Toilets and the DMV

At some point, I’ll get back to my regular posting schedule, I promise! For now, I want to share a post inspired by a trip to the bathroom. Don’t worry, it’s not gross!

Many universities and companies are trying to go green, and they’re installing fancy toilets that allow you to choose the amount of water needed for each flush. Most of these toilets make it pretty simple with a button for solid waste, and a button for liquid waste. The toilet I saw yesterday, however, made it difficult. First, the instructions were really tiny, so I didn’t really notice that it was an environmentally-friendly toilet until I was turning to leave. Seriously, I must be the only nerd that actually looks twice at the handle to see if there’s a blog post waiting to be written, but I looked a little closer at the instructions. The designers wanted you to pull the handle up for liquid waste, and down for solid waste. Now, this, to me, is poor design for a couple of reasons. First, we’re all used to pushing a handle down to flush, so the immediate response from the majority of people would be to do what they’ve always done. Second, I don’t have hard statistics on this, but I think it’s safe to assume that in a public restroom, most people will have liquid waste. So, why make them think harder to go green? If the designers had just flipped the functionality, I think the toilets would save more water!

I saw some statistics a few years ago about re-wording the forms at the DMV to increase the number of organ donors. In most states, the form reads, “Please check the box below if you would like to be an organ donor.” Very few people checked the box, because most people won’t take an extra step. However, when they changed the wording to read, “Please check the box if you do not want to be a donor”, they had more donors. In theory, the same number of people chose not to check the box, but in this case, that action resulted in a positive consequence for the donor pool.

So, what do toilets and DMV have in common? They have initiatives to promote, and they’re dealing with a largely apathetic public. If you really want your initiatives to work, it’s gotta be a no brainer for your customers!

Rivalry is Moot

I heard a blurb on the radio today about Britney and Christina going head to head! Who will win: X Factor or The Voice? Which one will YOU choose? So dramatic and hyped… and pointless. My immediate reaction was laughter, since DVR makes these rivalries a moot point. People can watch BOTH shows!

In fact, DVR has changed the TV landscape quite a bit for marketers. Advertisements are sold with the assumption that a certain number of viewers will see the ad. In the past, viewers could change the channel, leave the room, or otherwise tune out, but it was much easier to figure out how many viewers watched the show. These days, viewers can DVR shows for later, or watch them “live” but with a 10 minute delay, which allows them to fast forward through the commercials altogether. I’m not knowledgeable about this type of technology at all, so I have no idea if networks can measure how many people DVR a show. But, even if they can measure how many people DVR a show, I doubt there’s a way to measure how many people actually watch all the shows they DVR. So, once again, we’re back to inaccurate or immeasurable viewer figures, and the ability to fast forward through commercials.

How long will we pretend that one TV show trumps another? I do think there’s still some significance about the line-up and show promotion, but as technology advances, I think these rivalries will be less and less relevant!

Stalk Yourself

I’ve written about the need to type your name into a search engine every once in a while, since, you know, they’re talking about you and all. I’ve also talked about ways that some people use the web for evil. Recently, I had an interesting thought collision: am I stalkable? I don’t mean to be creepy in this post, but it’s a question that has previously only occurred to me as a completely ludicrous thought in passing, usually incited by an article about how people were checking in at locations every hour and ended up getting robbed. I don’t check in, so I must not be findable, unless, of course, you know my full name, occupation, and other personal details that I personally give to you.

My husband occasionally travels for business, and though I lived alone for several years before we got married, I’ve gotten used to having someone at home at night. Thus, when he’s traveling, I’m a bit unnerved to be home alone when it’s time for bed. This basically translates into locking both deadbolts before I go to sleep, so nothing terribly drastic. While he was gone on a business trip, I went to the gym. A young fellow stepped onto the elliptical next to me and apologized for stinking after a sweaty workout. My reply, “No worries, it’s a gym, you’re supposed to sweat!” opened the door to a nice chat about work and education. During the conversation, I mentioned that I’m in marketing, in the aviation industry, I’m working on an MBA at UT Dallas, and I previously lived in California. He shared his occupation, industry, undergraduate alma mater, and the rent he pays at his current apartment (we were talking about the difference in housing prices between CA and TX, a topic that comes up pretty frequently when people find out I lived in CA). He finished his cardio before me, and as he walked off, he threw his first name out there, so I replied with my first name, and that was that.

On the way home, it occurred to me that I’d given out quite a bit of information about myself to a complete stranger. Then I realized, I do that all the time. I’m a social person, so if you decide to talk to me on the elevator, in the grocery line, or at the gym, I’ll probably engage you if I have a few minutes. With the details I’d given (and regularly give), could you find me?

That’s when I decided to stalk myself. I used good ‘ole boolean logic to string together some searches on the information that I frequently spill about myself to random strangers. The good news is, it takes quite a bit of detail to actually find me. The bad news is, I usually give you enough detail to do it. The good news is, a lot of other people come up in the search results well before I do. The bad news is, I eventually came up as the #3 search result. I had to search on 5 details for my LinkedIn profile to show up.

I suppose I should freak out a little bit, since my impetus for stalking myself was brought on by the thought of someone else stalking me, but I really don’t feel any more worry about it than I do about being home alone. I guess I just feel that if someone is really out to get me, they’ll find a way to do it, whether I put myself out there or not. I mean, that guy at the gym could’ve followed me to my car and followed me home… much simpler than trying to find me online, deduce where I live, catch me home alone, and do me harm. Then again, maybe I’M the ax murderer that’s going to stalk him and do harm to him, even though I seem like a friendly person at the local gym.

This is all just food for thought. How much do we really know or trust anyone we meet? How has the internet changed how we interact with strangers? What’s REALLY so unique to you that you can’t put it out into the world, for fear of it being used against you? Is it worth closing yourself off to all social media, just in case?

Brain Proxies

Whew, I’ve been doing all my writing over at CaringBridge, so it’s nice to be back in my own space! I like to draw some business lessons from my personal experiences occasionally, so today’s post highlights some of the lessons I’ve learned during this family crisis. Let’s chat about brain proxies, shall we?

Essentially, the brain uses short cuts to make decisions all the time. We live in such a complex world with information overload on a daily basis, and powerful as it is, the human brain simply cannot parse all that information effectively by sifting through each item one at a time. Since the brain is incredibly smart, it came up with some short cuts to process all that information efficiently. Now, most of the time, these short cuts are great, particularly for marketers. These short cuts make things like branding effective. For example, it’s cumbersome and low-stakes for the brain to try to decide if one hamburger is better than another. Sure, you could go to 5 different burger places every time you’re hungry, or you could just rely on the brand recognition and past experience to guide you to the right choice. Or, when you’re staring at 20 SKUs of laundry detergent, you might remember that commercial that promoted a brand known for color protection, so you use a short cut to choose your detergent. The problem is, sometimes we implement those short cuts incorrectly, or too frequently when making high-stakes decisions. Here’s a few that I’ve witnessed recently:

Authority. One major proxy is that of authority. Studies have shown that we assume truth or validity if it comes from someone or something that we perceive to be an authority. The problem is, we often use proxies like symbols and uniforms to determine who or what is authority. Doctors wear white coats to portray authority, police officers carry badges to represent authority, and the media writes en masse to convey authority. So, our brain assumes that if these people are authorities, then surely, whatever they say, must be truth. However, as shown in the Milgram study linked above, people will often forgo their own best judgements in favor of authority, and the authority may be wrong. So, I’ve been watching the uniforms and symbols wield their power to play mind games on even the most educated people. Heck, my sister is a psych major, and even SHE found herself resorting to the authority proxy!

Conformity and Groupthink. Humans are social creatures, and as such, we like to go with the group and remain harmonious. However, studies have shown that humans will agree with an obviously incorrect choice to avoid going against the group. Nobody likes to stand alone, unsupported, so the brain will tell us that if the group thinks it’s correct, we should agree. This proxy is particularly powerful when combined with the authority proxy. Since the police and media are a large group, and they are both perceived as authorities, surely anything they say must be truth. Thus, it’s extremely difficult to objectively analyze information presented from both of these groups, particularly if you’re the only one questioning the information.

Uncertainty and Cognitive Dissonance. Finally, the brain hates uncertainty and dislikes reconciling opposing sides. Human nature tells us that we should seek certainty, stability, and understanding. So, when faced with situations that cause uncertainty or dissonance, we immediately seek to remedy that issue. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the remedy is accurate, valid, or truthful, as long as it mitigates the discomfort caused by uncertainty. This proxy dovetails nicely with authority and groupthink to produce a sense of certainty. If the group, who also happens to be perceived as an authority, thinks a piece of information is true, and the authoritative group presents this information with certainty, the brain wants to latch on to the certainty to remedy the cognitive dissonance. It’s much more difficult to evaluate each piece of information individually on its merits, so whatever gets us to a feeling of “certainty” quickest will likely be accepted.

So what do these mind games and proxies have to do with business? EVERYTHING! Proxies are the reason offensive marketing campaigns make it to print or TV. Surely, if the Marketing Director (authority) says it’s a good idea, it must be. And, if the creatives agree (groupthink), then I can’t be smarter than the group. If the board (authority and groupthink) approves this position and says the candidate is acceptable, but I think they are incompetent (cognitive dissonance), then I should probably stick with the group’s opinion. This is why there’s such a movement for diversity in the corporate world, focus groups prior to product launches, and general encouragement to offer up outrageous solutions. These actions challenge our proxies and force us to consider the ultimate truths, both in business, and in life.

I’ve been evaluating my proxies at every level, and I plan to bring this questioning nature into the workplace. What proxies are you using? Are they right? Have they lead you astray?