Archive for May, 2010

May 24th, 2010

Breaking My Movie Habit

By Neale Martin

I love going to the movies. Not just the movies themselves; the entire process of going to the theater, buying popcorn and a soda, and experiencing the incredible richness of a film projected onto a massive screen while being completely immersed in surround sound. Yet for all of the joy this experience brings me, I rarely go to the movies any more.

It’s not that the quality of the films is so bad (though for a few years, that was certainly the case); it’s that the price of the experience has knocked me out of the movie-going habit. Instead of automatically planning on going to the movies each weekend, I now only go when there is a film that I (or my wife) really want (or demands) to see. Gone is the reflex of deciding to go see a movie and then finding out what is playing. A date to the movies easily runs to more than $35 – far too much investment to simply gamble that the experience will be worth it.

Movies are the only product where consumers pay the same price for the best, most expensive product as they do for the worst and cheapest made. Avatar cost $280 million to make, so forking over $10-$12 on an opening Friday night amidst long lines seems like a bargain. But an independent feature with questionable production values that cost $300,000 to produce and viewed in an empty theater on a Wednesday afternoon costs the same 10-12 bucks. We grew up with this business model and so we tacitly accept the dubious arrangement, but it was easier to accept when a ticket cost five, maybe six dollars. As the prices have continued to climb, most of us have developed new heuristics for evaluating movies: 1) See in theater; 2) Wait for the DVD 3) Maybe stumble upon it on cable; or, for the legally agnostic technophiles out there, 4) Pirate it.

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May 12th, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dvorak! (Another Product Slain by Habits)

By Kyle Morich

Wired.com reminded me this morning that today is the Patent Anniversary of the Dvorak keyboard.  When August Dvorak patented his new keyboard layout in 1936, he had a bevy of scientific evidence behind his design proving his system to be faster, easier to use, and more accurate than the QWERTY keyboard that was currently in use.  By placing keys in more intuitive locations, users who took the time to learn how to use Dvorak’s keyboard became far superior typists in terms of words per minute and error rates.  In fact, QWERTY competitors in typing competitions lobbied to have Dvorak keyboards banned from competition for the unfair advantage.

Yet Dvorak’s invention was a failure, despite the scientific evidence and real-world proof that it was a superior system.  The QWERTY keyboard was invented to be non-intuitive in order to slow down typists that were jamming keys on nineteenth century typewriters.  By the time Dvorak came around, the QWERTY habit was far too ingrained for users to invest the time and expense to learn a new typing method.  Even today, with electronic computing eliminating the notion of “jammed keys,” the QWERTY model is built into our PCs, laptops, smartphones, and iPads.  QWERTY hampers our ability to design ergonomic, intuitive products.  One look at an iPad user with the device propped up against his knee or awkwardly hen-pecking with one hand confirms this.  Chorded keying systems exist (here’s a great one, wink wink), but the amount of conscious learning each user would have to endure to make these systems as habitual as QWERTY becomes an impenetrable barrier to adoption.

Dvorak is a great lesson for product designers about how habits thwart even the best products.  Every new product or service introduced to the marketplace is fighting to replace or change a current habit.  These habits may run deep, and will require a lot of investment (time from the user, money from the developer) to overcome.  This is why an intuitive design and interface is so critical – the amount of effort to learn a new behavior is already mentally taxing; complicated design only amplifies that difficulty.

May 10th, 2010

Sports and the Brain, Part III: Feedback Loop

By Kyle Morich

On ESPN.com this morning, I read yet another article about LeBron James and his free agency coming this summer. His talents are unquestioned, but the aura surrounding him is otherworldly.  “King James” is far and away the most heralded athlete of his generation and is worth billions in current and future endorsements.  But his coverage is disproportionate to his talent and tangible success (his number of championship rings at the time of this writing stands at zero).  It begs the discussion of which came first: the coverage, or the celebrity?

The issue of LeBron (and the Yankees, the Colts, Roger Federer, Manchester United, or any other big market sports icon) dominating sports coverage is a feedback loop.  His talent created conversation and interest, which increased news coverage, and his successes justified that coverage, which increased conversation, and interest, and coverage, and so on.

This all leads to a fascinating question about the undisputed leader in sports-related news and entertainment, ESPN. If the intensity of the feedback I receive from sports is related to my personal knowledge and association with the sport that I am watching, then does the sporting news I use to keep abreast of that knowledge subconsciously direct my interest toward particular subjects?  If I get the majority of my sports news from ESPN, I will naturally gravitate toward whatever they are covering.  As my shortcut for sports knowledge, they influence the intensity of my feedback and, in turn, literally decide what I care about.

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May 10th, 2010

Sports and the Brain, Part II: Win or Lose

By Kyle Morich

Reinforcement is the result of context-based framing.  Listerine tastes awful, but my experience using Listerine is that the burning taste in my mouth means that it’s working. Sports franchises, broadcasters, and news sources succeed because the reinforcement of a sporting event transcends simple winning and losing.  If a team had to win every game to keep its customers, the sports entertainment industry would cease to exist. The Chicago Cubs have not won a championship in over 100 years, yet diehard fans still pack Wrigley Field for every game.  A product or service that fails year over year will not last that long.

Every marketer is trying to harness the power of feedback that they see in sports.  They want “Fans” that will feel the same connection in their interactions with products and services that they feel with teams and players.  They endorse athletes, teams, and arenas, hoping to transfer that positive feedback we feel watching sports to their brands.  But asking customers to “root, root, root” for their toilet paper or salad dressing like they do for the home team is not possible, and not something a marketer wants.  The framing is completely different. Our marketing messages ask customers to pit our products and services against competitors, to consciously evaluate their satisfaction levels, and calculate the value of our product with each and every purchase.  We essentially tell customers that wins and losses matter.  That’s fine if our product is the Los Angeles Lakers (2010 record: 57 wins, 25 losses), but what if we’re the Los Angeles Clippers (2010 record: 29 wins, 53 losses)?

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May 10th, 2010

Sports and the Brain, Part I: Fans and Feedback

By Kyle Morich

When I started college, I was at a severe disadvantage in casual conversation.  I considered myself a learned person, always up-to-date on the news and events facing our society, and my grasp of lighter pop culture happenings was more than serviceable.  Yet, the time I devoted to reading about ‘important’ issues like politics, economics, and business news was not proportional to my opportunities to share and discuss that knowledge.  Instead, I often found myself sitting in a silent ignorance as my dorm hall-mates hashed out issues plaguing the Boston Red Sox relief staff or extolled Tom Brady’s superiority over Peyton Manning (there were a lot of guys from New England on my hall).  That first semester, I made a conscious decision to ‘learn’ about sports so I could join the conversation.  Sports are a universal social language, granting the ability to engage in light discussion with anyone (well, usually male), provided you know two things: 1) what the big story is that day, and 2) what the big story is tomorrow.  An example:

How To Have A Successful Conversation About Sports

I had it all figured out.  I would watch ESPN’s SportsCenter news program each morning to get an idea for the sports current events, and was able to fake my way through any sports-related conversation.  I had no real passion for the Red Sox or Tom Brady, but that didn’t matter.  I had something to say.

But something unexpected happened in the process.  I actually became a sports fan.  I found myself legitimately interested in baseball, football, and basketball.  Sports are now a part of my daily routine, and I am embarrassed to report that most days my time spent watching SportsCenter and perusing ESPN.com outweigh the attention I pay to actual news sources like the Wall Street Journal.  How did this happen?  Feedback. (more…)