Creating Decision Points With Partitioning

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How do you make large scary ideas seem small and not so scary, or the reverse — make small things seem more important? You use the behavioral economics idea of “partitioning”. It’s all explained in this episode of the Human Tech podcast.

Talking User Research With David Travis

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David Travis joins us on the Human Tech podcast to talk about teaching people how to do user experience work and specifically how to do user research. Which means we of course talk about his latest book, Think Like A UX Researcher.

The Art and Science of Doing Nothing

Woman in hammockI read an article in the New York Times today about “niksen” which is a Dutch word meaning doing nothing. The article talks about how doing nothing can be good for you.

Ironically the article touts the idea of doing nothing so that you can be more productive. Which to me would mean you are doing nothing so that you can be better at doing something else. This does fit with the science of how the brain works, and how creativity works. (I’ve made an entire online video course on the topic). When you give your Executive Attention Network a break by not thinking or focusing on anything in particular, that frees up your Imagination Network (I know, I know, but this is actually the name given to this brain network by scientists) to work on solving problems and coming up with new ideas based on what you were concentrating on before. So it is true that if you take a break and stare into space for a while that will help you come up with ideas and problem solutions.

But doing nothing so you can then be better at doing something seems to run counter to the idea of niksen. What about doing nothing so that you just do nothing?

I’ve been teaching an 8-week Mindfulness Meditation course once or twice a year at my local yoga studio (a wonderful place called 5 Koshas in Wausau Wisconsin). The 8 week class includes homework, such as practicing the meditation we learned in class that week every day at home and so on. It’s a pretty intensive class. 

The last time I taught it I added to the homework. I asked students to practice 5 minutes a day of niksen. I asked them to sit in nature or stare out their window, or sit in their comfy chair at home and look at the fire in the fireplace, or just stare into space. This was the one thing I got push back on.  They were willing to practice meditation for 20 minutes every day, but to sit and do nothing for 5 minutes? “I don’t have time to do that” was the typical answer. “I have responsibilities, children, work…”.

I’m not disputing that they are busy people. I get it. I remember when I had two young children at home. But the vehemence with which they fought this idea seemed out of proportion with what I was asking them to do. 

I think the real reason for the resistence is that many of us have created a “busy habit”. We’re addicted to doing stuff. We have to prove something to ourselves and the world. I’m not sure what that something is, but it involves striving, being productive, being busy, working hard, playing hard. Everything has to have a purpose and be connected with a goal. Even our leisure time has to be busy, busy, busy.  Even our “down” time has to be filled with all the ways we are making ourselves better. We need to be learning to play piano, getting more exercise, learning how to make wine and so on.

I’m glad that the New York Times wrote about niksen. I hope this idea becomes more mainstream. I’ve always loved doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as ambitious as the next person. I write books and run a business. I compose music and grow an extensive garden. I teach meditation classes and organize my photos. But I also love to sit in one place and just look around me and do nothing at all. Maybe now my seeming “laziness” will become smart and trendy. 

If you haven’t tried out niksen lately I highly recommend you do so. It’s easy. Sit down somewhere and don’t do anything. Don’t bring your phone, or a book, or someone to talk to, or a podcast to listen to. Don’t try and take a nap. Just sit and stare or look around you lazily. You might like it.



Are You Presenting Your Data For Maximum Impact?

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You’ve collected this great data from your research, you’ve analyzed it and now it’s time to present it to your client, your stakeholders, and/or your team. The data will speak for itself, right? Not necessarily. In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we talk about how to present your data so that it will have the biggest impact and influence.

The Science of Habits

Have you ever heard that it takes 60 days to form or change a habit? Well, that’s actually not true. I used to write about that being true, but new research and a mindshift change for me made me realize that habits can be very easy to create or change, IF you understand the science behind habit formation and use that science when you are trying to change or create a habit.

Whether you realize it or not, a lot of your daily behavior is composed of habits. These are automatic behaviors that you do without thinking. You do them the same way every day.

Think about all the habits you have that you don’t even remember trying to create. Perhaps you put your keys in the same pocket when you walk out the door, or maybe you have a routine that you go through every weekday when you first wake up.

You probably have routines around hundreds of things:

    • How you leave the house for work
    • What you do as soon as you get to your place of work
    • How you clean your house or apartment
    • How you do laundry
    • How you shop for a gift for a relative
    • How you exercise
    • How you wash your hair
    • How you water your houseplants
    • How you take your dog for a walk
    • How you feed your cat
    • How you put your children to bed at night

And so on.

How did you end up with so many habits if they are so hard to create? If you understand the science around how habits are formed, you will see that there are some fairly simple things that you can do that make habits very easy to form and even relatively easy to change.

For most people, most of the time, habits are created unconsciously and they are carried out automatically. Habits help us all to do the many hundreds of things we need and want to do in our lives. Because we can carry out a habit without having to think about it, it frees up our thought processes to work on other things. It’s an efficient trick that our brains have evolved to make us more efficient.

It all started with saliva – Let’s take a look at the science behind forming habits. If you took a Psychology course you probably have heard the name Ivan Pavlov. Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel prize in 1904 for his work in medicine. He researched the digestive system, working primarily with dogs. But while he was doing research on digestion he discovered something that surprised him.

Pavlov was measuring the amount of saliva that dogs produce as part of digestion. He noticed first that dogs would salivate when they saw food, even before they tasted it. Then he noticed that if another event, such as a bell, or the footsteps of the experimenter was paired with the food, the dog would eventually start salivating at just the sound of the bell or the sound of the footsteps. This is called classical conditioning.

It goes like this:

First you pair two things together, a stimulus (food) and a response (salivating):

Stimulus (FOOD) results in Response (SALIVATING)

Then you add an additional stimulus:

Stimulus 1 (FOOD) + Stimulus 2 (BELL) results in Response (SALIVATING)

Over time you will be able to remove the original stimulus, and have just the additional stimulus elicit the response:

Stimulus 2 (BELL) results in Response (SALIVATING)

By now you are probably wondering what this has to do with you. You are probably not trying to create a salivation habit! Classical conditioning is the starting point for understanding automatic behavior and habits.

For example, let’s take a look at smoking. We start with:


Then we add:


Until we get:


Keeping this original research in mind, let’s explore what we now know about creating or changing habits.

1. Small, specific actions are more likely to become habitual – Let’s say you decide to create an exercise habit, and you tell yourself “From now on I’m going to get more exercise.” This is unlikely to turn into a habit because it’s too general/vague, and it’s too big.

What about “I’m going to exercise three times a week.” That’s a little better, but still not specific enough. “I’m going to go for a walk every day after work” is better because it is more specific. Or even, “When I get home from work the first thing I’m going to do is change into my walking clothes/shoes and take a 30 minute walk.”

2. Making the action easy to do increases the likelihood that it becomes a habit – Once you have identified the specific small action then you want to make that action easy to take. In the exercise/walking example, you will be more likely to engage in the habit if you make it easy. For example, put out your shoes/clothes right near the door so when you get home you see them.

3, Actions that involve physical movement are easier to “condition” into a habit – With the walking/exercise example, that’s easy. You are going to reach out your arm and grab your workout clothes.

If you are trying to create a habit that is not very physical, for example, a habit where at the beginning of the work day you pause and decide on what are the most important things for you to do that day, then you will want to create a physical action to take, for example, have a special whiteboard near you and a special pen you use to do this task

4, Habits that have auditory and/or visual cues associated with them will be easier to create and maintain – One reason that using your mobile phone is so habitual is it lights up when you have a message, and makes buzzing or chirping noises when there is a text. These auditory and visual cues grab our attention, and increase the likelihood that we will develop a conditioned response.

The Best Way to Change an Existing Habit – The best way to change an existing habit is to create new one to replace it.

Let’s say you have a habit of coming home at the end of a work day, grabbing a soda, turning on the TV and sitting on the couch. You’d like to stop doing that because before you know it an hour has gone by and you haven’t started dinner or gotten any exercise.

How do you change that habit? You have to go back to the very beginning of the stimulus/response cycle and replace the current response with a different response.

This is what is happening with the existing stimulus/response:

Stimulus (WALK IN DOOR) results in Response (GRAB SODA, TURN ON TV, SIT ON COUCH)

To change this, decide what you want to replace it with, for example, let’s say you want to go for a walk as soon as you get home. The best thing to do is to position your walking shoes and perhaps a change of clothing right by the door you walk into.Then for a few days purposefully and consciously grab the shoes and clothes and put them on as soon as you walk in the door, and go for a walk.

Within 7 days you will have conditioned the walk in door to a different response:

Stimulus (WALK IN DOOR) results in Response (Grab shoes and clothes, change, and go for walk)

Give it a try. Pick either a new habit you want to create, or an existing habit you want to change. Next, figure out the stimulus and the response. Make sure the action is small, easy, attached to something physical, and, if possible use a visual or auditory cue. Do the new habit for a week, and see what happens. You may be surprised at how easy it is to create or change habits.

For more information:

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

or check out BJ Fogg’s site:

When Rewards Work and When They Don’t

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In this episode of HumanTech we look at the science of rewards and discuss when and why rewards work and when and why they don’t.

The Secret Key To A Usable Product: Objects & Views

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This is definitely a “nerdy” episode of Human Tech. We tackle a not very well known design topic:”objects and views”. It’s conceptually the hardest thing I consult on and teach about in user experience design. Learn about this powerful and slightly obscure factor that is the secret key to a usable product.

Designing Usable Chatbots

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Chatbots are popping up everywhere. In this episode of the Human Tech podcast we talk about what features make a chatbot usable, including whether it should have a name, the importance of consistent personality, and whether you want your chatbot to have a gender or be gender neutral.

The Return Of Moore’s Law

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Gordon Moore was the CEO of Intel for many years. In 1965 he wrote a paper observing that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit is able to double (because of advances in design and production) about every two years. This was dubbed “Moore’s law” and was one of the reasons that the capability of various technologies grows and expands and often the size of the technology shrinks.

The rate of technology advance from Moore’s law held till about 2012 when it began to slow down. But now some technologists are seeing it start to accelerate again.

In this episode of Human Tech we take a look at Moore’s Law and what the return of the the original pace might mean for the technology that we use.