How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off

How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off

Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Max Ogles, who writes at

On March 27, 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked and killed in the open streets of New York City. What makes Genovese’s story so tragic is that police later discovered numerous people were aware of Genovese’s distress but never came to her aid. Though the total number of witnesses is disputed, the story stands as an example of the bystander effect, the psychological phenomenon where people are less likely to assist if they know others are around.

But there’s good news. A 2011 research study showed that the bystander effect can actually be reversedWhile it’s unlikely you’ll witness a murder, the bystander effect can occur online as well as off. Understanding how to get people to help one another is important for anyone building an online community.

Let’s take a closer look at why the bystander effect occurs and the critical research that shows how to reverse it. (more…)

The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology

The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology

Nir’s Note: Jane McGonigal is a game designer at The Institute for the Future and bestselling author of Reality is Broken and SuperBetter. She’ll be speaking at the upcoming Habit Summit in April. (You can register here!) In this interview with Max Ogles, McGonigal discusses impact of future technologies on behavior, habits, and the way we design products.

Q: You recently worked on a project designed to visualize the future of technology. The idea was that using some future, not-yet-existent product, nicknamed FeelThat, people could actually share emotions with each other. (Here’s a link to the video.) What was the thinking behind it?

Jane McGonigal: This is a project with Institute for the Future to look at some of the emerging technologies that are being prototyped, tested, and innovated right now. We try to imagine where technologies might take us in a decade or more if they became widespread and popular. We use a process to collect signals, or “clues,” about the future that suggest things that might have the potential to change our lives down the road. Then we try to extrapolate where these signals will lead if they’re amplified. The video is the result of gathering around 50 different signals, such as technologies that are sensing or collecting data on our emotions, sharing them with others, or technologies that stimulate us neurologically so we change our feelings in real time.

All of that combined was in the story that you saw. But shortly after we shared the scenario and did the research, Mark Zuckerberg leaked that he started a new internal research and development group specifically to do what we showed in the video. So this may just be what we’re all doing in the future. (more…)

The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology

The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology

Nir’s Note: Gad Saad is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and the author of The Consuming Instinct. He’ll be speaking at the upcoming Habit Summit in April. (You can register here!) In this interview with Max Ogles, Saad discusses the role of evolutionary psychology in modern marketing.

Q: Let’s start with a simple question: What is evolutionary psychology?

Gad Saad: Evolutionary psychology is applying evolutionary theory to understand the human mind. Evolution is typically used to explain all biological diversity, from how flowers evolved, to how a particular trait of an animal evolves. For example, why does the peacock have its tail that way that it does? The exact same tools of biology apply when we’re trying to understand the human mind. Put simply, evolutionary psychology is the pursuit of understanding the human mind through an evolutionary lens.

Q: Now to dive deeper, what are some of the specific tenets of evolutionary psychology?

GS: The first thing that evolutionary psychologists argue is that the forces of natural selection and sexual selection that are operative in biology can be used to explain psychology. In the game of life, there are two things that need to happen: First, I need to survive, then I need to mate. I can only extend my genes if both of those things happen. We uncover the adaptive problems that humans would have faced recurrently in the past, that would result in the human mind developing computational systems to solve these problems.

Secondly, evolutionary psychologists argue that the human mind is an amalgamation of both domain-general mechanisms and domain-specific mechanisms. Domain general mechanisms are things like intelligence, which can be transported across domains. You can use intelligence to solve a calculus problem and also to read literature. Evolutionary psychologists argue that the human mind is also comprised of domain-specific mechanisms. This means that the human mind would also have specific computational systems to solve adaptive problems such as avoiding predators, seeking nutritious foods, etc. Domain-specific mechanisms are like a Swiss army knife, with many types of blades for specific functions. (more…)

Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do

Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do

Nir’s Note: Irene Au is a design partner at Khosla Ventures and former Head of Design at Google, Yahoo, and Udacity. She’ll be speaking at the upcoming Habit Summit in April. (You can register here!) In this interview, she chats with Max Ogles about design strategy for startups.

Q: You have an impressive background as a designer at Google, Yahoo, and now at Khosla Ventures. Could you describe how your design role translates in venture capital?

Irene Au: As entrepreneurs start to recognize how crucial design and design thinking are to the success of their company, they are motivated to understand how to hire good designers, how to position them inside their organizations, and what this means for their product and development.

My role is to help our portfolio companies become successful, particularly as it relates to designing user experience. I wrote an e-book on design and venture capital that discusses this emerging role designers have at venture capital firms.

Q: At a VC firm, most of your work is with entrepreneurs. What would you say is something that they commonly misunderstand about design?

IA: Without a doubt, the most common gap for entrepreneurs is around the use of design research. Design research is all about understanding who you’re building for and what their needs are. With design research, we seek to understand “What are the users’ behavioral patterns and motivations?” and then “How can we anticipate their needs, solve problems for them, and build the experience in a way that fits with their workflow, mental models, and usage patterns?” Companies don’t invest enough in user research because they don’t realize how important and useful it is. (more…)

How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business

How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business

Nir’s Note: Buster Benson is a product manager at Slack who worked previously at Twitter and Habit Labs and is working on a new book about cognitive biases. He’ll be speaking at the upcoming Habit Summit in April. (You can register here!) In this interview, he chats with Max Ogles about how cognitive biases affect product design.

Q: You recently compiled and organized a list of more than 200 cognitive biases — our tendencies to think and act in quirky ways. What is it that draws you to biases?

Buster Benson: The list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia has been something that I return to a ton, but I have always been frustrated with not having figured it out—not understanding really what it all was to me. A few things bothered me. One of them was my hunch that there aren’t two hundred of them, that there’s actually a much smaller set.

Another one is the quirky nature of this fact that biases are self-referencing systems. We’re trying to understand a broken thinking process with a broken thinking process. It just delights me to see that. I haven’t figured it out, no one else has figured it out, but people are walking around thinking they figured it out. I like to be able to battle that a little bit.

Q: You founded Habit Labs, then worked at Twitter and now Slack. Can you think of a specific example of a bias that you encountered while you were building something?

BB: At Twitter I worked on analytics which is a really interesting one because analytics is data. Any time something is producing data, you become highly sensitized to how that data will be received, then you start to curate it. On analytics, I worked on trying to get “impressions” out. I wanted to get the number of times that people see tweets, available to all users especially business and pro users that are trying to optimize their audience. I fought for many, many months to justify that strategy because on the one hand, data is super valuable to our users because the faster the feedback, the faster you iterate, the faster you learn, the faster you master. We want our users to master their Twitter presence. (more…)