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Posts tagged ‘Steve Jobs’

Do We Know What We Like?


People are notoriously bad at explaining their own preferences. In one study researchers asked several women to choose their favorite pair of nylon stockings from a group of twelve. After they made their selections the scientists asked them to explain their choices. The women mentioned things like texture, feel, and color. All of the stockings, however, were identical. The women manufactured reasons for their choices, believing that they had conscious access to their preferences.

In other words: “That voice in your head spewing out eloquent reasons to do this or do that doesn’t actually know what’s going on, and it’s not particularly adept at getting you nearer to reality. Instead, it only cares about finding reasons that sound good, even if the reasons are actually irrelevant or false. (Put another way, we’re not being rational – we’re rationalizing.)”

Our ignorance of our wants and desires is well-established in psychology. Several years ago Timothy Wilson conducted one of the first studies to illustrated this. He asked female college students to pick their favorite posters from five options: a van Gogh, a Monet and three humorous cat posters. He divided them into two groups: The first (non-thinkers) was instructed to rate each poster on a scale from 1 to 9. The second (analyzers) answered questionnaires asking them to explain why they liked or disliked each of them. Finally, Wilson gave each subject her favorite poster to take home.

Wilson discovered that the preferences of the two groups were quite different. About 95 percent of the non-thinkers went with van Gogh or Monet. On the other hand, the analyzers went with the humorous cat poster about 50 percent of the time. The surprising results of the experiment showed themselves a few weeks later. In a series of follow-up interviews, Wilson found that the non-thinkers were much more satisfied with their posters. What explains this? One author says that, “the women who listened to their emotions ended up making much better decisions than the women who relied on their reasoning powers. The more people thought about which posters they wanted, the more misleading their thoughts became. Self-analysis resulted in less self-awareness.”

Wilson found similar results with an experiment involving jams. And other researchers, including Ap Dijksterhuis of Radboud University in the Netherlands, have also demonstrated that we know if we like something, but we don’t know why and the more time we spend deliberating the worse off we are. Freud, then, was right: we’re not even the masters of our own house.

Our tendency to make up reasons for our preferences is of particular importance for advertisers, who sometimes rely on focus groups. But if we don’t know what we like, then how are ad agencies supposed to know what we like? The TV shows The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld, for example, are famous for testing terribly even though they went on to be two of the most popular shows in the history of TV. By the same token, many shows that tested well, flopped. As Philip Graves, author of Consumer.ology reminds us: “As long as we protect the illusion that we ourselves are primarily conscious agents, we pander to the belief that we can ask people what they think and trust what we hear in response. After all, we like to tell ourselves we know why we do what we do, so everyone else must be capable of doing the same, mustn’t they?”

Stories of the failures of market research are not uncommon. Here’s one from

At the beginning of the ’80s, I was a product manager at General Electric, which at the time had a leading market share in the personal audio industry (radios, clock radios, cassette recorders, etc.). Sony had just introduced the Walkman, and we were trying to figure out how to react. Given the management structure of the day, we needed to prove the business case. Of course, we did focus groups!

Well, the groups we did were totally negative. This was after the Walkman had been on the scenes for months, maybe a year. The groups we did felt that personal music would never take off. Would drivers have accidents? Would bicycle riders get hit by drivers?

If we listened to “typical” consumers, the whole concept was DOA.

This type of reaction is probably the reason that there is the feeling of a “technological determination” on the part of the electronics community. It leads to the feeling that you should NEVER listen to the consumer, and just go about introducing whatever CAN be produced.

At the time, we had a joke about Japanese (Sony/Panasonic/JVC) market research. “Just introduce something. If it sells, make more of it.” It’s one way of doing business. One the other hand, when I was hired by a Japanese company in the mid-80’s, I was asked how GE could get by with introducing such a limited number of models. Simple, I said, “We tested them before we introduced them.”

History tells which method has worked better.

One person who understood this was Steve Jobs. He never cared for market research or focus groups because, as he once said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Instead, Jobs was a pseudo- Platonist about his products. He believed that there was an ideal music player, phone, tablet and computer and trusted the customers to naturally recognize perfection when they saw it. When asked what market research went into the iPad, his New York Times obituary reports, Mr. Jobs replied: “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

I’m not the only we with an ancient Greek take on Jobs. Technology-theory contrarian Evgeny Morozov compared Jobs to Plato a few years back. He said:

The notion of essence as invoked by Jobs and Ive [the top Apple designer] is more interesting and significant—more intellectually ambitious—because it is linked to the ideal of purity. No matter how trivial the object, there is nothing trivial about the pursuit of perfection. On closer analysis, the testimonies of both Jobs and Ive suggest that they did see essences existing independently of the designer—a position that is hard for a modern secular mind to accept, because it is, if not religious, then, as I say, startlingly Platonic.

Does this mean all markers should think platonically? Not necessarily; Jobs, to be sure, was an outliner. But it does remind us that many times we don’t know what we like.  Read more

How To Generate A Good Idea

When it comes to getting work done Sartre was right, hell is other people. So was Picasso, who said that, “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” And then there’s Steve Wosniak, who in his memoir explained that, “most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists… And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Generating ideas is different. Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” portrays a mediating figure waging a powerful intellectual struggle trying to force an insight. But the reality of great ideas is that they require other people. This is why the English coffeehouse was central to the Enlightenment. As one author explains, “[they] fertilized countless Enlightenment-era innovations; everything from the science of electricity, to the insurance industry, to democracy itself.” He’s right. They were a place where ideas went to have sex, to paraphrase Matt Ridley. (Replacing a depressant – alcohol – with a stimulant – caffeine – didn’t hurt either.)

The modern day coffeehouse can be found in the office buildings of the most innovative companies. At Pixar, for example, Steve Jobs insisted that the architect positioned the bathrooms at the center of the building so that the animator could easily strike up a conversation with the designer who could bounce ideas off of the COO. Likewise, as Steven Berlin Johnson explains, “[businesses] are giving up traditional conference rooms and replacing them with project based spaces… you walk into the room and on the white board is a drawing from six months ago… and there are prototypes they built a year and a half ago. Instead of going into… a conference room and erasing the white board at the end… [These spaces have] a history of the conversation that is triggered by the physical lay out of the space.”

Johnson’s point is that brainstorming is horribly counterproductive. Research from the late 1940s and early 1950s clearly demonstrates this to be true. A recent New York Times article laments that, “people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.” The problem with brainstorming is its tendency to treat people and their ideas too kindly. Criticism and error are essential in the formation of good ideas after all; brainstorming simply doesn’t facilitate this.

There is a great study conducted by Charlan Nemeth out of UC Berkeley that “[tested] the potential value of permitting criticism and dissent”. Nemeth (along with Bernard Personnaz, Maris Personnaz and Jack A. Goncalo) created three groups of people – minimal, brainstorming and debate – and had them discuss a topic. She found that, “groups encouraged to debate—even criticize (Debate condition) did not retard idea generation, as many would have predicted. In fact, such permission to criticize led to significantly more (rather than less) ideas than did the Minimal condition, both in the group and in total production of ideas.” The exchange of ideas amongst people is good, then, but an overly agreeable brainstorming session is certainly not.

When it comes to getting work done Picasso and Woz were right, isolation is the best. The aforementioned New York Times article goes on to explain the empirical evidence:

A fascinating study… compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.

The important distinction to be made is that when it comes to generating good ideas, other people are key because they are needed for criticism, debate and exchange; this is the story of the English coffeehouse and the architecture of the Pixar building. When it comes to getting work done, well, Sartre nailed it on the head: hell is other people.  Read more

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