March 30, 2017
What people believe, sometimes because real because of that.
1. Introduction. People are driven by beliefs and assumptions. We all make assumptions and use simplified thinking to cope with complexities of daily life. These include stereotypes, heuristical decision-making, and many forms of cognitive biases we’re all subject to. Because information individuals have is inherently limited as are their cognitive capabilities, our way of rational thinking is naturally bounded (Simon, 1956).
2. Belief systems. I want to talk about what I call “belief systems”. They can be defined as a form of shared thinking by a community or a niche of people. Some general characterizations follow. First, belief systems are characterized by common language (vocabulary) and shared way of thinking. Sociologists could define them as communities or sub-cultures, but I’m not using that term because it is usually associated with shared norms and values which do not matter in the context I refer to in this post.
3. Advantages and disadvantages. Second, the main advantage of belief systems is efficient communication, because all members share the belief system and are therefore privy to the meaning of specific terms and concepts. The main disadvantage of belief systems is the so-called tunnel vision which restricts the members adopting a belief system to seek or accept alternative ways of thinking. Both the main advantage and the main disadvantage result from the same principle: the necessity of simplicity. What I mean by that is that if a belief system is not parsimonious enough, it is not effective in communication but might escape tunnel vision (and vice versa).
4. Adoption of belief systems. For a belief system to spread, it is subject to the laws of network diffusion (Katz & Shapiro, 1985). The more people have adopted a belief system, the more valuable it becomes for an individual user. This encourages further adoption as a form of virtuous cycle. Simplicity enhances diffusion – a complex system is most likely not adopted by a critical mass of people. “Critical mass” refers here to the number of people sharing the belief system needed for additional members to adopt a belief system. Although this may not be any single number since the utility functions controlling the adoption are not uniformly distributed among individuals; there is an underlying assumption that belief systems are social by nature. If not enough people adopt a belief system, it is not remarkable enough to drive human action at a meaningful scale.
5. Understanding. Belief systems are intangible and unobservable by any direct means, but they are “real” is social sense of the word. They are social objects or constructs that can be scrutinized by using proxies that reflect their existence. The best proxy for this purpose is language. Thus, belief systems can be understood by analyzing language. Language reveals how people think. The use of language (e.g., professional slang) reveals underlying shared assumptions of members adhering to a belief system. An objective examinator would be able to observe and record the members’ use of language, and construct a map of the key concepts and vocabulary, along with their interrelations and underlying assumptions. Through this proceduce, any belief system could be dissected to its fundamental constituents, after which the merits and potential dischords (e.g., biases) could be objectively discussed.
For example, startup enthusiasts talk about “customer development” and “going out of building” as new, revolutionary way of replacing market research, whereas marketing researchers might consider little novelty in these concepts and actually be able to list those and many more market research techniques that would potentially yield a better outcome.
6. Performance. By objective means, a certain belief system might not be superior to another either to be adopted or to perform better. In practice, a belief system can yield high performance rewards either due to 1) additional efficiency in communication, 2) randomity of it working better than other competing solutions, or 3) its heuristical properties that e.g. enhance decision-making speed and/or accuracy. Therefore, beliefs systems might not need to be theoretically optimal solutions to yield a practically useful outcome.
7. Changing belief system. Moreover, belief systems are often unconcious. Consider the capitalistic belief system, or socialist belief system. Both drive the thinking of individuals to an enormous extent. Once a belief system is adopted, it is difficult to learn away. Getting rid of a belief system requires considerable cognitive effort, a sort of re-programming. An individual needs to be aware of the properties and assumptions of his belief system, and then want to change them e.g. by for looking counter-evidence. It is a psychological process equivalent to learning or “unlearning”.
8. Conclusion. People operate based on belief systems. Belief systems can be understood by analyzing language. Language reveals how people think. The use of language (e.g., professional slang) reveals underlying shared assumptions of a belief system. Belief systems produce efficiency gains for communication but simultaneously hinder consideration of possibly better alternatives. A belief system needs to be simple enough to be useful, people readily absorb it and do not question the assumptions thereafter. Changing belief systems is possible but requires active effort for a period of time.
Katz, M. L., & Shapiro, C. (1985). Network Externalities, Competition, and Compatibility. The American Economic Review, 75(3), 424–440.
Simon, H. A. (1956). Rational choice and the structure of the environment. Psychological Review, 63(2), 129–38.
March 29, 2017
“In this age, in past ages, in any age… Napoleon.”
(The Duke of Wellington)
This is a short post reflecting upon Napoleon’s writing on war and efficient management. I think many of his principles are universal and apply to communication — my special consideration here is writing of emails, which is a vital skill because 1) you want your message to be read and replied! and 2) to get to that end, you need to learn how to write in a concise way.
Napoleon will help you to get there…
“Reconnaissance memoranda should always be written in the simplest style and be purely descriptive. They should never stray from their objective by introducing extraneous ideas.”
First of all, write simple text. Avoid using complicated words and ambiguity (– expressions that can be interpreted in many ways). Oftentimes I see sentences that have ambiguity (or, in fact I myself writing them — when that happens, I instantly make it more clear so that there is absolutely no room for misinterpretation).
“The art of war does not require complicated maneuvers; the simplest are the best, and common sense is fundamental. From which one might wonder how it is generals make blunders; it is because they try to be clever.”
The goal should never be to appear smart of whatever type; only to communicate your message efficiently. As I’ve said in other contexts, clear writing reflects clear thinking — and especially when it comes to writing emails, this is the only image you want to convey of yourself.
“Think over carefully the great enterprise you are about to carry out; and let me know, before I sign your final orders, your own views as to the best way of carrying it out.”
In other words, make it easy for people to reply by asking for their opinion (when it’s such a matter their opinion would be useful). Write so that it’s easy to reply — e.g., don’t give too many choices or add any unnecessary layers of complexity.
Oftentimes I see messages which require considerable thinking to reply, and then it of course gets delayed or canceled altogether. Writing an email is like servicing a client; everything from the recipient’s part needs to be made as easy as possible.
“This letter is the principle instruction of your plan of campaign, and if unforeseen events should occur, you will be guided in your conduct by the spirit of this instruction.”
This is actually the only quote where I disagree with Napoleon. Let me explain why. His rationale was based on the information asymmetry between him and his local officers. The officers have more immediate information; first of all, because of this it’s impossible to write a detailed instruction which would optimally consider the local circumstances, especially since they might change in the course of delivering the message (remember, in Napoleon’s day communication had a delay of even up to many days depending on the troops’ location).
Second, if the local officers were to verify each action, the delay in communication would result in losing crucial opportunities. In a word, decentralization of decision-making was essential for Napoleon. Napoleon himself explains it like this:
“The Emperor cannot give you positive orders, but only general instructions (objectives) because the distance is already considerable and will become greater still.”
However, in email communications the situation is different. First of all, there’s no communication lag, at least in the practical sense. Second of all, leaving things “open” for the recipient requires more cognitive effort from them, which in my experience leads to lower response rates and delays.
So, I’d say: Tell exactly what you want the other party to do. Don’t hint or imply – if you expect something to happen, make it clear. Oftentimes I see messages that are thought half-way through: the sender clearly implies that the recipient should finish his or her thinking. Not a good idea. Think the course of events through beforehand so that the recipient doesn’t have to.
More about Napoleon can be read from his memoirs, available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3567
The author teaches and studies digital marketing at the Turku School of Economics.
March 29, 2017
You’re not getting as many replies to your messages as you’d like. Why is that?
Well, there may be many reasons, but I’m discussing one of them here. It’s the psychological cost of processing an email and acting upon it. My hypothesis is simple:
The higher the psychological cost of answering an email, the lower the response rate.
This means that don’t make people think (the same principle applies in UX design!).
So, if you propose a meeting time, don’t give many choices — only give one, if that’s not okay let them process it further (by that time the processing has already begun, it’s like a bait).
If you give many choices, the person has to think between them; also, he knows he still has to wait for your reply which is far higher psychological cost than just replying “ok”.
Remember, even if it wouldn’t seem like much, people get so much email that any marginal increase of complexity is likely to sway them for answering immediately and therefore postponing or even ignoring the message.
Any addition of cognitive effort will reduce the reply rates of your emails. As you’ll be sending many of them throughout your career, non-replies and delays add up and hinder your ability to achieve your goals in a timely manner. Therefore, learning how to write great emails is a hugely important skill. And one way to go about it reducing the psychological cost of the recipient.
Joni Salminen holds a PhD in marketing from the Turku School of Economics. His research interests relate to startups, platforms, and digital marketing.
March 29, 2017
I keep forgetting this stuff, so noting it down for myself (and others).
1. Don’t ask “would you” questions, ask “did you” questions. People are unable to predict their behavior.
2. Don’t ask about your product, ask about their problem. Wrong question: “We have this product A – would you use it?”. Right question: “Do you ever have this problem B?” [that you think the product A will solve]
3. Only in the very end introduce your solution. Then ask openly what he or she thinks about it: “What do you see problematic about it?” Also ask if they know someone who would like this solution.
4. Listen, don’t pitch. Pitching is for other times – you DON’T need to sell your product to this person, you only need to hear about his or her life.
5. Repeat what he or she says – many times people think they understand what the other person is saying, but they don’t. Only by repeating with your own words and getting them to nod “That’s right” you can make sure you got it.
6. Make notes – obviously. You don’t want to forget, but without notes you will.
7. Make “many” interviews. Many = as long as you notice there are no more new insights. In research, this is called saturation. You want to reach saturation and make sure you’ve identified the major patterns.
8. Avoid loaded questions. False: “Is this design good?” Correct: “What do you think of this design?”
9. Avoid yes/no questions. What would you learn from them? Nothing.
10. Focus more on disproving your idea rather than validating it. In philosophy of science, this is called falsificationism. It means not claim can be proved absolutely true, but every claim can be proved wrong. Rather than wanting to prove yourself right (at the risk of making a false positive), you want to prove yourself wrong and avoid wasting time on a bad idea. Remember: most startup ideas suck (it’s true – I’ve seen hundreds, and most will never amount to business – be very very critical about your idea).
As hinted in the previous, customer developing is like doing real research. You want to avoid false positives – i.e., getting the impression your idea is good although it sucks; and false negatives which is to conclude the idea is bad although in reality it’s not.
In general, you want to avoid respondent bias, recall bias, and confirmation bias. These are fancy names meaning that you want people to tell you honestly what they think, and you want to interpret it in an objective way, not being too fixed on your initial assumption (i.e., hypothesis). Be ready to change your opinion, like Gandhi advised.
About non-interview methods, i.e. testing via landing pages.
a. Force customers to pay from the beginning – this way you see if the thing has value to anyone.
b. Needless to say: MVP. Create first the non-scalable, bare minimum solution. This is not even a product, it’s a service. Use manual labor over technology and get the user information through free tools like Google Forms.
c. If you get a high dropout, you need to make sure people understand the USP. For this, you CAN ask your friends’ opinions: “Do you get it?” But prefer friends without prior knowledge on the project, because they have fresh eyes.
Before conducting any interviews or tests, do some market research based on facts. Yes, I know Steve Blank says to “go out of the building” straight away and forget about traditional market research, but he’s not a marketing expert. Think a bit before you fly out the door: Who are your customers? Why them? Do they have money? Do they want to buy from you? etc.
You can use this spreadsheet for segmentation (not my doing, just copied it from Sixteen Ventures):
Example questions from Cindy Alvarez:
More points from Cindy (she’s a real specialist):
Here are some useful links:
If you have to read one book about this topic, read this one: http://www.amazon.com/Interviewing-Users-Uncover-Compelling-Insights-ebook
If you want to read another book, then it’s this one: http://www.amazon.com/Lean-Customer-Development-Building-Customers-ebook
If you need to read a third book, then you should stop doing a startup and become a researcher 🙂