In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we talk with Caroline Jarrett about the user experience of surveys. Besides being an expert on forms design, Caroline has recently written a book on survey design.
Below is a guest post from Steven Sloman and Mugur Geana
“…human beings are tribal all the way down, all the way to the processes that govern thought. In other words, we let others think for us.”
We thought we had a solution. After a year of cowering in our homes, science had come to the rescue in a way that sounded like science fiction. We had not one but two vaccines based on what seemed fantasmagorical methods from the cutting edge of molecular biology. They had greater efficacy than anyone had dreamed, upwards of 90% ability to prevent infection. Yet, as we write this, the US is experiencing a 4th Covid-19 surge. To those of us who raced to get vaccinated as soon as we could, something has gone terribly wrong.
We knew that a coronavirus variant might evolve that could wriggle its way around the vaccine’s defenses. Most experts believe that, to some extent, that is what the Delta variant is doing. It is almost surely more transmissible than previous variants, and therefore has become a dominant strain globally. But we don’t really know how transmissible this latest and greatest contender is because it isn’t facing the same obstacles that its immediate predecessors faced. Many Americans have decided that the pandemic is over. So it is hard for epidemiologists to measure the transmissibility of the Delta variant, because they have to do it in a society with full restaurants and bars, and with thousands of fans screaming their approval and disapproval at sports venues. Some of those patrons have been vaccinated. Some have not. The surge is occurring not just because of the new variant but because so many people have entirely given up on wearing masks and social distancing, never mind their unwillingness to vaccinate.
There are other reasons people may have given up, including the inconsistency of the messages put forward by public health authorities. The CDC did issue guidance that vaccinated people need not wear masks indoors when they are with other vaccinated people. But recent studies show that vaccinated people can become carriers (although substantially less often than unvaccinated people). Furthermore, people get their information about Covid from a multitude of sources, and misinformation abounds. Nevertheless, the vaccines have lowered the risk of getting and certainly of dying from Covid-19. So, are people just making rational risk assessments to decide whether or not the discomfort of masks and the isolation of social distancing is worth it? Alternatively, people might be ignoring scientific advice because they lack trust. Some come from racial minority groups that have historically been poorly served by the medical community, or their behavior is driven by information from sources that do not share the medical establishment’s views.
The word on the street, and on many newscasts, is that the issue is ideological. Is it? Ideology seems to pervade so much these days. There is clearly a split in Americans’ confidence in experts; Democrats show more than Republicans (Pew Research, 7/21/19). Experts themselves are speaking pretty much with a single voice: With only a few eccentric exceptions, medical experts recommend avoiding close proximity to strangers, wearing masks in public, certainly indoors and outdoors if you have to be close to people you don’t know (or don’t trust), and get vaccinated. Who is following the advice, and who isn’t, and why?
In two surveys involving almost 1700 US adults, we asked people whether they take preventive behaviors (mask-wearing and social distancing) and whether they support policies that encourage such behavior. We also asked respondents several questions about their political attitudes (conservative versus liberal), about their own risk from the coronavirus, their understanding of the transmission of the virus, how well they perceive their own understanding of the virus, and some other facts about themselves. We found that the best predictor of their behavior and their attitudes was their political leanings. Suppose you want to know whether an American is likely to wear a mask or practice social distancing. In that case, the single best question to ask them turns out to be what party they vote for.
This finding is consistent with a plethora of research. We looked for published and unpublished manuscripts made available by early 2021 that included measures of Covid-mitigation attitudes and also measured political ideology. Forty-four papers provided data that allowed us to evaluate which variables predicted those attitudes. Out of 141 observations from the 44 papers, political ideology was a significant predictor of responses in 112 (79%). Moreover, ideology was by far the best predictor of COVID-19-related attitudes overall. Other factors did surpass ideology’s predictive value in a few cases: age (8 cases), gender (8 cases), education (14 cases), and race/ethnicity (7 cases), along with various measures of news consumption (10 cases). Ideology did best 62 times.
In another study of over 1100 Americans led by Mae Fullerton, we found that not only did people’s risk profiles fail to predict their mask-wearing and social distancing, but even their perception of their own risk failed to predict them. As usual, partisanship turned out to be a better predictor, along with being an essential worker. Not surprisingly, another good predictor was believing compliance was important.
These studies are, of course, correlational. We have no direct evidence that one’s partisanship causes one’s willingness to take mitigating or preventive behaviors against Covid. It could be, for instance, that Republicans tend to live in Republican communities or regions of the country and Democrats in Democratic communities, and that people behave in line with their community, as opposed to their ideology. But alternative explanations like this just emphasize our bottom line: In the case of Covid, health-related behavior is not governed by a rational assessment of risk but by the attitudes of the people who surround us. Our data suggest that it is not primarily a function of race, age, or any of the other variables that have been offered as big players, but rather variables related to ideology.
In a recent book, one of us argued that human beings are tribal all the way down, all the way to the processes that govern thought. In other words, we let others think for us. We keep expecting to find exceptions to this rule. When it comes to matters of life and limb, for instance, or when behavior is obviously foolish or capricious, we would expect people to rely on their ability to reason, not to simply channel the people around them. Yet we keep being surprised. Covid is a matter of life and death and the strong consensus among experts means that deciding what to do is not very complicated, and yet people seem to be as influenced by social processes and pressures as they are in cases that seem much more benign (like how much respect one should have for economists) and topics that do not lend themselves to such easy conclusions (like how we should handle immigration).
Everyone makes mistakes. But when it comes to freeing the country from the bonds of a tiresome pandemic, some of us keep making the same mistake over and over.
‘While designers have evolved over the last 25 years to be advocates for the audience/customer, we now need to be advocates for the rest of everyone else, democracy, society, and the planet, itself.“
I was taught design in a world and a time where the word primarily referred to things you could see, touch, and maybe hear. Design craft is often focused singularly on pleasing our senses. Fair enough, but design has changed a lot since my undergrad days. It wasn’t OK to ignore the impacts and outcomes of our work then, and it’s much, much less now.
It’s Not About You
The kind of design I was taught essentially told us designers to “go out into the world and redesign it in your vision!” If we did that, we were told, we would be rewarded—with money, with recognition, with awards, etc. Mostly, that isn’t what happens. It’s been very recently that popular appreciation for the kind of design that wins awards has emerged. For most of the past, the “design aesthetic” of the moment did not align with what most people appreciated or wanted. One of the biggest achievements of companies like Appen and Nike has been the promotion of design qualities that design industries mostly emphasize. Never before have non-designers cared about, let alone sought-out, design that the “experts” agree are well-designed. This is particularly true in UX/UI design though there are disagreements, often.
Happily, the majority of how design is taught today has changed drastically, partly because many more people have entered the field but, mostly, because the design industry has steadily leveled-up its process, aims, cares, and context. Sure, there’s a few programs and faculty who only care about appearance and the plastic parts of “craft.” But, most reputable programs teach the process of design research, which extols the virtues of understanding our audiences/customers/etc. before we begin making things for them. This is a huge advancement! While some industries still reward and recognize only the starchitects of their worlds, most design organizations have started to refocus themselves around impact.
The famous Frog Design, under its original founders, thought their incredible innovation was to put the client CEO at the center of the design process. Today, even Frog Design puts the customer at the center now. Progress.
UX/UI/interaction/interface/etc. design has led much of this progress. It’s now no longer acceptable to jump straight into screen design without first investigating customers—well, unless it’s an agile project. It’s still the case that much of that customer research is really, really, poorly done, but at least the step is there in the process chart and, sometimes, there’s someone designated as the researcher.
It’s Not About Us, Either
But, designing for others isn’t enough. Therefore, design research isn’t enough, either. There are still too many steps in the process and people in the system who don’t understand, care about, or want to create designs that work for others, instead of merely for themselves. Even when designers know and do better, everyone else in an organization, from CEO or client to layers of managers, to peers in other divisions, can foul this process and prevent better design responses. This is simply the reality of systems made from real people, instead of idealized ones. It’s not a reason not to design, but it complicates our efforts and stifles progress. It requires us to not only better understand the context of our own work but levels of context above, below, and to the side that impact our work and, more importantly, are impacted by it.
This is why designers need to be taught so much more than traditional design. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t understand the basics of form, shape, color, light, seeing, composition, etc. By all means, these are probably more important than ever. But, we need to find ways to add in much more about the impacts of our work, which I’ll admit, isn’t easy.
It’s About Everything, Now
I know this sounds daunting, and we’re definitely adding levels of complexity and context, but these levels are necessary, not only for ethical and just work but also for financially successful work, too. Today, in order to be a successful designer (or, rather a designer creating work successfully), we also need to understand (in no particular order):
• The social contexts of our work (including impact, issues, and meaning)
• How to lead and manage people (I, know, ugh, right?)
• How to respect (and transcend) the quantitative data available to us (and sometimes foisted upon us)
All of the above helps us be more ic in our work (which is another, critical issue, entirely)
That’s a tall order, I know, but necessary if you want to practice design successfully now and in the future. For sure, you’ll be able to inquire with and be joined by others. You won’t be alone (though it may often feel that way).
I’ll try to make it simple. I’ve been working on these issues for quite a while now. You don’t even need to go get another degree to know the above. There are even tools in existence for these (and several more on the way). There aren’t a lot of books that describe the list above, but there are many videos.
The first context for design is the environment around us. Nature supports everything else on this planet. If it falters, changes, or ceases to support us as we’ve become accustomed, everything else changes—sometimes radically. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life, or even the rest of the year, reading about this. I wrote the book, Design is the Solution, to cover it all, in fact (though others have, too). But, you need to know the basics because nothing else works otherwise. It’s your duty as a designer to know these things. No, scratch that. It’s your duty as a human on this planet to know these things. Period.
The second realization is that while society is supported by Nature, society supports (or suppresses) everything else. You can’t have an economic system without a social system. The main context you will design around will be the social ones (there are many). You don’t get to skirt this one either. It permeates everything. It governs what is considered good or bad, successful, or frivolous, important or not. And, there are more social impacts and issues than I can list. But the most important are going to be: equity, justice, respect, desire, need, privacy, and safety. If all you do is investigate how your audience understands and relates to these, you’re doing better than 90% of the rest of people you work with.
The only thing I’ll say about the economic context is this: markets are incredible optimizers. They really are. However, they only optimize what you put into the equation and the things we care about most have been left out of the economic equation by economists and “businesspeople” for far too long. And, optimization may not be called for at all. Just know that that uneasy feeling you have that business is missing some important things is absolutely true. I won’t get into the entire argument (you can read an intro here) but know that:
People are NOT rational actors
People don’t only optimize for money (they absolutely WILL pay more for some things)
Rich people do NOT create jobs
That will keep you busy for a while.
Next, the same way we can measure the ecological impacts of a product, service, or other experience, we can also measure social impacts of what we create. We probably can’t measure everything (there are so many) but we can measure enough—if we care to. Someday, we may even be able to put these into business terms.
This isn’t a case of garbage-in/garbage-out. Instead, it’s about what we don’t put into the process—we can still get garbage out. Remember those Segways? They aren’t even mostly Segways anymore. But, a LOT of money was wasted to get there. That’s what you’re trying to prevent for your companies and clients.
We should have to perform all of these roles. It should be standard operating procedure for all of this to be covered in the process—even for start-ups. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. While designers have evolved over the last 25 years to be advocates for the audience/customer, we now need to be advocates for the rest of everyone else, democracy, society, and the planet, itself. That’s the design job ahead of us. Sorry, but it is—because few others in organizations will rise to the challenge (and the challenge doesn’t go away).
Or, you know, we can evangelize and recruit others, too. There’s plenty of work to go around and we don’t have to go it alone. But, we’ll have to leave the safety of our design ghetto studios to do it.
Every day around the world thousands of people receive medical treatment. They, or their health care practitioner are using a medical device: an xray machine, a pacemaker, a medication infusion pump… So how well designed is that medical device? Did a human factors expert work on the design to help make it error proof? How can you prevent human error in the use of the device?
In this episode of Human Tech we speak with Russ Branaghan. Russ has a Ph.D. and has worked as a human factors engineer, with a specialty in healthcare for decades. He is President of Research Collective, a human factors and UX consulting firm and the author of Humanizing Healthcare — Human Factors for Medical Device Design, which was published in February of 2021.
We talk about what it’s like to design medical devices from a human factors point of view Also, in this episode Russ offers to give career advice to anyone who’s interested in getting into the field.
In this Human Tech podcast episode we talk about behavioral economics, specifically about the idea that people don’t calculate the value of products and services rationally, but they do so by following how they feel about what something is worth. Guthrie walks us through the research and the practical implications.
If you ask someone how much they know about a particular topic they tend to overestimate their own knowledge. And we tend to rely on our social network to fill in our knowledge gaps.
This illusion about how much we know is the topic of the latest Human Tech podcast episode, where we talk with Drs. Steve Sloman (Brown University) and Phil Fernbach (University of Colorado) who wrote the book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.
On this episode of Human Tech we talk with Dean Barker who is the VP for User Experience for United Health Group, and is also a long time friend and colleague. We talk about the challenges of finding UX staff, challenges in doing UX work at a large corporation, and some of the past projects Dean and I worked on together over the years.