Deciding to Turn Outwards

Deciding to Turn Outwards

Picture by: dno1967b

Editor's Note

by Ryan Smerek, PhD -- MSLOC Assistant Professor & Assistant Director of Academic Affairs

In MSLOC, through courses like Cognitive Design we explore how to design practices that are informed by cognitive psychology.  In particular, we draw from Behavioral Economics and the concept of Nudge to improve decision-making in our lives and organizations.

Through a series of blog posts, MSLOC student Teresa Torres shares with us a more detailed look at improving decision-making by reflecting on her experience in product design and the concepts discussed in the book Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. These three blog posts were originally published on Teresa’s Product Talk blog.

  • Part 1: Stop Asking "Whether or Not" Decisions
  • Part 2: Start and Idea Journal
  • Part 3: Turn your Inside View Outward

About Teresa Torres

Teresa is Vice President, Products for AfterCollege, Inc. a technology company focusing on career networks for undergraduates. Teresa has also been a product consultant and coach, working with early-stage companies helping them translate their big ideas into great products. She was CEO of a social media startup that worked in social recruiting and higher education. Teresa is currently pursuing her Master's in Learning and Organization from Northwestern University. She also has a BS from Stanford University. Please visit The Knowledge Lens for another article by Teresa Torres: Find Big Wins by Setting Exponential Goals.


Part 1:  Stop Asking "Whether or Not" Decisions

Recently during lunch, our Director of Sales mentioned that one of our customer’s was at risk because we didn’t support a specific feature. He asked if we were going to build it. He argued, if it allows us to keep 3-4 customers, why wouldn’t we.
I get this all the time. I bet you do too. it makes perfect sense on the surface. You’ve got customers requesting features.

Why wouldn’t you build them.

In this particular case, the feature was straight forward, it was inline with what we offer, and it fit within our product vision.

Shouldn’t it be a no brainer?

Hold on. It’s not that simple.

In Be Prepared To Be Wrong, I wrote about Decisive Chip and Dan Heath’s book about why we aren’t very good at making decisions. Their first “villain of decision making” is that we look too narrowly at a problem.

In this particular case, our Director of Sales is asking a “whether or not” question, whether or not we should build a particular feature. Dan and Chip Heath call out “whether or not” questions as particularly problematic.
We shouldn’t be asking whether or not we should build a particular feature. Instead, we should be asking, what can we build that provides the most value for most of our customers. We need to broaden our view of the problem. This allows us to consider all the possibilities.

Consider Opportunity Cost

“Whether or not” decisions come up every day as we build products. The danger is that they keep us from considering the opportunity cost of building one feature over another.

Opportunity cost comes from the field of economics and represents what we give up when we made a decision. For example, when we choose to spend time watching TV, the opportunity cost is all the other things we could have been doing with that time – hanging out with friends, reading a book, cleaning our house, and so on. Or if we buy a new pair of shoes, the opportunity cost is all the other things we could have spent that money on.

It’s far too easy as we go about our busy days to consider each “whether or not” decision as they arise. Should we integrate Facebook Connect? Should we redesign our product emails? Should we build a mobile app? Each of these questions are really a “whether or not” decision in disguise. Answering yes to any of them, means you are answering no to all the things that you could be doing with the needed time and resources.

These questions don’t just arise when we are considering features. We also fall into the trap of asking “whether or not” questions when we decide what market segments to go after, what to put on our roadmaps, what bugs to address.
Keep an eye out for this narrow frame and work to reframe your view of the problem you are tackling. Stop asking “whether or not” questions, and instead ask, what could we do to accomplish our goal questions.

Part 2: Start an Idea Journal

I have a friend (a skier) who decided that snowboarding needed to be more like skiing. He thought that snowboarding looked fun, but he didn’t want to give up the precision of two skis. Being an engineer, he set out to design a “better” snowboard.

As you can imagine this story is wrought with many pitfalls. Whether or not you ski or snowboard, whatever image you conjure up in your head of each, they are likely to be very different. Even if your only exposure to either sport is via the Winter Olympics, you can still see what I mean.

Culturally, the sports are very different. Skiing draws one crowd. Snowboarding another.

Of course, it’s not this simple. Some people like both. But it’s hard to argue that a snowboard for skiers is a good idea. How many skiers really want to snowboard? How many snowboarders want their snowboards to be more like skis? I’d argue not many.

My friend had many skiing and snowboarding friends. None of us were shy about giving our feedback. But despite luke-warm responses at best, my friend moved forward with his idea.

I bet you have a similar story.

Or maybe you were the one who stubbornly moved forward with an idea even though the world was telling you it wasn’t feasible. I know I have.

Why does this happen?

We Need to Consider More Than One Idea At a Time

In Decisive, Dan and Chip Heath introduce the idea of multitracking, which means considering more than one idea at the same time. They compared companies that looked at ideas in sequence vs. those who evaluated a set of ideas all at the same time, and the ones who evaluated a set of ideas at the same time made better decisions.

When you evaluate a set of ideas, you get less attached to any one idea. You are able to compare and contrast the qualities of one idea against another. You are able to mix and match elements of each to generate even better ideas.
When you look at ideas one at time, it’s a lot easier to consider each idea as a whether or not decision. And we already know that gets us into trouble. You miss out on the comparison and you get more attached.

Given all these benefits of multitracking, why don’t more companies do it?

Simple, it takes a lot of work. And it feels like wasted work. Why explore ten different paths when you are only going to pick one? It’s in our nature to find solutions. As soon as we find a path that looks like it could work, we tend to want to stay on it.

But if we really want to generate the best options and consistently generate creative ideas, we need to fight this urge. So how can we develop this practice?

Keep an Idea Journal

Start by keeping an idea journal. It turns out you have ideas all the time. But unless you are taking the time to capture them, you are probably forgetting them.

Some people like pen and paper – I know the small Cahier Moleskine notebooks are popular because they easily fit in a back pocket. I use Evernote because I always have my phone with me. But it doesn’t actually matter what you use. It just matters that you start capturing your ideas when they happen.

Idea generation, like most skills, is a skill that gets better the more you do it. The first step is becoming aware of the ideas that you are already having and writing them down. This can be hard. If you aren’t used to capturing your ideas, it can be difficult to remember to take a second and capture them. One step that might help is to devote ten minutes of your day to writing down your ideas. I recommend either the first 10 minutes in the morning or right before you go to bed.

As you start to exercise your idea generation muscle, you’ll become more aware of the ideas you have throughout the day. As you capture them, try to generate related ideas. This will further develop your idea generation skill. Soon ideas will just come naturally, quickly and often.

I learned to keep an idea journal in a design class in college and I’ve done it ever since. Before I started, I like many people, didn’t think I was creative. Keeping an idea journal helped make visible the many ideas I was already having, but also really helped me to develop and build confidence in this skill. You can do the same.

Never consider just one idea at a time. Start keeping an idea journal, so that when you need to, you’ll be able to generate lots of ideas on demand.


Part 3: Turn your Inside View Outward

One of the most common questions I get at my company, is why don’t we have a mobile app. We are in the age of mobile, how can we possibly survive without a mobile app?

There are a lot of reasons why we don’t yet have a mobile app. We are still iterating on our web service. We have a small team. Many of the actions our members take aren’t yet feasible on a mobile device. We are still working to identify which components of our service might work best on mobile. And of course we have about a dozen other priorities that rank higher on the list.

However, when people ask this question, I always ask them why they think this is so important. And I always get a response that assumes one or more of the following:
    •    everything happens on mobile these days
    •    college students (our audience) don’t use computers
    •    a mobile app will help us grow
    •    we can’t possibly survive without a mobile app

But how many of these assumptions are true? How can we find out? Let’s focus on the third one, “a mobile app will help us grow”, to find out.

It’s really easy to get caught up in the mobile hype. If you look at the top apps, they each have millions of downloads. Think of how many new members you could add if millions of people downloaded your app. All you’d have to do is promote it, get featured placement in one or more of the app stores, and you will be on your way to hockey stick growth.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works for most app developers. This Forbes article breaks down the app store numbers. Using the Apple iOS numbers, the average app gets 40,000 downloads. But that’s an average. That means to offset the dozens of apps that are getting millions of downloads, there needs to be many apps that are getting far fewer than 40,000 downloads. And downloads aren’t the whole story. In this Localytics article they found across their apps that 26% of downloads are only used once.

So how much growth can you reasonably expect from your mobile app? Do you have specific reasons to believe that your app will perform above the average? Do you have an unfair advantage compared to other mobile apps? Or are you just hoping to be better than everyone else?

The Inside View vs. The Outside View

By looking narrowly at how our own app might perform without considering how other apps perform, we are once again falling prey to a decision-making mistake. It’s common to focus on the specifics of the situation without taking into account the performance of the overall category.

The Heath brothers, in Decisive, help us understand this mistake by distinguishing between the inside view and the outside view. The inside view draws from your perspective, looking at the details of your specific situation. The outside view, on the other hand, doesn’t consider the specifics of the situation and instead looks at the general class of situations, asking how does this work in general. The outside view is typically more accurate.

Avoiding the Inside View

So what can you do to help shift your focus to the outside view?

Just like we did in the above example, you need to find appropriate base rates. Ask yourself, how can I understand how this general category performs? For example, if you are starting an email newsletter, MailChimp provides great base rates. If you can’t find published base rates, ask a few peers at other organizations. What was their experience? What types of results did they get?

From there, ask yourself, what makes us different from the average case? Can we expect to be better? Worse? Be realistic. You aren’t doing yourself a favor by being optimistic here.

Hope is a powerful emotion. It’s really easy to hope that your app will be featured in the top app list. It’s even easier to hope that if you build it, they will come. But this isn’t the Field of Dreams. So don’t rely on hope and go find yourself some base rates to start from.

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