Terrifying Consumers

I am sure you have seen the Carrie promotional video prank. If you haven’t here you go: terrify yourself. There has been a lot of debate about whether the people in the shop were actors or just bystanders (and that debate also added to the spread of the video). Marketeers are in a continually escalating battle to get our clicks and our attention. They have to creating more and more heightened emotional states, provoke us more and more to get our attention.

Well, right now, right here, today, I can introduce you to the next wave of viral, experiential marketing from the folks at John St. Marketing:  ExFEARiential


  • “We don’t really do flashmobs, we prefer to create real mobs.”
  • “Fear works… It’s that simple.”

The video is a great piece of satire, and like all good satire, it is a warning about what we have or might become. Whenever we Like, +1, Post or Re-post a piece of marketing (or any other on-line content), we are rewarding a behaviour, and escalating potentially rescuing the attention arms-race. Marketeers respond to what doesn’t work, and what does work. Send them the signals that you want them to hear, not the signals that cause fear (-1 for my copy writing skills right there).

In between our eyeballs and our fingers we have an organ that can change the world. Don’t let momentary emotions bypass it! :)

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Does More Data Mean Better Decisions

So this post is partly in response to a comment from Roland Harwood asking about 23andMe, but mostly me thinking out loud about data and risks. While this post is in response to the data generated by 23andMe, it is applicable to almost any isolated set of data.

23andMe, if you haven’t heard of it, is  a DNA analysis service, where they will take a DNA sample from saliva, analyse it, and, based on an automated database, they will essentially tell you your risk factors for succumbing to various medical conditions, and genetic traits that you are carrying (if you are a carrier for a generic condition, or have a genetic indication for an allergy). It is a really interesting proposition, and I have toyed with the idea of sending off for an analysis myself, especially as the price point has fallen to under a hundred dollars.

However, there are a few things that leave me a little disquieted about it, some of which come up frequently in discussions around 23andMe, and others not so much. These are my thoughts as they are now, rather than any conclusive opinions, so they are very much up for comment and debate. None of them are a criticism of the system itself, more an observation that we are only just getting used to dealing with this sort of data.

The first concern is the issue of medical diagnostics being delivered in isolation. If you are going to receive some news that is potentially life changing, then having the right professional help and support on hand is psychologically very important. Perhaps that is there, but I have never heard it mentioned. Data, without the right experts to interpret it, can be a very disturbing thing.

The second is to do with how we process information, and our cognitive biases. I’ve spent much of the last several years studying these biases, trying to design systems for businesses that help to avoid the issues cognitive biases cause. There are a particular set of biases (availability bias, hindsight bias, confirmation bias, …) that we have around assessing risk, which essentially boil down to this: We disproportionately react to perceived risk. If I tell you that there is a 30% chance that you will die if you choose to go to work by your normal route tomorrow, most people would think about changing their route home. But that is a meaningless piece of data. Risks, out of context, aren’t helpful. If I tell you that there is also an 80% chance that you will get killed in a car accident on the alternative route home, then the normal route is actually a safer one (you might actually decide to stay in bed ;) ). It is a meaningless risk unless you balance is against the risks of the alternatives.

Risk is often presented out of context. Responding to risks kicks off a long chain of causality. If I choose to have surgery to correct or mitigate against a genetic defect, then that surgery obviously carries a risk, but down stream from that, I have changed all sorts of other risk factors. It is one of the reasons that John Boyd came up with the OODA loop. Risks (threats) have to be constantly monitored and responded too. It isn’t a one time event. A one off diagnostic can give a false sense of security, as much as it can give a false sense of risk.

The next thing, aside from the issues of assessing probabilities and risks, is that we aren’t good at making judgements about events that are a long way in the future – for example diseases that we might succumb to later in life. There is a whole body of research around risk/reward ratios and timing, which again shows that we don’t deal with this sort of data accurately, at least not unaided. The key here is that while the data may be very scientifically valid and sound, it can cause us to do some unsound things, because it is difficult to process unaided.

The last is that 23and Me is based on science-in-progress. We are still learning about genetics, heritability and what happens when we respond to them. At lot of the outputs that I have seen fall into the ‘well duh!’ category of health advice: eat healthily, do exercises and so on. All the kinds of things that people who take good care of their bodies tell me that I should do more of, leaving me rightly a bit guilty. I don’t need to shell out money for that advice, I can just hang out with some of my healthy friends, and take their advice on the chin.

We have more and more access to data. That doesn’t make us any smarter, and it potentially doesn’t make us any less likely to make good or bad decisions. The issue is about making informed and uninformed decisions. Data can be good, and help us make good decisions, but being misinformed – ie being informed by data that is inaccurate (estimated), or that is misinterpreted or presented out of context  – can be worse than being uninformed.

Data doesn’t always help with making better decisions. It is good to be informed, it is not good to be misinformed, especially if that leads you to take more risky decisions. When looking at information:

  • Keep things in context – back to the journey to work example. What are you balancing risks against?
  • Understand the quality of the data – what is the possibility that it is inaccurate or incomplete?
  • Look for counter indicators – don’t response to single pieces of data.
  • Compare like with like – risks and issues are different things. Don’t compare the past with the future.

If you want to ready more, Noreena Hertz  has written a good piece in the NYT, Why we Make Bad Decisions (which is also a good plug for her book).





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Internet of Things

A few very cool open sourced hardware projects in the Internet of Things space this week. The Chrome Web Lab exhibition at the London Science Museum concluded yesterday, but Google have released the plans for a couple of the projects: the Universal Orchestra and Sketchbots. The first, Web Lab Orchestra, allows multiple users to control hardware that plays physical instruments, collaboratively and in real time, using a browser-based loop sequencer interface form anywhere in the world.

The second, the Sketchbots system, automatically generates contour line drawings based on an image. The software can control a robot that draws the image, in the case of the Web Lab exhibition, by dragging a stylus around in a bed of sand.

The is also a software only version, and the code for a BergCloud LittlePrinter. If oyu haven’t come across the BergCloud device before, it’s a very endearing internet-connected micro-printer with all sorts of applications, from automating ordering, to keeping your family in touch, and is a very neat way to help information ‘break free’ from behind the screen.


While these projects are, mostly, just a bit of fun, they do show how technology is being used to bridge the online and offline worlds, and Google’s eagerness to accelerate development in this area (likewise, with Google Glass).

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From around the web – Benjamin’s favourites july 12 2013

This is a bit of old-style blogging – an actual web log! – of things I found on the web (mostly via twitter) editted with Storify (which, sadly, made a right pigs ear of this).

  1. My favourite ‘gadget’ of the week (designed in Reading, no less!) The Floating Mug Co. | Refresh your tabletop
    The Floating Mug Co | A design studio that introduced the Floating Mug™ and whose mission is to refresh your table-top. – FLOATINGMUG
  2. by Maria Popova “The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism.” The combinatorial nature of creativity is something I think about a great deal, so this 1903 letter Mark Twain wrote to his friend Helen Keller, found in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol.
  3. BBC World Service – Global Business, Designs For Life

    ‘Design thinking’ – and why it is becoming fundamental to the way organisations function – BBC
  4. 10 Game Design Principles for the Next 10 Years
  5. Shift No. 11 in which we talk to writer, consultant and originator of the term Wirearchy Jon Husband. We talk about his work with civic groups in Montreal, recognition and job sizing, new models for organisations, and the likelihood for change. BUSINESS-SHIFT
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Ants and Dandelions – Co-dependance and missing links

I’m not really big on gardening. I’m very happy to look at a pretty garden, but not so happy to spend hours tending to one! That said, each time I do venture out, I learn something: Today it was something about ants and dandelions.

Herbicides are off limits in our garden – appart from their impact, keeping chickens means they really aren’t a smart idea. So, removing weeks is a very manual task, which means I get a fairly intimate look at how weeds grow and spread. In my adventures with the recurring hoards of dandelions that crop up in the lawns, I kept noticing that where there were Dandelions there were ants. Being the curious type, I wanted to know why the two had such a peculiarly intimate relationship.

It turns out that there are two likely reasons. The first is that happen under similar conditions: dry compacted soil, so dethatching and aerating the lawn will help. The second reason is a little more curious. You probably already know that ants farm aphids (they feed off of the sugary secretions from the aphids). Indonesian ants take the aphid farming to a whole new level:

Anyway, back to the dandelions. It sounds like the same thing happens in the US:

When I pulled those dandelions, the long tap roots–some over a foot long–came up easily due to the loose soil of the ant nests. And those roots were covered with white specks–aphids, growing underground on the dandelion roots, up to 5 or 6 inches below the soil surface. With ants tending them.

Dandelion roots are a favourite living place for Trama troglodytes or “root aphids” – but trama troglodytes sounds so much grander!

Colonies of Trama troglodytes are situated just below ground level and are always diligently attended by ants. So, ants running around the base of a composite plant suggest aphids are present.

The aphids become very active when disturbed and wave their long hind legs. If the roots are pulled up, they drop from the plant. – The Natural History Museum

The ants (at least some species) also feed off of the nectar from the dandelion flowers, so there is a potential double bonus for them to hang around the dandelions. That said, the relationship between ants and dandelions isn’t as direct as it first appears when you pull up a dandelion and find a big ants’ nest underneath. Aphids are the hidden link that brings the two things together, without the aphids, the two wouldn’t be as tightly coupled.

I wonder how ofter we look at two things that occur together and assume that they are directly connected, completely missing the hidden enabler that ties them together.

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Couch to 5k – Getting Fit!

Thanks to a bit of inspiration and nudging, I’m grappling a long-outstanding goal that has been in my personal Milestone Planner (*cough* nominated by Lifehacker as one of the top 5 goal tracking services) plan for a while: Get Fit. It’s far too vague a goal, which is probably why I haven’t made any progress towards it in the last couple of years, so I’ve made it specific: Couch to 5k by the end of August.
London Photocillin Walk  1136

The plan involves three runs per week, with a day of rest in between, with a different schedule for each of the nine weeks.

A number of friends have put themselves through the C25k program recently (you know who you are!). There are a bunch of Couch to 5k resources on this NHS page and the original program page is here. The NHS page includes a series of podcasts that you can download to your favourite mp3 player. The basic program consists of a 5 minute walk as a warm up and warm down, with patterns of alternating running for x minutes and walking for y minutes. The ratio/duration of walking versus running changes as the weeks go by, until eventually you run the full 5k. I like the design thinking behind the program, developed by Josh Clark, who describes the design goals of the program, which actually come from software design:

  • Eliminate pain.
    If it hurts to do it, people will give up.
  • Welcome newcomers.
    Friendly language and reasonable expectations are crucial in early experiences with a program.
  • Deliver early victories.
    If you feel like you’re kicking ass from the start, you’ll be eager to continue. Otherwise, you’ll decide that you suck, the program sucks, or both. See #1 above.
  • Make it easy and rewarding.
    We are creatures of inertia; we need carrots to get moving.
  • Not everyone wants to be a power user.
    Some people will be content to master the basics and stop there; others will want to continue to develop and explore. The program should accommodate both paths.

Based on a Twitter recommendation from Martin Walker, I’ve put Benjohn Barnes’ Get Running app onto my iPod touch – there had to be some technology involved! The app is guiding me through the program with the very soothing voice of a Northern lass letting me know how much longer I’ve got left to run, while my favourite tunes play in the background. Once I’ve got up to the full 5k, I’ll switch back to my usual diet of podcasts.

Today, I finally completed my first run, now I just need to keep it, so feel free to nag me!

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