Sometimes the illusion of choice is all that matters

Part I

I was in Golden Gate Park the other weekend when I overheard a debate between a dad and his young son, Caleb. The gist was whether Caleb should clean his room later that afternoon. After some back and forth where it was clear neither side was convincing the other, dad changed the subject.

Dad: Omar’s coming over tomorrow, right?

Caleb: Yup!

Dad: What do you guys want to do?

Caleb: Play in my room.

Dad: Wouldn’t it be nice if your room was clean when he came over?

Caleb: (pause) We can play outside. With the copter.

Dad: Where is the helicopter, by the way? I haven’t seen it in a while.

Caleb: (longer pause)

Dad: I bet you’ll find it pretty quick if you clean your room.

Caleb: (pause, then sigh) Okay. Can you help me?

Part II

As part of a redesign of their shipping centers, FedEx hired a consulting firm to understand how customers ship packages. The research led them to develop four personas based on how prepared people were when they arrived at the center, and how much help they wanted from FedEx employees. The most interesting customers were the “Confirmers.”

I am a classic Confirmer — generally well-prepared but nevertheless anxious about all the things that could go wrong. I’m the person standing next to you in line thinking, “Do I have the appropriate size box? Did I pick the right shipping speed? Did I fill out everything on the label correctly? Did I put the label in the right place? Should I get insurance? What about delivery confirmation?”

Confirmers, in case you couldn’t guess, like to be reassured. And there was one aspect of the FedEx experience that made Confirmers particularly nervous: After they handed their package over to an employee, the agent would turn around and place it in a gigantic pile of other boxes (“the leaning tower of packages”).

Even though the leaning tower had no impact on whether packages made it safely to their intended destination or not, the mere sight of it gave Confirmers the impression that the process wasn’t very reliable.

To put Confirmers at ease, FedEx placed a divider with five presort windows behind the service counter. Agents were instructed to take a package from a customer and slide it through one of the windows, signaling that it was safely on its way.

Of course, behind the dividing wall was the same leaning tower of packages.

Part III

The illusion of choice is just as applicable to designing software as it is to parenting or comforting nervous FedEx customers. Product teams tend to think in terms of actions or features they want users to try. But people don’t wake up in the morning with an urge to “Add a file to Dropbox” or “Install the Pocket browser extension.” They’re trying to solve a problem — share a video with grandparents or save an article to read later.

Your goal is to draw a clear path from that problem to your solution, integrating the product actions you need people to take along the way. The better you are at crafting this story, the more successful you’ll be in motivating someone to act. The optimization challenge is to deliver the right message, at the right time and place, to the right person.

The good news, as demonstrated by Caleb and the FedEx wall, is that there are often multiple ways to nudge someone towards the same outcome, whether it’s a clean room or peace of mind. The key is to bring people along willingly and to make them feel like joint problem solvers instead of helpless order takers.

From a product design perspective, this means that the words you use and the reasons you give are just as important as picking the right next action. For example, let’s say the first thing you want all new users to do is to install your desktop app. You should still frame it in a way that resonates with their particular use case:

  • Back up photos on your computer faster [by installing Dropbox]
  • Share files straight from your desktop [by installing Dropbox]
  • Access your stuff even when you’re offline [by installing Dropbox]

Another implication of the “Focus on the journey, not the destination” approach, is that you should look for multiple places in your product where you can encourage the same action through a different value prop. Even if people don’t bite the first time, you’ll eventually find a message that resonates (or just wear them down, depending on your POV). So if you’re trying to get users to auth their email provider:

  • At signup: Create an account in one click –> connect Gmail
  • When sharing: Make it easier to share with your contacts –> connect Gmail
  • When editing your profile: Have a consistent profile photo –> connect Gmail

Sometimes, the illusion of choice is all that matters.

Which Enneagram type are you?

I’ve taken my fair share of personality tests (Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, Insights Discovery). The Enneagram is my favorite for a number of reasons:

  • It focuses on motivations and values as opposed to more intrinsic qualities like extraversion or introversion
  • There are clear implications for how teams can communicate and work better together
  • It’s easy to identify areas for personal growth
  • The nine archetypes are a distinct yet manageable number to keep track of, as opposed to remembering 16 four-letter combinations or 34 individual strengths

You can pay for the full-length test or take a free, abridged version, but I’ve found a simpler self-typing exercise to be just as accurate. Many people who go the self-typing route identify with more than one archetype, and the process of reconciling to one primary type is an enlightening exercise in itself.

The app that wouldn't go away

For an app that’s all about disappearing content, Snapchat just wouldn’t leave me alone. The routine went something like this:

  1. Read seventh article about “hot new messaging app” that teens are flocking to
  2. Download the app
  3. Hem and haw over what to snap and who to send it to
  4. Delete the app

A couple of weeks pass.

  1. Overhear friend exclaim, “Did you see Matt’s snap with the cat? Soooo funny!”
  2. Re-install the app
  3. Wait around for someone to send me a snap. *Crickets*
  4. Delete the app

…this happened four or five times.

But then it finally stuck. Like white on rice.

A lot of smart people have talked at length about Snapchat’s secret sauce — making it fast and easy to create content, limiting that content’s shelf life, mimicking the personal and immersive quality of in-person conversations, feeding our curiosity for variable and unpredictable experiences, etc. I won’t rehash these. But I think two aspects of the experience have been overlooked.

Multiple ways to create content: Active messaging vs. passive publishing

The thing that finally made Snapchat stick for me was the release of their “Stories” feature. Up until that point, I was a passive consumer, basically only opening the app when I received a snap from someone. There was too much friction to publishing my own snaps — the issue usually wasn’t coming up with the content, but deciding who to send it to.

My Snapchat graph in the beginning was pretty small and composed mainly of friends I had met recently in Seattle; many of my closest friends weren’t using it yet. The personal nature of the medium can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s an immediacy and casualness to the interaction that makes it extremely engaging. On the other hand, it can inspire anxiety at the thought of imposing on someone who might not feel the same level of familiarity. The fact that you had to individually check each recipient’s name when sending snaps amplified this feeling of “I’m interrupting someone,” in addition to making it tedious to send snaps as your network grew.

But the ability to passively publish snaps and have them viewable to all your followers for 24 hours changed things. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about the “who to send it to” part. I just posted to my Story and went on with my day. The key is that Snapchat closed the feedback loop by showing me the people who viewed my Story. Once I could see who was already looking at my stuff, it felt natural to send them a snap directly. Oh hey, a positive feedback loop!

Besides turning consumers into creators, “Stories” gave people another reason to open the app beyond receiving direct snaps, which meant more frequent and longer sessions. It also opened up a monetization channel for brands.

Matching emotional payoff with required investment

“It’s confusing.”

“How was I supposed to know how to do that?”

“I don’t get it.”

I hear this a lot from friends. Admittedly, Snapchat doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to straightforward UI, often burying new features in the settings, disabled by default. This would be a death knell for most products; people don’t have the time, patience, or attention to sit down and learn the intricacies of yet another messaging app. But Snapchat not only seems to get away with it, it actually thrives off of this dynamic. A few hypotheses as to why:

  • Snapchat’s seed audience, which evolved into its current base, is teens. This demographic likes to be the first to try new things and the density of their social circles ensures that interesting ideas spread quickly.
  • A novelty-loving user base is a big advantage, but it’s not enough. People will only invest in learning your UI to the extent there’s a proportionate emotional payoff to doing so. This is where Snapchat delivers — explorers unlock new filters, gigantic emojis, topical geotags, and other Easter eggs that make their snaps richer and more engaging. And as they discover and play around with these features, they spread it organically through their networks, piquing the curiosity of those they interact with.
  • Once people have sunk a bit of time and effort into your app, they feel more attached as a result of this investment. They’re more likely to tell their friends and take the time to bring them up the learning curve.

 

Tinder's secret sauce

Funny that out of all the dating apps I’ve tried—OkCupid, Coffee Meets Bagel, Grouper, HowAboutWe, Nerve, Hinge, Tinder—the latter’s the only one that’s resulted in dates. It’s also been the most successful in terms of number of matches and message to match ratio.

There tend to be two schools of thought when it comes to online dating: either optimize for quality by curating a smaller number of more targeted matches, or optimize for quantity and let people sift through the haul.

The problem with the first approach is that it assumes machine learning can predict what I want in a date based largely on self-reported characteristics. Sure, the technology will only improve, but it’s a tall order when I often don’t even know what I want for breakfast in the morning. Tinder’s design reflects the belief that dating is more of a serendipitous numbers game.

It’s fast

This is important when you’re dealing with a picture heavy experience. Hinge takes 5-6 seconds to load someone’s profile, which means it’s less likely I’m going to open it during one of those in-between moments when I’m in line or waiting for the elevator.

It’s super casual and engaging

Tinder positions itself as a spiffed up hot-or-not; not only does this keep expectations low, it offers a habit-forming reason to engage with the app outside of dating, which becomes a by-product. That’s why people “Tinder” with friends; as superficial as it is, it’s fun to make split-second judgments, especially in groups. The bigger point is that the more frequently you’re opening the app, the more opportunities there are for serendipitous encounters.

As a counterexample, Hinge only shows you matches who are second or third degree connections, which it surfaces very prominently. Because it relies on your Facebook graph, I’ve found this leads to one of two situations: your one mutual connection is someone you friended during freshman orientation and haven’t talked to since (more common), or you have 50+ mutual friends and significantly elevated expectations for the initial interaction.

Rethinking what it means to sell

Word association time:

I say “salesperson,” you say ________?

Pushy?
Slick?
Annoying?

What’s ironic about these stereotypes is that they’re only true if you’re not very good at your job.

As I’ve shadowed sales calls over the past weeks, I’ve realized that the best aren’t “selling” at all in the traditional sense. In fact, I think the most successful salespeople actually view their job as two different roles:

  1. User researcher

  2. Problem solver  

The first requires the ability to listen, empathize, and draw out the underlying problem that you’re solving for. The second calls on your creativity, resourcefulness, and flexibility.

What this approach highlights is that the foundation of the entire process is understanding the use cases and paint points your product needs to address. Which means most of your time should be spent listening and asking thoughtful questions, not talking. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an inverse correlation between number of words spoken and deals closed.

This philosophy is helpful on a tactical level too. When you’re fielding questions or handling objections, try taking a step back to understand what’s motivating the concern. Otherwise you miss a valuable opportunity to gather context; it’s like being asked to pack a lunch without knowing if you’re going on a lazy picnic or an eight mile hike. To take a couple of examples:

Customer: “How much do you cost?”

Standard

You: “$795 a year for the first five licenses and $125 for each additional seat.”

Better

You: “Annual billing is our most popular option and that’s $795 for the first five licenses and $125 for each additional seat. Are you looking to replace an on-prem server or switch from an existing cloud solution?”

Customer: “We have an on-premise server at the moment.”

You: “Ok, well let’s do a quick calculation of how much you can expect to save over five years…”

Customer: “I need something that’s more secure.”

Standard

You: “We encrypt your files at rest and in transit using the same technology as banks — 256-bit AES encryption and SSL for data transfers.”

Better

You: “I’m happy to talk more about security. Can you tell me a bit more about your specific concerns and what your team needs?

Customer: “Well, we work with a lot of external vendors so the ability to set different access permissions is really important.”

You: “I see. There’s a couple of ways you can do that with Dropbox…”

How to disagree constructively

I’ve been in my fair share of meetings and have noticed that the best collaborators and leaders do one thing especially well: they know how to disagree constructively. That is, they can express a conflicting point of view in a way that moves the conversation forward and keeps the focus on the ideas instead of the people.

This skill also happens to be one that less effective communicators stumble over frequently, either by failing to voice their opinions assertively enough or bruising egos and their reputation along the way.

Liane Davey recently wrote an article in HBR with actionable advice for improving how you communicate a differing perspective. The key recommendations are:

1. Use “and” instead of “but.” It’s not necessary for others to be wrong for you to be right. Rather than try to override someone else’s idea, just add your reality. For example, “You think we should do X and I’m proposing Y. What are our options?” This engages your teammates in problem solving instead of competition.

2. Use hypotheticals to get people imagining a different scenario. This is especially effective if people don’t seem receptive to your ideas. For instance, “I hear your concern about XYZ. If we could address it, what could the campaign look like?”

3. Focus on the underlying goal. When you disagree with an idea, start by trying to understand what’s behind the suggestion. For example, “I’m surprised you suggested XYZ. What’s your aim in doing that?” Many conflicts arise over approach as opposed to the end goal. If you can agree that the problem you’re both trying to solve is the right one to prioritize, that’s common ground to start looking for a solution.

4. Ask about the impact. If you have concerns about a plan of action, ask people to think through the impact of implementing it. For instance, “How will this launch affect XYZ?” The key here is showing that you’re genuinely open to ideas and curious about the right approach.

5. Ask for help. If something really catches you off guard, be a bit self-deprecating. For example, “I think I’m missing something here. How will this help us with XYZ?” Be careful that your questioning doesn’t come off as insincere or leading. As with #3, people can quickly sense whether you’re making a real effort to understand someone’s reasoning.

360 feedback experiment

Inspired by this Quora post, a friend and I decided to reach out to people whose opinion we valued for feedback on our strengths and weaknesses. Here’s what we asked:

  1. What role does Alice play in your life? (How do you know her)
  2. What is Alice good at? Describe her at her best.
  3. What are some ways you’d love to see her build on these strengths?
  4. What is Alice not so good at? Describe her on an off day.
  5. What are some ways Alice can improve on her weaknesses?

What I learned

Three themes that came up most frequently in my off day feedback were: being more assertive, dealing directly with conflict, and handling unmet expectations. Alice and I actually shared a lot of the same areas for improvement and I was kind of disheartened to see how much of it broke down along gender stereotypes.

Most of these were things I knew in the back of my mind but hearing them crystallized by others makes me feel empowered to “get an ounce cockier,” as someone put it. It was interesting that more than one person pointed out I could benefit from behaving in what feels like an extreme way but that won’t actually be extreme at all.

Things that surprised me

Going through Alice’s feedback, I was surprised at how consistent the comments were after just a few (~3) responses. I imagine most of us think that only our family and closest friends see certain sides of our personality. The reality is that though the degree to which we express them might vary, our quirks and inclinations are relatively stable across contexts.

The majority of the feedback focused on the “how” rather than the “what”. Less of a surprise, but I was still struck by how strongly the comments skewed towards approach as opposed to accomplishments. How do you make people feel when you’re around them? What’s your process for tackling problems and disagreements? It got me thinking that there has to be a better way to incorporate this qualitative measure into the job application process.

Tips

Make sure your list of people includes a range of perspectives. Some dimensions to consider: relationship (friend, family, coworker, mentor, etc.), how long you’ve known the person, gender, and age (older points of view can be especially insightful).

Per the consistency point earlier, you really only need a handful of insightful responses to start seeing patterns. Alice and I had between 15 and 20 people on our list and a ~55% response rate. Some ways to improve this percentage:

  • Give people a heads up this is coming…so your dad doesn’t ask your friend if the experiment is real after the second reminder email (oops).

  • Insightful comments take some reflection. Allow two weeks for people to send in their thoughts.

  • We probably could have cut questions three and five as a lot of people ended up answering them in their responses to two and four. Additionally, while many of the suggestions raised were actionable, you’re going to be the best judge of what next steps make sense in your situation.

Use this as an opportunity to test your self-awareness. Write down what you think are your biggest strengths and weaknesses and see how it compares to others’ perceptions.

If you’re interested in giving this a try, here’s the email we sent and a spreadsheet to track responses. Would love to hear what you learn!

The useful answers are always the more forgiving ones

I spend almost eight hours every week commuting to and from work on the bus. (Not ideal, I know).

Most of the time I actually don’t mind the opportunity to read, nap, or just think. And most days, I’m free to do exactly that. But public transportation necessitates a certain amount of exposure to a wide range of occasionally amusing, often distracting behavior from fellow passengers.

There’s the woman on her phone two rows over, busy informing the entire bus about her weekend plans. The man who insists his dog have a seat to itself when it’s standing room only. The guy next to you whose briefcase is poking you in the side the entire trip.

I could go on, but the point is there’s no shortage of opportunity to be annoyed about something if you wanted to be.

In the past I would just try to take these moments in stride, with varying degrees of success. And then this quote happened:

“The useful answers, the answers that help us solve problems, are always the more forgiving ones. They’re based on a line of inquiry that assumes there is always a good reason for everything.”

Barbara Sher

It wasn’t a sun-bursts-through-the-clouds moment when I first read it. I remember thinking, “Hm, that’s interesting, I should put that in my Evernote.” So I did, and kept reading. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and the more time that passed, the more profound it seemed.

Maybe the woman on her cell phone is in a long distance relationship and her significant other is coming to visit this weekend for the first time in three months. Maybe the dog doesn’t handle crowds well and is much more at ease on a seat than on the ground. Maybe the guy sitting next to you just bought a new briefcase and can’t get over how nice the leather feels in his hands.

It doesn’t matter how implausible any of these explanations sound. By directing your awareness out instead of in, you change a potential source of irritation into an opportunity to exercise creativity and empathy.

The beauty of this philosophy is that it’s applicable in many other contexts as well:

Practicing user-centered design

I was on an email thread the other day where the product team was discussing findings from a usability study. Participants in the lab were overlooking the placement of a new answer on the results page and there was debate as to whether we should break the answer framework to make it more prominent.

One argument against doing so was a principled desire to avoid “designing for failure.” I agree it’s not possible to solve for every corner case, but a blanket stance like this assumes your users are robots instead of humans.

Some might also contend that a forgiving approach is at odds with having a strong product vision. I disagree. Steve Jobs was unyielding in the pursuit of his vision, but the devices and experiences he created were successful precisely because they were so intuitive to use and crafted with deep attention to the needs—and imperfections—of the people who would be interacting with them.

Change is hard. Creators have a responsibility to push the envelope, but you have to allow for the fact that not everyone is going to get it on day one. Roll out gradually and give people the option to go back to the old experience if they’re not ready.

Leading and managing teams

Effective managers have a habit of asking “Why?”

When you invite their feedback on an idea or problem, they first want to understand the assumptions you’re making and the motivations of the parties involved. They usually have an instinct about the right course of action, but rather than jumping to conclusions, they learn how you’ve approached the issue before offering advice.

As a leader, it’s tempting to equate an approach where you assume there’s a good reason for everything with weakness and being a pushover. But in the same way you can show respect even if you don’t agree with someone’s perspective, there’s a difference between acknowledging where a person is coming from and endorsing their point of view.

Whether it’s in the workplace, classroom, home, or even just on the bus, I’ve never regretted taking time to consider the more forgiving explanations behind people’s behavior.

The metaphor test

I was talking the other day with someone who works at LinkedIn about the direction the company wants to take its product and brand. She articulated a few interesting metaphors (paraphrased) to describe the gap between where they are today and where they want to go:

“Right now we’re kind of like an insurance product, something people have as a ‘check the box’ kind of thing and don’t really turn to until they’re looking for a job. We want to be a lot more than just a glance in the rearview mirror of your career. We want to be a place of opportunity, knowledge, and insight; a place to celebrate professional achievements; a place to be inspired by and engage with people who are passionate about the same things you are. In today’s world, you need to think about your career as a lifelong beta test. And we want to be your partner at each step of that journey.”

I’m always fascinated by the language people use to talk about their product and the metaphors they employ, in particular. The latter is often a good barometer of two things: 1) how well a company understands the job that users are hiring its product to do, and 2) the strength of its vision for the future.

To take the example above, it’s evident the team has a keen understanding of how people perceive LinkedIn today. The association with an insurance product isn’t ideal—by definition, insurance is a safeguard against bad outcomes. I‘m guessing most people don’t relish spending time on LinkedIn; their profile is something they feel compelled to keep up.

The analogy to a “glance in the rearview mirror” highlights the reactive mentality many users have towards the product: finished an internship –> update my profile; closed a deal –> update my profile; group just got downsized –> really need to update my profile. By and large, external events are what prompt engagement as opposed to a proactive pull towards the platform. Initiatives like LinkedIn Today and the Influencers program are attempts to start this shift.

I think the company is still figuring out the much harder challenge of what it wants to be going forward. While “a place of opportunity, knowledge, and insight” feels too broad to be actionable, the idea of being a co-experimenter as people continually beta test their careers has legs.

A metaphor brainstorm is a good test of your user empathy and storytelling skills. When you find something that resonates, it’ll be valuable not just in a marketing context, but also as a way to motivate your team and bring them along on the journey towards a longer-term vision.

You can live with less stuff than you think

An inventory of my belongings when I moved from New York to Seattle a year ago yielded one carry-on suitcase, two larger suitcases, and two small boxes. Situational factors played a role, no doubt. When your bedroom is a little over 50 sqft you economize out of necessity. And how much stuff can a single 23 year-old possibly have, anyway.

But I’ve since adopted the “less is more” philosophy as a conscious part of my lifestyle, e.g., for every new item of clothing I buy, I try to donate one, ideally two, equivalent pieces from my closet. I’m not advocating this approach for everyone, but it’s worth laying out some of the obvious (and not so obvious) benefits of owning less stuff:

The obvious:

You never live beyond your means.

You’re more productive. You spend less time, mental bandwidth, and physical energy maintaining, organizing, and replacing things. Time that can go towards more personally meaningful pursuits (like writing!).

Moving is way less stressful. You can feasibly ask friends to help out and be confident no one will hate you for it by the end of the day.

It’s where our (sharing) economy is going. Most of our media is already subscription-based: Netflix instead of DVD collections, Spotify instead of iTune libraries, Oyster instead of one-off ebooks. And services like Airbnb, Lyft, and Artsicle are making it more attractive to rent all kinds of physical goods.

The not so obvious:

You develop a better taste for quality. Everything you do own is usually pretty high quality for a given budget. This discernment translates to other aspects of your life—you learn to hone in on just the essential elements of a product or service.

You flex your creativity muscles. Instead of buying everything you think is cool, you think about what qualities make it so and how you can integrate more of that spirit into the things you create. You give more thoughtful gifts, favoring shared experiences over material things.

You’re more adventurous. You’re more inclined to spend time out and about, meeting people, experiencing new sights, sounds, and emotions.

You’re more adaptable. It takes less time to adjust to other cultures and settle in before you feel at home. The less physical baggage you have, the less cognitive biases you bring to interactions. You realize there are many ways to fulfill the same need.

No matter where you are on the spectrum of “owning stuff,” it doesn’t take much to practice less consumption. Start small—knock off one or two things from your holiday wish list this year and spend time with loved ones instead. You’ll be surprised at how little you miss the things and how much you appreciate the shared moments.