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The Biological Power of Push and Pull

On the 28th February 2015, in front of c1500 people at TEDx I stood up and launched my campaign against dumb, linear problem solving digital services.

Someone had said to me last year when I told them I’d got TEDx;

Oh no… you’re not going to stand up and do the hormones and Tinder rant are you?” …Whoops. I did it again.

You haven’t picked the REALLY big TEDx event, have you?” …Double whoops. Go big or go home, right?

When I set up Nexus explicitly as a behavioural design company, I had a mission in mind – to use technology to “Better connect people to digital experiences” and help people learn about themselves, evolve and get smarter.

In order to do all of that, I have to draw a line through the services out there that fundamentally rub up against my design philosophy (basically, all the ones that make us biologically dumber) and there was no better place for me to do that than on those hallowed boards, in the circle, in front of the big red TED.

I’m a fraud. It’s true.

We all know what I am and what I’m not… I’m not a neuroscientist. I’m a strategist. An experience planner. A designer with an unhealthy fascination in brain science – What a dangerous concoction I am.

Since the age of Mad Men, marketers have tried to tap into the human subconscious, basically try to influence consumers to buy their products. We worked out a long time ago that the brain reacts in a unique way when it spots a famous brand name or logo. You see, it doesn’t treat it like any other word or picture, instead it activates parts of the brain normally used to process emotions, and so you could argue that we, in the design community, on behalf of brands, have always been in the habit-forming, brain manipulation business. It’s what we’re paid to do. It’s our job. But a lot of agencies out there who worked out the emotions and story-telling trick have just used it to sell more ‘stuff’.

I say – Shame on you people. The brain is a really fragile, incredible thing. Respect it. We should be using this incredible opportunity we have to break habits, not create them. Stimulate the brain in good ways.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

10 years ago things started to get really juicy and in a big way. The invention of the iPhone started flooding the market with a new type of design – ‘The App’.

Apps suddenly brought digital design into the pockets of the people on a huge huge scale. Directing us like drones with instantaneous gratification and rewards galore. At best guess, about 1.5 billion smartphones were in use by the end of 2014 – That’s a lot of apps being consumed by people. But it’s also created a problem and a really really big one – Enthusiastic designers, creating stupider people.

The brain solves problems in two ways and it’s got nothing to do with the whole left-brain, right-brain tripe that is on posters all over the world too. That’s total nonsense.

There is linear problem-solving, which includes problems that have only one solution and are usually often better solved analytically. An example of a linear problem might be choosing to say yes or no, or left of right… a simplification of something.

Then there are complex, nonlinear problems which can have more than one solution and are solved much better with a different kind of thinking. They require non-conscious thinking. These types of problems are what we often refer to as Insight Problems. These types of problems require creativity – the ability to combine information in a whole new way.

The intense repetition of a task creates new, stronger neural pathways associated with that particular task. So the more Linear and Non Linear tasks people do, the stronger the brain learns to think in that particular way. As a person becomes an expert in a particular thing, the areas of the brain associated with those tasks actually grow. It’s why we get better at what we do if we do it repeatedly. Contrary to popular belief, this is not limited to children or youth either… but people of all ages.

So guess what happens if you make someone continuously perform a Linear task? You teach the brain to get simpler… you dumb people down.

Bus Drivers & Taxi Drivers

Here’s an example of how the intense repetition of a linear and non linear task affects us. There’s a really neat area of the brain called the hippocampus. It has a specialised role in developing the skill used to solve problems & navigate routes. It’s basically one of the bits of the brain that make us smarter and more analytical.
Now a Bus drivers hippocampus is much smaller than a Taxi Drivers because it’s under-stimulated. They drive the same route day after day. They’re Linear problem solvers.

Where-as Taxi drivers have a much bigger, more stimulated hippocampus because everyday they get to choose their own destiny. They solve creative challenges. They’re Non-linear problem solvers.

As a design community we’ve become rather obsessed with turning everyone into Bus Drivers for some reason. Everybody wants to make things simpler and on a massive massive scale. What an epic fail that is for humanity. Back in the day a chap called Einstein made this quote;

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler

We might have wanted to pay a bit more attention to Mr Einstein, but in the last few years the tables on the app store have started tipping dramatically towards the Linear side of the equation.

I call it the Solve and Evolve paradox.

The Biological Power of Push and Pull

Here’s the next part of the story. The bit that’s going to get me into trouble. What a lot of people aren’t aware of is that both types of problem solving encourage lots of hormonal & biological responses. Digital is effectively a biological activity in as much as it encourages different types of hormones to be released in response to the content of the activity or task.

When you engage in digital services hormones are released almost instantaneously and recent research showed that something like a steroid hormone can alter almost every function of our body, from Growth to Shape to Metabolism to the Immune functions and even of course our brains – its mood and memory – possibly even someone’s personality and behaviour.

So the more we encourage people to use a particular app or service that hasn’t even been planned with some of the above in mind (literally) it could be doing two things;

  • Making people stupider
  • Messing about with peoples physiology

You think I’m joking don’t you? I wish I was. Let’s take my old nemesis Tinder on a test drive. Now there’s a dirty little app that hit the market 18 months ago. It’s been nicknamed by scientists as one of the most addictive apps on the market.

This type of new linear digital mating ritual did not even exist until a few years ago, so it’s really a totally new frontier. A whole uncharted set of triggers, behaviours and reactions designed in an app-developers head and released into the wild with very little thought beyond the potential to change the dating game.

Here’s the story of what’s going on…

You find a couple of people in close proximity to you that tickle your pickle, so you swipe them to the right to let them know you’re nearby & interested. Each swipe with your finger sets off a small chain-reaction of events within your body that can be as narcotic as crack.

Your body has gone into adrenaline high-alert in anticipation and swings full throttle through the gears of excitement, stress, anxiety and joy. At least four emotions in one swipe & in literally seconds. That’s pretty cool huh. Designers don’t tend to think about the emotions that come during or after an interaction only really the interaction itself.

At the same time the adrenal glands are starting to produce the hormone testosterone, which is what we call an anabolic steroid and one seriously potent chemical. Testosterone fans out across the body & starts to have its physical effect almost instantaneously. It also returns to the brain, changing the very way people are going to think and more importantly behave.

It just increased peoples confidence and also their appetite for risk.

There’s a really cool side effect of Testosterone feedback loop too… it involves success and failure.

Both male or female, regardless or what happens next, whether they succeed or whether they fail, they actually emerge with much higher levels of testosterone than when you first opened that app. Those elevated levels of testosterone give you a sort of androgenic priming. It gives you the edge, making your reactions much much quicker.

Over the years Scientists have replicated these effects with athletes, and believe the testosterone feedback loop may actually explain winning and losing streaks in sports.

This is total body re-engineering using just your thumb, an app and a photo of someone near-by. But what goes up must also come down… There’s a flip side to winning streaks of course. When you lose, you go the opposite way. Quite literally crashing into the opposite end of the spectrum.

There’s something else going on too – It has to do with the amount of time we let people play on these apps and services.

Adrenaline coupled with Testosterone were really evolutions way of making you run fast enough to get away from a bear in the woods. But after a prolonged siege the body also does something else.

After playing on services like Tinder for roughly 20mins or longer (it varies dramatically between men, woman, big, small, old, young etc), another part of the brain tells the hypothalamus to send a chemical message to the pituitary gland. This message has caused another hormone to start leaking out of the adrenal glands and across your body to take over from the testosterone and this one is the really really nasty one. It’s called Cortisol.

Cortisol is another steroid hormone. Only this one is released in response to stress and anxiety and not excitement or fear. But what we’ve done is trick it to be released during what was actually designed to be, effectively, a leisure activity. Cortisol kicks in to support us during a long siege & hangs around in the body for quite a while.

Cortisol has one main far-reaching command – glucose now – It starts to dismantle your body at a biological level. So people who pull out their phone to play on apps like tinder for a couple of minutes, are running off testosterone which is great. Get stuck in pal. But if people are spending 20, 30, 40 minutes at it, then they’re running off Coritsol, which has in effect ordered a complete re-tooling of your body away from leisure and ready for all out war… we’re letting people eat their own bodies.

We’re encouraging the body to react to stress. We’ve designed Stress.

So not only are we teaching the brain to get stupider by repeatedly making people perform a linear task to find the future Mr or Mrs Smith, we’ve also just induced stress in everybody finding love at first swipe for more than 15 or 20 mins.

Back to the mission

So why have I told you all this? Well – It’s pretty basic… I imagine a lot of you have never even stopped and considered that all these little digital experiences we’re creating have such an amazing effect on us physically, psychology etc. They’re just apps, right? But with every swipe, touch, pixel and ping we’re changing ourselves and the people around us.

If an idea is worth spreading, it’s that we need to make sure we design experiences that are non-linear and that they create short bursts of positive ripples rather than long bursts of negative ones.

Nexus is a company I’ve formed to start using all these amazing little biological quirks to create products that start to have positive effects. That bring these learnings into industries and services that probably have just had teams of really talented designers and user experience people happily designing away with no real legitimate reason to stop and consider what it is they’re actually designing from a biological or psychological feedback perspective (don’t even get me started on the Stamford Marshmallow Test!).

There’s another thought too – What if we could create products that actually start to reverse the effects of atrophy in the hippocampus and amygdala – make people smarter and more analytical? Make people less stressed or depressed?

We’re collecting an incredible amount of data about people and I want to use that data to start to map the human psyche. Help understand our motivations and design the right kind of services that support those motives, rather than random stress inducing dumb ones that make us stupider and eat us.

Don’t dumb down say, banking. Make the people doing banker smarter.

I’ve got nothing against bus drivers, they get me to where I want to go… but I really want to do is start helping people aspire to be taxi drivers… metaphorically speaking anyway.

Live long and prosper.

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B = f(P,E)

Behaviour

Design revolves around finding a pain point or gap and then creating a solution for it. That’s the essence of what good design is and what good design should be. But my design interests have always sat slightly to the left or right of that core principle. What drives me is the reasons, behaviours and cognitive biases that make someone want to use (or not!) a piece of design, a service or a pattern, and not necessarily the thing itself. More importantly, I want to design products that actually move the cognitive needle – drive people back into itself and with that return, allow it to change us in some way shape or form – often quite literally.

One of the major themes in my work is the idea of a “life space” – A “life space” is the combination of all factors that influence a person’s behavior at a given moment in time, not just the screen in front of them. Therefore, a life space may include instantaneous thought, memory, drives and motives, personality, biases as well as the situation and external environmental factors.

Personality

There have been numerous studies over the decades, looking at the way the brain evolves and changes over the course of our lives. Every situation we encounter, every life moment we live in has an effect on the brain. It’s what gives us our individual personalities.

It’s an ever-evolving and solving 1.5kg blob of plasticity.

I started working in Investing Solutions four or five years ago and one of the areas I studied at length was the effects of stress on the brain. I was really fascinated to discover that hormonal responses generated by stressful situations generate subsequent risk taking attitudes. I was also blown away to discover that there is now enough empirical evidence to suggest that exposure to long-term stress can cause what’s know as ‘Hippocampal Atrophy‘ – Something normally associated with memory-loss conditions, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. That’s a pretty frightening side-effect when you stop to think about how hugely stressful the lives many of us live are.

Environment

What if we could create the opposite effect? What if we could actually use the digital experiences we create to start to reverse the effects of atrophy and change certain Behavioural Biases to make us behave better or just think differently? In theory it may actually be possible to stave off the effects of stress and mild forms of depression – maybe even before they appear – using brain focused functions so simplistic in their design that they seem almost too good to be true.

What’s commonly know now is that within the suffers of stress and forms of depression is a tendency to “amplify” unpleasant information and that makes the brain overreact to negative emotional stimuli. It’s also been shown that the children or partners of mental health patients are potentially at higher-than-normal risk of developing the same condition themselves, in part because they may inherit their parent or loved ones trait to overreact. It’s an inherited behavioural bias. So working backwards from suffers themselves, to some of the people around them, may be a really important place to start.

Reversing a behavioural bias and start to “rewire” the brain isn’t as complex as it might sound. We just need to design the right experiences into the services we build.

The trick is going to be teaching people (implicitly or explicitly) how to control the activity that is generated in a network of interrelated brain regions that are directly linked to stress and depression – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. We can already do that using basic Neural Feedback Displays – hell, I’ve been playing with several cheap and cheerful EEG gizmos for years now. They don’t do much more than let me see roughly and crudely what’s going on inside my head, but that’s somehow a good enough place to start and it gives me a deeper connection to myself. When I perform an action, it shows me what the reaction inside my brain is, and that starts to show me more about myself than I knew before.

One of the exercises I’ve been studying shows neural feedback in the form of a thermometer on the screen. You show people sad or negative pictures that might ordinarily raise their “temperature”, and then get them to try to lower that “temperature” by adopting more sanguine mental states. After a while you start to work what the reaction looks like and in doing so create a sort of mental pro-action to stop it occurring in the first place. It’s therapy friends, but not as we know it.

You can start to reverse the behavioural bias. Over the course of a period of time you can start to change the actual structure of the brain. Which is a pretty neat concept.

There’s another technique where a pair of faces is shown to someone on a screen every few seconds; either neutral and sad, or neutral and happy. Then a dot replaces one of the faces, and the user is asked to click on the dot. During one particular experiment using the dot technique, some people had the face replaced by the dot selected at random, but other people always had the dot replace the more positive face in the pair. Over a period of time of engaging in the dot technique, the group that had the dot replacing the positive face, where in effect being trained to avoid looking at the sad faces.

This kind of attentional-bias training, is so simplistic that most good scientists would bet that it could not alter psychological symptoms. But they’d lose the bet.

In both the examples above it’s been proven that stress-related responses – for example, increases in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels – to negative stimuli – are significantly reduced using both techniques. These stress responses are a key marker of depression, and they diminished roughly one week after the experiments began. Incidentally, some people in the experimental groups also developed fewer defensive responses to negative faces, such as startled blinking however the people in the control groups showed no such improvement.

In another experiment researchers at Cardiff University showed eight people how their brains reacted to positive imagery. After four sessions the participants with mental health conditions had seen significant improvements in their depression.

Was it a placebo effect? Possibly. But so what, that’s still a positive outcome!

As part of the same experiment another eight people with mental health problems were asked to do the exercise but just think positively and were not shown the brain images. They showed no change over the same period of time.

The researchers said they believed the scans allowed participants to work out, through trial and error, which sort of positive emotional imagery was most effective for them.

Once you’ve taught someone the mindset to lower that temperature or unlearn that negative thought, it’s a simple case of asking them to try to recreate that mindset in their daily lives, in normal stress related situations – Call it mindfulness, call it brain-training, call it CBT… you can even call it brainwashing if you like… it’s doesn’t matter, call it whatever best fits – the point is not the label that matters, the point is the start point of the process. You show people the mirror and they start to see themselves.

Summary

There have been plenty of experiments that have failed too by the way. Or shown only a correlation to success in a percentage of the people in the test. Which is totally to be expected.

To me, the interesting aspect of all these techniques is simply that they start by giving people an insight into themselves and their biases and only then do they work towards letting people control their own brain activity.

Most people (especially those living with stress or depression etc) are actually acutely aware and really interested in a way of engaging with themselves.

I’m not suggesting we mass ship EEG devices like EPOC to sufferers of anxiety, stress and depression so they can see what’s happening in their heads – but what I am suggesting is that we can build experiences that help people to understand themselves better and by starting there, we might in turn be able to start to help people reverse or reduce the effects of some of the conditions that can debilitate a lot of people.

People are dynamic creatures with dynamic thoughts, emotions, and psychological forces. To understand people you have to consider all possible factors that influence a person’s behavior and consider how those factors interact and change in time to influence the person’s present state.

So in designing solutions that start to move the needle on behaviour and start to break biases it’s imperative that we look at all the factors and start to influence people piece by pieces. Reversing negative brain patterns and negative cognitive biases starts with understanding the individual and moves out from there to a series of small interactions that gently nudge the brain into reverse.

It’s a noble idea I know… and probably one that many of you would scoff at. But my brain is already growing out of the curiosity of where this might lead me.

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Designing Distractions

While the brain can seem almost boundless in its potential, it has limitations, such as processing speed, attentional limitations, working memory limitations, and sensitivity to interference, which can be both internal and external. You’ve all been there – that annoying, wicked challenge that you just can’t seem to get your mind to process. Frustration brews. It all goes bad.

But occasionally you might have a ‘Eureka Moment’ where the solution seems to miraculously present itself to you.

The eureka effect refers to a common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept… Some research describes the eureka effect as a memory advantage, but conflicting results exist as to where exactly it occurs in the brain, and it is difficult to predict under what circumstances one can predict a eureka effect.

Eureka can be conceptualized as a two phase process;

  • The first phase requires the problem solver to come upon an impasse, where they become stuck and even though they may seemingly have explored all the possibilities, are still unable to retrieve or generate a solution.
  • The second phase occurs suddenly and unexpectedly. After a break in mental fixation or re-evaluating the problem, the answer is usually retrieved.

The Eureka Theories

There are also currently two theories for how people arrive at the solution during a eureka moment.

  • The first is the Progress Monitoring Theory (when you hear me referring to PMT in the office, please be aware that I have a slightly different definition than most people!). A person will analyze the distance from their current state to the goal state. Once a person realizes that they cannot solve the problem while on their current path, they will seek alternative solutions. In complex problems this usually occurs late in the challenge.
  • The second way that people attempt to solve these puzzles is the Representational Change Theory. The problem solver initially has a low probability for success because they use inappropriate knowledge as they set unnecessary constraints on the problem. Once the person relaxes his or her constraints, they can bring previously unavailable knowledge into working memory to solve the problem.

Currently both theories have support, with the progress monitoring theory being more suited to multiple step problems, and the representational change theory more suited to single step problems.

FMRi (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (Electro Encephalogram) studies have found that problem solving requiring insight (non-linear problems) involves increased activity in the right cerebral hemisphere as compared with problem solving not requiring insight (linear problems). In particular, increased activity was found in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus.

I’ve been interested in moments of ‘eureka’ for a while now because along with the moment itself is a real sense of achievement, euphoria and self-worth. We know that a quiet mind allows the weak connections of non-conscious processing to rise to awareness.

Basically that the act of coming back fresh to a problem is valuable in itself.

New research by Neuroscientist David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon sheds some more light on this phenomenon.

Creswell wanted to explore what happens in the brain when people tackle problems that are too big for their conscious mind to solve. He had people think about purchasing an imaginary car, based on multiple wants and needs. One group had to choose immediately. These people didn’t do great at optimizing their decision. A second group had time to try to consciously solve the problem. Their choices weren’t much better. A third group were given the problem, then given a distracter task – something that lightly held their conscious attention but allowed their non-conscious to keep working. This group did significantly better than the other groups at selecting the optimum car for their overall needs.

FMRI scans showed something interesting happening with the third group. The brain regions that were active during the initial learning of the decision information continued to be active (we call this unconscious neural reactivation) even while the brain was distracted with another task. This reactivation was predictive of how good participants were at making a better decision — more reactivation was associated with better decisions.

To put it plainly – people who were distracted did better on a complex problem-solving task than people who put in conscious effort. This isn’t so surprising – the problem-solving resources of the non-conscious are millions if not billions of times larger than that of the conscious. What’s surprising is how fast this effect kicked in – the third group were distracted for only a few minutes. This wasn’t the ‘sleep on it’ effect, or about quieting the mind. It was something more accessible to all of us every day, in many small ways.

Deliberate Distractions

So now to the bit that I’m driving towards – Designing complex flows, patterns, challenges, data-capture and encouraged behaviours.

What we’ve been doing for decades now is try to simplify complex tasks – I agree this should be encouraged. Of course we want to make complex things simpler. But what if we’re missing the trick of building in other mechanisms for helping audiences solve complex challenges… like telling them to “Stop”.

Some classic examples;

  • Filling out application forms online – Big pain drain.
  • Managing an investment portfolio – Oh boy that one hurts the novice investor.
  • Writing an article (like this one!) to submit to the masses of people who demand something punchy – The pressure!

We have a lot of analytics running within our digital experiences that track everything an audience does now. From where they click, to how long they dwell… we even know where they came from to arrive at the challenge. So we can pretty much derive if they’re slick or if they’re thick. It’s how we learn about their behaviour and make our systems smarter, our messages more potent and our support programmes better.

So why wouldn’t we turn that same machine learning back on the audience? Literally tell them when they’re in a bad spot. Let’s say we spot erratic, confused or behaviour that implies someone is over-thinking or struggling to solve a problem, why not just prompt the user to take a break?

Pete, go play Angry Birds for 5 minutes buddy, come back when you’ve cleared your mind.

We’re letting people go about a cognitive challenge the wrong way – by allowing them to continue pushing at a problem consciously when we should be allowing them to go off and ignore the problem.

If we do this you’ll genuinely find that you’re audiences gets better outcomes and faster, with less effort.

There are so many things we’ve got wrong with design because we haven’t stopped to look at the brain. As we begin to develop the tools to understand the brains quirks better, I suspect that many more surprising discoveries will emerge.

Brain-Explosion

The hour between Dog and Wolf

I was recently pointed in the direction of an incredible book called ‘The Hour Between Dog and Wolf‘. It is an excellently written piece about how human biology contributes to the alternating cycles of irrational exuberance and pessimism that destabilise banks and the global economy – and how the system could be calmed down by applying biological principles.

The author John Coates is a senior research fellow in neuroscience and finance at the University of Cambridge. He previously worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs, and ran a trading desk for Deutsche Bank. In 2004 he returned to Cambridge to research the biology of financial risk-taking.

In his book he goes into meticulous detail about the way the body reacts to experiences and the idea that they can sharpen the mind and call forth an overwhelming biological reaction we know as the ‘fight or flight’ response, which I previously wrote about.

The world is now littered with millions of seemingly irrational reactions to fake, un-important experiences such as apps, games, grinding and virtual socializing. It’s not just about recent advances in technology either – Winston Churchill recognized the power of these so-called “non-lethal experiences” when writing of his early years. He recounts a regimental polo match played in Southern India that went to a tie-break in the final chukka: “Rarely have I seen such strained faces on both sides,” he recalls. “You would not have thought it was not just a game at all, but a matter of life and death. Far graver crises cause less keen emotion“. He is of course referring to ‘the zone’ that people enter when they’re engaged in an activity so deeply that they lose all sense of reality.

When I talk about neuro mechanics and functions that might fire up the reward center, I’m talking about trying to keep people on a winning streak and stimulating (simulating?) feelings of euphoria. When we’re aroused by success, our appetite for opportunity expands and we want more of it. The ‘Tinder‘ generation are chasing a new kind of dragon. The dragon that goes PING and tells them there’s a match. There’s a flip-side too, on a losing streak we might struggle with a kind of digital fear – reliving the bad moments over and over. In those cases stress hormones linger in our brains, promoting a pathological risk-aversion, even depression. John Coates warns that during the down cycles of losing or being withdrawn from the highs, the stress hormones can circulate in our blood, contributing to recurrent viral infections, high blood pressure, abdominal fat build-up and even gastric ulcers.

‘Digital’ is now as much a biological activity, with as many medical consequences, as facing down a grizzly bear.

Recent advances in neuroscience and physiology have shown that when we engage in deep experiences, for example JawBone Up24, our bodies are doing a lot more than just ‘thinking’ about the outcomes and not just because it’s linked to physical activity. We actually start to crave the lessons we learn from the data it shows us. Our bodies, expecting action, switch on an emergency network of physiological circuitry, and the resulting surge in electrical and chemical activity feeds back in to the brain, affecting the way we think and behave. In this way body and brain twine as a single entity, united in the face of the approaching data storm. We’re talking about micro-milliseconds of cognition and excitement too. Most of the time we’re not even aware it’s happening. But it’s just enough to keep our sub-conscience aware that it’s something worth repeating.

One of the brains regions responsible for this early-warning system is the Locus Ceruleus (pronounced Ser-u-leus), so called because it’s cells are cerulean or deep blue. Situated in the brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain, sitting atop the spine, the Locus Ceruleus responds to novelty and promotes a state of arrousel. When a correlation between events breaks down or a new pattern emerges, when something is just not right, this primitive part of the brain registers the change long before conscious awareness. By doing so it places the brain on high-alert, galvanizing us into a state of heightened vigilance, and lowering our sensory thresholds so that we hear the faintest sound, notice the slightest movement. Athletes experiencing this effect have said that when caught up in the flow of a game they can pick out every voice in the stadium, see every blade of grass.

Welcome to the Engine Room

You get that all too familiar notification push PING sound from your pocket…. Your body automatically starts to create fuel, and lots of it, in the form of glucose. The body also needs Oxygen to burn this fuel, and it needs an increased flow of blood to deliver this fuel and oxygen to gas-guzzling cells throughout the body, and therefore you need an expanded exhaust pipe, in the form of dilated bronchial tubes and throat, to vent the carbon dioxide waste once the fuel is burned. Breathing accelerates, drawing in more oxygen, and the heart rates speed up. Our bodies, unbeknownst to us, are preparing for the experience when we sense it’s approach. Metabolism speeds up, ready to break down existing energy stores in liver, muscle and fat cells should the situation demand it. Cells of the immune system take up position, like firefighters, at vulnerable points of our bodies, such as the skin, and stand ready to deal with injury and infection. The nervous system, extending from the brain down into the abdomen, has begun redistributing blood throughout our bodies, constricting blood flow to the gut, giving us butterflies, and shunting blood to major muscle groups in the arms and thighs as well as to the lungs, heart and brain. Again, often so tiny a reaction we’re not even aware it’s happening at all.

The very fact we can design experiences that create excitement and anticipation that can change people physically is a remarkable feat. In that millisecond it’s taken for Tinder to fire you a push PING notification to say someone has matched with you we just made Digital become physical. Just think about that, it’s insanely cool.

“YOU HAVE A NEW MATCH” …Bang… rising levels of testosterone increase production of hemoglobin, and consequently your bloods capacity to carry oxygen; the testosterone also increases your state of confidence and crucially your appetite for risk.

This is a moment of total transformation, that the French since the middle ages have referred to as “L’heure entre chien et loup” which translates as “the hour between dog and wolf”

The phrase refers to a specific time of day, when the light is such that one can’t distinguish between a dog or wolf. Under extreme, artificial circumstances we can lose our true selves to this virtual world we swim in.

The Hour Between Dog and Wolf

In the last 15 years we’ve created dozens of new ways of firing up the parts of the body I describe above and at a mass scale. Do we even know what the effect of that might be? For millennia we’ve evolved without this wave of artificial stimulants and suddenly it’s introduced into society, globally, and in vast vast quantities. In fact it’s really only since the advent and mass adoption of the smartphone that things have got really juicy.

My name is Pete, and I’m an addict

There’s more too. The hormone, adrenaline, produced by the core of the adrenal glands located on top of the kidney, surges into your blood when this artificial stimulant – the push notification – is triggered. Another hormone, the steroid Cortisol, commonly known as the Stress Hormone, trickles out of the rim of the adrenal gland and travels to the brain, where it stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical operating along neural circuits known as the pleasure pathways. Normally stress is a nasty experience, but not at low-levels. At low-levels it thrills. A non-threatening stressor or challenge, like a sporting match, a fast drive, being matched on a dating site, seeing our portfolio increase in our trading apps or beating the system in an app, game or experience, releases Cortisol, and in combination with dopamine, one of the most addictive drugs known to the human brain, delivers a narcotic hit, a rush, a flow that convinces you there is no better moment in the world than this one right here.

It’s all happening inside us every day.

Meaning

In that hour between dog and wolf, we can’t know if we’re safe or threatened. We can’t be sure if our eyes deceive, if we truly know what we think we know. We’re caught somewhere between comfort (ignorant bliss?) and fear. It’s good, of course, to be able to distinguish between the two, but… Most people have never mastered that. It’s why the body reacts in the way it does. Irrationally. Uncontrollably. Even just on a micro level.

John Coates book analyses the phenomenon that occurs in intense periods of time on Trading Floors of major banks. The phrase “The hour between dog and wolf” feels like an appropriate description. It’s about these big heavy bursts of insanity that change people in incredible ways for good and bad. But in the world of small micro interactions we’re creating, maybe the more appropriate phase needs to be;

The SECOND between PING and POW

It feels somehow more appropriate to the Gen Y crowd.

Summary

Keep all this in mind when you question why we are becoming more and more fascinated in the biology behind experiences. It might seem silly and overkill, even benign, to start breaking these things down so deliberately, but the the body really is a marvelous machine and the potent potential we have to manipulate it with the creation of digital experiences is not just incredible but also potentially destructive. Nobody is really sure what this new surge of artificial stimulants is doing to society and biology.

A lot of people are asking me why I’m going down this path of bringing biology into the story – It’s really very straightforward – It is simply very fascinating! A story of human behaviour spiked with biology can lead to some particularly vivid moments of recognition. The term recognition is commonly used to describe the point in a story when all of a sudden we understand what is going on, and by that very process understand ourselves better. For when we understand what is going on inside our bodies, and why, we are met with repeated Aha! moments.

Today, NeuroCX more than any other subject, throws a light into the dark corners of our lives and every time I learn something new about the biology behind design and experience I get a little hit of Cortisol that keeps me wanting to learn more. :)

PG Neuro 2

Teaching customers to accentuate the positive

It may be possible to stave off depression before it even appears using brain-training software so simplistic in its design that even the psychologist testing it once bet it wouldn’t work.

Ian Gotlib‘s group at Stanford University, California, studies girls aged 10 to 14 years whose mothers suffer from depression. Such girls are thought to be at higher-than-normal risk of developing the condition themselves, in part because they may inherit their mothers’ tendency to “amplify” unpleasant information. Although none of the girls has yet experienced a depressive episode, Gotlib has found that their brains already overreact to negative emotional stimuli – a pattern they share with their mothers and other depressed people.

Gotlib is studying whether these young subjects can use interactive software and brain-imaging hardware to “rewire” their brains by unlearning this negative bias. In a pilot experiment, eight girls used a neural feedback display to learn how to control activity in a network of interrelated brain regions that have been linked to depression – these include the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The level of activity in this network was measured using an functional MRI scan and displayed to the girls in the form of a thermometer on a computer screen. The girls were shown sad or negative pictures that might ordinarily raise their “temperature”, and tried to lower that “temperature” by adopting more sanguine mental states. They were then advised to try to recreate that mindset in their daily lives.

A control group unknowingly watched someone else’s scan output instead of their own, so they didn’t actually learn how to control their brain activity.

Accentuate the positive

Another set of girls in the pilot experiment received their training through a simple computer game instead. In this game, a pair of faces appeared on a screen every few seconds: they would be either neutral and sad, or neutral and happy. Then a dot replaced one of the faces, and the “game” was to click on the dot. For the eight girls in the control group, the face replaced by the dot was selected at random, but for eight girls in the experimental group, the dot always replaced the more positive face in the pair. Over a week of playing this game daily, these girls were in effect being trained to avoid looking at the sad faces.

Gotlib himself originally found this concept, called attentional-bias training, so simplistic that he bet Colin MacLeod, a psychologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth who pioneered the technique, that it would not alter psychological symptoms. Gotlib lost his bet.

In his pilot study, both kinds of training significantly reduced stress-related responses – for example, increases in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels – to negative stimuli. These stress responses are a key marker of depression, and they diminished one week after training. The girls in the experimental groups also developed fewer defensive responses to negative faces, such as startled blinking. Control groups showed no such improvement.

Jill Hooley, head of Harvard University’s clinical psychology programme, was impressed by the findings despite the small sample size: “This is highly innovative work,” she said. “Ian is breaking new ground here.”

Gotlib is adding more subjects to the training programme and plans to compare their long-term mental health with a parallel cohort of 200 girls, half of whom have depressed mothers, who aren’t participating in the study.

What I find staggering about this study is not just the social implications which are truly ground-breaking in the study and treatment of mental health, but the wider implications. It proves with some very simple mechanisms that you can train the brain to behave outside of it’s normal bias. Stop for moment and consider how this might be applied to say, Investing. Some people behave inappropriately with their investments. They cash them in too early, they poke when they should leave them, they invest when they should save or save when they should invest etc. It’s all largely cognitive bias. The brain knows what the brain knows. So this kind of research in my view gives us a rich playground to begin thinking about simple mechanisms we can add into traditional services that might help some people start to behave differently.

Welcome to the frontier of design people.

What makes you click?

There’s a turf war for readers’ mouse clicks and one of the favoured trick is to phrase headlines as questions. This isn’t an Internet innovation. As a way to grab attention, question headlines have been recommended by editors and marketeers for decades. But what is new, is the easy ability today to measure how often readers choose to click a headline. For a new paper, researchers in Norway have used Twitter to find out if question headlines really do entice more clicks. This is classic Neuro CX at work. The art of fooling the inquisitive.

Linda Lai and Audun Farbrot used a real science communication Twitter feed that had 6,350 followers at the time of the study. Real stories were tweeted to these followers twice, an hour apart. The first tweet used a statement headline, such as “Power corrupts”. The second tweet, referring to the same story, was phrased as a question that was either self-referencing, as in “Is your boss intoxicated by power?” or non-self-referencing, as in “Are bosses intoxicated by power?”

Lai and Farbrot found that self-referencing question headlines were clicked on average 175 per cent more often than statement headlines (this advantage dropped to 150 per cent for non-self-referencing question headlines). The difference in clicks for question and statement headlines was statistically significant, but the difference between the self-referencing and non-self-referencing headlines was not.

A follow-up study was similar but was conducted via the Norwegian equivalent of Ebay, known as Finn.no. Lai and Farbrot posted adverts for an iPhone, a couch, a TV and a washing machine using either statement headlines or question headlines (self-referencing or not), such as: “For sale: Black iPhone4 16GB”; “Anyone need a new iPhone4?”; or “Is this your new iPhone4?”

Overall, across the four products, non-self-referencing question headlines were clicked on 137 per cent more often on average than statement headlines; this rose to 257 per cent more often for self-referencing question headlines. This time the difference between the two types of question headline was statistically significant. This overall benefit of question headlines was observed despite one anomaly that the researchers were unable to explain – question headlines for washing machines actually led to fewer clicks than statement headlines.

The clear take-out from this research is that you should phrase your headlines as questions, especially self-referencing ones, if you want to attract more clicks. “The combined strategy [of question headlines and self-referencing] seems to represent a useful tool for practitioners in attracting readers to their Internet-based communications,” the researchers said. However, an issue they don’t address is what happens if headline writers heed this message and adopt question headlines universally. Perhaps then statement headlines would appear more original and distinctive and attract more clicks…

Original Source: http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/are-you-more-likely-to-click-headlines.html
Reference: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15534510.2013.847859#.Un6NFpH0hBI

 

I.A is just a communications tool

There’s a lot of discussion around the office and the industry about I.A and it’s role… how it should be done… who should do it (clients and account staff have started handing me ‘wireframes’ and saying “I want that” which is just plain dumb & subjective!) and what level we should be producing it. I have a very straight-forward take on Information Architecture and that is “It’s JUST a communication tool” which could infuriate some people who think they’re more than that.

So let me quantify that train of thought. In 15 years of working in ‘The Big D’ I have had to continuously adapt and refine my style of I.A to the audience who are going to be working with it. I’ve also had the great privilege of working in so many different types of agency now that I’ve constantly had to swap and change the way I produce I.A work. I’ve worked in tactical advertising where we were churning out lots of rich, interactive micro-sites with short shelf-lives and even smaller budgets where I had to scrimp on the objectivity and use a bit of best luck & judgement + knock out rusty wireframes crudely in no time at all so the designer & the developer sitting next to me had a rough steer… All the way through to massive technology companies like Sapient Nitro where the rigor has had to be there because we’re building giant platforms that get developed off-shore. I’ve done a start-up where we had the luxury of being able to take a more Lean approach and most of the I.A was just drawn on the walls. Then there’s the agencies where we were doing more ‘Optimisation’ type work and we’d build detailed Axure Prototypes to do rigorous user-testing. But one thing unifies all those different approaches – whatever I was doing it was always about communicating back to the internal or client audience. It’s always been about showing people the way.

Advertising is a great analogy. You have a message that you need to tell the audience of consumers. You choose the media types best suited to that identified audience. I.A is the same. We have a message and we have to work out the best way to communicate that message and solution to the audience pre-public consumption.

If I meet another I.A who ‘only uses Axure’ or ‘only does Balsamiq’ because it’s their favorite tool then I’m going to explode. It doesn’t do you any favors being that one-dimensional. You have to choose the right tool for the particular job but more importantly you have to be an effective communicator. If you can show me how something needs to function on a wall with a pen then do that… if you can get across the detail using paper and pens then do that too. How it’s presented is secondary to the strategy, insight, research and thinking that’s gone into it.

I’ve tossed away CVs / Portfolios of IAs before because it’s jam-packed full of glossy wireframes… all in the same style, all Omnigraffled with such precision that they’re almost works of art on their own. Why? Because they might be brilliant, but they don’t show me that you’re adaptable and fluid. They show me you’re a great crafts-person with great thinking but they don’t show me that I can throw you into a multitude of scenarios and that you’ll be able to adapt your communication to the audience. Your I.A work is an interpretation of a brief, make people paying attention to it the reward.

A technique or look is no substitution for substance

So in summary – Just be mindful that I.A is a way of communicating the idea, solution, product, vision and function to an audience. That is all. Mastering the art of communication is more important than mastering the art of the wireframe. If it’s objective then it’s UX. If it’s subjective then it’s Design. But whatever it is you have to twist & mould.

Prosumer – fear the new breed of user

There’s a guy in a bedroom in London tweeting to his followers about a crap experience with a new digital service. They’re listening too. Lapping it up because they think it’s giving them some inside track. Some of them will even pass the disgust on to their followers. They might just re-tweet creating a virtual cycle of pass-it-on with limitless viral potential. Some might even just plagiarize the advice and pretend it happened to them instead – an interesting case of wanting to be the top informant. It’s binary Chinese whispers, but in this case the message doesn’t change just the magnitude of it. Meanwhile the digital service is shitting bricks of binary trying to put the untameable fire out – “it’s out of control, what can we do?” – the answer is of course nothing at all. If you tackle the guy at the source you risk in framing his rage by second guessing the motive and getting it wrong again. Besides, he’s getting his moment in the limelight as the hero who exposed the scandal (him & the 32 other people who nicked the warning and claimed the victory) so why would he be interested in a bung to shut him up. We have an unwritten rule in our land of digital architects & experience manufacturing, you can only do one thing – “don’t feed the troll”. Act ignorant, pretend it’s not there & eventually it should go away.

It’s not a new phenomenon, I’ve been parroting on to colleagues & peers about this for almost 10 years under various labels. In fact the whole concept is rather old hat – you have a crap experience & human nature tells us to warn our friends to stop the same thing happening to them.

On the flip side if you have a great time you’ll be an advocate & pass the good times on. So we have to embrace the new world order as much as fear it because the positive effect can be too huge to risk missing out on.

We’ve come to label the uncontrollable desire to tell everyone everything “The Prosumer Effect“.

Prosumer is a portmanteau formed by combing either the word professional or producer with the word consumer. The term has taken on multiple conflicting meanings: the business sector sees the prosumer (professional–consumer) as a market segment, whereas economists see the prosumer (producer–consumer) as having greater independence from the mainstream economy.

Influencing a company with the power of communication

My view of the Prosumer is as one who can influence what a company does be it product development or marketing in ways which directly benefit them. For example, say you’re an advertising agency and a group of people who were subjected to a particular campaign took issue with it & used social communication tools to voice their concern. These customers are important enough that losing them would seriously hurt your bottom line. Based on their request you direct a portion of your next campaign budget to solve their specific issue. While the customers didn’t directly make the changes they did influence the company with their feedback. This arrangement has positive effects for both parties:

For the customer:

  • Immediate access to a more tailored counter-campaign
  • The new campaign meets their specific requirements.

For the company:

  • Strengthened relationship with the customer.
  • Demonstrates a willingness to keep their customers satisfied.
  • The company now has a new feature/product/service they can market to other customers.

It’s a win-win scenario.

Another definition of Prosumer is “Progressive Consumer” which emerged during the recession in 2008 / 2009 and identifies a modern consumer who has changed their approach to the traditional methods and habits of purchasing products. A Prosumer is researching a products value, performance, and price through social networks (twitter, tumblr, facebook) and consumer product reviews (such as Amazon.co.uk) and prices comparison shopping engines such as Kelkoo before making a final decision or purchase. Within these web sites a Prosumer researches all aspects of a products performance, price and social acceptance in relative comparison to similar products within the same category.

It’s no coincidence that Aleksandr Orlov of Compare the Meerkat was an advertising hit in 2009, he was the poster boy (well, animal) for the prosumer crowd, all scrabbling over the best deals to help dented pockets.

The Prosumer is searching for the highest quality product that best meets their personal needs for the maximum amount of money they are willing to spend. Based on that search criteria, the Prosumer is also willing to venture into new shopping distribution channels in order to purchase that product.

I simply adore this video entitled Prometeus: the future of media. It really crystallizes some of the new order in stunning over-exaggerated style:

Prometheus – The media new age

“Man is God. He is everywhere, he is anybody, he knows everything.”
“A new figure emerges: the prosumer, a producer and a consumer of information. Anyone can be a prosumer.”
“Experience is the new reality.”

It’s melodrama of course, but those 3 statements from the video alone carry weight & reality. We are everywhere now, we do communicate globally in real time & we are hyper-connected. I’m writing this post in bed using a app on my iPad. I might go & shop & review when I’m done. If something irritates me I can open Tweetdeck and let my 200ish followers know it sucked. Hell, if it REALLY sucked I might send the same status update to my Facebook profile & let my 170 ‘real friends’ know so they can tell their friends & so on. We call it a ‘status bomb’ in this game. I’m a prosumer. I’m also an influencer. I carry weight in my own vapor sphere & that means I can’t be ignored. Scary, huh?

In the future digital communication will look like…

Check out this Post Office video from the 1960s. A glance 30 years into the future from Dollis Hill Research Station. I love it.

Absolutely love it.

Advertising at the speed of culture

So this is still one of my favorite marketing presentations of all time from Colleen Decourcy the Chief Digital Officer for TBWA. Had the good fortune to work with her for a few days in L.A last year.

It’s a great little presentation that. I’ve been plagiarising bits of it for ages.

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