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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