Mechanism design and the invisible influence of culture and power

From a rather interesting article from mckinsey.com - Leadership and behaviour: Mastering the mechanics of reason and emotion.

Eric Maskin: Mechanism design recognizes the fact that there’s often a tension between what is good for the individual, that is, an individual’s objectives, and what is good for society—society’s objectives. And the point of mechanism design is to modify or create institutions that help bring those conflicting objectives into line, even when critical information about the situation is missing.

An example that I like to use is the problem of cutting a cake. A cake is to be divided between two children, Bob and Alice. Bob and Alice’s objectives are each to get as much cake as possible. But you, as the parent—as “society”—are interested in making sure that the division is fair, that Bob thinks his piece is at least as big as Alice’s, and Alice thinks her piece is at least as big as Bob’s. Is there a mechanism, a procedure, you can use that will result in a fair division, even when you have no information about how the children themselves see the cake?

Well, it turns out that there’s a very simple and well-known mechanism to solve this problem, called the “divide and choose” procedure. You let one of the children, say, Bob, do the cutting, but then allow the other, Alice, to choose which piece she takes for herself. The reason why this works is that it exploits Bob’s objective to get as much cake as possible. When he’s cutting the cake, he will make sure that, from his point of view, the two pieces are exactly equal because he knows that if they’re not, Alice will take the bigger one. The mechanism is an example of how you can reconcile two seemingly conflicting objectives even when you have no idea what the participants themselves consider to be equal pieces.

The bit I quoted above really struck me as either lazy thinking, or unintentional blindness.

It bugs me that Eric Maskin uses children in a room with cake to generalise about human behaviour, without specifying important stuff.

Such as:
Where are the children from?
What are their cultural norms?
What is their relationship to each other?
Will their actions have any repercussions beyond getting less cake?

Happily ignoring all those things, Maskin goes on to apply this concept to management and organisations. Which means that power differentials and politics are also ignored, along with what I previously listed about cultural norms and relationships. It also focuses on an extremely short-term goal.

If the cultural norm is to appear generous...
...then Bob will cut an obviously smaller piece, which lets Alice choose the bigger piece if she wishes to. She may not, she may also wish to appear gracious, and take the smaller piece. But regardless of what happens, it's doubtful to me that the cake would be divided equally.

If Bob has more power - maybe he has the ability to beat Alice up without being scolded for it, even if he doesn't actually want to
...then Bob will cut whatever he thinks is fair, and count on Alice's fear of him, and understanding of the difference in power, to control which piece she takes. Which means that if Bob cuts an obviously smaller piece, he'll get a nice big piece. And if he cuts an even portion, then he'll get to feel good about himself. And in both cases, Alice's 'choice' isn't really a free choice.

Srsly Nugget? It's just cake!
You could argue that Maskin stated that 'Bob and Alice's objectives are each to get as much cake as possible', but it's pretty obvious that cake is a metaphor for money (or resources).

The fact is, in the real world, choices are rarely so clear and simple. There are always trade-offs. Of course every worker wants to 'get as much cake as possible'. ;) But maybe some workers will take less cake now, if it means a more reliable supply of cake in the future. (I.e. a foreign worker on a temporary visa will likely settle for less 'cake' until they're able to get a permanent visa.)

Humans are complicated. It's never just cake. ;)

The most effective user interfaces aren't invisible. They're sneaky.

The 'best' user interfaces (UIs) are invisible.

Catchy statement, right? After all, UIs like those are the ones you don't notice, cause you're busy getting stuff done.

Except that it isn't true.

The most effective UIs are the ones that make it easy, and even pleasurable for you to do what THEY want you to do.

And what a UI wants you to do may not be what you want to do. (I'll leave the question of 'best for whom' aside for now.)

For example...

Casino UI
Ahh, hello human, I want you to stay with me, and spend money continuously, for as long as possible, so that my owners can profit from you. :D

Human
I want to win! Winning makes me feel great! I'm sure my next big win is just around the corner!
This is rather different from you, the human, saying, I want to stay in this place and spend money continuously, for as long as possible.


Online Shopping UI (E.g. Fashion)
Hi there human, I want you to desire everything I have on offer, and spend as much money as possible, so I'm gonna make buying as easy as possible. As far as I'm concerned, you can't buy too much! :D

Human
I wanna look good to other humans! And I don't wanna be ripped off while I... ooh shiny! I need this! And this! And this! Ooh and this!



Clinical UI (E.g. Doctor)
Hey doc, I want you to accurately record all the relevant information about your patients, so that your patients can get the best care you're able to provide. :D

Human
I want to make sure that I get everything down accurately, so that my colleagues and I are able to help our patients achieve the best outcomes possible.


Usability is ethically neutral - UI design isn't

There's an assumption that UIs that are user-friendly, and 'delightful' have our best interests at heart. From the examples above, this obviously isn't always true. It may not even often be true.

Casino UI is a great example of conflict between what we want, and what the UI wants us to do. We appear to be travelling on the same 'journey', but at the end of the day, the relationship is parasitical at best, and adversarial at worst.

Online Shopping UI has a less toxic relationship with us, as users. At least the UI isn't expressly designed to exploit our human weaknesses for profit. As a merchant's proxy, the UI very reasonably wants to make its goods attractive to us, and make it easy for us to buy stuff.

Clinical UI is what we tend to assume we're getting, even when that trust is unwarranted. It embodies the classic concept of 'best UI'. What Clinical UI wants us to do works hand in hand with what we want to achieve for our patients.

But even if the usability of all three UIs is the same, the ethical contrast between the three UI designs couldn't be more different.

When it comes to usability, it's important to remember that there's no moral value attached to how easy something is to use. Moral value comes into existence when ease-of-use and pleasure is harnessed to directing specific behaviours.

When we look at it that way, it's pretty easy to say: Casino UI is evil, Online Shopping is neutral, and Clinical UI is good.

UX and UI design are essentially the design of systems, products, and interfaces that encourage, reinforce, and reward specific user behaviours.

Whether the outcomes of these specific behaviours are beneficial or harmful to us - as users - is highly dependent on why the product was created in the first place.

So the next time someone tells you that all you do as a designer is 'make pretty buttons', tell them that the pretty buttons are just a small, unthreatening part of designing reward systems for sneaky mind control. ;)

UX Rant: Oversimplification and overgeneralisation... plus supportive technology!

This post annoyed me so much that I actually left a comment!

<.< A nugget rarely comments on design blogs, for some reason...

It's a nice, ranty comment, so I've reproduced it here, for my Rant Museum! ^_^

This article kind of annoyed me, possibly because it’s too general, hyperbolic, and somewhat preachy.

It’s all well and good to say:
We will design processes, not screens.
We will design systems, not individual pieces.
We will design less “using,” and more getting results.

But…
How do you propose we ‘design processes’, WITHOUT designing the screens, assuming that the medium is digital, on a screen?

How do you propose we ‘design systems’, WITHOUT designing the individual pieces?

How do you design ‘more getting results’ without LOOKING at the ‘using’ process?

It’s all very well to say, users just want things to magically happen!

Sure they do.

But only in very narrow fields, or very very wide budgets and fields (self driving cars, container automation, subway train scheduling) can you implement something that allows that kind of responsibility-free magic, while absolving users of responsibility.

In many fields, we still REQUIRE the user to go through the process, interact with the product, perform myriad actions, because the onus of responsibility and decision must lie upon them. Because the interactions aren’t simple, and may cause harm. (I currently work in enterprise healthcare software.)

For me, as a designer, what I’d love to see more of (and to work on more of) is the ‘supportive’ system. A good example of this is computer-aided Chess Grandmasters. Where the sum of the two is superior to either one alone, even if the goal is still ‘winning’.

Computer-assisted healthcare professionals, with the goal being better patient care and outcomes. Now that’s something I want to see happen, but it’s still going to involve work on the part of the user, as well as the computer (the supportive system). And that’s the way it should be.


The Flat Design Trend & Silly Catty Designer Behaviour aka I <3 Eli Schiff

Today we are told we can rest assured that visual design is no longer so vacuous and superficial, due to the advent of flat design.

I take a different stance. 'Pure veneer' is not an insult in my book. Quite the opposite, it is the very definition of visual design. Thinking visual design is anything but superficial not only requires a profound level of ignorance, but it indicates an incredibly limited view of what visual communication can accomplish.

These rationalizations by newly turned modern minimalists are incredibly telling. If prominent practitioners are being honest with us in claiming that visual design was plagued by harmful decoration only up until the advent of flat design, then they are admitting that for years, for the history of the GUI, and perhaps even the entire history of design itself, designers have been putting on a sham project in order to dupe corporations.

Worse still, claims of visual design's insignificance tell us that design leaders never took their craft seriously. It truly undermines their credibility that it took the arrival of flat design for them to treat the entire spectrum of roles in product design with respect. Of course, as soon as that happened, they graduated from respecting traditional interface design principles.

This so-called 'maturation' in the vast majority of the design industry is in this way a major indictment of the professional history of these practitioners. If anyone should be condemned, it should not be those accused of the crime of visual design, but those practitioners who treat their job as frivolous.

Perhaps the design world breeds a form of narcissism due to its nature as a winner-take-all economy. That would explain the logic of this race to the bottom in which designers feel compelled to attack their craft before others assume they are 'bullshitters' too. In the words of Dr. Sam Vaknin:

By pre-empting society’s punitive measures and by self-flagellating, the narcissist is actually saying: 'If I am to suffer unjustly, it will be only by my own hand and no one else's.'

It is this masochistic status-striving that I find so ugly in this industry. That he who discredits his own craft is the most pious. That the most respected designer is the one who disowns beauty. This perpetual need to be the first to assign irrelevancy to one's own professional practice is the true impetus behind much of the puritanism of modern minimalist avant gardism.

- From Eli Schiff's last article in an amazing 5 part series, Fall of the Designer

Details way better than I could have how the unnerving thing about 'flat is the bestest and the coolestestest and the maturestestest' is in truth paying only lip service to serving our users' needs, while actually serving as a designer's wank.

Go read it, read it all!

Subtraction.com - If it looks like a cow, swims like a dolphin and quacks like a duck, it must be enterprise software

Funny post by Khoi Vinh! The post itself isn't particularly good (though funny), but the comments section is very long, and has some real gems.

Since I'm now working on enterprise software, it's suddenly really, really easy to tell from the comments, who's actually been there and done that, too.

The dynamics of power when it comes to the users vs purchasers of enterprise software was one of the hardest things for me to adjust to initially, when coming from B2C agencyland, as it were.

These two comments really stood out for me, but if you bother to trawl through the whole lot, there are a couple more good ones. :)

If you've worked on enterprise software at all, your head will be nodding and nodding like one of those bobbly dogs...

Proudly a craftsnugget!

Read an interesting post by Mark Boulton - Not a craftsman.

I usually like what he's written, but in this case, I have to disagree. He's defining it wrong. ;)

But wai nugget?

Well see...

"If my uncle was restoring traction engines for a living, he would’ve been out of business. Craft is love. And love takes time. And time is scarce and probably best spent elsewhere."

That statement immediately made me think of the story where Picasso does a little sketch in 5 min. A potential buyer goes 'Omg! How can you charge <whatever ridiculous sum> for something that took you 5 min to do?!?!' Picasso looks down his nose regally, and replies, 'That, ma'am, took me my whole life.' (Or something similar.)

I disagree that craft has to be slow. Yes, love takes time. Expertise takes time. But that doesn't mean you bill your 10k hours to your clients directly. The 10k hours you have under your belt are what affects the asking price you give to clients! The 10k hours are the love.

The 10k hours are your craftperson's gift to the leanan sidhe that you can never get back. ;)

Also, because everything is always about food, anyone who thinks craft has to be slow has never watched a real sushi chef at work. XD