Don’t Personalize: Cluster Instead!

In a TED video filmed in 2004 and published in 2006, Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink and Outliers) talks about human variability. The talk is entitled “What we can learn from spaghetti sauce” because he discusses the evolution of commercial spaghetti sauces from only a few varieties to hundreds (at the time of the filming Prego had something like 36 sauces).

Although he is talking about variability in people’s preferences, one of the things that strikes me in the video is that there are clusters of preferences. If you collect enough data you will find that not everyone thinks/prefers/feels alike. However, you will also find that there isn’t unlimited variability, but that there are clusters. Gladwell’s point is that if you design for one preference (strong coffee for example) you will miss the preferences of many, if not most, people.

Market researchers and product developers, he would argue, ask the wrong questions. In fact he makes the important point that you can’t ask people their preferences at all, since preferences are largely unconscious, and asking them to talk about preferences invokes conscious thought. Most people don’t know what they prefer, or will prefer in the future, but they think they do. So they will give you an answer, but it isn’t accurate (watch out those of you who conduct focus groups!).

You might feel overwhelmed figuring out how to plan for or design a product for human variability, but there is a practical way to deal with this. You don’t have to design for each individual with all their variabilities. What you do instead is enough research to identify variability clusters. If you collect data (not by asking! but by testing and observation) you will find that most people cluster into a finite number of groups. And then you can design for those groups. Instead of designing for a million individual preferences you can design for 5 main clusters.

To apply this to the design of technology: Personalization of web sites and web applications, so that each individual can adjust what they see, might not always be the best way to go. If you’ve done your homework you should be able to place each person in the appropriate cluster and show them what they need. Then perhaps they can tinker a little from there. How less overwhelming that would be for both designer and user than starting from a generic template that fits no one.

To watch the TED video:


Irrational or Just Human?

A favorite theme these days when writing about the unconscious mind and decision making is about how bad we humans are at making decisions. A perfect example is Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational.

Don’t get me wrong… it’s a great book, and I recommend that you read it BUT I take issue with one of the basic underlying and overt assumptions. The book explores human decision making, and describes (in an easy to read and entertaining way) some of the research on how people make decisions. I write in Neuro Web Design about all the myriad ways the unconscious mind guides, decides, affects the decisions we make. No disagreement there. But where we disagree is Ariely’s assumption that if we would all pay attention to how irrationally we are making decisions then we would see the light and start to change. He is saying that we can overcome our innate tendencies to be irrational and instead choose to make rational choices.

He’s missing the point. We aren’t actually irrational. We’re perfectly rational — according to the UNconscious mind. It’s an adaptive response (see Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: The Adaptive Unonscious). And we can’t change. That’s like saying that people should stop seeing color. We can’t! It’s just the way we’re built. Our seemingly irrationality comes from the way the unconscious mind has learned to deal with the huge amounts of data that that logical conscious mind can’t begin to process in a quick manner.

I say we accept and embrace the unconscious mind and celebrate what it does for us rather than judging us as irrational. It’s not irrational. It’s being human.

Creative commons photo:


Close Up Photos More Persuasive At A Charity Site

This holiday season someone gave me a gift certificate to donate to the charity of my choice at You can browse through hundreds of worldwide charities and donate to the organization of your choice. Of course while browsing I noticed that some organizations were more persuasive than others. Some used photos very effectively, like the one above with the close up of a smiling girl. But in other instances the photos were not as powerful. In the second photo here the girls are too far from the camera to see their face. It’s not as powerful or persuasive. To make a plea for donation you need to show human faces that are showing human emotion. What better use of persuasion than at a site like this!

Thumbs Up: Credo mobile email hits 5 Persuasion hot buttons

I get plenty of marketing emails, and this one that came the other day really stood out. Credo Mobile… it’s a cell phone service provider that also promises political change! They use 5 different persuasion techniques, all on one page:
1. The word “Free” is very powerful and they use it several times
2. Scarcity — “Offer Expires…”
3. Association — They are a politically active company, and they talk about Barack Obama on the page… they are associating themselves with Obama… like Obama, then you will like them
4. Consistency — The message is: If you are someone who cares about being progressive, then you want to (be consistent) and use a progressive cell phone service provider.
5. Social Validation – -The bottom ofthe page has a customer testimonial, with a name and photo.

Good job hitting persuasion marks Credo!

Sexy Product Needs a Sexier Web Site

PNC bank has created a unique offering for people in their 20s (Generation Y). It really is different, and it’s getting a lot of press. But they seem to have missed the boat at their website.

This is a great example of the concept of “the home page is dead”. At their home page (first picture) you’d be hard pressed to find the link to virtual wallet, (it’s a small item in one of the lists) and they sure haven’t used Neuro Web Design techniques to persuade people to go there. They’ll tell you that they designed a special web site for the product and that their marketing takes people to that website. You’d think they would give it a little play on the home page, using a picture of a 20 year old who is happy with a link there to the product.

If you do make your way to the special virtual wallet site (second picture) you’ll find a site with moving graphics and a lot of text. It looks like it was created by Gen X people for Gen X people… again, no principles of Neuro Web Design… where are the pictures of 20 year olds? Where are the stories of real people with real photos of them talking about how virtual wallet has changed their life? Where is the social networking? PNC will create a big splash with their marketing, but eventually it will fall short. They need to use make use of unconscious persuasion techniques for Virtual Wallet to stick.



Thumbs Up: Website Uses Principles of Persuasion

The website gets a thumbs up for using principles of Neuro Web Design effectively.

Look at their home page ( On the home page is a large photo of a woman who looks really happy. In fact, she looks positively joyful.

Chapter 10 of Neuro Web Design describes the research on why pictures are so powerful at persuading at a website. The message on this home page is that this person is doing great things with this Constant Contact’s software.

Next look at the large text that says “Look what you can do today! It’s using the word “you” in large letters in the headline, which follows the principles in Chapter 6 on the Self. Using the word You (especially in large font size and in the headline) captures the attention of the unconscious. It tells the unconscious brain that there is something important on the page. You! You are ultimately all that matters to the unconscious, and using the word “You” in large letters gets that message across. The reaction will be for visitors to the site to (unconsciously) assume that the software is for them, and that the company has their best interest at heart.

There’s a link in the top Navigation bar to Customer Examples. When you go to that page ( there are stories of how customers have used the software in their businesses. This page uses principles from Chapter 2 in Neuro Web Design on Social Validation. The message is that other people are using this software, so many of them that they need a whole section of the website to talk about them.

At the Customer Example page, there are again pictures and stories (more Chapter 10). This time the pictures are of the emailing campaigns that customers implemented using the Constant Contact software.

Someone recommended that I check out Constant Contact (Chapter 2, Social Validation!). Once there it took me less than a minute to be persuaded to try their free trial. Their website is a great example of Neuro Web Design at work. A big “thumbs up” for Constant Contact’s site.

NOTE: This blog is December of 2008. I’ve decided I like Constant Contact so much I have become an affiliate of theirs, so here’s a link to their website if you are interested in trying them out:

Emails for Small Business with Constant Contact

5 Ways to Engage the Unconscious Mind at a Website

We like to think that we are rational, logical decision makers, but the reality is that most human decisions are made unconsciously. So if that is true, can a website engage the unconscious mind?

Here are five of the more compelling ways to do that. Write back and tell me if you agree.

1. Use sex, food, or danger. The unconscious mind pays attention to the possibility of sex, to food, and to danger. If you use any of these triggers at a web site then the unconscious pays attention. So show a picture of a good looking man and/or woman with a flirtatious look in their eyes, or a full color picture of luscious food, or a scary picture, and you’ll grab ’em. Well, not all sites lend themselves to using any of those, so let’s move on to #2.

2. Use ratings. Ratings invoke the principle of social validation. If we see that other people have rated the (product, idea, author, blog, etc) highly, then we feel we should check it out too.

3. Tell a story. Some of the latest research on brain scans (fMRI scans) shows that people digest information in a story format. Using stories makes information easier to understand, and engages us automatically on both a conscious and unconscious level.

4. Don’t offer too many choices. Research shows that people pay attention to only about 2 or 3 attributes of a product or an offer at a website. If you offer too many choices the unconscious can’t decide (it’s really the unconscious deciding). Too many choices and people freeze up and don’t take any action at all.

5. Use the word YOU. The unconscious mind is all about YOU. You will pay attention if you see the word you.

Check it out. See if you react a certain way to sites that follow these 5 principles.


Top 10 Reasons Boomers Go Kicking and Screaming Into Blogging

I wrote this blog post in 2008. I’m glad to say that 8 years later I’ve gotten the hang of blogs, I’ve written hundreds of posts, I’ve turned some of the posts into several books… So… even though this post represents how I felt in 2008, I can report that boomers can blog.


I actually have two blogging coaches and one twitter coach. I’m trying to get the hang of this blog thing. I really am. It’s a slow road. I’m a baby boomer and I just don’t think we boomers are good at this blog/twitter/viral marketing thing. But I’m trying.

One of my blogging coaches says that top ten lists are good. That people like to read top ten lists in blogs. And my twitter coach, well, I haven’t even begun to figure out what she is trying to tell me to do with twittering. I might be able to master blogging one day, but I’m not sure at all that I’ll ever be a master twitterer.
So here is my top 10 list of things that prevent boomers from easily blogging or twittering:
#1 — we have a really hard time saying things concisely. In a blog we have only a few paragraphs to say something pithy. That’s not enough for us. We tend to ramble. And twittering gives us only a few words! It’s daunting!
#2 — we feel that if we say something it has to be really profound. We’ve got an ego the size of an elephant.
#3 — we are acutely aware of the fact that most people that are possibly going to read the blog or the twitter message are NOT boomers, and we fear that we have nothing to say that younger generations are remotely interested in.
#4 — we are awed by the internet. To publish something on the internet is a BIG THING to us.
#5 — we think that blogs are like columns in newspapers and we have the old-fashioned idea that it is journalists and writers that write columns. We don’t think of blogging as a job.
#6 — we don’t understand any of the twitter messages we get from others, so we can’t imagine sending a message like that out to anyone else.
#7 — we are afraid that we will write a blog and no one will post a response. It’s like checking your mail box and no one sent you any letters…
#8 — we’re afraid of using outdated and anachronistic examples like #7 above. I should have said “it’s like checking your inbox and no one sent you any emails…”
#9 — we’re afraid that people will actually read our blogs and then we will have to defend them.
#10 — we’re afraid that we’ll obsessively go back and read our own blogs and twitter messages and realize how dumb we sound.
Oh well, time to go twitter about my blog (?)

How Social Computing Elected the US President

The last chapter in my new book is called “The Next Big Thing”, and it’s all about the fact that being human means being social. It is built into our brains and evolution to live together with others, and to be very influenced by our “pack” or group. History shows us that whatever technology there is, we will find a way to use it to communicate – to make it social.

Look at the history:

The printing press allowed people to communicate via the written word in a way that was much faster. Before the printing press each book had to be copied by hand, a task that sometimes took years. The printing press brought that time down to days, and in some instances, hours. That meant that books could be created by the thousands and more for people to read. But that wasn’t the main use of the printing press. Individuals and small groups used it to start to communicate quickly. Much of the early use of the printing press was not long books, but short pamphlets or even one page “bills” like bulletins. The printing press was truly a form of mass communication.

Same thing with telephones. When the first telephones were first being developed they were viewed as an updated version of the telegraph. There was no plan for people to have telephones in their homes. The assumption was that the telephones would be in the telegraph offices and be used to convey messages from telegraph office to telegraph office (and from there the message would be written out and delivered).

Same thing with cell phones. I was talking one day with a client at Motorola who told me that years and years ago his group at Motorola invented the cell phone, and then put it on the shelf where it sat for years. “Why?”, I asked. “Why didn’t you bring it to market right away?” He answered: “Well, we thought we’d only be making about ten of them. Not much of a market.” “Ten of them? Why did you think that?”, I asked. His reply was “We figured each head of state for major nations would have one. You know, the President of the United States, the head guy in Russia, and so on. We thought they’d use it to prevent a world war. I had no idea people would use it to call home before leaving work to see if they should pick up milk!”

And now it’s happened once again with Barack Obama’s election as US President. I participated in the campaign at my local level and was struck immediately by the campaign’s use of technology. Millions of people in the US were tracked in a data base that used buying patterns, magazine subscriptions, and whatever other data that can be purchased, to figure out whether they were likely to be an Obama supporter, a McCain supporter or undecided. Then legions of volunteers were sent out to knock on doors and conduct a short survey. The results of that survey were fed back in to the database. Algorithms were revised and new lists created that got tested again. This continued every week for weeks and weeks. The campaign used this data to decide where to target, who to call, which doors to knock on (focus on the undecided). At the same time the viral power of Facebook was put to work. Technology was used to socially collaborate and network. From campaign contribution, to volunteering, to creating a buzz, technology and social collaboration on the web had a major part in electing a President.

People will always push the envelope to bend the available technology to purposes that extend and improve communication and the opportunity to be social. It always leaves me wishing I could see ahead and predict the next social use of technology. Every time I find myself saying, “of course, why didn’t I see that coming!”

A Plot By Apple to Convert PC Users?

I write my blog on a MacBook Pro. In fact, I do almost everything on my MacBook Pro. That may not seem unusual, but I can assure you it is. For as long as there were PCs, I was a PC person, not a Mac person. I’ve been using computers since before there were screens. I’ve been using computers since before there was Apple or Microsoft. I used to run programs with a casette tape on a Radio Shack. Ok, I’m showing my age, aren’t I? The point is that I was NOT a mac type person until about 5 months ago. Now I am sitting here with my Mac, my iphone, and my iPod. What happened!!!

What happened was that I bought an iPod a few years ago. I told myself that it would be a great gizmo to have while exercising, but the real reason was that my kids had one and it looked like it would be cool and fun. But getting an iPod meant I had to buy an Apple product. I actually did feel a twinge of dissonance when I broke a little bit from my non-Apple, all-PC persona to buy an Apple product. But it was only a type of MP3 player really, right? So it was a small action away from my usual persona. Not too drastic.

But it was a crack in my PC Persona. The research on commitment shows that once someone commits to one small thing, it often creates those cracks in persona and makes it easier to make more decisions in line with the new view of the persona. I was now a PC person who used an Apple product. I loved my iPod. And over time my PC persona began to give way. I was becoming a person who believed in Apple products. This created a huge amount of dissonance, and when it came time to purchase a new laptop, I dissipated the dissonance by buying a Mac laptop. I had effortlessly erased years of a PC persona, because my persona had already been sliding that way, even though I was not conscious of the slide until it came time for the larger purchase.

So my question is, did Apple introduce the iPod on purpose? Knowing that it would create this avalanche later? Was the iPod a masterful lead-in to getting people to switch from PCs to Macs?