re-stoked: Episode 11 - You've Been Framed

The more I work with graduate students, and with clients, the more I think about ... thinking. A lot of people have heard me use the word "epistemology" - a word I heard in the context of product development for the first time in conversation with Anthony Green. Epistemology is the study of knowledge; I think of it as "thinking about thinking". 

Given all the changes of the last year or so, it seems like a good time to ask: how do we think about thinking, when the way we think has changed? The way I think about thinking is now rooted in the concepts of arguing from first principles, and with framing and reframing problems. Put together, you'd be right to think that I'm not that interested in optimization, but in invention and reinvention. 

With a background in political science, journalism, law, marketing and research - I can't help but be interested in the systems around me (legal, political, social, economic). I am not interested in burning things down. I'm especially not interested in nihilism. Design stands in opposition to nihilism. 

Anyway - that's what's going on in my head.

Here's something else!

Infrastructure Isn't Sexy. Duh.

Journalists and pundits constantly remind you that this is true, and this is meant to explain why infrastructure investment by the federal and state governments is nowhere near where it should be. In many ways, solving the problem of infrastructure in America starts to take on the early days of scoping a complex project with a client:

  1. No shared understanding of the issue: We don't even hold a common idea of what infrastructure is - sure it's bridges, tunnels, railroads, sewers, roads, highways. But what about broadband internet? Libraries? Post offices? Do they count?
  2. No shared values & objectives: We also don't agree on why we spend money on infrastructure. Is it to employ blue collar workers, or skilled labor? But isn’t the unemployment rate already below 5%? And what will they do when all the projects are done? Is it because interest rates are so low we don’t really have to raise taxes to find the money to get started, we can just borrow the money and get to work? What gets improved first?
  3. No buy-in on strategy: We don't agree on where to start. Where do we invest the money and the effort? Some things seem obvious: fixing cracked roads, add lanes to overburdened highways, repair and upgrade rail lines, fortify bridges and tunnels. But then what? Do we fix the pipes in Flint? It's economically depressed, folks are poor - what's the ROI? Do we build a new highway through South Dakota? How many people would that really help? Do we improve mass transit from the East Bay to Silicon Valley, or in the NYC-metro area, or add a highway into Austin? Lots of rich folks live in those places - aren't we just optimizing at the edges? What about building big, beautiful new whatevers - bridges, tunnels, train stations, airports to rival Asia's and Europe's? Is that wasteful? What problem does that solve?
  4. No clear OKRs: And we don't agree on what the outcome of all this infrastructure improvement and investment would be. When we're done doing any of it, or all of it, how will America be different than it is today?
  5. No diversity of perspectives. Legislators and government contractors talk about "infrastructure". People talk about potholes and train delays and gridlock. Generalities and jargon aren't helpful; insiders are often stuck in tactics rather than strategies. Involving new stakeholders who have expertise, speak freely and provide input rather than solutions might change the whole way we think about - and therefore the way we talk about - infrastructure investment. Who are these outsiders? How do we get them involved?

If you've ever been a consultant or worked on a cross-discipline/multi-department project, you've encountered these problems. During an episode of The Weeds by Vox, where this exact conversation played out. Despite having a moment in the political headlines, as it does from time to time, it was clear listening to the pundit-journalists: infrastructure just isn’t sexy. Nobody cares about it, nobody can agree on how to do it, and nobody wants to pay for it. And you know what happens to your client projects when that's the mood. Projects that lack shared values and common interests and desirable outcomes die. No matter how critical they are to the business.

A lot of times it's got nothing to do with how feasible or viable the solution is. It’s not impossible to fix infrastructure, to upgrade it, to build new, useful things. It’s not frivolous. Better roads, more mass transit, better access to rail and air travel, better ports - these all improve access, improve opportunity, lay the groundwork for industry growth and jobs. And the work itself is worthy - there are people who are underemployed with the skills to do it; there are people who could gain the skills to do it - even if it takes a year to get trained up, staffed, funded, at the end there will be better (and more) bridges, tunnels, railroads, highways. That means jobs - jobs that create taxable income, that increases revenues for states and cities that can reinvest that money in education and well, infrastructure. Communities with improved infrastructure attract business, provide better quality of life, lift all boats. 

But these can be technical arguments. Better infrastructure isn't just an economic good - it's a social good, and an emotional good. It's a matter of pride. If you’re lucky enough to travel outside the country, you may have seen places with worse infrastructure than ours - but if you’ve been to major cities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, you've seen how old-fashioned and decrepit our infrastructure is, how depressing our airports are, how bumpy and loud our roads are, how filthy our train stations can be, how ancient our mass transit. Returning to NYC from London or Singapore or Hong Kong, I am frequently struck by a feeling of having entered a Second World country, not a First World superpower. I live in a tourist destination, a Hollywood backlot, but I find myself embarrassed to welcome people whose public standard of living is so much higher to my town. Modern, efficient, well maintained infrastructure could be a manifestation of our values - of innovation, democracy, civic duty, a strong work ethic, and yes, pride. America, the Beautiful.

So why aren't we more excited about infrastructure? Why aren't voters? Maybe it's because we start by assuming it's not exciting.

But Roman Mars and his squad over at 99% Invisible are almost constantly excited about infrastructure, thereby disproving this assumption! 

(isten to any of these, or all of them, and then tell me that infrastructure is inherently unsexy.)

To tell a great story, you need a great story to tell - so part of what makes the 99PI stories so compelling is in how they frame the subject. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg explores the topic of framing in a recent article for Harvard Business ReviewHow we understand the problem defines how we develop solutions

So - let's say the challenge of infrastructure isn't feasibility, or viability, and it's not even desirability (people who use infrastructure want it to be safe and attractive and well-maintained). It’s a framing, positioning, storytelling, campaigning, persuasion, involvement and salience problem.

Here's a design question: how might we reframe the need for infrastructure investment so that citizens demand it (as opposed to legislators using it as a political football)?

Next time I'll write something shorter. I'm out of practice.

Guest Post: The Mediated Purchase

The Mediated Purchasing Decision

A sneaker company faced a marketing dilemma. Young urban males from working-class neighborhoods loved their basketball shoes. These young males viewed the shoes as not only having the coolest designs, but also as the most comfortable shoes to play basketball in. A sizable number of these young men would often scrap together their limited resources so that they could buy a pair. They were also very keen to provide positive reviews via social media and other outlets. As such, the sneaker company often involved this demographic group in the product development process through market research, focus groups and product testing. 

No problem right? Well, company executives also had market data indicating that the vast majority of their sneaker revenues actually came from white suburban males who were over 45 years old. These older men had the financial resources to buy sneakers on a consistent basis. Interestingly, they bought the shoes, not to play ball, but to go for walks and mow their lawns on Saturday afternoons. 

Within the company there were often conversations on where marketing and product developments efforts should be focused. If the older segment is most lucrative, should the company focus on them and design shoes to serve their needs? Should the company bring the 45-year-old male segment into the product development process for feedback and reviews? In other words, should this segment have say in shoe design? The obvious answer seems to be “Yes”, since older men are the most lucrative market segment. The sneaker company should follow the money…  Right? 


It turns out that the reason older men were buying the sneakers was because they thought that younger men viewed the shoes as cool. The older men were relying on signals from the younger men to make decisions on whether to buy a certain pair of shoes. This social validation was important to them. As such, it made little sense to involve the older males in the product development process. It was more important from a revenue perspective to obtain positive reviews for young and hip urban males. This would, in turn, drive purchases from older men. 

A Mediation Effect

This case illustrates a phenomenon that is often described within psychological research as a mediation effect. Mediation occurs when researchers initially notice a relationship between two variables. However, in exploring why these two variables are connected they then discover that the relationship is fully explained by a third variable. This is why researchers often say that correlation is not causation. 

A good example of mediation is the famous Theory of Planned Behavior within which researchers have shown that the relationship between attitude and behavior is mediated via intentions. In statistical terms, the way researchers illustrate a mediation effect is through the following steps. 

  1. There is a significant relationship between a predictor variable X and an outcome variable Z.

  2. There is a significant relationship between the predictor variable X and a proposed mediator variable Y. 

  3. There is a significant relationship between the mediator variable Y and the outcome variable Z. 

  4. Finally, and this is the most important step, when both the predictor variable X and mediator variable Y are put in same equation as simultaneous predictors of the outcome variable Z, the relationship between X and Z should disappear, while the relationship between Y and Z remains strong.

Screenshot 2016-01-20 19.09.40.png

So for example, within Theory of Planned Behavior to show that the relationship between attitude and behavior is mediated via intentions, a researcher needs to show that: 

  1. There is a significant relationship between attitudes and behavior. 

  2. There is a significant relationship between attitudes and intentions.

  3. There is a significant relationship between intentions and behavior.

  4. Finally, both attitude and intentions are entered as simultaneous predictors of behavior in the same equation. If mediation is present then the relationship between attitudes and behavior should disappear, whereas the relationships between intentions and behavior should stay strong. 

Screenshot 2016-01-20 19.09.56.png

The point of entering both variables as predictors in the same equation is to check for statistical independence. If the variables are independent then both attitudes and intentions should predict behavior within this equation. However, if there is mediation, whichever variable that is the ‘last man standing’ is the mediator. It has absorbed the effects of the other variable. This basically means that attitudes can only influence behavior to the extent that they influence or are related to intentions. Intentions are the most proximal predictor of behavior. 

The Mediated Purchasing Decision

Back to our sneaker company. Remember that the company noticed that their most lucrative segment were older males. But this segment only bought the shoes that they perceived as being positively evaluated by younger males. Lets look at this case through a mediation lens. 

  1. Older males’ positive evaluation the shoes is related to their purchasing of those shoes. 

  2. Older males’ positive evaluation of shoes is related to younger males’ positive evaluation of the shoes. 

  3. Young males’ positive evaluation of shoes is related to older males’ purchasing decisions. 

  4. When you put the older males’ evaluation of shoes and the younger males’ evaluation of the shoes as predictors of the older males’ purchasing decisions, the only relationship that remains significant is that between the younger males’ evaluations of the shoes and the older males purchasing decision. 

This effectively means that older males purchasing decisions are strongly predicted by the young males evaluation of the shoes. Their own attitudes to the shoes are not as important or proximal to their purchasing decisions. Their own thoughts and feeling about sneakers only influence their purchases via the perceived attitudes of the younger males. 

This gives the company strong signals about how they should be doing product development and marketing. They should do product development with the younger males and make sure that this segment thinks the shoes are cool. They should then use the positive reviews from this segment as a marketing tool to convince their most lucrative segment of older males to buy.

Companies should not assume that correlation is causation. They need to look at the underlying reason that customers buy a product. Clayton Christensen’s Job To Be Done concept proposes that if you notice a relationship between a demographic segment and purchasing decision, it is not the demographic characteristics that are driving that purchase. 

Customers have underlying reasons why they buy products. They have jobs to be done. These jobs to be done are your mediator. They explain the relationship between demographic characteristics and purchases. If you focus on these underlying and more proximal reasons for purchasing, you are much more likely to succeed and also provide a great product for your customers.  

re-stoked: Explains Everything, Excuses Nothing (2/20/15)



Prototyping in Public/for Publicity

"Don't make wireframes," we heard someone say this week. "Make prototypes."

Okay, but...

Prototyping in Public

We love prototypes around here. We love them so much that many people on our holiday lists have gone without gifts because a lot of companies have supplanted formal product launches with something we'll call prototyping in public.

One company's shipment was delayed by two months due to strikes in shipyards in Long Beach, California (just look at this congestion).

Another company announced a new product in the spring that we pre-ordered (and are still SO EXCITED about), only to be told in late summer that the product was without a manufacturer. As of this writing, that product is still unavailable. (Though the CEO has reached out to us to talk about what's up. We'll update when we know!)

There's another device that was supposed to ship in time for Christmas, and then just after, and then now-ish. Still hasn't arrived. It's not the only wearable device that is still on pre-order when it was supposed to be available by now. 

Prototyping as Publicity

And then there was this piece in the New York Times about the real story behind the collapse of Google Glass. 

We appreciate the desire of Nick Bilton to dramatize the fall of what seemed like such a Big Deal coming from Google. They had ostentatious soft-launches, ambitious plans, and of course, Glassholes. So it seems like its demise should be as dramatic as its announcement. But the truth is, that Google Glass "died" the way a lot of products "die" - not with a bang, but a whimper.

Still, the narrative is more exciting when described thusly :

"Mr. Brin knew Google Glass wasn’t a finished product and that it needed work, but he wanted that to take place in public, not in a top-secret lab. Mr. Brin argued that X should release Glass to consumers and use their feedback to iterate and improve the design.

"To reinforce that Glass was a work in progress, Google decided not to sell the first version in retail stores, but instead limit it to Glass Explorers, a select group of geeks and journalists who paid $1,500 for the privilege of being an early adopter.

"The strategy backfired. The exclusivity added to the intense interest, with media outlets clamoring for their own piece of the story. As public excitement detonated, Google not only fanned the flames, but doused them with jet fuel."

In other words, Google did what they often do with new products: an invitation only, exclusive beta of a working prototype. But this time, they chose media influencers to be invited, charged a premium, and entered a high-stakes category with which they had little experience - hardware. To  nobody's surprise, it became a massive media story, and a very public 'failure'. As evidenced by these choice quotes:

"But sky divers and models can only do so much, and the shine started to wear off. Tech reviewers who finally got their hands on Glass described it as “the worst product of all time,” aptly noting that it had abysmal battery life, and that it was “a product plagued by bugs.” Privacy concerns were raised, with people afraid of being recorded during private moments, like at the urinal, as I experienced at another Google conference where I was surrounded by Glass wearers. It was also banned from bars, movie theaters, Las Vegas casinos and other places that did not want customers surreptitiously recording.

"Glass went from being coveted to becoming a punch line."

So Google shut down the beta testing experiment with Glass. Did away with Glass Explorers/Glassholes. Brought in new management on the Glass team. That team will redesign the product from scratch, but sadly, the Times noted, "There will be no public experimentation."


There is an old line from Mark Twain that goes something like this: "a cat who sits on a hot stove lid will not do it again, and that is well, but she won't sit on a cold stove lid, either." This might be called 'overlearning'. Or maybe just "learning the wrong lesson".

The problem with the way Google Glass was handled was not (only) that it was a public experiment, it's that it was a publicity experiment. Other products have similarly launched to great fanfare and failed because the product owners simply didn't know enough of the right information about where their markets were going to be.  This piece at Forbes outlines a few of these examples nicely.  

The Segway, for instance, was tested (to the degree it was tested with customers at all) with one kind of customer - police departments, gas company meter readers, the Postal Service, paramedics - but then released as a general purpose product. The Segway probably should have focused on its best prospects and then learned from real customer feedback and observation what would come next. Because let's face it, $4k is a big price to pay to solve for, let's say, walking when your customers are able-bodied. But the Segway was also a result of Dean Kamen taking a bit of a flyer - the real tragedy is the death of its inspiration, the iBot wheelchair. Of course, that was a story about a product with a real problem to be solved, and real users, but sadly, not enough economic buyers.

But we digress.

Let's go back to those products that didn't ship in time for Christmas. Pre-orders and Kickstarter campaigns are one way of both gauging interest and funding new products. Supplier problems, shipping concerns, etc. are facts of modern manufacturing.  The trouble is, it's hard to scale hardware anyway, and it must be many, many times harder when you're crowdfunding.

We're in favor of prototyping. We believe in the maxim that 'everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face' - and we think that it's important for your plan to include 'let's get punched in the face as quickly as possible'. But when you make prototyping a publicity stunt or your business model, you run real risks of prematurely killing the product either because it isn't ready for a glitzy prime time "launch", or because you'll erode the trust your early customers have in you by failing to deliver.

Maybe the real flaw in the public prototyping approach is that, while product owners have figured out how to fast-track prototypes into the market place (well, mostly), they tend to forget the 'learn' part of the make-test-learn cycle.