Why You Should Kanban Your Life: An Interview With Amii LaPointe

Logo for HumanTech podcast In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we bring Amii LaPointe on the show. Amii is a Professor at the Milwaukee School Of Engineering where she teaches User Experience. We talk about the “old” days of writing documentation manuals, and her experiment in “kanbaning” her life.

Human Tech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

Episode 6: What Is Utility

Economics gets a bad reputation for being wrong about things, or only measuring things in terms of dollars or GDP (gross domestic product).

But most of these “bad raps” are simply because people don’t understand what economics is, and what it is actually capable of.

When I talk about “economics”, I’m not talking about Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations), or Marx, or anything before the 1950’s really. Those guys were philosophers. They looked at the world, thought about things, and then made sweeping guesses about how the world worked.

They get credit for sometimes being right, but just because Aristotle philosophized that there must be some small finite particle because you couldn’t cut things in half forever, it doesn’t mean he discovered the quark!

We wouldn’t call Aristotle a nuclear physicist and we shouldn’t call Adam Smith an economist. Hard science research and philosophy are fundamentally different fields. The biggest difference? A lot of math. Statistics. Econometrics. Linear Algebra. Adam Smith drew some lines on a chart; it’s philosophy.

Modern Economics only really came into its own in the late 1940’s or 1950’s, with the Milton Friedman generation. That makes the science maybe 70 years old at most! And that’s nothing. Modern physics got started in maybe the very late 1800’s, so imagine the difference between what we knew about physics in 1970 (which was a lot, we had nuclear power, etc…), compared to today. It’s a whole different level of sophistication and understanding.

Economics has come a long way, but it is a much newer field and simply hasn’t had time to fully blossom. It also helps your field if the largest nations on earth is pouring billions into research to make weapons to blow other nations up (ahem physics, computing, chemistry, etc…). So you have to forgive the field of economics for being a little bit behind.

With that lengthy precursor; how then does economics calculate value?

When economists try and figure out which decisions people will take, they have to compare apples to apples. There are a few ways to do this. The oldest trick is money, or money equivalents. Would you prefer a massage or a hamburger? Idk. So I instead ask how much would you pay for one or the other.

Just give each a “value” in dollars and compare, poof. Now we’re cooking.

The evolution of this method of comparing values is the idea of “utility”. Instead of money, you figure out how much something is “worth” to a human, or the utility the human gets.

For example, when your spouse cooks you breakfast that has an inherent value. But because it is not a financial transaction there is no financial transaction where money changes hands; so you must turn to the level of “utility” (happiness essentially) the breakfast provides you.

The main way to measure this is still in dollars (money) instead of “units of utility”; which has little meaning. The best way to measure what a spouse cooked breakfast is worth is usually to illicit how much you would pay for someone else to make that same meal for you. But there are lots of different ways to calculate utility.

The main point is that utility more accurately represents human decision-making because humans make decisions in abstract ways.

We don’t boil everything down into dollars (money) and compare the two values every time we make a decision. And once you get into behavioral economics utility amounts become even more important.

This is because the traditional economic assumption was that humans try to maximize their utility. The axiom, or assumption we take to be true is that we are rational, we want what’s best, so we maximize our utility. If there is a simple way to make $5 we’ll do it because that’s more than $0.

But, of course, there are many many times when that doesn’t happen! Just read the rest of these blog posts. That’s behavioral economics.

The answer is of course that we’re just measuring utility wrong. Traditional economics MISSES critical variables. Mind journey time! Think of a paperclip on a beach.

You are walking down the street with 3 of your closest friends in high school. It’s the suburbs so not a lot is going on.

It’s a tree-lined street, and farther down the street there are kids learning how to bike on a training bike. The sun is out, and birds are singing. It’s a very nice day.

On the ground off to the side of the sidewalk, you spot a crinkled $5 bill. Dirty, but totally spendable. You note “Oh! Look it’s $5!”, the friend walking on your left turns to you and says “Ew, that’s covered in dirt, you weren’t really going to pick that up, were you? It could be poop!”

You glance at your other friend to your left, and then to the friend to your right. All of them are staring at you with one eye raised and a grimace of slight disgust on their face.

Classical economics says you pick up the $5 because your utility of $5 is greater than $0, but of course you don’t pick up the free money. There is a hidden cost that traditional economic theories miss, which is the “social utility”. There is a social cost to your friends thinking you’re weird. Or poor. Or dirty. And that can be insanely powerful, more than a free $5 powerful.

It’s not that economics is broken or doesn’t work; it’s just that often it isn’t advanced enough to correctly calculate all the variables appropriately.

The first MAJOR behavioral economic papers in the 1970’s and 1980’s were all about different ways to calculate utility. There’s transactional utility, social utility, discounted utility, etc… etc… etc… It’s all just trying to reframe what humans are weighing when making their decisions. Some of it is because of fear of loss, or laziness, or social pressures.

I’ll probably devote an entire other blog post just to Kahneman and Tversky’s seminal, groundbreaking, famous-making paper “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk” from 1979. There’s a reason those two are really considered the grandfathers of the behavioral sciences, especially behavioral economics. This is one of a few famous papers that really defined the genre.

In sum, their whole point was that economists were doing it wrong! It’s not about linear choices or straight classic rational decision making. And I quote from that paper: “people normally perceive outcomes as gains and losses, rather than as final states of wealth or welfare.”

So sure, your final state after you pick up the $5 is +$5 but that’s not the calculation you go through. You feel the loss of your social status, you weigh that decision not as finite, but in the moment. It’s complicated and messy, and human.

And that’s hard to measure; but discovering the Higgs Boson was hard too. It just takes time and refinement. Maybe a few Nobel Prizes, and a few billions of dollars for a huge research facility (CERN Particle Accelerator but for Behavioral Econ) would go a long way.

So I’m positive about the future of the field. And the concept of utility is an important one, and one you should understand. So that’s a brief primer on it.

Btw, I have attached a picture of what real full-fledged economics looks from the original Prospect Theory paper from 1979. The good news is that later papers are… more concise and have more fun field work, although the economic models are more complicated.

This segment is not from some crazy appendix by the way, but from the heart of the paper, perhaps outlining one of the more important points, which is the concavity of u (utility). So just in case you were worried about what you were missing…

Also… this is a formula for the value of different prospects. Economics is so fun!

Don’t worry, they clarify this nicely later in plain English. I’d go through it, but I’ll save it for the post about Prospect Theory.

What Conference(s) Should You Go To This Year?

We speak at a lot of conferences, and attend a few too. In this episode of Human Tech we “review” many of the conferences we’ve been to (that have conference dates coming up in the next 12 months). Some you probably know, and others you may never have heard of. These are all in the US, UK, Israel, and Europe. Maybe one of these will be part of your next traveling adventure!

Human Tech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

A New Course On Color And Design

I’m so excited to be adding courses on color and design to our online training curriculum.

Katie Stern, who has multiple degrees, books, and lots of experience designing with color and teaching others how to do the same, has put together the first course in what will be a whole curriculum on Color and User Experience (UX) Design.

The first course is Color Terms, Tools And More. I took it myself and learned so much from it. I highly recommend it.

Here’s a short introduction to the course:

If you use the promo code


when you register you will receive 35% off the regular price. This special price is for two weeks, March 1 to 15, 2018.

Here’s some more info about the course:

You will learn color terminology, the basics of color theory, and how to communicate color information with your team.

If you are analyzing or designing a product or website, then you are working with color. Making color choices can be unconscious or intentional, depending on how much thought you put into them. Identifying colors that will create a great user experience can be a daunting task, especially if you don’t have the vocabulary to communicate about color with your UX team members. When you learn color terminology you will be better able to communicate your color design intentions.

You will learn:

The challenges involved with naming colors
The difference between the additive and subtractive color systems
How pigment color is different than digital color
How monochromatic color schemes are built
The definition of tints, tones, and shades and how to create them
How the Adobe Color Picker and Paletton help build color schemes

and much, much more!

So check out the course and let us know if you have any questions.

The Dopamine Seeking-Reward Loop, or “Why Can’t I Stop Scrolling On My Newsfeed”

We’ve all been there. You glance at Instagram (or your twitter feed, or your Linked in feed, or Facebook, or your newspaper app…). You look at the first entry and then the next, and then swipe with your finger or thumb to see what comes next and then next, and before you know it 15 minutes has gone by.

You just became part of a dopamine seeking-reward loop.

Here’s a video I recently recorded about the dopamine seeking-reward loop and what to do about it. And below is a text summary of the video.

I wrote an article in 2012  about dopamine and how it helps you become “addicted” to texts and also to searching.  That was 2012 and by now stimulating the dopamine loop has become ubiquitous and is involved in almost everything you do on your smartphone. So let’s re-visit the dopamine loop:

Dopamine was “discovered” in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden. Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving,  sleeping, mood, attention, and motivation.

The “seeking” brain chemical — Dopamine was originally thought of as critical in the “pleasure” systems of the brain. It was thought that dopamine makes you feel enjoyment and pleasure, thereby motivating you to seek out certain behaviors, such as food, sex, and drugs. But then research began to show that dopamine is also critical in causing seeking behavior. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels your searching for information.

Two systems —  According to researcher Kent Berridge, there are two systems, the “wanting”  and the “liking”  and these two system are complementary. Dopamine is part of the wanting system. It propels you to take action. The liking system makes you feel satisfied and therefore pause your seeking. But the dopamine wanting system  is stronger than the liking system. You tend to seek more than you are satisfied.  You can get into a dopamine loop. If your seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then you start to run in an endless loop.

The scrolling dopamine loop — When  you bring up the feed on one of your favorite apps the dopamine loop has become engaged. With every photo you scroll through, headline you read, or link you go to you are feeding the loop which just makes you want more. It takes a lot to reach satiation, and in fact you might never be satisfied. Chances are what makes you stop is that someone interrupts you. It turns out the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in.

Anticipatory rewards and pavlovian cues — The dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming (remember Ivan Pavlov?) If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system. So when there is a sound (auditory cue) or a visual cue that a notification has arrived, that cue enhances the addictive effect. It’s not the reward itself that keeps the dopamine loop going; it’s the anticipation of the reward. Robert Sapolsky talks about this anticipation/dopamine connection in his research.

Or maybe turn off the device altogether for a while. Radical idea, I know.


Here are some references:

Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden first “discovered” dopamine in 1958

Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.

Robert Sapolsky —

Dopamine Jackpot – Anticipating Reward

Alfonso de la Nuez On The Role Of User Research In The Future

Alfonso de la Nuez started in the field of usability with his small services company in Spain and ended up in California co-founding the user research software firm UserZoom. Last year UserZoom customers conducted more than 12,000 user research projects.

In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we talk with Alfonso, the CEO of UserZoom, about the current state and likely future of user research and testing, what makes user research successful inside a large enterprise, and much more.

You can check out UserZoom here, and you can email Alfonso at alfonso@userzoom.com

Human Tech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

Episode 5: Willingness To Accept Money Vs Willingness To Pay Money

Another derivative of what I call “ownership bias” is the difference between the willingness to accept money (WTA) and the willingness to pay money (WTP).

People exhibit ownership bias when there is something that they feel is theirs; that they own.

Let me take you on a quick mind-journey.

Your grandfather carefully cut, planed, jointed, and hand sanded a desk. He stained the wood by hand himself. He specifically picked white oak because of its beauty and desire for it to be enjoyed for generations to come. It’s perfect in every way. Solid, friendly, worn yet warm. Just like your grandpa.

Let me pop your mind-bubble. It’s worth about $250 in market value. It’s a worn, decently crafted, brown hardwood desk. Maybe it’s worth even less. Maybe $150. I’d probably lowball you for about $75. You would never part with such a treasured family item. That’s ownership bias.

What’s interesting is that this can happen on a much smaller scale, even as small as “gifting” you a pen. We’ll talk a lot more about ownership bias later, so I don’t want to get too carried away (it’s so fun though)!

Ownership bias is the first half of the willingness to accept/willingness to pay divide (spoiler!).

The second half is fear of loss.  Your old brain is afraid of losing resources. It yells at you to hoard, to not lose what you have.

When someone offers us money (which is basically an abstract construct), for something physical we have in our hand, we often overestimate the value of the thing in our hand because we don’t want to lose it.

Mash those two concepts together and what you get is this gap between the WTA and the WTP. To measure this, the typical experiment goes like this:

Half of the subjects are given an item, and then offered money to return it (willingness to accept).

Half of the subjects are asked to pay for the item (willingness to pay).

Researchers make a ratio (two numbers divided by each other) out of these, with WTA on the top (because it’s usually bigger), and WTP on the bottom. AKA, WTA/WTP.

For example, if your willingness to accept a deal for my grandfather’s desk is $600, but my willingness to pay is $200, the WTA/WTP ratio is 600/200 or 3:1 (aka, 3).

I won’t bore you with the details of a thousand studies about WTA and WTP. Fortunately, in A Review of WTA/WTP Studies Horowitz and McConnell did this for us! Thanks for that.

Beyond the fact that WTA is almost always higher than WTP for the reasons noted above, let me give you one more smart tid-bit that the researchers discovered, and I quote from the study:

“We find that the farther a good is from being an “ordinary private good”, the higher the ratio”.

So, the MORE unique an item is, the HIGHER the ratio between the willingness to accept (WTA) and the willingness to pay (WTP) is. The researchers found that non-ordinary goods have ratios that are usually about 6-8 points higher.

This makes sense. The imbalance between the willingness to accept and the willingness to pay is because when we own something we overvalue its worth to other people.

The more unique and special it is to us the higher we as humans will overvalue that product. You’re going to proportionally overvalue your grandfather’s desk far more than a cup of regular uncooked white rice (which is the most ordinary good I can imagine).

Let’s talk about real world practicality.

If you are in an industry that buys anything from consumers, you should understand that consumers will almost always overvalue what they have. It will cause them to be uncooperative in the face of reasonable market value deals.

Or, say, in the insurance world a customer would feel cheated because their grandfather’s desk was replaced by market value. They will feel as if the insurance company stiffed them even though that is not the case.

And conversely, if you want to make your customers feel like they have been given something valuable, give them something special they can own and treasure.


Horowitz, J. K., & McConnell, K. E. (2002). A Review of WTA/WTP Studies. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management44(3), 426-447. doi:10.1006/jeem.2001.1215

Steve Fleming-Prot: The Experience Of Designing An Experience

In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we talk with Steve Fleming-Prot. Steve has been designing complex user interfaces and experiences for decades and now is a Senior UX Research Consultant at User Testing.  In this episode we talk about the details of what happens when you are designing a user experience, and we also talk about his “conversion” from a moderated user tester to an unmoderated test planner.

Human Tech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

Episode 4: Regret Aversion

Let’s talk about regret aversion. Again, fancy phrase, simple idea. Let’s go on a mind-journey!

Imagine this.

You’re at home cleaning out an old shoe box of junk. I mean, you’ve had this stuff forever since you were a kid. But do you really need that candy bar from 17 years ago that you’ve been keeping just to “see what happened in 10 years?” No. No you don’t.

You’re rifling through your items while sitting on the floor, and sifting things into keep or trash piles. Suddenly you spot under some papers a small pack of NBA basketball cards held together with a rubber band. Man! You’d forgotten that your uncle used to buy you these as a bribery present so you’d like him whenever he came to visit.

You did really like them though, so bribe accepted. You ponder that maybe you should be bribing your own nieces and nephews more. Nodding your head as you have learned another lesson about adulting, you pop the rubber band off and take a look to see what you’ve got. Boring. Retired. Meh. OH WOW! It’s a rookie Shaq card. What a find!

You of course know from your great NBA knowledge that Shaq exploded onto the NBA as a rookie, averaging 23 and 14 and instantly dragging the Orlando Magic into the realm of interestingness, only to leave for the Lakers like everyone else, casting Orlando back into uninterestingness until the disaster that was Dwight Howard a decade later.

But this card is worth money. You do some quick research online and find out that this card is actually part of a famous run by a famous brand, is really rare, and in very high demand. You get in touch with a dealer and you negotiate him up to $1,200 for the card. You’re worried you can get a better deal, but there’s no point in holding on to the card. And hey! You forgot you had it, it’s like finding a free $1200 right? It seems like a fair deal.

Full of confidence you pull the trigger and make the deal.

You get the deposit in your Paypal account and spend it to pay down some credit card debt. Sighhh. Life.

Not two weeks later you’re checking out the news on your favorite site and there’s a breaking news alert! OMG! Shaq tragically just passed away far too young. You can’t believe it and neither can anyone else. Memorials are held. Jerseys re-retired (and re-released), and memorabilia sales explode.

With baited breath you terrifyingly check the dealer’s website a few weeks later out of dread, and sure enough, there’s YOUR card, being resold by the dealer for over $13,000.


“Why did I sell that stupid thing! Ugh I knew I should have held onto it. I could have made so much money!” You feel pangs of regret, and have trouble relaxing for a day or two until you go to the gym a few times and play some video games to get it out of your system and let it go.

You have to stop watching all the Shaq memorial coverage. Too many bad memories about your card and what could have been (money).

So that’s regret. Regret aversion is simply the fear of this situation. It makes us doubt and  second guess ourselves. We try really hard to avoid these feelings of regret (that’s the aversion part). There many types of regret, and some types of regret are stronger than others.

A study done by Seiler, Seiler, Traub and Harrison called “Regret aversion and false reference points in residential real estate” tried to test for regret aversion. They did so with simple questions where subjects were asked to assess their regret on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being low, and 9 a high level of regret.

The hypothetical situation the subjects were given was that they “purchased” a home for $200k five years ago. Today it’s worth $300k. That’s great news, right? There were two conditions, with half the people in each.

The first condition is “omission”. In the “omission” condition the participants find out that two years ago they could have sold the house for $350k, but were not aware of the potential sale at the time.

The second condition is “commission”. In the “commission” condition they knew two years ago that they could have sold the house for $350k, but believed the price would keep going up and did not pull the trigger.

In both conditions they still made the same amount of money ($100k). Their happiness with the sale should be the same, right?

Well, overall, people in the “commission” condition who could have sold the house, but chose not to, had statistically significant higher levels of regret than those in the “omission” condition who were unaware of a potential sale (4.69 regret vs. 5.08 with knowledge).

The bottom line is that people feel more regret when they lost something but feel like they had the control to make a different decision.

To a certain extent this is part of the fear of loss which I will talk about a lot more. But fear of loss manifests in many different ways, and this is just one of them.

Even though the end result is the same, learning that we could have made more money, but that we messed up, made a mistake, and sold at the wrong time, feels worse.

If we had no control over the situation and did not know that we had the option to sell the house at a higher price, then we can shrug and say “It was fate. I’m not responsible; Jesus take the wheel.”

It’s an act of god and out of our hands, we never lost what we could never have achieved. But when we had it in our hands, but then lost it because of our own mistakes; that’s troubling.

When we mess up we feel regret aversion. The next time we have to make a decision, we don’t want to make any decision. We freeze because we’re scared of making the wrong choice. Of selling a week too soon, or a day too late.

Like everything else in the 100, this is one of those peculiarities that causes us humans to make decisions and choices that are not the most logical or predicted by a computer. It’s not a simple sum choice utility function. It’s complex weird primate brains.

So let’s talk real world implications.

You can drive action by stimulating people’s fear of loss. Businesses do this all the time (the deal ends in 4 hours! better buy now).

For example, if you want to make people more cautious about selling stocks, send them alerts about all the times they could have sold their stocks for more money, but now it’s worth less. This strategy might actually cause them to switch partners, so maybe it’s something to avoid, but it certainly would stimulate a fear of loss.

Giving people information, so they have the decision in their hands, and then mess it up, will stimulate more regret aversion.  It’s certainly a tool in your arsenal that you should consider using when needed.

Give it a try! Did you find any difference? This is an especially tricky one to test because it is so specific, and also occurs over a period of time. But it’s fascinating to discuss.


Seiler, M., Seiler, V., Traub, S., & Harrison, D. (2008). Regret aversion and false reference points in residential real estate. Journal of Real Estate Research, 30(4), 461–474.

Helle Martens From Copenhagen On The Human Tech Podcast

Image result for danish party bike

In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we talk with Helle Martens, a User Experience (UX) consultant from Copenhagen. Our discussion includes the UX Copenhagen conference, why behavioral science has a hard time getting traction in UX communities, and the bicycle culture in Denmark, including “party bikes” and “beer bikes” (see images above and below).

To find out more about the UX Copenhagen conference and/or to contact Helle, check out the UX Copenhagen website.


Conference Bike

Human Tech is a podcast at the intersection of humans, brain science, and technology. Your hosts Guthrie and Dr. Susan Weinschenk explore how behavioral and brain science affects our technologies and how technologies affect our brains.

You can subscribe to the HumanTech podcast through iTunes, Stitcher, or where ever you listen to podcasts.