John Tierney on decision fatigue

Posted on August 30th, 2011 by John Nicholson

Last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine has a great piece on “decision fatigue” and willpower, by my favorite Times columnist John Tierney.  It’s adapted from his forthcoming book on the topic with FSU social psychologist Roy Baumeister — the leading proponent of the idea that willpower is a like a muscle that can be worn out over the course of a day, and built up through practice.  He and his colleagues have conducted fascinating experiments in this area over the last decade, including some related to glucose levels that Tierney highlights here.  I’m fired up for the book and will try to review it next month when it comes out; in the meantime be sure to check out the Times article.

UPDATE: I’ve posted a review of Willpower. (10/29/11)


Wired on feedback loops

Posted on July 12th, 2011 by John Nicholson

Speaking of good articles in Wired … last week I really enjoyed this piece on the power of feedback loops.  The concept isn’t new but he offers some fun examples of new products built around the idea of loops.  I may try out the Zeo headband for sleep tracking.  And given our work on SugaredSpoon, I was interested in his discussion on medication noncompliance and the opportunity for feedback loops there.

I also appreciated this conceptual overview of the key stages in a feedback loop:

A feedback loop involves four distinct stages. First comes the data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. Second, the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage. But even compelling information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it, so we need a third stage: consequence. The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. And finally, the fourth stage: action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals.

Read the article here.


The real lesson from Duke Nukem Forever

Posted on July 11th, 2011 by John Nicholson

There was some buzz in the last few weeks about a tweet blunder related to the video game “Duke Nukem Forever.”  A PR agency got fired as a result, and as the Ad Age story concludes, it’s a good “reminder to cut off all access to Twitter when inflamed.”

But the much more interesting lesson from Duke Nukem Forever is the Learn to Let Go lesson told by Clive Thompson in Wired over a year ago.  It is a gripping and at times painful-to-read story about a hotly anticipated product that was predicted to launch in 1998 yet keeps getting delayed due to perfectionism, too much cash, and other problems.  It finally did launch in 2011.  If you’ve ever worked on a project that keeps missing deadlines, you’ll likely find some of the parts of this story familiar and hopefully come away more determined to release earlier next time around.  Give it a read and let me know what you think.

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A plea for more Paradox of Choice research

Posted on December 15th, 2009 by John Nicholson

Like Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner, I found Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice very persuasive — even though one of my favorite free market commentators seems to equate Schwartz with the devil (here and here). In a recent blog post, Dubner cites new research that runs counter to Schwartz’s argument that too much choice often leads to paralysis and unhappiness. It’s interesting, but it’s only from one sources and seems pretty limited.

What I can’t figure out is why there’s not more debate and research taking place on this issue, which seems so critical for economists, marketers, product managers, usability and design experts, and plenty of others in business and academia. How many choices to offer its users / customers / donors / etc. seems like a decision almost every organization faces in some area at some point; many face it constantly.

And it’s not just makers of jam or chocolates. I’ve struggled with this issue with my resume writing service — where I think we’ve gone from offering 2 packages, to 3, to none (custom-only), back to 2, back to 3, and for now to 6, with a frequent temptation to go back to 3. And Karan and I have wrestled with the “choice question” on our customer review site — where I’ve seen in usability sessions that offering multiple ways to respond to a recommendation request causes confusion and frustration.

My datasets are unfortunately too small to provide clear evidence. But with the growing ability to measure conversions and sales so effectively on the Web, and the growing ability to run scientific A/B tests (e.g. show 50% of website visitors 5 choices, show the other 50% 2 choices), large companies with large dollars at stake surely must have some results on this that would illuminate the debate — so that those of us interested don’t have to keep reading about jam. Or have I just missed them?

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Wikipedia’s declining volunteer base

Posted on December 11th, 2009 by John Nicholson

For many people like me, Wikipedia is the most successful example of opening content creation up to the masses and empowering and motivating volunteers to contribute high quality work. So this recent front page story from the WSJ is interesting, and a little troubling:

Volunteers have been departing the project that bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” faster than new ones have been joining, and the net losses have accelerated over the past year. In the first three months of 2009, the English-language Wikipedia suffered a net loss of more than 49,000 editors, compared to a net loss of 4,900 during the same period a year earlier …

As a few people from Wikipedia point out, the decline in the number of participants isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the real question is, are entries and quality and usefulness to readers continuing to go up? Maybe a smaller number of participants can do this better than the earlier (or current) large number. But at the very least, the numbers and anecdotes suggest that the organization needs to do a better job attracting, or not scaring off, new participants — especially among women, people over 35, and tech novices.


Patriots vs. Colts and data vs. intuition

Posted on November 18th, 2009 by John Nicholson

I was shocked when I watched the ESPN highlights of the recent Patriots-Colts game. With 2 minutes left in the game — leading by 6 points — and with the ball on their own 28, Pats coach Bill Belichick decided to go for it on 4th-and-2.

I’ve always disliked Belichick and so I was happy to see the Pats fail to convert on the play, and then look silly giving the ball to Peyton Manning with less than 30 yards to go for a touchdown. The Colts scored a TD and won the game, 35-34, while Belichick looked up at the sky.

But as it turns out, Belichick’s call was the right one — if you go by the data and probabilities. As one Fifth Down blog post in the NY Times puts it, “Twenty years ago… closed. It was a bad move. The people with the pens and microphones had spoken. Heck……ten years ago this would have been the case. But, a funny thing happened. The N.F.L. stat geeks … fought back.”

Here’s a leading geek’s analysis, quoted in another Fifth Down post:

Scenario 1: The custom case for the specific offensive and defensive features of the Colts and the Patriots.

Going for it: 77.3% (Probability of Winning for the Patriots)
Punting: 75.7%

Scenario 2: The case for two N.F.L. average and equal teams in every offensive and defensive category:

Going for it: 78.6% (Probability of Winning for the Patriots)
Punting: 76.4%

Scenario 3: The break-even point on the decision occurs when the team with the ball is about 5 percent weaker than N.F.L. average on offense and 5 percent better than N.F.L. average on defense, while the opposing team is 5 percent better than N.F.L. average on defense and 5 percent worse than average on offense.

The results of Scenarios #1 and #2 clearly point in favor of Belichick’s decision, although not by nearly as wide a margin as we might have expected. Additionally, the analysis in Scenario #3 really cements the case for “going for it.” Applying this benchmark and comparing it with the far different characteristics of the Patriots and the Colts makes the call all the more clear.

Thumbs up to Belichick on a courageous and correct call last night.

In his Freakonomics column, Steven Levitt praises Belichick not only for making the right call, but for doing so knowing that “if it failed, he would be subjected to endless criticism.” In other words, he cares more about winning than his reputation.

For fans of data-driven decision-making — in business, sports, or any other sphere — this is a fascinating case study, and I find myself liking Bill B. just a little more these days.


Wash Post on digital nomads

Posted on October 4th, 2009 by John Nicholson

I recently came across this fun front page article from a couple months back in the Post on the rise of ‘digital nomads’, people who “work — clad in shorts, T-shirts and sandals — wherever they find a wireless Web connection to reach their colleagues via instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and occasionally by voice on their iPhones or Skype.”

The article describes people who work from coffee shops, hotel lobbies, the DC-NY buses, and rooftop pools (though no mention of my favorite nomad spot: public libraries and law school libraries). Despite being a nomad for two years now, I’d never heard of “jellies” until this article: “Nomads who want the feel of working with officemates have begun co-working in public places or at the homes of strangers. They work laptop-by-laptop in living rooms and coffee shops, exchanging both idle chitchat and business advice with people who all work for different companies. The gatherings are called jellies, after a bowl of jelly beans the creators were eating when they came up with the name.” Interesting.

The article closes by mentioning my current main nomad spot:

“Slightly more formal co-working centers have opened across the country, including Affinity Lab in office space above the Diner in Adams Morgan. Ads on the wall at Tryst offer space to the fully-evolved nomad who doesn’t want a formal office but still wants a community of people to swap ideas with — and a fax machine. Members pay $235 a month to work in a communal room — no desk included — or $575 for a desk. Users include designers, software startup entrepreneurs, nonprofit group staffers and an importer of Chilean wine.”