Posts tagged: How We Decide

Do we really need the frying bacon close-up?

bacon fryingThe scene opens with a wide view of Owen leaning over the stove. Next is a close-up of Owen’s face peering down at the skillet, a bead of sweat dripping from his forehead. For two seconds we see a close-up view of sizzling bacon before returning to a wide view of Owen scooping the bacon out of the pan and carefully placing it just so on a plate of eggs and French toast. Cut to a scene of Owen bringing this newly prepared breakfast to his bride in bed.

”Happy Anniversary, honey.”

The budget conscious movie producer drops the script on the table and stares at the director.

“Do we really need the close-up of Owen’s face? The set-up for those shots adds a ton of extra cost. And the bacon close-up? Really? Does that really add anything to the story? Are we going to sell even one less ticket if that shot is not in the movie?”

But the director insists, “Yes, we have to have those scenes. They add the emotion and visceral impact that is required to tell the story, to let the audience feel Owen’s love. They are as essential to the story as the dialogue. Those shots are the difference between a professional film and a home movie, and no one will pay to see a home movie. They may not list the close-ups as the reason they don’t like the movie, but trust me, they’re a much larger factor than you think.”

The director is right. (And don’t worry, this post will eventually get to the retail relevance.)

I’ve been reading a lot about how our brains make decisions. Books such as How We Decide, The Hidden Brain, and Switch all explore the two parts of our brains that combine to formulate our decisions. Scientifically, those parts of the brain are the neocortex and the amygdala. In Switch, the Heath brothers call them the Rider and the Elephant; others call them the rational brain and the lizard brain. Whatever we call them, our decisions are the combined effort a conscious part of our brains that control our rational thinking and an unconscious part of our brains (the Hidden Brain) that controls our emotions.

Think you don’t make emotional decisions? Think again.

It turns out that without our emotional brains, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions at all. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer recounts the story of a man whose brain injury caused his amygdala to stop functioning. As a result, he was utterly incapable of making even the simplest decisions in life. Without an emotional brain to push him toward a decision, his rational brain simply went into analysis paralysis.

Our brains are extremely powerful, but they’ve got a lot going on. As a result, they basically compartmentalize processing power and take shortcuts when encountering situations that seem similar to past situations they’ve encountered. While this compartmentalization is generally very efficient, it has its drawbacks. Here’s how Shankar Vedantam explains it in The Hidden Brain:

The conscious brain is slow and deliberate. It learns from textbooks and understands how rules have exceptions. The hidden brain is designed to be fast, to make quick approximations and instant adjustments. Right now, your hidden brain is doing many more things than your conscious brain could attend to with the same efficiency. The hidden brain sacrifices sophistication to achieve speed. Since your hidden brain values speed over accuracy, it regularly applies heuristics to situations where they do not work. It is as though you master a mental shortcut while riding a bicycle—bunch your fingers into a fist to clench the brakes—and apply the heuristic when you are driving a car. You clutch the steering wheel when you need to stop, instead of jamming your foot on the brake.

Now imagine the problem on a grander scale; the hidden brain applying all kinds of rules to complex situations where they do not apply. When you show people the faces of two political candidates and ask them to judge who looks more competent based only on appearance, people usually have no trouble picking one face over the other. Not only that, but they will tell you, if they are Democrats, that the person who looks more competent is probably a Democrat. If they are Republicans, there is just something about that competent face that looks Republican. Everyone knows it is absurd to leap to conclusions about competence based on appearance, so why do people have a feeling about one face or another? It’s because their hidden brain “knows” what competent people look like. The job of the hidden brain is to leap to conclusions. This is why people cannot tell you why one politician looks more competent than another, or why one job candidate seems more qualified than another. They just have a feeling, an intuition.

This same “leap to conclusion” occurs when people visit our websites. They come to our sites with a preconceived notion about what a quality website looks like, and many times those preconceived notions have much to do with the types of design elements that many “rational” thinkers would equate to the frying bacon close-up described in the movie scenario above. It’s hard to imagine how a rounded borders versus straight borders might effect someone’s likelihood to convert, but it will because the hidden brain is making lightning fast decisions about a site’s credibility based on everything it sees and how closely what it sees matches up to its past experiences with what it found to be credible websites. A customer will not likely point to border type as a reason she didn’t buy; she’ll just feel uneasy enough about the site that her ultimate decision to buy will go negative.

Conversely, the right design can play a huge role in increasing a site’s credibility and turning that decision to buy in the right direction. For example, there have been numerous experiments conducted over the years that show how the price of a bottle of wine can genuinely affect people’s taste. In his blog, Jonah Lehrer discusses the wine experiments and “The Essence of Pleasure” and shows how paying close attention to the “essence of a product” or a site, like “Coors being brewed from Rocky Mountain spring water, or Evian coming straight from the French Alps” can actually lead to a change in sensory perception. This, of course, is what good branding is all about and it can absolutely make the difference between new customers further engaging with our sites or bouncing off to another site.

Since customers won’t generally be able to tell us about specific design elements that are causing them discomfort, we need to use various techniques to help us get to the heart of the truth. Multivariate testing can be a great way to understand the immediate value of different designs. Combining multivariate testing with a predictive voice of customer methodology like the ACSI methodology used by ForeSee Results (shameless plug) can really help us understand the long-term brand impact in ways that simply multivariate tests alone cannot. It’s critically important to understand our customers’ perspectives on design in context with their overall future intentions in order to get to a truth of design’s impact that even the customer could not tell us directly.

Metrics and methodologies can point us in the right direction, and then we need to hire and trust talented, professional designers to do their thing. In the end. high-quality, professional design speaks well to the hidden brain and leads to enhanced credibility. Enhanced credibility facilitates a better selling environment. So, yes, we really do need the frying bacon close-up.

What do you think? How is design treated in your organization? What tips do you have? Or are you not buying it?

Best Business Books of the Year

With the holiday season upon us, I thought I would write about my favorite business books of the year to provide some gift giving ideas for you and your teams. Here, in no particular order, are my favorites among the books I read this year. (Note: These books were not all published this year, but since I read them this year I’m including them in my list.)

Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone is Connected. Connect Your Business to Everyone.
by Mitch Joel

Six Pixels of Separation begins as a primer for any business leader with limited knowledge of the Internet’s capabilities and quickly turns into an indispensable set of guidelines and advice for any business person who plans to make use of the web (which should be any business person). Mitch Joel offers excellent insight and plenty of simple, direct, digestible advice. This is a must read.

The Flaw of Averages: Why We Underestimate Risk in the Face of Uncertainty
by Sam L. Savage

Every business person should read this book. We are so often looking for precise numbers when precise numbers are unrealistic. The reality is, we would actually be much more accurate to use probabilities and ranges when referencing uncertain number such as sales forecasts or project timelines. Savage takes us through the dangers of using averages to describe distributions and offers solid solutions that can be used to better manage our business.
Preview Flaw of Averages

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This book made me think more than any book in recent memory. That may be partly because it’s pretty dense and I had to read it more slowly than I normally read. However, I’ll give a lot more credit to the fact that Taleb’s makes some very interesting points about the amount of randomness in our lives and how that randomness is all too often mistaken for something more substantive.
Preview Fooled by Randomness

How We Decide
by Jonah Lehrer
I loved this book. Jonah Lehrer takes us through some fairly common behavior economics principles and experiments, but the very interesting twist he takes is to explain the brain mechanics that drive our thinking and decisions. He really uncovers why we’re “predictably irrational” and provides great insight into how we make decisions and how we can use that knowledge to improve our decision making.

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
by Leonard Mlodinow

I’m on a randomness kick lately, and this is the book that got me started on it. Mlodinow does a nice job of illustrating some of the finer statistical points in a pretty accessible manner. While this book isn’t as deep at the book I’m currently reading, “Fooled by Randomness,” it’s definitely an easier read and does a nice job of covering the basics.
Preview The Drunkard’s Walk

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
by Ori Brafman, Rom Brafman

Another one of the behavior economics books I so love. This one has some pretty interesting stories and anecdotes, and its insights benefit from one of the writers being a psychologist and the other a businessman.
Preview Sway

More Than a Motorcycle: The Leadership Journey at Harley-Davidson
By Rich Teerlink and Lee Ozley

This is a very interesting book about culture change at Harley-Davidson during the ’90s written by the CEO and lead consultant who initiated the change. It can be a bit dry at times, but the details behind the thinking and the execution are excellent. I learned a lot by reading it.
Preview More than a Motorcycle


And here are some great books that I re-read this year:

The OPEN Brand: When Push Comes to Pull in a Web-Made World
by Kelly Mooney, Nita Rollins
The world is changing rapidly, and those who fail to realize it will be left in the dust. However, those who open their brand and see the value of allowing their best customers to participate in the brand will not only reap the benefits of those customers ideas, but they will also benefit from those customers becoming the largest and more credible Marketing department a company could have. Kelly Mooney and Nita Rollins explore these themes in an extremely insightful book that comes with lots of examples that help the reader visualize how these ideas could apply to his or her own business. The writing style and formatting is fun and extremely easy to read. This is a great handbook for any marketer in the 21st century.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
by Michael Lewis

While this is ostensibly a baseball book about the success of Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, I actually found this to be an excellent business book. Michael Lewis tells the story of Beane defying the conventional wisdom of longtime baseball scouts about what good baseball players look like. Rather than trust scouts who literally would determine a baseball player’s prospects by how he physically looked, Beane went to the data as a disciple of Bill James’ Sabermetrics theories. Lewis describes how James took a new look at traditional baseball statistics and created new statistics that were actually more causally related to winning games. By following the James’ approach, Beane was able to put together consistently winning teams while working with one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. How can the same principles of trusting data over tradition and “gut” play in the business world? That is a thought I constantly ponder thanks to reading this book.
Preview Moneyball

The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do
by Clotaire Rapaille

I picked this book up on a whim one day because the title was interesting. I was quickly engrossed by reading the story in the introduction of Clotaire Rapaille’s work with Chrysler on Jeep Wrangler. He describes the “code” word for Jeep in America is HORSE and advises executives to design round headlights instead of square headlights because horses have round eyes. They think he’s nuts, of course, but when it turns out round headlights are cheaper they go with them — and they’re a hit. They also then position the Wrangler as a “horse” in their ads and have great success. Rapaille goes on to describe what he means by “culture code” and details some of the hidden cultural patterns that affect most all of us. Some samples of other codes within the book are:
– The American Culture Code for love is FALSE EXPECTATION
– The female code for sex is VIOLENCE (Whoa! You’ve got to read the book to understand)
– The code for hospital in America is PROCESSING PLANT

There are tons more of these interesting observations embedded in short, easy-to-read chapters. Whether or not you buy into everything he says, it’s very interesting to see how he developed each code and certainly will expand your understanding of how and why people behave as they do under the powerful forces of culture
Preview The Culture Code

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
by Dan Ariely

This is the book that first turned me on to the fascinating world of behavioral economics. Ariely does an excellent job of explaining many of the core principles of behavioral economics with stories and experiments. Every retailer should read this book to better understand how people (customers) think and behave. It will absolutely open your eyes.

Those are some of my favorites. I’m always looking for a new read. What books fired you up this year?



The immense value of “slop time”

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about thinking. We spend such a large portion of our days reacting to issues flying at us from all directions that we can easily lose sight of where we’re headed and why we’re going there. We’re so busy that we don’t have time to think, and failing to allot time to think is ultimately counterproductive. Taking time (and even scheduling time) to reflect on past actions and consider future courses of action is more important than we often realize.

Consider this quote from former Intel exec Dov Frohman in his book Leadership the Hard Way and also discussed on this Practice of Leadership blog posting:

“Every leader should routinely keep a substantial portion of his or her time—I would say as much as 50 percent—unscheduled. Until you do so, you will never be able to develop the detachment required to identify long-term threats to the organization or the flexibility to move quickly to take advantage of random opportunities as they emerge. Only when you
have substantial ’slop’ in your schedule—unscheduled time—will you have the space to reflect on what  you are doing, learn from experience, and recover from your inevitable mistakes. Leaders without such  free time end up tackling issues only when there is an immediate or visible problem.”

Frohman makes some excellent points about the need to learn from experience and pull the value from the mistakes we make. Truly understanding the pros and cons of past decisions, ideally with the benefit that hindsight and new learning gives us, helps us better prepare for future decisions.

But there’s so much going on every day, and with staff cuts we have more work than ever. How can we possibly afford to time to think?
Well, Frohman has a ready answer:

“Managers’ typical response to my argument about free time is, ‘That’s all well and good, but there are  things I have to do.’ Yet we waste so much time in unproductive activity—it takes an enormous effort on  the part of the leader to keep free time for the truly important things.”

Of course, that’s easy to say and considerably harder to do. But it’s so important. Without taking the time to focus on the most important issues, tactics and strategies, we end up constantly fighting fires and ultimately working our way into a death spiral.

I find that if I give my think time enough priority, I can find a way to get it in. For me, actually scheduling time on my calendar makes all the difference. It also forces me to put some of the daily issues into perspective and postpone or even cancel meetings that don’t rate highly enough on the prioritization scale.

So, what do we do with this newly scheduled time to think?

Reflect on past decisions
I’ve recently started spending some time actively thinking through the decisions I made during the previous week or so. It’s amazing how hard it was at first to think of many decisions I made, particularly the numerous small decisions that happen every day. They came and went so fast that I didn’t really immediately retain them and their effects. Where they good decisions or bad decisions? It made me wonder if I could make better decisions in the future just by doing a better job of examining past decisions.

Open up to new ideas and learn something new
I am constantly hungry for new ideas. I love to read interesting new books, and I try to read as many blogs as I can. Of course, all of that reading takes time, so I look for my opportunities wherever I can. I try to read for at least a half hour every night, and I’m always looking for books that will expand my thinking.

I’m currently reading a very interesting book called How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It’s essentially about behavioral economics (a fascinating field with all sorts of retail implications) but the twist is that he actually examines the inner mechanics of the brain to explain why we do what we do. He’s a good story teller and it doesn’t get to “scienc-y.” (Is that a word?)

Fooled by randomness Another book that has me thinking more than any book I’ve read in a very long time is Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. How much time have we mis-spent reacting to data that lacks statistical significance? Could some focused learning on the events that fool us time and again prevent us from making bad decisions in the future?

I use Google Reader to follow many thought provoking blogs, including those listed on the right column here. I also use the Newsstand application on my iPhone, which syncs with Google Reader and allows me to take in a blog or two at all sorts of random moments when I have a little bit of time on my hands. In fact, during my blog reading recently I even came upon a list of new an “out-of-the-box” ways to inject thinking in your business from Mitch Joel.

Anticipate the future
After analyzing past decisions and opening up my mind to new ideas, I try taking some time to start anticipating the future. Here, I think it’s definitely important to imagine large strategic shifts in the marketplace, but it’s also important to consider daily issues that come up with staff, marketing tactics, etc. as well. How are different types of decisions made in the organization, and who makes them? Is decision making authority matched with accountability? Are decision makers aware of their boundaries? Are the boundaries appropriate? Is the business strategy correct and clearly communicated? Are we working towards the right objectives? Should I consider a different approach when working with a particular person? Should I go with the ham or the turkey for lunch. 🙂

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You’re clearly reading at least one blog today, so it’s good that you’ve already made some time in your day. Good news! I hope you’ll be back, and I hope you’re also taking some time to read more of the really great content that’s available out there in both book and blog form. I hope you’ll come across something so mind-blowingly thought provoking that it changes the way you think about something. I hope you’ll be so open to new ideas that you won’t be afraid to change your mind about past decisions and direction. (Side note pet peeve of mine: Why do we criticize leaders and politicians who change their minds? Would you rather work with someone who can change his or her mind in the face of new information or someone who stubbornly sticks to convictions no matter what?)

And, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider adding some “slop time” to your schedule to allow you to reflect on past decisions, open up to new ideas and new learning, and anticipate the future.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear how you find time to think. What are your sources of expanded thinking? Will you share any great books or blogs that you’ve read? What’s changed your thinking recently?



Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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