Testing assumptions can lead to surprising results

Magazine covers

My latest column:

If you take a look at the covers of fashion magazines you might notice they rarely feature the colour green.

People working at glossy magazines in New York, Paris and London have long believed that green covers do not sell, and therefore the colour should be avoided at all costs. Digging into this story a little further it turns out no one is sure why this belief is so widely held.

There does not seem to be much evidence to support it, and explanations vary from green being particularly difficult to print to a theory about harsh fluorescent lights making green look washed out on newsagent stands. A few insiders will privately admit that the bias against using green on magazine covers might just be based on superstition.

It is funny to think how many decisions are still made in business based on hunches and intuition, especially when it is has never been easier to test assumptions, and when there is now so much data to delve into.

At Hotfoot the approach we always take with new clients is to try and assume as little as possible. Of course we do loads of research before a first meeting, and we have often worked for other companies in the same business sector as our prospective client, so we have lots of pre-existing knowledge.

But when it comes to that first meeting we always ask questions that might seem obvious on the surface, because those questions often lead to answers along the lines of: “That is just what we have always done.”

And that can lead to a conversation about doing things differently, which in turn can help clients achieve their objectives much more effectively. It can even lead to entirely new opportunities, and a few months later we will have helped launch a completely new product or service.

This way of thinking has helped start-ups in Silicon Valley become incredibly successful. Every day Google, Facebook and others run hundreds of tests across millions of users in an endless quest to make improve their performance. Google once famously tested 41 very slightly different shades of blue to discover which one would be clicked on the most.

That might be taking things to an extreme, but in every business there are assumptions just waiting to be tested. And the results might surprise you.


Testing assumptions can lead to surprising results

Use Your Illusion: The Growth in Placebo Buttons


My latest column:

Waiting impatiently to cross the road the other day I pushed the pedestrian button a few times. It made me feel better to know I had some control over the situation, that I could make the lights change faster. But in reality during busy periods many of these buttons do precisely nothing.

So-called placebo buttons are everywhere, from lifts to train carriages. Designed to give us an illusion of control, they work by not working. Their purpose is to make us feel that we are influencing events, and therefore feel a little less stressed, while automated systems make the real decisions in the background.

Designers know that having a button light up with a reassuring blue glow when you press “close doors” is preferable to just waiting for the machine to respond. You could say it makes these kinds of interactions a little more human.

Another example can be found in many large offices. The thermostat on the wall for employees to use is often not connected to anything. According to reports some 90% are fake. Companies do not want the cost of constant temperature adjustments, but they also know their workers like to feel in control. Some even have sound effects to complete the illusion.

The funny thing about it is that placebo buttons actually work in the same way as placebo pills. A recent experiment found that people reported feeling less hot after they had made adjustments to a dummy thermostat.

Of course, if none of these buttons ever did anything we would soon wise up and stop using them at all. But the point is that some of them do, and some of them do not. And some of them – like pedestrian crossing buttons – work only some of the time, such as when roads are quiet, and when stopping the flow of traffic will not cause issues down the road.

And so that is why next time I am rushing and need to cross a busy road I will keep pushing that button, just in case.

guy cookson 18 August 2016

Use Your Illusion: The Growth in Placebo Buttons

How charities use deceptively simple methods to persuade us to donate more

Screenshot 2016-08-12 20.33.49

My latest column:

The days of shaking a tin and asking for spare pennies are all but over. Charities now use much more sophisticated ways to get donations.

One of the simplest and most effective tactics is called anchoring. If you visit a charity website to make a donation you will often be presented with three suggested amounts. On the Oxfam website currently the three options are £5, £20 and £42.

The highest amount might seem a bit much, but it’s actually there to make the middle option seem more reasonable. It anchors our expectations to a higher number, and that has been shown to make us more likely to donate more.

You can use this tactic to boost your own fundraising efforts. If you set-up a page using JustGiving or a similar service make sure you persuade someone to make a large donation early on. This will set a precedent, and subsequent donations will tend to follow suit.

Every year around 7% of people in the UK leave money in their wills to charity. A recent experiment attempted to increase this number by working with solicitors as they wrote wills for their clients.

It turns out that simply asking people if they would like to leave money increases the number that do so to just over 10%. But when the question is phrased slightly differently, to: “Many of our customers like to leave money to charity in their will. Are there any causes you are passionate about?” this makes a much bigger impact. 15.4% of people decided to leave money to charity in this case – more than double the usual number.

A big problem charities must overcome is the sense of powerlessness many of us feel. How can a few pounds solve a problem like malaria? Many charities now address this head-on by explaining exactly how even a small sum can make a big difference. As the Save The Children website explains, “£10 could fund malaria testing for 145 children, so that cases can be diagnosed quickly and more lives saved.”

Suddenly a humble tenner feels like it could make a real impact. And that is when you know charity marketing works.

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How charities use deceptively simple methods to persuade us to donate more

What taxi apps, flat pack furniture and hybrid cars have in common

My latest column for the Lancaster Guardian:

One of the biggest changes in marketing in recent years has been the growing influence of what’s known as behavioural economics, which uses psychological insights to understand how and why people make decisions.

What makes this interesting to me is that behavioural economics does not assume people make rational decisions based on perfect information. In other words, it acknowledges the way the world really works, in all its glorious messiness.

Take the huge success of the taxi app Uber as an example. Uber does not make journeys any faster and does not cost any less than a traditional taxi (in fact, during peak times, trips can cost considerably more). But what it does do is take away the unpleasant uncertainty of whether and when a taxi will turn up outside your door, because you can see your car’s route plotted in real time on a map on your phone. It turns out that people really value having this information.

Or look at the incredible popularity of IKEA. On paper, the idea that people would willingly buy a bulky product they had to bring home and assemble themselves does not sound promising. But that ignores the sense of satisfaction people feel when they complete a task, even one as mundane as screwing together a bookshelf. It’s the same sense of unconscious accomplishment that makes our car seem to drive better when we’ve just washed it.

Then there is the success of the Toyota Prius. For years car manufacturers had tried to persuade people to buy hybrid vehicles without success. Toyota took a different approach. Rather than try and blend in apologetically with other cars on the road, Toyota realised their target customers wanted to send a signal to others that they cared about the environment.

And so the Prius was designed to be conspicuous enough for those in the know to notice, with an oddly high tailgate and a blue glow around the logo. Suddenly every celebrity had one, and the Prius is now the world’s best selling hybrid car, with 5.7 million sold in 90 markets. Their biggest customer base today? Uber drivers.

guy cookson 4 August 2016

What taxi apps, flat pack furniture and hybrid cars have in common

How brands secretly shape the world around us


My latest column for the Lancaster Guardian:

Whilst waiting for our luggage to emerge at Mexico City airport this past weekend, I recalled how the management at an airport a few hundred miles north in Houston, Texas, had struggled to solve a perplexing problem.

Complaints about the time it took for luggage to arrive for collection at the airport were consistently high, so they did the obvious, hired more baggage handlers, and reduced the waiting time to just eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints kept piling up.

Eventually they hit upon a novel idea. When planes docked at the terminal, the luggage was allocated to the most distant carousel, so passengers had to walk six times further to collect their bags. Complaints immediately dropped to near zero.

The more time people spent walking, the less time they spent waiting, and the happier they were.

There are many examples of behavioural design like this, much of it unnoticed. And I think it’s fascinating.

It’s no coincidence that fresh fruit and veg are  usually the first foods we encounter in supermarkets – they know that once we have tossed a lettuce in our trolley we will have given ourselves permission to be a little more indulgent by the time we get to the ice cream.

When bank machines were first introduced early customers did not trust them to dispense the correct amount of money. So engineers introduced a loud whirring sound to simulate counting.

And that is not the only fake sound we might hear. Skype calls use low white noise to reassure us that we are connected, phones emit an artificial shutter sound when we take a photo, and some modern cars have speakers hidden in the dashboard to make a computer generated engine roar when we push the pedal – BMW euphemistically call this Active Sound Design.

In the next column I will look at some other examples of how brands use behavioural psychology to increase customer satisfaction – and to part us from our money.

guy cookson 28 July 2016

How brands secretly shape the world around us

How many years does it take to change a lightbulb?


My latest column for the Lancaster Guardian:

There is a light bulb in a fire station in the small Californian town of Livermore that has remained lit since 1901. The bulb was manufactured by Shelby Electric, of Ohio, and at the time they were experimenting with a number of different designs. Clearly this one proved to be particularly durable. And if you’re in the business of selling light bulbs, that is not good news.

In fact, so concerned were the light bulb manufacturers of the early 20th Century – which included General Electric, Philips and Osram – that in 1924 they formed a global cartel, and collectively agreed to not produce a light bulb with a lifespan longer than 1,000 hours.

This is one of the more notorious examples of planned obsolescence, but it is far from unique. Industrial designers use many different ways to ensure the items we buy are replaced at regular intervals. This includes parts that break, but also extends to products that are difficult to repair (I’m looking at you, Apple) or that are no longer supported by the maker (such as software).

And then there’s style obsolescence – the design of products that are so of their moment that they become unfashionable when trends change. The fashion industry is built on this premise of course, but so are many other sectors from automotive to home furnishing.

There are some signs things are changing. There is a big movement in favour of more sustainable, less disposable, products, and a desire to invest in objects that cost a little more but that last a lot longer, often featuring “classic” designs that are less likely to fall out of fashion.

In business there are changes too, with a move away from individual repeat purchases towards subscription models where customers pay on an ongoing basis, from Netflix and Spotify to Amazon Prime and Dropbox.

And in the light bulb business there are changes too. The latest LED bulbs by Philips promise 15,000 hours of light. It’s a long way from the 115 years (and counting) achieved by the little bulb in a Californian fire station, but it’s a start.


How many years does it take to change a lightbulb?

Nothing ages you like technology


My second column for the Lancaster Guardian:

Nothing ages you like technology

A couple of years ago when walking by one of the few remaining phone boxes I asked my eldest son, Oscar, who was six at the time, if he knew what it was. He did not. “People used them to make phone calls,” I explained. “Before mobile phones we would call buildings to see if our friends were inside them.”

“I knew you were old, Dad,” Oscar replied. “But not that old.”

Nothing ages you like technology. There’s a series on YouTube where children are given various items and asked if they know what they are. From Game Boys to film cameras, most kids are stumped. My favourite episode features a Walkman similar to one I had in the 1980s. “You gotta be kidding me!” one boy says, when told it’s for playing music.

I recently visited the Science Museum in London. Along one long wall a series of objects had been carefully arranged in date order. Peering at the older items it was pretty easy to understand what they were for, even if they were unknown to me. As I walked along the wall towards the present it became much more difficult to deduce the function from the design, as the objects shrank in size, grew in complexity, and switched from mechanical workings to electronic chips, from analogue to digital. Of course I knew the slab of glass at the end of the exhibition was a new smartphone, but I doubt an alien could figure it out.

When the personal computer became mainstream it came with lots of helpful metaphors to help people understand what things did. The screen was called a desktop. When you wanted to delete a file you dragged it into a waste paper bin. Files were kept in folders. It was both new and comfortingly familiar at the same time.

As computers have become ubiquitous the need for these real world metaphors has receded. In the last major redesign of Apple’s iPhone software the visual references to real world objects were toned down. We don’t need them anymore. And when our kids’ kids visit the Science Museum in thirty years they’ll have absolutely no idea what we did with our time.

Here’s the clip of the kids encountering a Walkman for the first time.

guy cookson 14 July 2016

Nothing ages you like technology