply do their job and collect their fee. It makes me wish dealing with larger companies were that simple.

Take for example the pre-authorized credit card offers that incessantly arrive in the mail. Every weekend, I spend a few minutes opening, shredding, and recycling the week’s accumulated offers. This routine is especially galling because many of the offers come from companies I have a relationship with. As with the plumber, I hire these companies to do a job for me (one that has nothing to do with credit cards). But unlike the plumber, these companies don’t seem to understand their role in my life.

Most of us call these unsolicited offers “junk mail.” The industry prefers the euphemism “direct mail.” Within marketing circles, this kind of tactic is known for being highly measurable. Outside of marketing, it is known for being highly annoying. (I’d suggest that these two attributes are not mutually exclusive.)

Complaining about junk mail is hardly novel. But “Junk Mail Thinking” is not limited to credit card offers. Junk mail thinking is metric-oriented thinking, and it pervades the business world, stemming from an almost religious devotion to measurement. An entire generation of managers has been brought up in the Church of Measurement, whose catechism is: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” It seems like an innocent enough idea. But as uncontroversial as it sounds, a dogmatic devotion to measurement can create problems. Those problems begin with a few simple truths:

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A Year on the Bike: 12 Months of Commuting to Work Without a Car

This post was originally published in The Atlantic on September 27, 2011.


What I’ve learned about systems design, health, and human nature a year after I sold my car and decided to bike 12 miles to the office every day.

In our era of polarized politics, the idea of changing someone’s mind seems increasingly implausible. But what if instead of changing someone’s mind, you could change their behavior? This is a subject on the mind of many designers today. Whether you’re talking about healthcare, the environment, or education, designers are increasingly being asked to solve problems by changing the way people act. How can we encourage people to eat right, reduce carbon emissions, and spend less (or more)?

For empathy’s sake, over the last year, I undertook a behavior change of my own: I sold my car and started biking to work every day. One year later, it’s time to reflect on what I’ve learned about behavioral change: What it takes to make it happen, how it can surprise you, and the limits.

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Making Sense of Occupy

This post was originally published in design mind on November 8, 2011.


“I stereotype,” George Clooney’s character in Up In The Air remarks. “It’s faster.” Perhaps it sounds unfair, but he was on to something. You could use the more highfalutin language of design conferencesand say something like “Framing is how we create meaning,” but the essence would be the same. In order to make sense of the world, we put things into categories. However you describe your mental machinery, there’s a good chance that the Occupy Wall Street movement has strained its gears.

Occupy Wall Street is a phenomenon that—for a while, at least—left the chattering classes speechless. Political news in this country is typically processed through a familiar left-right dichotomy. And like our food, our news is usually highly processed by the time it reaches us, courtesy of mills like Fox News and The Daily Show. The trouble with the Occupy protests, though, is that they don’t fit neatly into this familiar left versus right framework.

This hard-to-pigeonhole aspect of the Occupy movement made it an ideal subject for an exercise in design research, a practice with roots in examining foreign cultures. At the recent Design Research Conference, hosted by the Institute of Design in Chicago, Amber Lindholm and I led a workshop on the use of photography as a design research tool.

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The ‘Science’ of Good Design: A Dangerous Idea

This post was originally published in The Atlantic on May 11, 2011. It was re-published in frog’s design mind and in psfk. In this version, I have removed one change made by editors to the originally published version.

Design, like the world as a whole, is unpredictable and messy. If you think it boils down to “research,” you’re mistaken.

A job interview can be a pretty dry affair, but a few years ago, I had one that I’ll never forget. I was talking to an advertising executive about one of his clients, a major telecommunications company that had recently renamed itself. At the end of the interview, he asked if I had any questions for him. “What do you think about your client’s decision to change names?” I asked. It seemed to me that discussing the pros and cons of a decision like this would be one of the more interesting aspects of a job in advertising. But his response didn’t inspire much of a dialogue.

“I know it was the right decision,” he said. “I’ve seen the research.”

Ah, yes. “The research.” That most magical of phrases. Extinguisher of debate. Oracle. Provider of easy answers to the most complex questions. As an undergraduate physics major, I had grown to understand scientific research as a slow process that took place over years or even decades. Research, as I understood it then, was an attempt to deliberately advance knowledge by eliminating false theories. It was a difficult undertaking bolstered by rigorous debate.

In the business world, I later learned, “the research” is quite a different phenomenon. As my interview so nicely illustrated, “the research” is not debatable. Apparently it’s capable of predicting people’s reactions to decisions that haven’t even been made yet. In fact, “the research,” seems to be capable of making decisions all on its own.

This simplistic view of research pervades our culture, the business world, and increasingly the world of design. According to this view, “research” is synonymous with science. And since science provides us with hard truths in the physical world, “the research” should do so in the business world. But let the buyer beware of such thinking. The real world is a complex system inhabited by autonomous individuals. It isn’t so simple or knowable, which is exactly why design can be so valuable.

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Why Does Data Tracking Bother Us?

This post was originally published in design mind on April 11, 2011. It was republished by psfk.

Whenever the topic of personal data tracking comes up, there seem to be two distinct sides in the debate: the “outraged” camp and the “who cares?” camp. A few months ago, Michael Arrington made a pretty convincing case for the “who cares?” side:

If you do stuff online, people are tracking it and putting it into a database and trying to sell you stuff based on that. There’s not much you can do about it except not be online. And it’s not all that bad, really, to get ads for diapers when you’re having a baby, or ads for cars when you are looking to buy a car. Life will go on.

I tend to argue both sides. I have some sympathies with the “who cares?” camp, but most of my thinking has tended towards the “outraged” camp. I’ve asserted that surreptitiously tracking people is a shady business practice. I’ve also argued that without a pricing mechanism, users stand to lose. But setting aside the intellectual arguments, the question I keep asking myself is, “Why am I so creeped out by this stuff?”

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Unwritten Rules: Teaching Brands Communality

This post is a summary of the presentation that my colleague Kate Canales and I gave at SXSW 2011. It was originally published in design mind on March 16, 2011.

It’s been said that good artists borrow, but great artists steal. We recently discovered a corollary to this statement: when presenting borrowed ideas at SXSW you should credit your source, because he might be sitting in the audience. In our case, that source was the behavioral economist Dan Ariely. When we flashed his book cover up on the projector to give him (and Steven Pinker) credit for inspiring our presentation, we heard a voice calling out “I’m here!” and there he sat in row two.

According to the logic of our presentation, this was all in the spirit of Communality. Communality is one of three relationship types that, according to the anthropologist Alan Fiske (cited by both Ariely and Pinker), characterize much of human social life. We also think Fiske’s framework helps explain why many brands have been baffled by social media.

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Spending, Trading, or Something Else?

This post was originally published in design mind on February 2, 2011. It was republished by psfk.

In discussions of privacy and personal data, it’s becoming more common to say that people “trade” or “spend” information about themselves in exchange for online services. This metaphor implies that people are actually aware that an exchange is taking place. But are people making a conscious choice to share their information? Are they aware of how easily and often information about them is made available to marketers?

The sinister tone of The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of this issue would seem to indicate public awareness is low. I get a little shiver every time I see a new article in the “What They Know” series.Jeez, what do they know? Should I go all cash? Stop using Gmail? Cover my head in tin foil?

Perhaps a better way to understand awareness levels is to ask people what they think they are sharing. We did just that in our recent survey. Our hunch was that people were highly uninformed, and our results seem to confirm this hypothesis.

Question: “To the best of your knowledge, what personal information have you put online yourself, either directly or indirectly, by your use of online services?  Think about the information that you have had to enter because you registered for a site, signed up for a service like online banking, created a social network profile, used location services on a mobile phone, or submitted your financial information because you bought something.

What’s most interesting in this data is what people think they are not sharing.  Only about a third of users think they are sharing the “general location from which [they] are accessing the internet.” Furthermore, only about 20% of users think they are sharing their IP address, web searches, or browser history. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.

General Location/IP address
In our survey, we asked about both IP address and location because we didn’t expect “IP address” to be a meaningful term to most people. In both cases, we were interested in location sharing. And while more people thought they were sharing “general location” (~30%) than IP address (~20%), the fact is that most are likely sharing both. An IP address contains location information provided by your Internet Service Provider. While it may not disclose your actual location in all situations (if you are using a VPN, for example), your IP address is visible to any web site you visit. This means that most Internet users are probably sharing their location.

Web Search History
Only about 20% of people think they are sharing their web searches. But I’m not sure how you couldn’t share these. Simply by entering in a search, you are at least sharing it with the search provider and possibly also your browser provider.

Browser History
Finally, we have browser history, which less than 20% of people think they are sharing. However, the aforementioned “What They Know” series tells us that many popular web sites install tracking cookies onto visitors’ computers that track browser history as well as “what people are doing on a web page.” These cookies are capable of assembling an individual profile that also includes data like income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Even without cookies, web sites have ways of seeing what other sites you’ve visited.

With all of these data types, it is possible that some users might take advantage of private browsing to mitigate tracking, but there is some evidence that suggests usage of private browsing is quite low.

We can safely conclude that there is a very low awareness of passive data sharing. So perhaps the “spending” and “trading” metaphors are off base. It’s true that we get something valuable in return for our data, but we can’t be said to “spend” it if we aren’t consciously choosing to share it.

If there were a financial metaphor that describes the personal data economy, perhaps “pickpocketing” would be more accurate.

Image from flickr user dullhunk (cc)

When Sharing Personal Data, Context is King

This post was originally published in design mind on January 20, 2011.

Facebook made privacy headlines yet again last week when they made users’ contact information (phone number and address) available to developers. What can our study tell us about users’ reactions to such a change in policy?

As Tim wrote a few days ago, it seems that people actually aren’t willing to pay much to keep their contact information private. Does that mean that Facebook’s decision to share this data with developers was acceptable? Does the relatively low value of the revealed contact information mean that users expect their information to be widely shared?  In a word: no.

First of all, Tim’s analysis concerns only people’s relative willingness to give up their information in the first place. It says nothing of users’ expectations for stewardship of their information, which is the real issue in Facebook’s latest move.

Furthermore, Tim raises a compelling hypothesis around the importance of context. Essentially, if personal data is relevant to the service being offered, users are more likely to share the data. For instance, we don’t mind our doctor having a record of our prescriptions, but we wouldn’t share the same data with our employer.) This hypothesis would explain why users are so unwilling to share their social security number or credit card number in exchange for something like free email—the data has no apparent connection to the service being offered, which indicates a potential for misuse.

What’s troubling about Facebook’s decision to share contact information is that while the data was collected in a social context, it would have been exported to an entirely separate commercial context. Indeed, the ease with which data can transfer from one context to another is one of the reasons there is so much popular anxiety around this issue.

When users share their data with a service provider, they relinquish control. Furthermore, when it comes to stewardship of their information, they rely not on the policies laid out in arcane terms and conditions, but on a much simpler idea: trust.

In our survey, we asked people about what brands they trust with their personal data. We’ll reveal the results in a future post, but until then let us know what you think. What brands do you trust with your data? How do you make decisions about what to share with whom? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or show us who you trust by uploading photos over at our frogMob.

The Hidden Cost of Free

This post was originally published in design mind on January 13, 2011. It was republished by Co.Design.

Problems With the Personal Data Economy

A few years ago, my friend Jeff was enjoying a celebratory dinner with his wife and parents at an Italian restaurant in Austin. The waiter stopped by to ask how everyone was enjoying their food.

“It’s fantastic,” Jeff reported. “These truffles? Seriously amazing.”

“Would you like a few more?” the waiter offered.

“Sure, why not?” he replied. A few moments later, the waiter brought back a few more truffles for the table. They were passed around the table and everyone agreed they were the highlight of the meal. Until the check arrived.

Truffles: $300.

Most people have been in situations like this before. Who is to blame? Jeff partially blames himself. He should have asked the waiter about the price. On the other hand, Jeff probably trusted the waiter to let him know about a charge of that magnitude.

This anecdote illuminates the essence of the problem with the personal data economy. Every day, hundreds of millions of Internet users take advantage of services that appear to be free: social networking sites, email, news sites, and even online dictionaries. But, of course, many of these services are not free at all. Users pay for them with their personal data, whether they know it or not. And at some point in time, the bill will come due. But, like Jeff’s truffles debacle, what remains unknown is the price.

Many people are not bothered by personal data tracking. After all, Internet users clearly benefit from free services like Gmail, Facebook, and Some argue that if the providers of these services take something in return, they are welcome to it. Moreover, if the result of this data sharing is targeted advertising, doesn’t everyone win? Isn’t relevant advertising better for both vendor and viewer? The certain honesty in this argument is appealing. What it ignores is the importance of transparent pricing.  Today’s economy of personal data is a priceless economy, which means that firms aren’t forced to compete based on the cost to users. How much of my data will you share and with how many parties? For how long will you share it? There are no market constraints on these matters, so there is no limit to what information is shared, stored and sold.

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Why The Conversation Isn’t Necessarily A Conversation

This article was originally published in Interactions Magazine.

Most weekday mornings are fairly predictable: I make a pot of coffee; I walk the dogs with my wife, Eliza; I have a second cup of coffee while Eliza gets ready. This probably sounds familiar, as we all have our routines. But this is not where the predictability in my day ends.

I check email on my phone to find a daily handful of mass mail from various research firms and business publications. Many of the articles within these emails (especially those targeted toward marketers) will be on the topic of social media. Perhaps this, too, is a normal part of your morning. If that’s the case, perhaps you have noticed that the content of these emails is also a bit predictable.

You tend to see these words: engagement, metrics, conversation, ROI, community, sharing, measurement, dialogue. Ultimately, these emails regress toward some variation on “Social media is about engagement! Companies need to join the conversation!” Starting your day in this way can make you feel a little bit like Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day.”

I suppose there’s good money to be made in periodically browbeating companies into “joining the conversation.” But there are problems with this advice (that go beyond the sheer banality of it all). The biggest problem with these discussions is that they tend to substitute peer pressure for insight. You need to do this because everyone else is. No wonder so many brands feel panicked about social media. They feel like they need to be there, but they don’t know what to do or why to do it. And if they dare to question any of the conventional wisdom on social media, they’re accused of “not getting it.”

The more significant problem I see is the tendency to lump all social networks into one. If any differences are discussed, the conversation tends to be framed as a horse race. “Twitter is hot!” “Is Facebook getting old?” “Does YouTube make money?” But these various networks have some important structural differences. The better we understand what these differences are and how they affect behavior, the better equipped we’ll be to use these networks, design for these networks, and advise clients what to do with these networks.

Architects have long understood that the structures we inhabit can influence not only the way we feel, but also the way we behave. This turns out to be true in digital environments like social networks, too. Subtle differences in the underlying structures of these networks give rise to distinct patterns of behavior.

Some of the ways in which social networks differ affect the central metaphor that we often use to describe them: “the conversation.” In fact, the more time I spend in the social web, the more I’m convinced that the conversation metaphor isn’t quite right. Just as one’s “friends” aren’t necessarily one’s actual friends, “the conversation” isn’t always a conversation.

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