Why a solution to a problem in the 21st century may not be the answer
Henry Ford’s reaction to a consultant who questioned why he paid $50,000 a year to someone who spent most of his time with his feet on his desk. “Because a few years ago that man came up with something that saved me $2,000,000,” he replied. “And when he had that idea his feet were exactly where they are now.”
What if we switched the food that is served in a restaurant with a Michelin star with one that does not have one, and vice-versa? Chances are you wouldn’t notice a difference. What if I told you that travelling faster by train from point A to point B and saving one hour of time difference would cost you 6 billion in renovations and constructions, but if you just installed a high-speed internet nobody would give a cent about that 1-hour difference?
Engineers, medical people, scientific people, have an obsession with solving the problems of reality, when actually … once you reach a basic level of wealth in society, most problems are actually problems of perception― Rory Sutherland
As a designer, I tended to fall into the pitfall that we must always be looking to design solutions. We have to improve our product, make it faster, better looking, better performing and overall better than our competitors. But if all of us are doing these things, why there are so many average products? And after giving it a proper thought I realised that it has less to do with what you design or build, whether it is excellent or best invention of all times, and more with, how people perceive it. Perception is one of key components of the succes of a product.
Let’s start with a story
Ever since, in the U.K. they banned smoking in public places, I’ve never enjoyed a drinks party ever again. And the reason, I only worked out just the other day, is when you go to a drinks party and you stand up and you hold a glass of red wine and you talk endlessly to people, you don’t actually want to spend all the time talking. It’s really, really tiring. Sometimes you just want to stand there silently, alone with your thoughts. Sometimes you just want to stand in the corner and stare out of the window. Now the problem is, when you can’t smoke, if you stand and stare out of the window on your own, you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot. If you stand and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking philosopher ― Rory Sutherland
We too often forget that:
- Things are not what they seem to be;
- They are what we think they are;
- Things are what we compare them to;
- Psychological value is often the best kind;
So this leads me to the thought that when we redesign a product or design a new one, we also have to take into account what factors will influence how our end users sees our product. However, there is a fine line. Because sometimes a change is a must. For example, a railroad is so old it hasn’t been changed in 50 years, so in this case, a real change is needed, and a shift of perception won’t do anything.
What I am talking about are those incremental changes we make on a daily basis to our products. And one day we look at all the progress we’ve made, but people, somehow, still don’t use our product as intended, or we don’t get the love that we deserved.
And this has to do everything with how people see our product or service. Our brains tend to distort the reality we see and create its own one.
People think of things only the way they want to and not what they seem to be.
For example, Charlie Munger, co-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, in his book Poor Charlie’s Almanack (a must read) has an interesting story about this.
One of Charlie Munger’s friends, had an athlete/student son who flew off a carrier in the north Atlantic, which crashed. Their son died, but his mother, who was a very sane woman, never wanted to believe that he was dead. And, of course, if you turn on the television, you’ll find the mothers of the most apparent criminals will all think that their sons are innocent. That’s pure psychological denial. The reality is too painful to bear, so you distort it until it’s bearable. We all do that to some extent, and it’s a collective psychological misjudgment that causes terrible problems.
This is not a real answer to our question, but it is a glimpse of how our brains work and change the way we see things. So this idea leads me to the thought that we mostly buy perceptions rather than solutions. The same thing I mentioned in one of my previous articles 7 Stages of User’s Action in Design.
People don’t buy a quarter inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.
Why Google’s search engine is the best. Or is it?
There are millions of examples from different industries, countries and cultures, but I will limit myself to the most known to the mass market. Let’s take as an example Google. Why do we think it is better than Yahoo or Bing? Technically speaking, we can find something here and there, but in the end, we will realise that they are not worse than Google and in some moments even way better. But somehow we still keep using Google and say that it is better and faster. Why?
We tend to believe that something is better if it does only one thing but good than something that does two or three things at once that are great and believe it’s bad.
The problem here is not in the code, search results or the “clean user interface” but more on how people perceive Google’s search engine. And the guys from Google understood that people see things from another perspective if you present the details differently.
Meanwhile, Google gives you only a search bar, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex and other search engines are trying to be portals. They want to show you the weather, news, suggestions and other trending materials. Meanwhile, what people get wrong about Google’s simplicity is not that they have a great design, but it’s an illusion they create through their simplicity. Google is a portal too, they show you the weather and news also. However, they don’t show it first. Why? Perception. It makes you feel that it is simple, better, faster because there is no clutter around. Meanwhile, Google’s search engine is the same Yahoo or Bing, but in a different package.
Would a faster train be the answer?
Eurostar, a train company, used £6 billion to reduce the travel time between Paris and London by about 45 minutes. What if, for below 1 billion you could put a high-speed wi-fi on those trains, which would not reduce the duration, but would have improved the enjoyment you receive from your journey?
For less than 10% of that money, you can hire the most attractive male and female models in the world to work for your train company so they can hand in a drink to every passenger. So, in this case, you would still have 5 billion left and people will not only want that train to travel slower but will ask to remain for a while after it arrives at destination.
Perception is key
A £30 watch will answer your timekeeping needs perfectly — anything else is simply jewellery for men, and mostly of quite spectacular hideousness― Rory Sutherland, The Wiki Man
Ask people about their mobile phones, their Internet, their smart TV’s or any other modern goods which would have seemed miraculous to our grandparents. And within a minute or so you’ll be listening to complaints about the monthly bill, the slow Internet speed or that the new iPhone has 4GB of RAM and Samsung has 6GB. Technical things make a tiny difference if you can create an individual perception of speed, quality or any other feeling that will stop the complaints.
Sometimes telling it in a different manner can change the way you see it
Another great story by Rory Sutherland, shows how wrong we are sometimes and how perception changes everything.
Sometimes, when you land on a low cost airport, you have all the chances that the plane will not stop at the gate but a bus will come to pick you up. And it is that moment when you realise “Oh shit, it’s going to be a bus!”.
But then the pilot made an announcement which basically does not change the situation, but the way you perceive the information. He said:
‘I’ve got some bad news and some good news,’ he said. ‘The bad news is that another aircraft is blocking our arrival gate, so it’ll have to be a bus. The good news is that the bus will drop you off right next to passport control, so you won’t have far to walk with your bags.’
After years of flying, you suddenly realise that what he said was always true. The bus drops you off right where you need to be: you don’t have to lug your carry-on bags for 800 yards through a shopping centre before you can get to the exit. Yet, for most of us on the flight, this was a revelation. When we arrived promptly at passport control we were, for the first time, rather grateful for the bus. Nothing had changed objectively — Spectator
Maybe all you need is a change of angle?
In the end, even if you create something innovative, but it gives a bad perception to your end user, you can say that you probably have failed. And maybe people don’t need your innovation or new products or services, instead, they may need a change of perspective and perception.