Today’s product and design leaders often rely heavily on the word of their customers when building their product road maps; whether it’s a customer survey or a phone interview, loads of qualitative data through these methods is being collected and used to dictate how to design and develop products. Seems like a foolproof plan, right?

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Actually, no — a sole reliance on customer input and feedback is built on an antiquated model of human decision making that assumes humans are rational.

Let’s take a look at why.

The standard advice for getting inside users’ brains is, “talk with them directly.” As the design guide says: “There’s no better way to understand the hopes, desires, and aspirations of those you’re designing for than by talking with them directly.”
In some cases, this works. In many others, however, it fails fantastically. Why? Much of our behavior, as proven time and time again in psychological research, is shaped by mental gymnastics we’re not even aware of. In order to truly understand user motivation, we need to often go beyond the interview and dig deep into observation and environment. …

We’re trying something new. We’ll pick 3 papers our team has read and do a quick summary + commentary on them. Let us know if you like this via twitter: @Irrationallabs

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Summaries this week by Kristen Berman

‘Working’ Remotely? Selection, Treatment, and Market Provision of Remote Work (JMP).

This paper tells a story about remote work and productivity.

In this study, researchers look at results from a Fortune 500 retailer’s experience with remote work. For this retailer, they find that in pre-covid conditions, remote work had an adverse selection problem. Less productive workers opt for remote work.

How did they find this out? They looked at workers who self-selected into remote work prior to COVID and compare their productivity with the productivity of all workers in COVID times. They summarize: “formerly on-site workers productivity rose by 8–10% relative to their already remote peers.” …

A sign’s ability to do its job depends on where the sign is located. Robert Frank’s latest book on social norms opens with this reflection on signs — a small sign, with no signs around it, will be more powerful than a large sign with larger signs around it.

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This human truth gives businesses an incentive to put up larger and larger signs so that their sign is more noticeable than their neighbor’s sign. In the US, zoning laws are enacted to prevent this domino effect and to maintain a pleasant downtown aesthetic.

Even Houston

Even Houston, famous for its lack of zoning laws, has regulations on signs. A person in Houston is paid to be the “Sign Administrator.” And the city of Houston requires permits for signs that are over 6ft by 5ft and more than a name/logo. Other places have even stricter guidelines that aim to protect the aesthetic fabric of the downtown. Menlo Park includes a very specific diagram of how it wants its signs.

As featured in

Libby was new to backpacking. Her first trip was a 4-day trek through the Sierras with a good friend who was far more experienced. Before setting off, they downloaded an app that tracked their speed, elevation gain, and miles.

At the end of the first day, they were eager to see how far and fast they’d gone. Unfortunately, the app showed that their pace was slower than expected. They’d gained 3,000 feet and gone 7 miles, but only managed a 1.7 mph speed.

Libby’s first thought was the most “logical” — they should just walk faster. She ideated things like picking up the pace on downhills to compensate for slower uphills; or taking a few 2-minute breaks instead of a full 10-minute stop. …

Do this 1 thing right from the beginning and users are more likely to stick with you

Jeff Bezos coined the term Day 1 for Amazon. Bezos’s Day 1 represents a mindset of organizational speed and customer obsession. It’s a mindset and a concept to keep team sharp. As a behavioral scientist that has consulted for Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Intuit, Paypal and dozens more consumer tech companies, I’m convinced that product managers and designers also need to have a focus on Day 1, but not a conceptual Day 1 — literally Day 1 of product usage.

There’s no other time customers are more motivated to explore and use your product than on Day 1. Sadly, many product managers and designers view onboarding as an after-thought. But when you understand the psychology behind what drives your customers you view onboarding as the most important product experience to get right. …

as featured in Fortune

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“When our environment changes, our automatic habits are disrupted and we’re more open to change,” writes Kristen Berman. GETTY IMAGES

When you’re trying to change a habit, what’s the first thing you learn about yourself?

How quickly you can fail … on incredibly easy tasks.

Have you ever tried to pick up meditation? Not intense, hour-long sessions — just a 10-minute-a-day meditation practice? It’s incredibly difficult.

Why? It’s not about the time — everyone can find 10 minutes in their day. And it’s not about the effort; the task isn’t to drive all the way to a gym and sweat. It’s to sit still — to not do anything. …

Note: I’m a behavioral scientist, not a medical professional or epidemiologist. This post is written from a behavioral science perspective. This is not medical advice.

The grass is always greener. Single people in COVID crave some loving touch. People with significant others crave the social stimulation of another adult. No matter if you’re single or married, if you’re an introvert or extrovert, strict social distancing has us all wanting more. And because of that, we are tempted to cheat before guidelines are lifted.

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(a Twitter post that went viral)

Early data has shown that as time goes on we are taking more trips outside the home and venturing to the beach or parks. But if everyone cheats a bit, these small risks add up and we’re back where we started. This is worrisome since experts suggest we will need to do some form of distancing throughout 2020. …

It might seem like the glorious era of remote work is upon us, driven by a pandemic push. Zoom! Slack! Who needs the office? The promise of uncompromised productivity paired with freedom is alluring.

I’m a behavioral scientist, though, so color me skeptical.

While software can ostensibly replicate the features of an office, there are some underlying behavioral tricks that physical offices have mastered. We may not want to discard them so quickly.

Let’s start in a not-so-obvious place: habits.

People often complain that they can’t start new habits. …

The conventional path to business growth for product managers, designers, and marketers is to build rich features that exceed normal standards and then aggressively communicate the benefits of these features.

In this model, the key question a company must answer is, “How can we make users more aware of our product features and market differentiation?” This line of questioning has been the foundation of marketing textbooks and Silicon Valley handbooks for the last twenty years.

Is this typical growth playbook correct?

To get to the bottom of this mystery, researchers Fox, Hadar and Sood decided to study the difference between objective knowledge and subjective knowledge. Objective knowledge is knowing how to do a thing. …

We just discovered the recipe for how Walmart gets us to buy things. And it’s not just low prices.

I kept my Walmart App notifications on between November 21st through December 9th. This time period is special because it includes Black Friday, Cyber Monday and, as I found out, Cyber Week and “12 Days of Deals.”

What you’re about to read actually happened — every time a deal ended, about 12 hours later another one started, using the same recipe. The Walmart mobile app averaged 3 notifications a day, each one following a very similar pattern.

The pattern leverages many of the key tenants of behavioral science — but times 100. While these patterns can be — and are — used for good — Walmart is very clearly using them to push us to buy things that we may not need. They are using their understanding of human psychology to grab our attention and twist it for their benefit and not ours. …


Kristen Berman

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.

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