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When should you admit you are wrong?

Imagine you are the Marketing Director of one of the reputed airlines and your airline has frustrated hundreds of passengers due to lack of preparation and poor decision-making in the face of severe winter weather. All other airlines cancelled flights in anticipation of severe weather and returned to normal service within few days. In contrast the airline that you are the Marketing Director of, gave hope to passengers that the planes would fly – yet remained out of service for many days. In short your airline let customers down. Would you focus the blame on external weather conditions or on internal factors relevant to the company’s operation?

If you chose external weather conditions, you should leave your job and join an airline like Air India. You will probably find a lot of like-minded people there. Or may be the organization you work with is like Air India and would not support your decision. But if you chose to focus on internal factors relevant to the company’s operations, consider yourself a brave person, with a good sense of humility, to have admitted one’s mistake. Indeed a very rare thing amongst people and organizations. And if you would have chosen to acknowledge internal factors, not only would it benefit your organization, it would benefit your career too. Let me tell you why.

Says behavioural scientist Fiona Lee and her colleagues say that “Organizations that attribute failures to internal causes make it appear as having greater control over its own resources and future. The public might assume that the organization has a plan to modify the internal features of the organization that may have led to the problems in the first place.”

Lee and colleagues have tested this idea by conducting a study in which participants read one of the two annual reports of a fictitious company, both of which explained why the company performed poorly over the last year. For half of the participants, the annual report blamed internal (but potentially controllable) factors for the poor performance and for the other half, the annual report blamed external (and incontrollable) factors for the poor performance. Turned out that the first group viewed the company more positively on a number of different dimensions than did the second group.

Not just that, the researchers collected statements from actual annual reports of 14 companies over a 21-year period and discovered that companies that pointed to internal factors to explain failures had higher stock prices one year later than those that pointed to external factors.

Organizations that attribute failures to internal causes come out ahead not only in public perception, but also in terms of profit line. No reason to believe why it should not work for individuals. So next time you make a mistake, admit it and follow it up with an action plan demonstrating that you can take control of the situation and rectify it.

Source: Lee, F., & Peterson, C., & Tiedens, L. – Mea culpa: Predicting stock prices from organizational attributions – Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 30(12): 1-14 (2004)

Why focus groups cannot be relied upon

Marketers rely a lot on traditional research like focus groups to understand consumer’s motivations toward their brand, product and category. Researchers ask people for their opinion about their product, packaging or concepts to pick insights about their appeal, and get wonderful feedback that is sincere, detailed, and emphatic but has little relation to the truth.

Imagine you’re coming back from a party that was at a lavish penthouse of an industrialist. You say you had a lovely time and I ask you what you liked about it. You say “the drinks”. But did your joy really come from talking to the attractive woman who wrote the latest fictional best seller? Or was it something you really relished like the food? Or was it something subtler, like the quality of the music? Or the scent of citrus that filled the house? Or was it the fact that you got to network with influential people?

Leonard Mlodinow, author of many books including ‘Subliminal’ says, when we come up with an explanation for our feelings and behaviour, our brain searches our mental database of cultural norms and picks something plausible. In the above case, your brain might have asked ‘Why do people enjoy parties?’ and chosen ‘the drinks’ as the most likely hypothesis, if ‘drinks’ happen to conform to a set of standard reasons, expectations, cultural and societal explanations for a given preference.

In a study mentioned in ‘Subliminal’, women were shown four pairs of silk stockings that were absolutely identical, except that each had a different and very faint scent applied to it. The women were asked to choose their favourite and they found no difficulty in telling why one pair was better than the other. They spoke of perceived differences in texture, weave, feel, sheen and weight. Everything but the scent. In reality, stockings with one particular scent were rated the highest, much more often than the others, but the women denied using scent as a criterion. In fact only 6 out of the 250 women even noticed that the stockings had been perfumed.

Truth is we most often don’t understand our own preferences. Despite that, we usually think that we do. And when asked to explain why we feel a certain way, most of us, after giving it some thought, have no trouble supplying many reasons that sound plausible.

It’s a market researchers nightmare – you can’t even trust people to know what they prefer, leave alone why. That’s why we rely on the knowledge of the human brain, human physiology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioural economics and proven experiments conducted by the best in the world to understand human behaviour and create Behavioural Design solutions.

How to get men to wash hands post toilet

A study by Carl P. Borchgrevink, an associate professor at Michigan State University found that only half used soap and 15 percent didn’t wash their hands at all after using the toilet. This study was done in US. Imagine the situation in countries like India! Another study found that compliance rates for hand washing in American hospitals amongst doctors and nurses are only around 40 percent, and years of awareness programs urging doctors to wash up or use disinfectant gels have had little effect.

Not surprising. Men are inherently lazy and forgetful. Washing hands with soap takes more effort than doing nothing. Leave alone the time duration required for washing hands with soap for it to be effective. And the act of peeing is so easy for men that it may not register as a way of spreading germs.

But here’s a solution that’s likely to get men to wash their hands after relieving themselves. A designer named Kaspars Jursons from Latvia, has come up with a simple and beautiful Behavioural Design called ‘Stand’ that’s a sink cum urinal. Men can relieve themselves and wash hands conveniently standing right there, save water by not requiring to flush separately, save time by not heading to the basin which in many restrooms is on the other side and save more time by not waiting in queue to use the wash basin. It also saves space. The tap is hands-free activated by sensors, so there’s no effort required there as well. A built-in soap dispenser also activated by a sensor would make the design complete.

Is it a little too close for comfort? Well we’d prefer to shake hands with men with clean hands.

Small ideas make a big difference

There are lots of small everyday things that could benefit from being designed better. Things we take for granted in everyday life. But when designed well, things just work, leading to enhanced experience, satisfied customers, appropriate actionability, increased sales, etc. This post is about few of such small everyday ideas.

Like handles on doors. If there is a handle on the door, the tendency is to pull it. But almost all doors have a handle on the side it says push, too. If the door needs to be pushed, why have a handle? Simply keep it flat and we’ll push it.

When composing emails, wish there was a reminder to attach our files, when words like ‘attached’ or ‘attachment’ were found in the composed email.

‘No Parking on Odd dates 1 3 5’ and ‘No Parking on Even dates 2 4 6’ tend to be so cumbersome. We need to first think about what date it is today, then figure that its ‘No Parking’ on that side, which means we can park on the opposite side. Instead what if we had ‘Parking on Odd dates only’ and ‘Parking on Even dates only’.

Because there are two traffic signals in view at all times, one after the zebra crossing and one much ahead on the other side of the junction, we Indians always push ahead wanting to be first (in whichever race that is) therefore not stopping at the zebra crossing and not allowing pedestrians to cross. So to get cars to stop at the zebra crossing, only one traffic signal needs to be there, placed just before the stripes begin.

Instead of having to choose from financial retirement plans with complicated numbers, what if we could choose, by looking at pictures of different homes (1, 2, 3, 4 BHK) that could be bought with different levels of retirement income.

I often get asked about what mega-pixel camera on the phone is good. Fact is that we don’t understand what mega-pixels mean. What will be useful to us is the information of what mega-pixel matched what size of print. But we know this one won’t happen, else phone and camera manufacturers won’t be able to convince us to mindlessly upgrade.

Remember using the plastic card key in your hotel room to start and switch off the power. Wouldn’t it be convenient to have one in our home, so that we could start/switch off the power with one stroke and do away with the nagging feeling of not having turned off the geyser or gas or some other appliance after leaving home?

The tendency is to think of these design ideas as small (insignificant) ideas, but they are the ones that make for the most awesome product, service experiences and of course get us to behave.

When more choice leads to fewer sales

You may be thinking what a crazy thing to say. After all, which marketer doesn’t benefit from more choices? Take a look at ice-cream parlors. When we visit them we’re often faced with varieties of flavors from chocolates to mint to fruits to natural essences to dry fruits, with so many variants within each flavor depending on the parlor we visit. And the more extensive the varieties of flavors, the better publicity the parlor could generate and could even make it a unique feature of the brand. Moreover the consumers also get to enjoy sampling and choosing the flavors they would like to try. Offering such an extensive choice is helpful when consumers are likely to know exactly what they want and are simply looking for a store or business that supplies it.

But few product categories and companies find themselves in the position of having hordes of consumers salivating at the opportunity to choose from their wide selection of goods and services. More prevalent is the case, that consumers don’t know precisely what they want until they have surveyed what’s available. Take the example of mutual funds in India. There are more than 40 companies providing them with over 4000 schemes to choose from. Now imagine the error-laden short cuts that consumers must be taking to make their choice, if they haven’t already been overwhelmed in the first place.

Behavioural scientist Sheena Iyengar and colleagues Huberman and Jiang analyzed retirement programs of 8,00,000 workers in the US and found that the more choices that were offered, the less likely the employees were to enroll in the program at all. To mention one specific comparison, they found that when only 2 funds were offered, the rate of participation was around 75%, but when the 59 funds were offered, the participation rate dropped to about 60%.

When so many choices are made available, to consumers who don’t know exactly what they are looking for, they find decision-making frustrating due to the burden to having to differentiate so many options to be able to make the best decision. This results in disengagement from the task at hand, leading to an overall reduction in motivation and interest in the product.

In another experiment Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper set up a display at a supermarket in which passersby could sample a variety of jams that were made by a single manufacturer. Either 6 or 24 flavors were featured at the display at any given time. Results – only 3% of those who approached the 24-choice display actually purchased any jam. In comparison 30% bought when the choice was between 6 flavors.

If you are in a similar situation or sell many variations of your product, you may want to consider a reduction in the number of options provided by your business in order to increase your sales. Other healthy side-effects could also include reduction in marketing spends that support a smaller portfolio, reduced spending on raw materials, more storage space, etc.

Sources: S.S. Iyengar, G. Huberman and W. Jiang – How much choice is too much? Contributions to 401(k) retirement plans – Pension design and structure: New lessons from Behavioural Finance, Oxford University Press: 83-94 (2004)

S.S. Iyengar and M.R. Lepper – When choice is demotivating: Can one desire be too much of a good thing – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79:995-1006 (2000)

Priming influences us subconsciously

Read about Facebook’s experiment? The one in which they manipulated which posts showed up on the news feeds of 6,89,003 Facebook users. For one week, some users saw fewer posts with negative emotional words than usual, while others saw fewer posts with positive ones. People were more likely to use positive words in Facebook posts if they had been exposed to fewer negative posts throughout the week, and vice versa. Read about it here.

Love it or hate it, here’s the science behind the experiment.

Our behaviour is often influenced by sub-conscious cues. Priming shows that people’s behaviour may be altered if they are first exposed to certain sights, words or sensations. In other words, people behave differently if they have been ‘primed’ by certain cues beforehand. Priming seems to act outside of conscious awareness, which means it is different from simply remembering things.

Here are few other fascinating priming-related researches. Social psychologist John Bargh et al got participants in the first group to unscramble five words like ‘he it hides finds instantly’. For this group the random words were just to keep them busy, but for the second group, the sentences had lots of words, which were stereotypically associated with old people – old, lonely, grey, careful, wise, stubborn, courteous, etc. Then the two groups of people were made to walk a 9.75-metre strip. Those who’d been fed old-related words took a full second longer to cover the distance, than those who hadn’t.

Those primed were reminded about the idea of being old. Because we have habitual ways of thinking about old people – this idea got activated subconsciously and they acted in line with these stereotypes without even realizing it.

But we can improve people’s performance by just the same method. In another research, Asian-American participants were invited to take a test. Before they did, some were primed with the words that would activate stereotypes about Asian people, namely superiority at maths. This was done by flashing words on a screen for less than a tenth of a second: too quick to be perceived consciously, but slow enough for the subconscious to register.

Asian-Americans who had been primed with the stereotype got almost twice as many of the questions right as the other group. When researchers saw the data closely they found that after bring subliminally primed with an Asian-American stereotype, Asian-Americans attempted more questions. As if the stereotype made them try harder – a habit of persistence.

In another research asking participants to make a sentence out of scrambled words such as fit, lean, active, athletic made them significantly more likely to use the stairs, instead of lifts.

Says Jeremy Dean of www.psyblog.co.uk, “Everyday we are bombarded with subtle and not so subtle cues of how to behave. We process these automatically and subconsciously, and over time these impulses emerge as our habits, which we start performing without conscious thought.”

Feel like sipping some cocktail by the beach?

 

Sources: John Barg, M. Chen, L. Burrows – Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation action – Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71, no. 2 (1996): 230

M. Shih, N. Ambady, J.A. Richeson, K. Fujita, H.M. Gray – Stereotype performance boosts: the impact of self-relevance and the manner of stereotype activation – Journal of Personality and Social Pyschology 83, no.3 (2002): 638

Wryobeck and Chen (2003) Using priming techniques to facilitate health behaviours. Clinical Psychologist 7:105108.

Sometimes it pays to make things complicated

 

Simplicity in design is one of the most sought after deliverables. After all, look at the products created by Apple. The products are so simple and intuitive that my friends 4-year-old son began touching and moving his fingers over his TV screen, getting frustrated over why nothing would happen. But here’s a scenario where just the opposite seems to be working. We’re talking about Diesel’s store design.

If you have walked into any of the Diesel stores you are likely to feel that you have walked into a party. Latest house/hip-hop music. A television playing a football match. No helpful signs pointing to men’s or women’s sections. No staff members in sight. Being confronted by 35 different types of blue jeans with strange names.

While clothing retailers like Zara have standardized and simplified the layout of their stores in an effort to put customers at ease, Diesel’s approach is based on the unconventional premise that the best customer is a disoriented one.

Says Warren St. John of New York Times, “Indeed, it is at just the moment when a potential Diesel customer reaches a kind of shopping vertigo that members of the company’s intimidatingly with-it staff make their move. Acting as salesmen-in-shining-armor, they rescue — or prey upon, depending on one’s point of view — wayward shoppers.”

”We’re conscious of the fact that, outwardly, we have an intimidating environment,” said Niall Maher, Diesel’s director of retail operations. ”We didn’t design our stores to be user-friendly because we want you to interact with our people. You can’t understand Diesel without talking to someone.”

For a behavioural designer, serving customers means relieving them of frustration, of confusion, of a sense of helplessness. Make them feel in control and empowered. But to the Diesel’s sales staff, this is an opportunity to present themselves as rescuers, ready to offer assistance, to provide just the answers customers will be led to believe they had been seeking.

Douglas Rushkoff, a media critic who has written about Diesel advertising campaigns, says the company’s store design is a new take on an old trick. In the 1950’s, the shopping mall designer Victor Gruen realized that when shoppers were distracted by confusing mall layouts and grandiose visual stimuli, they seemed more prone to impulse buying.

”They realized the best way to get people to buy stuff is not to facilitate their shopping but to disorient them,” Mr. Rushkoff said. ”Diesel shoppers say, ‘I’m not hip enough to get this,’ and then in comes the hip salesperson. What makes them hip is that they know how to navigate the space.”

We think Diesel gets away with making things complicated because their clothes are popular and considered fashionable. And wandering through the store is part of the experience. But would the same technique work for other retailers?

A new way of boarding that saves time and lowers blood pressure

Warning: This post is the longest we’ve ever written, but we think you are likely to find it rewarding.

There are long queues at boarding no matter which airline you travel by. And once inside the plane, we’re often waiting in line once again for someone in front us whose is trying to keep his/her cabin luggage overhead. Imagine the time that gets wasted for you and the airline. In this industry, more than any, time is money. The quicker the airline can board, the more it will be on-time, the more satisfied will be its customers, the more money it can make. But how can this be made possible?

Southwest Airlines in the US has a unique solution to this problem. Southwest doesn’t have seat assignments. Here’s how it works:

In airlines that assign seat numbers, when you’re trying to get to your seat, you’re not only waiting for someone to find their seat, you’re also waiting for them to put their bag in the overhead bin. So if you’re assigned to say, Seat 26A, you must wait until Seat 22C puts his/her bag in the overhead compartment.

But if you’re on Southwest Airlines, the procedure and behaviour of passengers is completely different.

So let’s say you’re flying on Southwest with a carry-on bag. You’re anxious about getting a window seat and making sure your bag gets in the compartment, so you check-in online 24 hours beforehand (the beginning of the check-in window), and are placed in boarding group A. Group A gets to board first.

Southwest keeps in mind that most people don’t care if they sit in row 10 or row 25, but they are likely to have a strong opinion about having a window or an aisle seat.

Fast forward to the airport. You arrive and get into the queue for group A, confident that there is a very good chance that you’ll get the seat you want and overhead space.

Now you’re walking onto the plane and suggested to move towards the further rows. The person in front of you has a bag and spots an aisle seat in row 25, and stops to put their bag in the bin. You’re a window person, and see one in row 21. The person behind you also wants a window, and stops at row 18. Notice what happened here: no one was held up because of the person in front of them. You all sit down, and the process repeats.

The boarding process becomes similar to a conventional boarding process as the seats fill up – if you’re in Group C (last to board) and say there’s only one window seat left and it’s at the very back of the plane, you have to wait 20 seconds for the person in front of you to claim their aisle seat at the front.

Compare this to a conventional boarding process: not only would you have had to wait for Seat 21C to put his bag in the compartment, Seats 21 A, B and D have to fight with their bags, and the other seats’ bags in order to fit their bags in. Multiply this by 30 rows, and you can see how this adds time to the boarding process.

What Southwest has done is eliminate that 20-to-30 second delay for 80% of passengers and instead limited it to, say, the 30% of passengers at the end of Group C. These passenger-to-seat delays add up quickly; and with roughly 130 seats each at 20 seconds each, that’s potentially 43 minutes of delays during seating! This, among other reasons, means that Southwest can turn around their planes in about 25 minutes, the fastest of any airline.

And not to forget, lower your BP. Travelers who are the most anxious about getting their preferred seat and their bag in the bin are more likely to check-in at the first second, earning them a coveted spot in Group A. But people in group B know there is, say, a 50% chance they’ll get a good seat and space in the overhead bin. Group C knows their chances are slim of getting either. The point here is that everyone has a rough idea of their probabilities and also that the probability is the direct result of their own actions, i.e., how quickly they checked in.

And the best thing I like about this way of boarding: I’ll never be seated in the wrong seat!

Big thanks to Michele Walk, Operations Manager at Engage for the information.

The surprising psychology of waiting in queues

Waiting in queues can elicit powerful emotions in us. Stress. Boredom. The nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. And of course we believe that the other line moves faster. While losing to the line at our left, drives us to despair, winning the race against the one to our right, does little to lift our spirits. We almost always fixate on the line we’re losing to and rarely the one we’re beating.

All of this makes for a lasting impression on your customers’ perception about your brand if you’re a hypermarket or a bank or an airline or any business whose business it is to serve people. So how does one tackle it?

Some years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero!

Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel). “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” says, M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines.

Our expectations further affect how we feel about lines. Beating expectations buoys our mood. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated, leave happier than those who wait longer than expected. This is why Disney, the universally acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, overestimates wait times for rides, so that its guests (never customers, always guests) are pleasantly surprised when they ascend ‘Space Mountain’ ahead of schedule.

This is a powerful ploy because our memories of a queuing experience, are strongly influenced by the final moments, according to research conducted by Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at the business school Insead and the nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. When a long wait ends on a happy note, we tend to look back on it positively, even if we were miserable much of the time. Conversely, if negative emotions dominate in the final minutes, our retrospective audit of the process will skew toward cynicism, even if the experience as a whole was relatively painless.

But the biggest influence on our perception of queues has got to be ‘fairness’: what you feel when someone jumps the queue. If you haven’t faced a situation like this yet in India, where jumping the queue is a survival skill, you must be a celebrity. Ranbir Kapoor did it when I was first in line for the application of an international driving license. He assumed it was ok for celebrities to break queues. So he simply smiled, said sorry but guess what, it worked!

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

The image of a small black fly inside the white urinals in the men’s bathroom has helped reduce spillage rates in the men’s rooms at airports. Yes its true. In response to dirty bathrooms caused by men urinating on the floor, an airport maintenance worker Jos Van Bedoff suggested that they etch the image of a fly onto the urinals to give men something to aim at as they hurry to and from flights. According to NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich, who gave a fuller account of the story, the man thought back to his time serving in the Dutch army during the 1960s, when red dots had been painted on the latrines in the barracks to improve cleanliness. Sure enough, spillage rates in the airport men’s room dropped an estimated 80 percent after the fly was introduced, leading to a much cleaner bathroom. Fascinating how men instinctively aim at targets, and how a routine action can be disrupted by a simple, strategically placed graphic design.

Illustration by Mayur Tekchandaney

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