Understanding People


Series: Understanding Human Behavior

People are complex.

People are the puzzle that you need to solve in order to make a dent in the universe. You need to seek out and collect insights about people and their behaviors if you want to build stuff that people need and want.

Humans aren’t entirely predictable. But they’re not entirely unpredictable either.

Let me give you an example.

In your (western) kitchen, you likely have a lot of disposable and semi-disposable plastic tubs and bins for storing food. You might keep them in a drawer or a cabinet and reach for them to put away leftovers or pack your lunch or a kid’s lunch.

And I’m going to guess that the bins and lids are a mess.

It probably looks something like this…



It’s hard to keep this drawer organized, much less tidy. And this was causing the manufacturers some pain. Because people found this frustrating. As a result, they didn’t buy as many of the bins.

The people who develop and sell these products hired some anthropologists to go into the field, into people’s houses, and got families to open the drawer or cabinet in their home and show and talk about this small, but very real, problem.

You see, humans are somewhat predictable.

And sure enough, the manufacturer could use what they found from the field work. They used the parameters about how many products they have, in what sizes, whether and how they attempted to organize the drawer, who uses the bins and how, and they came up with this…


This is nifty solution to the problem people faced. The team created a stackable lid, which connects the lids together. It’s a partial solution, but it helped grow the category from $900m in 2000 to $5.5 billion in 2015.

Improving how products are stored matters. Products aren't just instrumental — they're also meaningful. A messy drawer means something to a mom's or dad's identity.

The fact that humans are ‘somewhat predictable’ is the source of many frustrating moments, but also the source of great opportunity to build new stuff.

If people were fundamentally predictable, advertising and marketing could be perfected. The world would look different. Businesses would succeed forever. There would only be one religion, and one governmental system to cover all human needs and desires. If humans were predictable, Helpfully wouldn’t need to exist — you don’t need assistance if you can follow what others have tried and proven in the past (and it’ll work again tomorrow).

On the other hand, if people were ultimately unpredictable, advertising wouldn’t work, and businesses wouldn’t last. Institutions like countries, cities, companies and churches wouldn’t survive over time. Conversation would be unsatisfying. Nothing would be funny, since humor is about a shared experience.

You’ll agree that neither of these extremes is correct.

The challenge — and opportunity — of innovation is to create (or improve) your product inside of the messy 'unpredictable predictability' of real life.

Your job as an innovator, a creator, a startup founder or change-agent is to understand people. You need to figure them out — what drives them and what inspires them and what they need in a given moment.

And then you give it to them. And then you win.

Well, that’s probably too simple. But we’ll come back to that in a later discussion.

But understanding people is a tall order, isn’t it.

Yes, yes it is.

It’s only been the entire project of all sciences since the beginning of time. Explaining why people do what they do is hard.

How can we know about people? Here are few of the fields of study we might use...

  • Psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Behavioral Economics
  • Religion/Spirituality
  • Web Analytics

Over the next few weeks, I’ll show you key lessons from each field  and how you can better understand people so you can build the tools and experiences they want.

Without recreating an entire college course or text book, I’ll give you clear ’how to’ guidance on what the field says about people. We'll present key frameworks and methods, and sketch out how to use these methods in your design research.

Get ready, it’s going to be fun!

Artificial intelligence and models of the mind

 “A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running.” — Groucho Marx

Metaphors help us compare a concept from one domain by placing it into another context. They help us explain the essential character of an object or a relationship that is a bit outside of our mental grasp by tying it something more familiar.

We use metaphors automatically in our everyday language. Metaphors are not merely for poetry or to capture the subtle, obscure, or humorous parts of human life.

In fact, we use them so frequently, we often don’t even realize we’re doing it. I didn’t consciously decide to compare myself to an animal, yet I recently called myself an ‘early bird’ and a colleague a ‘night owl.'

We use physical or structural metaphors in our conversations too. We have metaphors in English/Western thought that higher is better and the opposite down is worse. We use natural metaphors like the metaphor ideas are plants (for example, “we need to let this idea germinate”).  We use cultural metaphors like common metaphor to associate arguments with battles. Arguments are war and our language examples include “pick your battles” and “why are you so defensive?". For more on this fascinating exploration, I recommend Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, which has hundreds of these metaphors and the implications of our metaphorical thinking.

One area that’s been of interest to me lately: all the historical analogies that scientists, doctors and scholars have used to describe the brain and the mind.

Let me give you four examples.

Metaphors for the mind date back to the ancient Greeks, who believed that our life essence was centered around fluids. Any imbalance in the brain or the body was a result of improper bodily fluid levels. So, understandably, we find the Greek literature comparing the mind to a hydraulic system of pumps and tubes.


Fast forward to the 1600’s.  This era was focused on mechanics, tools and inventions like the clock. We find writings from this era comparing our brain’s inner workings to gears.  Interesting that we still find the phrase “what makes her tick” common in modern conversation.


Let's keep moving!

Have you ever thought about that stereotypical cartoon where the light bulb appears over someone’s head when they have a great idea? That started in the 1910s. The analogy of comparing the brain to a network of electric signals and impulses was used in the 1900s because it reflected the technology of they day. The electrical metaphor is still popular in phrases like, “well, he’s just wired that way.”


These mind metaphors aren’t just flat words on a page. They shape our contextual understanding of the thing we’re comparing. They impact our beliefs and can even shape our behaviors. Through this combination of technological understanding and helpful linguistic comparisons, we construct the way that we move about this world.

So here we are today, deeply entrenched in the age of computers. Many of us carry powerful supercomputers in our pockets and on our wrists … with computers surrounding us at work and at home (up to and including the ol’ “internet enabled refrigerator” which comes out every year!).

And the metaphor describing the mind and brain as a computer is completely pervasive.

The first metaphorical reference connecting a computer’s operations and the mind’s operations dates back to 1943 but is especially popular today.

The metaphor shapes how technologists and designers explore the concept of artificial intelligence. Pop culture has latched onto this metaphorical concept of the human mind as a computer.

But, given the history of metaphors of mental phenomena, I think it’s probably short-sighted to assume that the human mind IS a computer. Based on today’s knowledge of neurology, the human mind doesn’t work like a digital computer in basically any way. They don’t work the same way, they do not use the same inputs to produce similar outputs, nor do the two domains actually talk the same way about concepts like “understanding,” “recognizing,” “reasoning,” and “planning.” 

When people confuse the mind-as-computer metaphor for the reality of happens in the human mind, they can become very worried that computers are going start acting like people, that AI systems might “take over” a lot of work and life. They start to fear we might end up in a world like Sci-fi films like Ex Machina, Her, or Terminator II.


Do you think that the mind-as-computer metaphor is accurate?  

What does thinking about our brains as a computer do to our experience in the world?  

Do you think there might be anything limiting to comparing ourselves, or at least our minds, to microchips and lines of code?

I think humans are talented in ways computers aren’t, and that the metaphors about computers make rational thought, precise calculation, and speed primary. But humans have mental talents which are not highlighted by the metaphor, including intention, creativity, empathy, and collaboration.

Let me know your thoughts and reactions to this idea. I’m curious if this argument resonates with you. And your deeply and uniquely human mind. 

So, How Was Your Year? (Taking Stock of 2017)

It doesn’t seem like we’re in the habit of asking each other this question around the holidays.  We ask things like “what are your plans for the holiday?” and even get so bold sometimes as to ask our friends about their new year’s resolutions.  But rarely “How was your year?”

Perhaps this question seems too sweeping, or too intrusive. Perhaps we don’t ask others… because we aren’t sure how we would answer it ourselves.

Before we rush into 2018 with fresh goals, I’d like to offer a framework for looking back, to determine what kind of year you actually had. I built this framework as I was scanning through end-of-year emails, sending out some final invoices (and payments to partners) and reflecting on the totality of 2017.

There are the three lenses I’m using to determine my success and the success of Helpfully this year: Financial (return on investment), Memories (fulfilling moments) and Impact (leaving a dent in the universe).

Financial - This lens isn’t exciting or new.  But it is as important as it is straightforward. Did you meet your financial goals? Are you reviewing your Quickbooks statements now, instead of waiting until tax season?

However you measure the financial health of your business and your personal financial situation — whether by monthly recurring revenue, users, clients, revenue, profit, or portfolio gains — you need a hard number as the foundation of the business. I’m inspired by Profit First, a book by Mike Michalowicz. His view of why and how to measure profits is helping me get clear on what I mean when I say our business is "doing well".

This is also the place where you’ll need to assess your partners and vendors. And the oodles of software subscriptions you have (okay, that’s me projecting... maybe your 2017 wasn’t filled with productivity and operations software. I have a ton of software systems that I use to run Helpfully, so I’m carefully weighing each one this week). Are they working for you from a financial perspective?

Take a moment to figure out if the same things that worked (or didn’t work) for your business in 2017 will continue to work in 2018.  This is an opportunity to challenge your own past assumptions, and enter 2018 better prepared.


Memory - By nature, people reflect on their year through what memories they made, and the personal and/or familial side of their lives. I was reflecting on all of the fun memories I made this year that are invisible in Quickbooks (or Cushion, another planning app I like). It’s easier to measure the dollars and cents of your year, but there’s not an app that shows the emotional ‘bank account.’ When it hit me. There is an app for that. It's your camera.

One of my favorite ways to really gauge my relative level of fulfillment is by opening the photo app on my phone and scroll through it.  Start in January and just roll through the year. When you do this, choose the photos that make you recall truly “epic” days. This year I got to go to Epicurrence and join an amazing community. I got some wonderful surfing days in. I got a lot of time with my family.  I have great photos of all of these.

A sense of meaningful contentment is key to a good year!  Take note of the high-quality events or days when you really felt like you were living your best life and expressing or sharing that best self over the last year.  How many photos did you choose?  If you only notched a few… Does that mean you need to adjust where you’re spending your time? Or, it could just mean you need to take more pictures?

A word of caution: It might be tempting to run through Instagram and build your personal ‘top nine.’ But remember, this activity is taking stock, not the “highlight reel.” Just as you need to review financial losses in addition to profits, you need to view the whole year, not just the very best parts. The leaky pipe or a fender-bender (or worse), the photos of the mundane, those are important too. Sometimes the blurry photos are the best at capturing real life, even if they’ll never be shared on social media.


Impact - This is a separate lens to analyze our time together on this planet and it’s one of my favorite aspects of running Helpfully. We can get overly introspective about ourselves, our goals, our failures, and our feelings. Even financial impacts are, in some real way, internal to your business or job. But to really determine the success of a year, we must consider our outward influence as well.

Through Helpfully, I get to have impact in the world. Alongside a great team and great clients, Helpfully gets to bring new things that should exist into the world.

I asked myself, who did we positively impact this year?  Was there anyone we negatively impacted?  Family members, coworkers, young people who may look up to us, even strangers?  When using this lens, consider what wisdom were you able to share with the world.  Did you spend most of your time fishing, or teaching others to fish?  Personally, this year my impact-meter felt quite high because of this one moment pictured below - feedback from a young student after a classroom presentation I made:


So even though you usually can’t answer the question “How was your year” with a satisfactorily simple “good” or “bad”, it’s my experience that if you had a generally positive year you probably nailed two of the three lenses above.  If you made a lot of money and had positive impact on many people around you, that’s probably a pretty good year, and in 2018 you’ll focus on ways to be more intrinsically fulfilled.  On the other hand, if you ONLY felt fulfilled about your work (for example the paintings that you created in your studio, but never shared them with anyone, or sold any of them), you probably wouldn’t feel like it was a very successful year either.

So that’s my framework. What’s yours? How was your 2017?




Elements of Inspiration - Perspectives on TEDx Peachtree 2017


This fall, Helpfully asked our friends & followers to nominate women in technology who could benefit from attending the TedX Peachtree conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

We had dozens of wonderful nominations, and it was hard to narrow it down to just two winners - but we’re so glad we chose Samantha Maida (GE Digital) and Natalie Gauvin (Home Depot) - two very deserving bright stars in the technology world.

This was the inaugural TED event for both Gauvin and Maida.  We asked them to share a little bit about themselves and their individual experiences at TED.

Natalie Gauvin

Gauvin is new to the Atlanta area this year - her interesting journey brings her to the South, from Canada, by way of Hawaii!  (We have to admit, we’re anticipating the day when we get to hear her utter a sentence that starts with “y’all” and ends with “eh”.)  She’s an experienced consultant and lecturer on Design & Research, and is currently working on her PhD in Learning Design and Technology (LTEC) remotely, until returning to Honolulu for graduation ceremonies in 2018.

Gauvin’s PhD work focuses on how personas impact perceptions of empathy for users in the UX and instructional design communities.  So it’s no surprise that her most positive impressions of the TEDx event were around the connections she made with other attendees.  (We’re thrilled to give you a taste of that Southern Hospitality, Natalie!)

The range and diversity of speaking topics at the event also dazzled Gauvin.  She told Helpfully that she felt each speaker brought a unique and much-needed voice to the stage.  However, Dr. Krzysztof Czaja’s talk on sugar’s impact to our diets and bodies was a particularly memorable part of the day, because that message is relevant each time we make food and drink choices throughout the day.  (Learn more about Czaja’s research HERE).

“A huge thank you to Zach Pousman and the team at Helpfully for making my attendance at TEDxPeachtree possible, also for my friend Havana Nguyen, who nominated me for this great opportunity in the first place.  I have found that people in the UX community in Atlanta to be very helpful, and it’s people like Zach and Havana who help to promote and uplift others so that we can all share resources, and networks to reach our goals together.” - Natalie Gauvin

Samantha Maida

Contrary to Gauvin, Samantha Maida is not new to the South.  She’s a (rare) Atlanta native and (not-so-rare) passionate Georgia Tech alumna and fan.  Maida has spent several years in product development and management in several industries, and is currently focused on security initiatives at GE Digital.  Because of that current role, Maida was excited to hear from Justin Daniels at this event; she recapped his talk on Cybersecurity with us:  “He talks about how businesses are so motivated by bringing new products to market to increase revenue, but security is an afterthought. Innovation is happening so quickly, that security can’t keep up. He challenges society to slow down, and re-focus – as a group. With proactive collaboration, we can limit the threat.”  Well said, Samantha!

As Maida continues to grow in her career, she shared that she’ll also be applying a critical skill presented by Dana Kanze in her talk about gender bias in venture financing.  Kanze shared her research findings that ideas are more readily supported when a presenter or requestor utilizes “promotional” speech (proactive/positive focus) versus “prevention” speech (defensive/what if focus).

Common Inspiration

“I just wish we could take the positive energy and enthusiasm for change from TEDxPeachtree and live it daily outside the walls of the auditorium.” - Natalie Gauvin

Although our TEDx winners attended the event separately, we found some commonalities when comparing feedback on their respective experiences.

Both were astounded by the first speech of the day from Tejas Athni, a high school student who made a discovery about plant extracts’ ability to shrink brain tumors.

And both women love calling Atlanta their home, but each is headed out west in 2018 for some exciting adventures - Gauvin for her PhD graduation celebration, and Maida hopes to return to her new favorite part of the US, Sedona Arizona, for more hiking.

Here at Helpfully, we loved giving these driven, accomplished, impressive women in technology a chance to hear from others who are passionate about having a positive impact on the world.  If you’re interested in more from TED, check out their site HERE.  And we’d love to discuss your favorite talks at our next Helpfully lunch in Atlanta - if interested, fill out our form HERE.


2016 Election Aftermath - Information Visualization (and uncertainty)

From the New York Times. November 8, 2016.

One chart is burned into my mind from election night.

The chart above — from the New York Times election night coverage — is a gauge chart, a display that information visualization practitioners rail against frequently. This is partly because they waste a lot of space (and more at the Tableau Blog too) If designers choose to represent data with a gauge, they spend a considerable amount of screen real estate to represent a single datapoint. Infovis practitioners and researchers love economy. Edward Tufte calls this the 'chart to junk ratio'... and gauges have a lot of junk.

But the design team at the NYT also chose to "wiggle" the data, using a jitter algorithm that randomly repositioned the needle. Or at least semi-randomly repositions it.

There went all of my finger nails.

But now, in the aftermath of the election, I just got to read the rationale for choosing jitter, which I hadn't considered too deeply, thinking it a cruel trick and not a considered choice. Gregor Aisch wrote up a nice little piece that outlines their thinking. Some highlights:

  • Jitter is good for showing visitors the data is "live" and that any changes would not require a page refresh
  • The jitter had a purpose - it captured the uncertainty of the forecast. As the confidence in the forecast went up, the jitter went down. I recall that the jitter was very pronounced at 8 and 9 PM and shrunk to almost no wiggle by 11 or 11:30 PM. I noticed this on the night of the election, I think. Though it's really subtle and now I'm not sure if I did remember it on election night or I'm just projecting some rationality of my reading of the gauge.
  • The designers added noise to the jitter. Which I'd argue makes it more "fun" and dynamic. You could imagine jitter that just monotonously and smoothly swung between the two end points of the forecast. This part seems more contentious to me, but if your goal is eyeballs glued to the site, then this was a good choice.

'Jibo' Home Robot Launching Soon

Jibo is a domestic robot with a sophisticated set of sensors to interact with family members. Jibo is meant to be a domestic companion, and the creators show him interacting with young kids, adults, and older people too.

But Jibo is immobile. He can't move around on his own — I guess you're supposed to pick him up and move him to different rooms for different tasks. I think the overarching technology is cool (and smartly navigates a lot of constraints), but the idea that a user would unplug something to move it to a new room gives me pause.

Also, no mention of price on the Jibo site. Which is an additional concern of mine. I'm worried he'll be stuck in an uncanny valley between a toy (max price $300) and an important family tool (max price $1000?). I hope there are ongoing ways for the company to monetize beyond the purchase. Maybe they have some kind of payment integration that will let them take a small percentage of the ongoing transactions?

Research Snapshot: Better Negotiations through Social Perspective Taking

Research Snapshot: Better Negotiations through Social Perspective Taking

We all know that negotiation — the act of getting what you want when the other side wants the opposite — breeds anxiety and stress. Negotiating is analytical but also emotional and so requires people to understand their opposition, including their desires and their beliefs about the world. But how can we get that kind of deep understanding? How can we foster empathy on both sides of a negotiation? If we can foster more understanding, will we make negotiations less stressful and more satisfying? Does it improve the outcome?

Researchers at Stanford recently studied how to deepen a person's understanding of an opposing party, and how that affects the anxiety and satisfaction of a negotiation. The researchers created a simulation that worked like a computer game and then staged different interventions to determine the best way to foster "social perspective taking" (SPT), the technical term for viewing a situation from another point of view. See a thorough background on social perspective taking here: (Davis, 1996 - Amazon link).

The authors set up their study to take a piece of canonical negotiating advice — walk a mile in another's shoes — and worked to make that a part of preparing for a negotiation.

Software is eating the world, but...

"Software is eating the world", for sure. Those are words from Marc Andreessen- the Netscape founder (and now principal at A16Z, Andreessen Horotiwtz). To unpack this statement a little bit, the claim is that software will disrupt any and all industries, and that — in some real way — all problems are software problems. This idea has a lot of sway out in Silicon Valley, and proponets use the examples of software eating the hotel industry (airbnb), or software eating the taxi industry (uber), or software eating the grocery industry (instacart).


But here's a McKinsey Report (The social economy: unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, McKinsey Global Institute, 2012) that details how disruption will unfold. It won't be linear nor spread evenly across industries. Some industries will be relatively harder to disrupt, while others will be easier. The chart above outlines who much value is in each industry and how easy it will be to capture that value. In the Andreessenian terms above, software will be much slower to eat energy, food production, retail, and construction.