The design research tech that lets you read customers' minds
OK. Not really. But also, kind of?
👋 Welcome to The Navigator. A newsletter about people, psychology and design for business leaders who want to make meaningful change. I’m Sarah Ronald, and I write this newsletter with the Nile team. If this email was forwarded to you, you can subscribe here to receive it in your inbox every couple of weeks.
Have you ever read a piece of great writing and thought, That articulated something I didn’t even know I’d been feeling?
Now, what if you could capture that unspoken emotional insight when listening to your customers?
I’m so excited about what’s going on in behavioural science right now.will tell you more below, but in short: we’re discovering new ways to uncover and incorporate sub-introspective (‘invisible’) influences in design research.
Why should you care?
Because these invisible influences have a powerful sway over our choices. Understand these influences, and you can better understand why your customers or users do what they do, and can tune your organisations’ strategy appropriately.
A ‘System 3’ approach like Alexa outlines below is perhaps the best way there is to unearth these sub-introspective influences. Employed in design research, it can have significant implications for how we advise our clients, and how we steer their business decisions.
In this issue
So in this issue of The Navigator, the first one of 2023 (happy new year!) I’ve invited Dr Alexa Haynes, Nile’s Head of Research, to share her insights on the power of emotions, and how storytelling can be used to gain a deeper understanding of what drives people’s choices.
Also in this newsletter:
Details of our seed investment in Gigged.AI
What a truly accessible future might look like
The strangely compelling appeal of an art restoration video
Wishing you a productive rest of your week,
Discovering the ‘why’ of customer decisions: everybody lies, most of the time here. Hi!
As head of research at Nile, I spend my time talking to people and trying to discover the ‘why’ of their decisions. Why pick this product over that one? Why didn’t they like this part of the journey? Why is this proposition succeeding, and that one failing?
And everyone is lying to me.
OK, ‘lying’ is a strong word. But most people aren’t telling me the ‘real’ reasons behind their decisions. Because they can’t.
And I’m sorry to break it to you, but you’re the same. I’m the same, too. Psychologists have known for years that - most of the time - none of us can accurately express why we make the choices we do:
“When people attempt to report on their cognitive processes… they do not do so on the basis of any true introspection.”
That statement is from the (relatively) famous 1977 paper Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes by Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy DeCamp Wilson from the University of Michigan.
Nisbett and Wilson aren’t saying we make poor decisions - just that there are things that steer our decisions which we don’t (and can’t) know about. The decision happens separate to the introspection, and so the act of explaining a decision is an act of storytelling: the human brain is making up a little story about the decision which seems to make sense after the fact.
This story is at best incomplete. At worst, it’s a complete unwitting fabrication of a brain lost in a sea of irrational forces beyond its understanding, desperately trying to hold on to a sense of agency and cognitive coherence.
Good stories beat true stories
Let’s take a famous example from the paper I linked above.
I ask you to select some artwork for your wall. After you pick, I ask you to explain your choice.
You might tell me you particularly admire the brushwork in this one. Or maybe you prefer the artist’s interpretation of light and shadow in the other.
But Wilson and Nisbett (above) showed that your choice could have just as much to do with, say, the fact that you’re feeling a little chilly right now, and the painting you picked just feels ‘warmer’ than the other.
But this subtle influence of internal states is usually invisible to us. It influences our decisions, but we don’t notice it. So we automatically fill in the gaps with meaningful stories (e.g. ‘I like the brushwork’) which fit your ongoing narrative (e.g. ‘I know a thing or two about good art’).
And a meaningful story always beat a true-but-meaningless one. It’s great for cognitive coherence. But it’s bad news for truth-seekers, like us.
Using stories to explore motivations
So how do you find the real truth behind peoples’ decisions? I’ve said stories are the problem, but they might also be the solution.
You may have heard of System 1 and System 2 thinking. It’s commonly talked about in behavioural sciences circles, and of course made popular by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
In a nutshell, Kahneman says people have two modes of thinking:
The fast, instinctive, effortless ‘System 1’ - going with your gut, or jumping to conclusions.
The slower, deliberate, logical processing of ‘System 2’ - working things out, thinking things through
(There’s an excerpt of the first chapter of Thinking, Fast and Slow on Scientific American if you want more detail).
Now, there are some theorists who believe that there is also ‘System 3’ thinking. System 3 thinking relates to these sub-introspective forces which steer our decisions without our knowledge.
And the big bet for research is that by pulling back the veil on System 3 thinking at scale, we can better learn why people make the decisions they do.
System 3 in action
That’s kind of abstract. Here’s a good example to make that clearer.
Tasked with understanding how to bring viewers back to a crime drama TV channel, Leigh Caldwell and Irrational Agency wanted to know why people chose what channel to watch. They explored viewers’ stories to run a kind of ‘System 3’ jobs-to-be-done exercise: discovering the emotional needs the channel met in its viewers.
But these System 3 states are hard for people to articulate. And if you can articulate it, describing an emotional state is like trying to describe smells - most of us have a very limited descriptive vocabulary.
So the team zoomed out, and after analysing 12,000 stories about TV-watching habits from viewers, Irrational Agency spotted common ‘emotional waypoints’ which most viewers passed by before turning on the channel.
They did this by building a framework of ‘signal’ words and ideas which popped up in people’s stories. They pointed to engagement itches, emotional urges, and cravings which steered viewers’ content decisions. - why someone might choose Line of Duty, over, say, Strictly Come Dancing.
It’s a good piece of work, and really encouraging for those working on getting closer and closer to truth. It’s one of the largest-scale practical applications of this approach I’ve seen.
It also got me thinking about how System 3 thinking can be applied not just to marketing, but also to ethical design.
Using System 3 knowledge to steer ethical design
If we’re feeling anxious we tend to choose safer options and may be less open to new experiences.
Think about the last time you were feeling tired or out of sorts, and picking what to watch on Netflix. Did you pick the new edgy thriller, or rewatch an old episode of your favourite sitcom?
We need to pay attention to this kind of influence. We know that many people become instantly anxious - consciously or unconsciously - as soon as they need to interact with financial providers. So what if we applied our knowledge of users’ sub-introspective states to, say, help them save more into their pension? Or pay off a credit card? Or work to improve their financial wellbeing?
(Recent guidance from the FCA highlights our legal obligation to act with appropriate levels of care towards vulnerable customers. This means all financial service providers are responsible, beyond basic compliance, to provide services that do not cause harm. If the design of a service repeatedly leads people to making poor decision because it makes them anxious, might that be considered ‘harm’? I think it would.)
So what might ‘anti-anxiety design’ look like? Here are some examples:
Design ‘low-pressure’ services which allow customers to process information and make decisions at their own pace. This might mean enabling them to step away from the service at any point and return to it later, without losing their progress, or letting them go back and change their mind.
Prioritise reassurance. This might be as simple as clearly validating inputs a user makes. Even a little green tick in a successfully completed input field is comforting! Or it could be as complex as providing dynamic feedback around decisions; “Good choice - 90% of similar customers also chose this option” (obviously in the context of a wider ethical review, and the limited parameters of what counts as '‘financial advice’).
Show them where to turn for help. Clearly provide them with appropriate support as and when needed, and don’t underestimate the value of a human touch; talking things through with someone who knows their stuff is incredibly comforting.
Read more: The bottom-line benefits of inclusive design
System 3 & the future of ethical design
When it comes to these higher-stakes financial journeys, I believe we can, and should be designing journeys that respond to a user’s context and mood, improving their information processing ability.
Perhaps in future, we might even get to a place where services can dynamically react to a user’s perceived internal state. Colours might change to deepen connection to the information being presented depending on a user’s mood, or the journey might surface additional steps to encourage an agitated customer to pause or reflect before purchase.
By looking at all the sub-introspective states which influence people's decisions, we can minimise harm and give people the best chance at making more informed choices. Understanding these hidden forces of decision-making will help us make better products and services, and - in turn - drive meaningful change across our industries.
We’re starting off the year with an exciting announcement: Nile is part of Gigged.AI's £1.6m seed funding round. 🚀
Gigged.AI is an AI-powered recruitment software company based in Glasgow. They’re on a mission to accelerate the future of work, with technology which has the capability to address two most painful aspects of hiring: time and human error.
The Nile team mentored co-founders Rich Wilson and Craig Short during their time in the Edinburgh Innovations programme last year. We liked them (and their ideas) so much that we decided to put our money where our mouth is.
We believe they’re at the forefront of redefining the recruitment process - and doing it in a way that’s ethical, effective and efficient. They’re definitely ones to watch (and on this year’s Startups 100 index!).
We’re really looking forward to cooking up some cool new things together. You can read more about Gigged.AI here and also check out the Scotsman’s news story about the investment.
Links we ♥️ this week
What does a truly accessible future look like? If you want to get stuck into that question, Account Executive Méabh MacLaren recommends this longread from longstanding design mag It’s Nice That. It unpacks how and why there can be no singular approach to accessible design.
The fetishisation of maps. Senior Service Designer, Louise Mushet, has been sharing this firebrand of a blog post from Vicky Houghton-Price of Made Tech. She’s railing against service design’s love of maps, perhaps at the expense of real outcomes. It made her think again about Nile’s emphasis on outcomes rather than outputs.
Nile Associaterecommends the Ghost in Machine episode of the This American Life podcast; a grieving writer uses a GPT-3 chatbot to help her write about the loss of her sister.
And lastly, a bit of light relief from our Visual and Interactive Designer, George Edmonds, who’s currently deeeeeep in an art restoration YouTube hole as a way to wind down after work 🤓. He’s especially fond of Julian Baumgartner’s channel, who runs Chicago’s oldest art restoration studio:
Get in touch
Nile is here to help find better solutions for people and businesses. We want to hear from you. Reply directly to this email, or reach out to someone specific via our website or drop us a line on Twitter.
Oh, and forward this email to someone you think will enjoy it!