The role of usability and persuasion in conversion-critical processes

When it comes to designing conversion-critical processes, usability and persuasion are two concepts that often come to mind. They may be complementary, but they can also be opposing sometimes.

This is my oh-so-biased view:

Usability Persuasion
Is the brainchild of… engineers advertisers
Treats the user as… an agent: will consider her options and do what she thinks is right a patient: her behaviour can and should be influenced
From a marketing perspective, is affine to… product marketing promotion marketing
If a conversion funnel were a slide, it would deal with… making the slide frictionless and safe nudging the user down it
If it was a period of Prehistory it would be… Neolithic: about breeding and exploiting long-term relationships with customers Paleolithic: about hunting/gathering customers
Relies on tactics such as… Putting the user in control Creating a sense of urgency or scarcity to drive the user to action

When it comes to interactive design, some designers put persuasion at the same level of usability. If you ask me, I think persuasion is a spice, not an ingredient. As a matter of fact, persuasion in Web design is like nutmeg: in small doses and some applications it may be beneficial, if overused becomes unpalatable, and in large doses it’s downright toxic.

As I see it, the most influential single factor in conversion is good matching between your value proposal and the users that come to you. It never ceases to amaze me how many people give up working on this factor, and get obsessed with other details instead.

If you are concerned with conversion, work on the definition of your value proposal and your target audience first of all. Once you’ve done your homework here, usability can do a lot to make sure there are not obstacles in the way. And given you have the right value proposal and a usable process, persuasion can certainly help you walk the extra mile to prevent users from procrastinating, or to help users understand and feel the uniqueness and attractiveness of your proposal. But to a point. Beyond that point, it may look as if your immediate conversion figures are improving, but chances are your lifetime customer value will be unaffected or even damaged.

Of course, this is just an opinion. What is yours?

Heat Pixels: an example of recombination

Recombination is one of the tactics nature uses to generate diversity. For instance, genetic recombination is responsible of the fact that all our children are genetically different (with the exception of identical twins, of course).

Recombination, as in mixing parts of different concepts or disciplines, is a very useful creativity technique. Take two very disparate things and mix them somehow. The result may be strange, but it might be the seed for a useful idea.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was hanging out with some friends. Nice, non-technical people. They were talking about how awesome the new iPhone is told to be. You know, this topic is getting more and more boring all the time, so I tried to change the subject to their experience with induction smooth-top stoves (Let me say that smooth-top stoves are very popular in Europe —I’ve heard in the UK they’re called “ceramic hobs”). Then, the idea came to me about an “iPhone stove”: a multi-touch, tactile stove where you can “paint” heat sources directly on the surface.

The idea of someone using a multi-touch interface to determine the size and position of heat sources in a stove is a little bit impractical (not to say dangerous), but the concept of a configurable stove where you can “paint” heat sources with “heat pixels” seems promising.

See, this is a typical fixed configuration of heat sources in a smooth-top stove:


Four heat sources are shown. You can choose the one you need, depending on the size of your pan and the power needed.

But now imagine you have a number of small heat-emitting elements arranged in a bee-hive pattern:


Depending on the size and number of the cooking utensils you are going to use, you’d change the arrangement of these “heat pixels”:


At the left, you can see a configuration for three utensils of different sizes. At the right, you can see what the configuration would be for a single, large cooking utensil such as the one needed for a nice Spanish paella.

What would be the right user interface to control configuration and heat control of these dynamic sources? As we’ve said before, a multi-touch interface, tough fashionable, would be not the most sensible option. I suggest placing a camera and a projector in the extractor hood and using an interface driven by the user’s gestures and by the actual presence of utensils on the stove. Think of something similar to Ianus Keller’s Cabinet or Pompeu Fabra’s Reactable. It would work like this:

  • Configuration of heat sources (its number, shape and size) would be automatically performed by the sole presence of cooking utensils. Just put any pan anywhere, and the appropriate “heat pixels” will activate accordingly.
  • Control of each heat source will be controlled by hand gestures. For instance, putting your hand above one utensil and showing one to five fingers would set up heat power 1 to 5, whereas waving your hand would cut up the heat.
  • The camera attached to the extractor hood might be able to use some artificial vision to recognize changes in the contents of the utensils. For instance, it shouldn’t be too difficult to to recognize boiling, or even the slight change of colour that would tell you the stuff you’re frying is starting to brown. This way, you could give the stove commands such as “wait for this one to boil, then power down to level 2, wait 10 minutes, then power off and beep“.
  • The projector might feed the user with information by projecting figures and graphics on the stove, the food itself, or an adjacent surface (for instance, a cutting surface that can also work like a precision scale).
  • This intelligent stove could assist the user with audio-visual hints and recipes.
  • Now that we are getting carried away, the extractor hood might have also a mass spectrometer (a kind of “artificial nose”) and detect some of the aromatic compounds that are emitted by food as it is transformed by heat.

Phew! We’ve started by mixing the iPhone and a stove, and now we’re defining the kitchen of the future. Needless to say, dozens of objections and drawbacks come to mind (from “an extractor hood is the worst place to keep the optics of a camera/projector clean” to “heat sources divided into heat pixels would be far less efficient”), but I have no doubt that in the future, we’ll see one of two of the developments we’re describing here.

See where a little recombination has taken me? I’d love to hear where it can take you.

Are we being educated to transform or to conform?

DIY rhinoplastyLately, policy makers don’t stop saying that innovation is “strategic”. Do they really mean it?

If that is the case, then we are in need of a workforce trained to engage into an innovation-ready mindset. Let me call this kind of mindset the “transforming mode” (or “the transforming cognitive style”, or even “the transforming mind state”, if you will).

You are into transforming mode when:

  • You stop taking for granted everything you see, and you start questioning everything.
  • You stop judging and filtering your thoughts before they are formulated, and start generating a lot of possibilities, no matter how weird or implausible they might look, leaving judgement for later.
  • You enjoy mutating things: you can easily think of a lot of alterations that could be applied to anything.
  • You enjoy recombining things: you find it easy to make things acquire elements or properties of other foreign things (or disciplines).
  • You enjoy mutating and recombining the work of others, and helping others mutate and recombine your own work.

(it is not a coincidence that mutation and recombination are both tactics of natural evolution).

Do you think our education and training systems are teaching us to get ourselves into transforming mode?

I don’t think so. On the contrary, they tend to teach us get into “conforming mode”. They train us to:

  • Accept anything given by the authority, and don’t dare to question it, circumvent it, or even adapt it to present circumstances (when was the last time you were given a problem in an exam, and you felt this conflict between doing what you believed was best to solve the problem, or rather do what you thought your teachers expected you to do, even if it didn’t feel like the right thing?)
  • Try to make things as close as possible to a given canon. Identify deviations from the canon and regard them as errors. Repeat until your work is error-free (i.e. your work conforms to canon).
  • Exert critic upon your own work and the work of others. Prepare yourself to confront critic. Make your work critic-proof before you show it to others.
  • Value individual authorship, if only because it makes individual evaluation possible. Don’t cheat by letting others contribute to your individual work. This would distort its evaluation.
  • Think into disciplinary silos: if you are given a physics problem, don’t even think of solving it with social science.

Don’t take me wrong here. Conforming mode is necessary, mostly in earlier stages of education. Conforming mode helps us to apprehend the gifts of our culture, and to acquire a lot of cognitive tools that will make us way more powerful, even as transformers.

But don’t you think education systems should:

  • Devote at least a small fraction of the curriculum to get people into transforming mode, right from infant and primary education.
  • Increase this fraction of the curriculum as you get into latter stages of the education system.
  • Teach people to switch between these two modes, and use their best judgement to get into the right mode for the task at hand?

In the last few decades (in Spain as in other countries), some policy makers have introduced progressive education reforms that have attempted to make education a little less conforming and a little more transforming. But they have been repeatedly choked and made to fail by teachers as well as parents (and by the lack of the funds needed to really transform the system bottom-up). Somehow, as education consumers, we all seem to feel safer with the “old-school school”. And the education offer has been, well, shaped by demand.

I think if we want to commit ourselves to innovation as a long-term goal, we should all change this. What do you think about it?

We as a wave

Ghosts in the city (fragment)

Let me start by translating this poem from the recently deceased Asturian poet Ángel González:

Anniversary of love

How will I be
once I am no longer me?
once time
has modified my structure,
and my body is another,
another my blood,
other my eyes and another my hair.
I will think of you, maybe.
Probably,
my succesive bodies
—prolonging me, alive, towards death—
will be passing on from hand to hand,
from heart to heart,
from flesh to flesh,
the mysterious element
that determines my sadness
when you go away,
that drives me to search for you blindly,
that takes me beside you
beyond hope:
what people calls love, that is.
And the eyes
—it does not matter they are not these eyes—
will follow you wherever you go, faithful.

(original Spanish here)

Each time I read this poem, I can’t help but ask myself: “What’s the author exactly referring to when he says «me»?” and then I feel kind of seasick.

Ángel González captured beautifully the material, scientific fact that our selves may use matter, but are not made of matter. As Bill Bryson puts it, most of the atoms that constitute our body have been in place only for one year or two. Even more, millions of them belonged to other people first. Actually, it’s an statistical fact that thousands of your body’s atoms, in this very moment, once belonged to Alexander the Great.

Our own self, the continuity to our identity, clings to existence not the way a rock or a pencil or a car does, but rather, the way a poem, a religion or a bad habit do —because this extremely improbable phenomenon we call life keeps on convincing new atoms to conform to the same superior structures as they continuously replace the old atoms that leave us. Not only you can’t touch the same water twice, but the very hand that touches the water can’t be the same hand twice either.

When we see an ocean wave coming to us, it may look like it is the water what is coming, but what comes is actually the message that tells the water to rise (exactly the same that happens in a stadium wave). Much similarly, we are but a wave of identity over matter.

Hey, it feels a bit like an existential roller coaster.

When you think of it this way, few things sound more silly than oneself telling things such as “I was born that way”, “I’m too old to change”, or “people can’t change”. The only reason why we conserve any resemblance to the guys we were two years ago is because we actively remember how we are supposed to be, and constantly rebuild ourselves to that model.

Must it really be that hard to change the model at least a little?

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, believed the self is a task. Otl Aicher, the German designer, believed the self is a project (a design project, actually). I’m not sure how happy they were about the results of their respective efforts, but at least they had the courage to choose that attitude.

How would you rather see yourself? As the spectator and passive object to superior forces that keep you tumbling around —or as your own maker, constantly struggling to build yourself on and on against these forces? This is not just a philosophical choice. It determines how you will live with things such as responsibility, luck, fortune and misfortune.

For me, the choice is clear. We are our own makers, and should behave as such. We are not here to search for the answer to questions such as “what’s the meaning of life”. We are here to be the answer.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Blogging again

In January 2002, my good friend Joaquín Bernal set me up a blog I called Outsider. I stopped working on it in April 2003.

Now it’s time to blog again.

I plan to write on the same subjects as before, but with two changes:

  • Now I feel like talking a little more about the kind of things I do at work (user research, interaction design, and innovation techniques).
  • This time it’ll be in English.

But, enough with statements of intent. Let’s roll!