Refresher on critical thinking

Stever Robbins pens a critical thinking refresher in the new HBS Working Knowledge…

  1. Make sure you understand the logic behind your decision.
  2. Identify your assumptions and double-check them.
  3. Collect the data that will support or disprove your assumptions.
  4. Deliberately consider the situation from multiple frames.
  5. Remember the people!
  6. Think short and long term.

Stephen Johnson & flow



Stephen Johnson @ TED Salon

Stephen Johnson’s new book, Everything Bad is Good for You is getting warm reviews, particularly from Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker. Listening to him tonight, I particularly liked his comparison of video game levels to the concept of flow (though he didn’t use that term). Games progressively get harder, so we’re always challenged just beyond the point of our abilities, a brilliant way to structure an educational experience.

Strengthen your right brain

In the April issue of Scientific American Mind, Ulrich Kraft’s Unleashing Creativity ($*) investigates the physical and behavioral evidence for our creativity, still of course a mostly mysterious thing. One fascinating finding is how the left brain’s convergent thinking can inhibit the right brain’s divergent thinking.

The neurologist Bruce Miller studied patients with dementia that resulted from damage to their left brain. The common immediate symptoms were loss of speech and learned social behavior, typical left brain functions. Some of these patients also exhibited a simultaneous burst in creativity in activities from art to music to invention, activities new to them. Kraft makes the argument that we are born with this creativity — young children are invention machines — but 20 years of convergent-thinking education strengthens the left brain’s domination over the right brain.

So how do we become more creative? There’s no easy fix. To be creative, new neural pathways need to be constructed by, well, being creative. Kraft suggests four steps for doing that:

  • Wonderment: Try to retain a spirit of discovery, a childlike curiousity about the world. And question understandings that others consider obvious
  • Motivation: As soon as a spark of interest arises in something, follow it
  • Intellectual courage: Strive to think outside accepted principles and habitual perspectives such as “We’ve always done it that way.”
  • Relaxation: Take the time to day dream and ponder, because that is often when the best ideas arise. Look for ways to relax and consciously put the ideas into practice.

I can now justify all that childhood time spent lying in the grass staring up at the clouds.

* Thanks to James for the article heads up. If you’re considering buying it, the online version is cheaper than the dead tree version.

Daniel Pink’s “A Whole New Mind”

Recently I was emailing with Andrew about Daniel Pink’s new book “A Whole New Mind”. Andrew caught Dan’s great talk at SXSW and was reading his book, one chapter of which is devoted to design. There’s a review at the CEO Read site.

“His key thesis is that the future no longer belongs to analytical professionals—the linear, logical knowledge people (the “SAT people,” he calls them), It belongs instead to creators and empathizers.”

Dan writes in big strokes, talking about the right-brain in revolutionary terms to make his audience of left-brain-heavy business people sit up and listen. The reality of the situation is probably more subtle: we need to build on, not replace, the left-brain thinking of the last century or two. Arthur D. Little introduced science to management in the 1880’s and it has benefited us greatly. Adding creativity and empathy to that will improve management even more.

Looking for examples, I think of people like Paul Ford who can think and discuss politics, literature and programming simultaneously without switching gears. We might ask if this isn’t just another way of talking about “Renaissance Men” or polymaths. What I think is different — especially in America where we’re not shackled to titles and degrees — is the blurring together of these fields so that it resembles the early days of science when everything was simply philosophy.

What’s important, as Dan Pink says, is that we need this thinking more than ever. He cites the three-headed terror of “Asia, abundance and automation” that forces us to respond with higher-performance thinking. Austin identifies what I think is a fascinating but no less daunting other side of this coin:

…in the past business had to manage constraints (time, money, products, manufacturing, markets) to create possibility. In the new age (of imagination, conception, or whatever), we’ve removed all of the constraints (except for time), so now businesses have to create constraints to manage possibility.

Empathy and the design of JetBlue

David Batstone recaps a conversation with David Neeleman, the CEO and founder of JetBlue in the March 2005 Harvard Business Review and shows perfectly how the empathy of great design thinking improves both human experience and the bottom line simultaneously:

For starters, Neeleman was troubled by the vast inequities of privilege and poverty he saw firsthand in Brazil. Note that JetBlue today tries to eliminate stark differences that affect how customers are treated. The airline offers only one class of seats. In fact, the seats that have the most legroom are the situated at the back for those people who have to get off the plane last. In-flight services as well are offered to all customers with equal attention. In return, JetBlue enjoys an unusual depth of customer loyalty.

This begs a direct comparison to Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines who included employee job satisfaction as an integral piece in his strategy, a key differentiator in an industry in “a race to the bottom”.

The Wisdom of Crowds: cognition problems

More notes from James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds

As an example of solving cognition problems, he discusses decision markets like The Iowa Electronic Markets (IEM), which has generally outperformed election polls. Over time, they are also less volatile than polls, changing less dramatically to new information. The IEM is not big or diverse, involving only about 800 people, mostly men from Iowa. It and the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) work well without much — or any — money at stake. David Pennock found that status and reputation proved incentive enough to encourage serious investment of time and energy in what is, after all, a game.’

Bees in a hive send out scouts who return and do a waggle dance to indicate the quality of nectar they’ve found. The dance attracts a certain number of forager bees according to how intense the dance is. It’s a natural way to distribute the hive’s resources across finding opportunities and pursuing them. The bees scout and explore simultaneously rather than scout, analyze and act.

Overly-homogenous groups, even smart ones, are less able to find good solutions over time than more diverse groups, even if the latter’s overall intelligence is lower. James G. March, an organizational theorist, said that groups that are too much alike find it hard to keep learning, because each member brings less and less new information to the group, and ‘they spend too much time exploiting and not enough time exploring.’ Irving Janis found homogeneous groups are more susceptible to groupthink. Soloman Asch found individuals will deny what they believe is the truth in order to confer with a group (although this is easy to rectify).

Expertise is, in many contexts, overrated. Expertise can be narrowly focused, as Herbert Simon found in his study of chess players. Experts’ judgments are often not consistent with other experts’ judgments , and experts aren’t good at judging the accuracy of their own judgments (exceptions were bridge players and weather forecasters). Wharton professor J. Scott Armstrong’s ‘seer-sucker theory’: ‘No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.

The Wisdom of Crowds: Intro

James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds is the best book I’ve read in a while. In it he forwards a compelling thesis:

If you put together a big enough and diverse enough group of people and ask them to make decisions affecting matters of general interest that group’s decision will, over time, be intellectually superior to the isolated individual no matter how smart or well-informed he is.

This strikes me as a useful tool in the business design toolbox, where constant collaboration with people with a diversity of opinions and from multiple disciplines raises the quality of work.

He addresses three kinds of problems:

  • Cognition problems, that have or will have definitive solutions
  • Coordination problems, that require members of a group to figure out how to coordinate their behavior with each other
  • Cooperation problems, that involve the challenge of getting self-interested, distrustful people to work together

And he identifies four conditions that characterize wise crowds:

  1. diversity of opinion (each person should have some private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts)
  2. independence (people’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them)
  3. decentralization (people are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge)
  4. aggregation (some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into collective decisions)

The rest of the book is dedicated to telling stories that illustrate and explain the above four conditions. More in future posts…

The Paradox of Choice

I meant to make a note of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice a while ago, and was reminded of it as it’s now in paperback. The New Yorker review is, as usual, the best introduction to the topic. Excerpts:

As Herbert Simon, the 1978 Nobel laureate in economics, observed, any firm that tried to make decisions that would “maximize” its returns would bankrupt itself in a never-ending search for the best option. What firms do instead is “satisfice,” to use Simon’s term: they content themselves with results that are “good enough.” Schwartz, who is a close reader of Simon, worries that the profusion of choices we face—a hundred varieties of bug spray, breakfast cereal, extra-virgin olive oil—is turning us into maximizers, and maximizers, he thinks, are prone to misery and depression.

Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky… once asked subjects whether they’d prefer to be making thirty-five thousand dollars a year while those around them were making thirty-eight thousand or thirty-three thousand while those around them were making thirty thousand. They answered, in effect, that it depends on what the meaning of the word “prefer” is. Sixty-two per cent said they’d be happier in the latter case, but eighty-four per cent said they’d choose the former.

In a study conducted several years ago, shoppers who were offered free samples of six different jams were more likely to buy one than shoppers who were offered free samples of twenty-four. …Schwartz suggests that it has to do with the irrational way people measure “opportunity costs.” Instead of calculating opportunity cost as the value of the single most attractive foregone alternative, we seem to assemble an idealistic composite of all the options foregone.

There are even cases, as Schwartz notes, where just one additional choice can produce outright paralysis. Tversky and the young Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir asked experimental subjects how they would react to a desirable Sony appliance placed in a shopwindow, radically marked down. The offer met with predictable enthusiasm. When a second appliance, similarly marked down, was placed alongside the bargain Sony, enthusiasm—and sales—dropped. Some hypothetical customers were evidently frozen by indecision.

What about the other approach—trying to choose less? In some measure, we all do this, using a strategy that the Columbia social theorist Jon Elster calls “self-binding.” Gilbert and Wilson note that there is one exception to the rule that hungry people overbuy and sated people underbuy at supermarkets: it’s people who bring a grocery list, which the two psychologists call “a copy of A Theory About What I Will Want in the Future.”

People are consistently puzzled that so many things they had dreaded—from getting fired to being ditched by a spouse—“turned out for the best.” …A tendency to overestimate the joy we’ll get from buying baubles and winning honors is only half of a complex predisposition. The other half is our enormous capacity for happiness, even in the absence of such things. The surprise isn’t how often we make bad choices; the surprise is how seldom they defeat us.

Malcolm Gladwell blinks



Malcolm Gladwell

I just saw Malcolm Gladwell do a book tour talk. With “The Tipping Point” and now “Blink” it’s clear he’s a student of change. In his new book he looks at the ability of the adaptive unconscious to make good decisions because it’s been trained through experience. The implications for practice and iteration are directly relevant for designers.

He says, “Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately” — especially by those with expertise — but this requires “changing the environment in which the snap judgment is made.” Often this means less information is better. A mass of information is alright when planning, but when action is needed too much information brings with it dangers of bias and drowning in data.

Later… I suddenly realize Gladwell is applying neural network theory in reverse. We’ve built articificial networks modeled on the brain and train them, fine tuning the weight of each node. Then we expect the computerized versions to make decisions instantaneously, not mull it over. Gladwell seems to be saying once we’ve trained our neural networks similarly, we too can make effective instantaneous decisions.

Where creative thinking meets critical thinking

In all the bruhaha on business innovation and creative thinking, the focus is often on new ideas, and by extension how different the ideas are. I very rarely see an important dichotomy represented, that of developing ideas that work both inside and outside the organization. In companies, this translates into making money while also serving customers well.

Cheskin’s page on design and innovation touches on the dichotomy:

“Design can also be more effective than traditional consultation, again because consultation works from the inside out. Though they’re very good with internal processes, they don’t know how to connect with real customers through real products.”

In the realm of product design, I’ve written about this before in terms of balance in the user interface [ 12 ]. But how this gets done is still an unknown. Jeanne Lietdtke describes a sequential approach in Strategy as Design:

Strategic thinking accommodates both creative and analytical thinking sequentially in its use of iterative cycles of hypothesis generating and testing. Hypothesis generation asks the question what if…?, while hypothesis testing follows with the critical question if…, then…? and brings relevant data to bear on the analysis. Taken together, and repeated over time, this sequence allows us to generate ever improving hypotheses, without forfeiting the ability to explore new ideas.

But the ideas themselves must express both constraints: service to the customer and service to the company, all while being novel. I’ve worked with people highly skilled in generating balanced ideas and from what I’ve seen they don’t alternate between the two, they conceive of both simultaneously. Such people are directed by a moral compass and a pragmatic embrace of amoral economics, blended seamlessly. I’m reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.

From anger springs innovation, sometimes

Tom Peters in Re-Imagine!

For me business is personal, not an abstraction… I’m writing another book because I’m pissed off… I happen to believe that innovation comes not from market research or carefully crafted focus groups but from pissed off people….

Many people I’ve met who strive to be designers and innovators are driven by frustration with the world as it is, wanting to make it what it can (and should!) be. Anger acts as a useful driver for innovation; I know I nurture my inner fiestiness. But I also think anger acts as a hindrence to getting things done. You can’t always work angry, you can’t always communicate angry, and you can’t always lead angry.

Peters goes on to describe how innovation suffers when mostly well-intentioned people are thwarted by organizational barriers. True enough, but aren’t those organization barriers constructed of and by other people? Well-intentioned people get charged by inspirational ideas, but — my gut tells me –feel scared as hell to quit their own jobs and follow his advice. At some point the anger must turn into empathy in order to make progress. Fear of change and risk can be alleviated, but it requires more than anger or prodding.

There’s a function of emotional intelligence that must initially let the anger flow, and then when an idea has momentum the strong emotions should be channeled into more productive means. “I’m so angry and want to fix this stupid product/company so bad that I need to stop being angry and start understanding. I need to look for commonalities with people who act differently and find whichever approach is right for the situation to make progress.

Entitlement bargaining

James Surowiecki, explaining why it’s so difficult for legacy airlines to change, relays what social scientists Simon Gächter and Arno Riedl call entitlement bargaining

…for people in a negotiation, ideas of fairness are determined by what happened in the past. Once someone earns a particular cut, all the participants, on both sides of the bargaining table, assume that that person is entitled to a similar cut again, even if conditions have completely changed.

Cost and Style

My post on eBay-as-Flea Market received a bit of attention, including — judging by the referers — some folks from eBay. Later discussions with Tanya and Owen refined these ideas a bit, namely:

  • I was a bit sloppy in my use of the word design. eBay’s design works, though the style of the site — by reflecting the home-spun vernacular of sellers — can be low style
  • Low style is not the same as clean style or bad style. Low is the vernacular, clean can be a default look, and bad actually works against the design. Someone somewhere probably has expressed this better with different terms, but lacking that knowledge I’m running with it.
  • Low style and low cost — giving the perception of a Flea Market — can be good. These are not value judgments, but judgments of value.
  • Organization and classification is often secondary to other factors that communicate value, such as style and cost.

  • And so on. The interplay of style and cost most interested me, so I created a little matrix with pretty pictures:

    It’s a bit rough, but could turn into a fun little tool to clarify product design and marketing (‘Which quadrant are you in? They’ll all good, but different.‘). Might be nice to create a book of them, including ye ol’ value-complexity matrix.

Theory: EBay as Flea Market

Let’s assume EBay looks the way it does (not great) because not a lot of attention was paid to the design. Now let’s say they had contracted the design to a professional services firm that practices user-centered design. What would the result look like? Most likely something pretty slick.

Conventional wisdom – at least with the folks I hang out with – says that auctions, plus EBay’s first-mover advantage – is such a compelling experience that people will tolerate the bad design. But what if EBay is succeeding because of its bad design? What if, like a flea market’s rough, seller-created environment, the amateur design communicates the idea of bargain?

A designer might have come to this conclusion – balancing some good global elements like navigation with lots of seller-created pages, letting the vernacular bubble up, however painful to look at – but maybe not. And even if the designer was to hit upon this idea, how hard it would be to sell, or even to think about selling, a poor looking design to the client.

The experiment to switch the quality of the design could certainly be run, and will be if EBay ever grabs the reigns in a big way and puts a pretty design in action. If popularity declined as a result, that would be quite a big insight into experience design.

Update: Sparked thoughts from Tanya, Gene, and Jason.

Mental Model vs. Innovation

So I bought an iPod used from a friend. Never has a device been so fulfilling and so annoying at the same time. I love the integration with the $.99-a-tune music store, but: the front panel is too sensitive, there’s no on/off switch, there’s no volume control (without attaching the additional wired remote do-dad), the wired remote do-dad doesn’t have any tactile feedback and doesn’t behave predictably – forcing one to refer back to the display, and so on.

I’m trying to love it, or at least make peace with it. Apple clearly produced an innovative product, and yet had to break several mental models to do so (one must hold the ‘play’ button to turn it off? Reminds me of my old Samsung mobile which one turns on by holding the ‘end’ key). I suppose designers must reach a point where it becomes difficult to do something better without doing it in a significantly different way (“Think…” (sorry)). Perhaps most people don’t notice, already being inundated with so much learning curve with every new device, but I’m a designer and I normally love Apple’s products so these quirks drive me insane.