Category: Human Behaviour

Exploitative Businesses & Divine (and Tech) Interventions

When I wrote ‘Design the Future’ about Design Thinking, it had a brief overview of the behavioural aspects of innovation – from an innovator’s and user’s perspective.
 
There was a mention of nudges (not sure I used the term though).
I have been of the (possibly obvious) view that, as companies get increasingly sneaky, especially when selling ill-health or stuff we don’t necessarily need, that despite how creative their marketing gets, customers too keep pace by becoming resistant to the nudges.
 
I also think the Ben Franklin Effect probably wears off, and that people aren’t exactly suckers to keep giving. Of course, it varies for people, their preferences, value trade-off, etc.
 
Unless business are sincerely trying to benefit or create a good habit in customers, I’ve personally never been a fan of exploitative nudges. Which is why, while some soft drink or fast food ads and initiatives are creative and impressive, you know it isn’t promoting something great in customers.
 
Two recent events seemed to be a sort of divine intervention to nudges and business practices that aren’t exactly in the best interest of customers.
 
First, Cristiano Ronaldo removing Coca-Cola bottles during a press conference at the Euros coinciding with a $4bn fall in the company’s share price. Nothing against the company in particular, but not a fan of global giants that proudly continue to promote ill-health.
 
The Second, email marketing. While useful to businesses including mine to spread the word, it also has become increasingly sneaky in that they closely track numerous user interactions. I recently got an email about an offer. Opened the email because the subject line was interesting, but immediately realized I didn’t need it. Instantly, the next mail appears, asking if there was something missing in the offer (previous mail). That was pushing it.
 
As per developments discussed at Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) that ended about a week ago, Apple will be putting more limitations on email marketing and in-app advertising. They’ll likely be preventing marketers from knowing when users have accessed their emails, among other features.
 
During a recent project with a company trying to create a positive habit in customers, the analytics team had a list of around 140 data points/actions on the app to track. I found some more to take the tally to 200. While the overarching service is beneficial to customers, I wasn’t overly proud of my contribution and faced the moral dilemma of whether we should track so much, or simply create a more effective user experience that might achieve the dual objective: one for the customer and one for the company.
 
Interesting how some businesses offer invasive tech to businesses, and other businesses offer defense against such tech in the form of new features on their products.
 
 

Hyperboles and Statistics don’t Mix Well

Do you use hyperboles often?
I do. Mostly with close friends and family, but when necessary, with clients or my students. Helps convey the meaning or gravity of an idea or situation.

Like when Gordon Murray says something like,
“Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because you didn’t fucking cook it!”

However, when you’re in a responsible position and you’re talking statistics about an important matter, hyperboles (obviously!) do more damage than good.

What’s your favourite or funniest hyperbole you’ve used?

Mine are usually said in the moment, so I don’t really remember them later.
But one I’ve used a few times with clients who create assumptions on a business model and then go on to create multiple layers of assumptions atop those assumptions, I’ve said something like, ‘now, it’s like you’re trying to pick curtains for the windows of your castle in the sky.’

Better Use of Time

Image: source

We humans have always dealt awkwardly with time. Some look for new ways to kill it. Others, better ways to fill it.
And the lockdown has really done a number on how we treat time; most likely amplifying our pre-Covid perception of time. So we have either gotten better at killing time (longer binge watching sessions), or a bit more efficient in some ways, to include the added house work (especially in places like India, where a lot of us were accustomed to having house help do a ton of the housework, but suddenly found ourselves needing to do it through the lockdown).

While I toggle between filling and killing time, I have struggled with trying to better manage it. And while I’ve always been aware of how short life is, the number of deaths in the last year have really highlighted the brevity of it.
Here are 4 habits I’ve been toying with in the hope of managing time better; with varying degrees of success:

  • Instagram on Weekends only: Sometime during the lockdown last year, I saw the crazy amounts of time I was spending daily on Instagram and wondered, “WTF?!” While I would see a good meme or funny pic or a picture that helped me connect two random thoughts together, it still felt like a criminal waste of time. So, I got into the habit of installing the app only on weekends, and uninstalling it on Sunday night. No Instagram during the week! At first, you might feel a restlessness and urge to flip through the app. But that restlessness is not about how important Instagram is to your life. It’s more like life asking you why the hell you’re wasting it on seeing mugshots of people, cars and pets, or funny videos, and not on something more worth your while. Now, I don’t miss Instagram at all, and even forget to install it on some weekends. And either way, Sunday night, it has to go. In case some of you wondered why I take forever to reply to Instagram messages; sorry. 😛
  • No Social media apps: Apart from maybe a WhatsApp, and any work related apps (like Slack, etc.) get rid of any social media type apps from your phone. Nothing to do with weekends, just get rid of them forever. Check them on the laptop if you must. No app, no temptation to keep checking them.
  • Don’t Multitask: You’ve probably heard both sides of this. Multitasking is great. Multitasking doesn’t work. Sometime when I started working in the venture capital sector, I finally realized how scattered my attention is. And given the multitude of work tasks, the only solution for me was to run quickly through different tasks. And to multitask. Sure, it helped to an extent. But in the years since, I have also tried ‘not multitasking’. Over time, my verdict is, ‘don’t multitask’. It does not work, because you are half-assing everything, and no one can ever work on or create something they are proud of, with a multitasking mindset. Instead, set limits of 60-90 minutes to dedicate to each task. Do nothing else at that time. Ideally, not even listen to music. And see the difference. The upside to this is also that you’d hopefully become picky (in a good way) about the type of work you choose to do, since it’s easier to focus on work you love, than just random work. Of course, it is easier said than done, and I struggle with it too, but the few times I can, the results justify the effort.
  • Single Topic Browser Tab: Here’s something that works well if you can stick with it. It is to do with browser tabs. Till recently, I prided myself in the diverse things going on in those 40-50 odd tabs that would be open in my web browser. But I’ve come to realize that it is the equivalent of multi-tasking. So what I do now, is starting with one tab, I limit the tabs to only those relevant to the task at hand at the moment. So for instance, if I was checking LinkedIn, only the LinkedIn page would be open – log in, check, reply to messages/comments, logout. Then if I were to research on some topic, if more than one tab is open, it would all be related to the topic and nothing else. Once I’m done, close all those tabs and move to the next. If checking Facebook is next, same deal – log in, check, logout.

Let me know what habits have been helping you better manage your time.

Don’t Worry, Nothing’ll Happen

What was missing before and during the 2007-08 global financial meltdown, and during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Or during the Spanish Flu? Or in Nazi Germany? Something that perhaps could have prevented the resulting tragedies?

 

In 2002, somewhere on the outskirts of Mangalore, I was part of the way through third-year engineering. One day, we had classes in an adjoining campus building, one we thought was exclusively for junior college which was also on campus.

After class on the first floor, a few of us close buddies were talking about random topic by a large open window. It was the first time we were in that building which seemed empty on that day. One of my buddies, this giant we call ‘Bear’, was suspiciously quiet through the conversation between the rest of us. Known for the occasional prank, it was almost as though he was concocting something sinister while the rest of us spoke. Then, and without warning, he picked me up, and held me outside the large window. It was a sunny afternoon, and I could feel myself slowly slipping out of the Bear’s hands. As I said, ‘WTF’ and asked him to pull me back in, he very calmly goes, ‘nothing’ll happen, man’. Horrified, my head was doing a ‘time-to-eventuality’ countdown, as I struggled without much success to get a grip on his arm. Finally, after the prank probably got boring, he got me back in. And while I was still breathing a sigh of relief, he seemed really calm, almost like he was confident of his estimates on the safety margin he had for that prank. And yet, I knew that I had little grip, and that I was mere seconds away from slipping to the tipping point from where there was nothing Bear could have done to stop the fall.

(Mis)calculations, and (over)confidence is a cocktail we humans seem addicted to. And sometimes we get the proportions right, and sometimes, terribly wrong. And the worst times are where we are overly confident of the proportions despite glaring evidence to the contrary.

This excerpt from the book ‘The Signal and the Noise’ by Nate Silver mentions one such instance. The global financial meltdown of 2007-08, triggered by the collapse of suspicious mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDO). [Excerpt at the bottom of the post]

As per this excerpt, apart from overlooking the obvious risks of these precariously balanced investment instruments, even as late as 2005, S&P conducted a simulation to assess housing prices. It found a potential 20% drop over the next 2 years. But S&P perhaps was content in knowing that their simulation successfully captured the risk. And that was it.

Cut to more recent times. There are far lower chances of a developed or developing nation getting into a full-scale war, than there is of a virus outbreak.

And yet, most countries across the world, many of whom probably have dozens upon dozens of battle possibilities and multiple theatre scenarios, most were caught with their pants around their ankles when Covid-19 hit. From delaying shutting down international borders, to shutting state-borders and trying to contain the spread.

Covid-19 was of course, a virus more dangerous than most the world has seen in recent times. But yet, the countries that did manage to contain it in the months that followed, were not the most confident or the ones most capable or equipped in containing it. It was almost in all cases, those countries whose leaders accepted (either publicly or in private), that they were dealing with something beyond their abilities and experience; so they followed a more basic, first principles approach to tackle the challenge. And emerged largely successful.

As is common knowledge now, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns (Donald Rumsfeld). The quicker we accept the situation when something is outside the realm of our understanding, and resist the urge to apply our standard actions and reactions to it, the faster we can begin to deal with it.

The problem is, these instances keep repeating and will continue to repeat. In our personal lives, and also in more far-reaching world events. We are wired in such a manner, that each time a crisis is approaching or presents itself, we tend to react in the same manner. By wasting time in applying what we know, without attempting to first understand.

 

Answer: Humility

 

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the face of humble leadership the world yearns for.

 

Life is a Highway

India – More highways or Better National & Public Transport?
 
This is an email I had sent to our Minister for Road Transport & Highways in January this year. Of course I am still optimistic (or delusional) enough to hope for a response or an opportunity to further discuss this topic. Either way, I hope they at least consider it for a moment.
 
email–
I have two thoughts to share with regard to your ministry’s awe-inspiring INR 3.3 lakh crore highway development plan [23 highways, 4-5 years]. It might help to reconsider the scale of the projects.
 
Please consider these two historical events:
Scenario 1: In the late 1800’s, electric car prototypes existed [William Morrison and others]. But given limited research and push, fuel-powered cars won, leading to a century of polluting vehicles and climate damage.
Imagine the world today if a more long-term view was taken in the late 1800’s and electric vehicles were pursued and developed!
 
Scenario 2: In the 1950’s, a few leaders and businesses saw great potential for plastic in consumer goods. Almost instantly, entire industry sectors were created around plastic goods and packaging. Half a century later, our helpless dependence on plastic continues, and its resulting ecological disaster is becoming irreparable.
Imagine the world today if a more long-term view was taken in the 1950’s and plastic was to be used sparingly and responsibly!
 
Sir, we are now at a similar crossroads with regard to vehicles in India. And you have the power to choose one of two possible routes for us. Please let it be the one that remains relevant half a century later.
 
Here are two thoughts for your consideration:
1. As autonomous vehicles become prevalent in the next 1-2 decades, we will most likely shift from a car ownership to a Transportation as a Service (TaaS) model, taking the usage efficiency from the current ~10% to ~90%. With this, the total number of cars needed could reduce to 1/5th its current growing demand [Ref.: https://www.slideshare.net/Ideafarms/transportation-2050-the-future-of-personal-mobility ]
 While cargo related road expansion plans could continue as planned, if we only add sufficient road infrastructure for passenger cars to factor a future TaaS model, our planned highways might not need to be as wide as planned, and the project cost need not be as high as it is.
 
2. India, compared to North America, has four times the US population living on an area that is 1/3rd that of the US landmass. Therefore, higher individual ownership of vehicles made more sense in the US given the distance between people and places.
   The Indian scenario is quite opposite. Many people on a smaller land mass. This means, a world class national and state based public and private mass transportation would be a more logical option to pursue than individual car ownership. If we simply build wider highways and push car ownership from an auto industry that is largely dependent on a captive domestic market but struggles to compete globally, we would end up with (i) an inefficient auto industry, (ii) traffic-jammed cities and towns, and (iii) huge, inefficiently used automotive assets sitting idle at homes and offices. We might lose our global efficiency and edge due to challenges this inefficiency would present not necessarily now, but in the decades to come.
 
So, if we create more efficient public and private mass transportation infrastructure like Singapore today, we can save investments on the current highway projects by making them more future-efficient. And the saved funds could be diverted to boost relevant economy sectors that will give us a global edge in the coming decades, while creating more efficient lives in a cleaner and traffic-free India.
end of email–
 
Thoughts?

Bitcoin

Bitcoin, Bit(e)coin
 
I’ll start by saying that I clearly don’t know much about cryptocurrency.
I’ll also add that it would be incredibly beneficial to have a global currency that works securely without the need for intermediaries and their resulting transaction fees.
 
However, I find bitcoin a bit concerning, and here are my thoughts and questions around cryptocurrency in general and Bitcoin in particular. If believers would indulge me for a few moments and be kind to share their views.
 
When fully mined, there will be 21 million bitcoin in all. As of today (6 Feb, 2021), about 88.6% of them have been issued, leaving about 2.37 million to be mined (at the rate of about 900 per day).
 
Q1. How can bitcoin strive to be a truly universal solution with that limited a number?
It is my understanding that in most countries, the most commonly circulated currency denominations are in numbers that are few, if not several times the population of the country. For instance, US population in 2018 was 327 million. They had the following number of bills (by denomination) in circulation in 2018:
$1 – 11.7 billion
$2 – 1.2 billion
$5 – 2.8 billion
$10 – 1.9 billion
$20 – 8.9 billion
$50 – 1.7 billion
$100 – 11.5 billion
 
You’d notice the number of bills of each denomination in circulation was a few times the total number of people in the US (between ~4x and ~36x).
 
Compare that with the 21 million bitcoin (when fully mined). It is far from enough.
 
Now let’s take it a step deeper.
One Satoshi (named after the presumed person or persons who developed bitcoin) is the smallest unit value or denomination of a Bitcoin (BTC). One BTC = 100,000,000 Satoshis (100 million Sats).
 
If Satoshis are traded, my earlier concern of there not being enough bitcoin to go around is more than addressed, as there would be some 276000x Satoshi’s per person (based on 2019 world population of 7.67 billion. That’s a great number to have in circulation. But trading tiny fractions of bitcoin seems a bit inconvenient from a average person’s daily transactions perspective. So while it might seem more like buying a fraction of a mutual fund, buying something with bitcoin might be inconvenient for us common folk. Perhaps a bit easier with Satoshis.
 
Now this might have been fair if the world was uniformly introduced to Satoshi’s, and they were pegged at one global currency (say USD). However, till now, BTCs have been traded by a tiny segment of the entire population, which gives them a ridiculously huge early-adopter advantage, and would seem unfair for the rest of the world to simply adopt right now.
 
Which means there could be a huge likelihood that BTCs remain something highly limited and exclusive. And with the demand and spikes in price, it seems more like a rare collectors items. Or a club membership that sells for huge fees, and the waitlist could be several years long.
 
The intent behind bitcoin appears noble, and I was all for it even when I first read about it years ago. The world could have benefited hugely, perhaps if the accessibility was more inclusive from the early days, rather than after it has become a highly inflated one with low trading volumes.
 
While I wait for your thoughts, here’s some light humour by Naval Ravikant.
 

How much Attention do you pay to Detail?

How much attention do you pay to detail?
I had read about this somewhere and found the attention to detail unimaginably inspiring.

The sculpture of Moses by Italian Renaissance artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti has a slight indent in the forearm (yellow marker).

That indent is not random.

Such an indent is only formed when a particular muscle is taut, which in turn only happens when the little finger is extended, as is seen in the sculpture.
Try it out yourself to check.

The incredible attention to detail clearly differentiates legends from the rest.

The Paradox of Colour Choices

Many of us are familiar with the paradox of choice, whether or not we have heard of the phrase itself.

The paradox of choice, is our tendency to believe that more options or variants or choices in a given situation or purchase event is a good thing. After all, who wouldn’t want more flavours in a cereal or jam, or more accessory choices when buying a car or colour options when buying shoes or maybe laptops?

However, I think it was psychologist Barry Schwartz who first argued that for consumers, eliminating choices in fact dramatically reduced their anxiety as opposed to making them more content or delighted. It also simplifies our ability to compare and decide quickly, as opposed to being confused by the complexity of the multiple options presented.

I personally went through a similar experience with my calendar app. I think I installed it sometime in 2013-14. It had a few basic colour options for each entry. And since it was quite basic, I felt the need for some features, and the flexibility of some more colour options, to be able to categorize different priorities or types of reminders by colour. So I signed up for the Pro version.

All of a sudden, I got access to probably three times the colour options which, after an update in the recent months, has now become unlimited colours! There are the basic 11 Google supported colours, 39 more on the app’s extended palette, and the ability to create custom colours using the colour slider or by entering a Hex code.

And with all the options, came the chaos. In an attempt to highlight different types of activities with different colours, in the hope of remembering to get them done, the calendar started looking nauseatingly colourful. And chaotic!

And as the different colours overwhelmed the senses, it became increasingly tough to remember and understand priority.

So I regressed to a better format. I now use less than the initial colour options I started with. And, just as with the paradox of choice, clarity has improved. Now timebound or important matters are in red or green, and everything else is in one colour. So rather than depend on multiple colours fighting for attention while leaving me in a state of chaos, now I am required to pay attention to each to make sure nothing important gets missed out.

Have you faced any similar choice paradox that you solved by simplifying?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[the before & after screenshots are only representational. The actual calendar was far more chaotic before, & far clearer now]

Between Gender Pronouns and Spelling People’s Names

I had been seeing a lot of social media profiles with a ‘He/Him’ or ‘She/Her’ mentioned alongside the name, but didn’t completely understand the purpose. A close friend recently explained them as gender pronouns. Given in particular the LGBTQ+ community, the world needs to become increasingly sensitive to the different gender pronouns. Affixing it to one’s name could be considered a global effort towards creating more awareness about the diversities and subtleties of gender.

To make it a bit clearer, in the past, the powers that were, often kept pronoun references intentionally (and forcefully) simple (he/him and she/her), irrespective of how an individual identified themselves. However, with greater acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community across the world, we need to move toward a world that recognizes and appropriately addresses different individuals, so as not to be impolite. Currently, for those who don’t identify as male or female, use ‘They/Them/Their’ pronouns. Perhaps with time there might be more unique ways to identify each type in the LGBTQ+ community. The current habit of individuals mentioning their individual set of pronouns online is an effort to help sensitize the world community to pay more attention to gender differences. I have a lot to learn about this myself, but thought I’d share the little I know. And a question at the end.

In recent times, the world has become increasingly careless about people’s names – from not capitalizing the first letter, to getting the spelling wrong, or worse still, not realizing after having spelt it incorrectly (to be able to apologize and correct the mistake). Relatives sometimes misspell my name. And if you remove the last ‘n’, it is a girl’s name here in India.
Two amusing personal incidents came to mind around this.

I was once moderating a panel discussion around design thinking at a conference, and the organizers had managed to misspell my name on the placard and not realize it. I’m not affected by my name being misspelt, so I simply turned the placard away from the audience, lest they think that was my name.

The second was even funnier. One morning, I get a feedback request call (can’t remember for what service), the conversation goes something like this:

Woman: good morning, ma’am, I’m calling from XYZ business. This is a feedback call. Is it Ms. Shruti?
Me: [wondering wtf] Hi. I think you mean Mr. Shrutin. That’s me speaking.
Woman: [very confused] Sorry sir, is Ms. Shruti there?
Me: I think you have the name wrong. It is Shrutin, and I am the one you are asking about.
Woman: [even more confused] But it says Ms. Shruti?
Me: Ma’am, do I sound like a woman to you?
Woman: No sir!!
Me: Then try and understand this, the name is Shrutin, your rep might have misspelt it as ‘Shruti’, and someone entering it into your system therefore might have conveniently added a Ms., and you are looking at it and asking for a Ms. Shruti.
Woman: [sounding relieved] Oh sorry. Got it sir. I’ll make the necessary change. So sorry again.

Which brings me to my question:

In a world that, in part thanks to social media and also our own aimless hurriedness that causes us to pay less attention to people’s names (even if they are customers or guest speakers); how easy (or not) might it be for us to start recognizing gender based pronouns and addressing people accordingly?

– Shrutin Shetty [He/Him]

Towards a Better Mask – 3

An internal project under Rattl has been to try create a better mask for the (Covid) times.

While it is possible we fail to actually create an ideal one, the exercise so far has been a learning one.

This is post #3.

Post 1 listed some basic criteria and good to have features that served as guidelines/constraints and some initial sketches.

Post 2 factored in all the basic criteria and most of the ‘good-to-have’ features, in that it was transparent (though slightly off the mark) and had reasonably good circulation.

Based on the basic criteria, good-to-have features and general observation of regular folk preferring a handkerchief to a mask (walking through markets, handkerchiefs seem to be a preferred choice, especially for those needing to wear it all day), the next prototype has the following:

  • Addresses all basic features (though I didn’t have the time to cut out a section so it fits better around the nose)
  • Safety (basic criteria) is far higher than a handkerchief
  • Regarding ‘good-to-have’ features, it wasn’t transparent, but circulation was probably better than with handkerchiefs

What it is, is a section (slightly less than half) of a takeaway plastic soup bowl between the folds of a regular handkerchief.
Used a mini vice to hold the bowl in place, and cut it with a rotary tool.

Since a good number of people prefer a handkerchief (possibly due to convenience and affordability), but are probably not aware of the limited safety provided, this design simply offers a safer handkerchief.

Strings from the bowl (how about call it mask henceforth? 😁) run along the ends of the handkerchief folded in half (how people normally fold it before tying).
How it is different or safer than regular handkerchiefs, is the plastic over the nose and mouth section prevents any direct spit/particles from anyone nearby landing on the handkerchief from passing right through.

The bulge creates breathing room, something both handkerchiefs and regular masks don’t offer, and which is what causes a lot of people to slide them down or stop wearing them – the suffocation.

The small breathing space offered by the curvature of the bowl makes it more comfortable to wear, and the bottom section of the handkerchief can be partly folded into the bottom section of the mask, to allow for better ventilation while not giving direct exit to any germ from the user.

Let me know what you think!

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