What Would a “Time Well Spent” World Look Like?

I’m worried about us. And it’s not just because we seem bent on death by ultra-conservative parochialism and xenophobia. I’m worried because I believe we’re spending all our time doing the wrong things. We’re fiddling while Rome burns.

Technology is our new drug of choice and we’re hooked. We’re fascinated by the trivial. We’re dumping huge gobs of time down the drain playing virtual games, updating social statuses, clicking on clickbait and watching videos of epic wardrobe malfunctions. Humans should be better than this.

It’s okay to spend some time doing nothing. The brain needs some downtime. But something, somewhere has gone seriously wrong. We are now spending the majority of our lives doing useless things. TV used to be the biggest time suck, but in 2015, for the first time ever, the boob tube was overtaken by time spent with mobile apps. According to a survey conducted by Flurry, in the second quarter of 2015 we spent about 2.8 hours per day watching TV. And we spent 3.3 hours on mobile apps. That’s a grand total of 6.1 hours per day or one third of the time we spend awake. Yes, both things can happen at the same time, so there is undoubtedly overlap, but still- that’s a scary-assed statistic!

And it’s getting worse. In a previous Flurry poll conducted in 2013, we spent a total of 298 hours between TV and mobile apps versus 366 hours in 2015. That’s a 22.8% increase in just two years. We’re spending way more time doing nothing. And those totals don’t even include things like time spent in front of a gaming console. For kids, tack on an average of another 10 hours per week and you can double that for hard-core male gamers. Our addiction to gaming has even led to death in extreme cases.

Even in the wildest stretches of imagination, this can’t qualify as “time well spent.”

We’re treading on very dangerous and very thin ice here. And, we no longer have history to learn from. It’s the first time we’ve ever encountered this. Technology is now only one small degree of separation from plugging directly into the pleasure center of our brains. And science has proven that a good shot of self-administered dopamine can supersede everything –water, food, sex. True, these experiments were administered on rats – primarily because it’s been unethical to go too far on replicating the experiments with humans – but are you willing to risk the entire future of mankind on the bet that we’re really that much smarter than rats?

My fear is that technology is becoming a slightly more sophisticated lever we push to get that dopamine rush. And developers know exactly what they’re doing. They are making that lever as addictive as possible. They are pushing us towards the brink of death by technological lobotomization. They’re lulling us into a false sense of security by offering us the distraction of viral videos, infinitely scrolling social notification feeds and mobile game apps. It’s the intellectual equivalent of fast food – quite literally “brain candy.

Here the hypocrisy of for-profit interest becomes evident. The corporate response typically rests on individual freedom of choice and the consumer’s ability to exercise will power. “We are just giving them what they’re asking for,” touts the stereotypical PR flack. But if you have an entire industry with reams of developers and researchers all aiming to hook you on their addictive product and your only defense is the same faulty neurological defense system that has already fallen victim to fast food, porn, big tobacco, the alcohol industry and the $350 billion illegal drug trade, where would you be placing your bets?

Technology should be our greatest achievement. It should make us better, not turn us into a bunch of lazy screen-addicted louts. And it certainly could be this way. What would it mean if technology helped us spend our time well? This is the hope behind the Time Well Spent Manifesto. Ethan Harris, a design ethicist and product philosopher at Google is one of the co-directors. Here is an excerpt from the manifesto:

We believe in a new kind of design, that lets us connect without getting sucked in. And disconnect, without missing something important.

And we believe in a new kind economy that’s built to help us spend time well, where products compete to help us live by our values.

I believe in the Manifesto. I believe we’re being willingly led down a scary and potentially ruinous path. Worst of all, I believe there is nothing we can – or will – do about it. Problems like this are seldom solved by foresight and good intentions. Things only change after we drive off the cliff.

The problem is that most of us never see it coming. And we never see it coming because we’re too busy watching a video of masturbating monkeys on Youtube.

How We Might Search (On the Go)

As I mentioned in last week’s column – Mediative has just released a new eyetracking study on mobile devices. And it appears that we’re still conditioned to look for the number one organic result before clicking on our preferred destination.


It appears that things might be in the process of changing. This makes sense. Searching on a mobile device is – and should be – significantly different from searching on a desktop. We have different intents. We are interacting with a different platform. Even the way we search is different.

Searching on a desktop is all about consideration. It’s about filtering and shortlisting multiple options to find the best one. Our search strategies are still carrying a significant amount of baggage from what search was – an often imperfect way to find the best place to get more information about something. That’s why we still look for the top organic listing. For some reason we still subconsciously consider this the gold standard of informational relevancy. We measure all other results against it. That’s why we make sure we reserve one slot from the three to five available in our working memory (I have found that the average person considers about 4 results at a time) for its evaluation.

But searching on a mobile device isn’t about filtering content. For one thing, it’s absolutely the wrong platform to do this with. The real estate is too limited. For another, it’s probably not what we want to spend our time doing. We’re on the go and trying to get stuff done. This is not the time for pausing and reflecting. This is the time to find what I’m looking for and use it to take action.

This all makes sense but the fact remains that the way we search is a product of habit. It’s a conditioned subconscious strategy that was largely formed on the desktop. Most of us haven’t done enough searching on mobile devices yet to abandon our desktop-derived strategies and create new mobile specific ones. So, our subconscious starts playing out the desktop script and only varies from it when it looks like it’s not going to deliver acceptable results. That’s why we’re still looking for that number one organic listing to benchmark against

There were a few findings in the Mediative study that indicate that our desktop habits may be starting to slip on mobile devices. But before we review them, let’s do a quick review of how habits play out. Habits are the brains way of cutting down on thinking. If we do something over and over again and get acceptable results, we store that behavior as a habit. The brain goes on autopilot so we don’t have to think our way through a task with predictable outcomes.

If, however, things change, either in the way the task plays out or in the outcomes we get, the brain reluctantly takes control again and starts thinking its way through the task. I believe this is exactly what’s happening with our mobile searches. The brain desperately wants to use its desktop habits, but the results are falling below our threshold of acceptability. That means we’re all somewhere in the process of rebuilding a search strategy more suitable for a mobile device.

Mediative’s study shows me a brain that’s caught between the desktop searches we’ve always done and the mobile searches we’d like to do. We still feel we should scroll to see at least the top organic result, but as mobile search results become more aligned with our intent, which is typically to take action right away, we are being side tracked from our habitual behaviors and kicking our brains into gear to take control. The result is that when Google shows search elements that are probably more aligned with our intent – either local results, knowledge graphs or even highly relevant ads with logical ad extensions (such as a “call” link) – we lose confidence in our habits. We still scroll down to check out the organic result but we probably scroll back up and click on the more relevant result.

All this switching back and forth from habitual to engaged interaction with the results ends up exacting a cost in terms of efficiency. We take longer to conduct searches on a mobile device, especially if that search shows other types of results near the top. In the study, participants spent an extra 2 seconds or so scrolling between the presented results (7.15 seconds for varied results vs. 4.95 seconds for organic only results). And even though they spent more time scrolling, more participants ended up clicking on the mobile relevant results they saw right at the top.

The trends I’m describing here are subtle – often playing out in a couple seconds or less. And you might say that it’s no big deal. But habits are always a big deal. The fact that we’re still relying on desktop habits that were laid down over the past two decades show how persistent then can be. If I’m right and we’re finally building new habits specific to mobile devices, those habits could dictate our search behaviors for a long time to come.

In Search- Even in Mobile – Organic Still Matters

I told someone recently that I feel like Rick Astley. You know, the guy that had the monster hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” in 1987 and is still trading on it almost 30 years later? He even enjoyed a brief resurgence of viral fame in 2007 when the world discovered what it meant to be “Rickrolled”

google-golden-triangle-eye-trackingFor me, my “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the Golden Triangle eye tracking study we released in 2005. It’s my one hit wonder (to be fair to Astley, he did have a couple other hits, but you get the idea). And yes, I’m still talking about it.

The Golden Triangle as we identified it existed because people were drawn to look at the number one organic listing. That’s an important thing to keep in mind. In today’s world of ad blockers and teeth gnashing about the future of advertising, there is probably no purer or more controllable environment than the search results page. Creativity is stripped to the bare minimum. Ads have to be highly relevant and non-promotional in nature. Interaction is restricted to the few seconds required to scan and click. If there was anywhere where ads might be tolerated, its on the search results page


If we fully trusted ads – especially those as benign as those that show up on search results – there would have be no Golden Triangle. It only existed because we needed to see that top Organic result and dragging our eyes down to it formed one side of the triangle.

eyetracking2014Fast forward almost 10 years. Mediative, which is the current incarnation of my old company, released a follow up two years ago. While the Golden Triangle had definitely morphed into a more linear scan, the motivation remained – people wanted to scan down to see at least one organic listing. They didn’t trust ads then. They don’t trust ads now.

Google has used this need to anchor our scanning with the top organic listing to introduce a greater variety of results into the top “hot zone” – where scanning is the greatest. Now, depending on the search, there is likely to be at least a full screen of various results – including ads, local listings, reviews or news items – before your eyes hit that top organic web result. Yet, we seem to be persistent in our need to see it. Most people still make the effort to scroll down, find it and assess its relevance.

It should be noted that all of the above refers to desktop search. But almost a year ago, Google announced that – for the first time ever – more searches happened on a mobile device than on a desktop.

eyetracking mobile.pngMediative just released a new eye-tracking study (Note: I was not involved at all with this one). This time, they dove into scan patterns on mobile devices. Given the limited real estate and the fact that for many popular searches, you would have to consciously scroll down at least a couple times to see the first organic result, did users become more accepting of ads?

Nope. They just scanned further down!

The study’s first finding was that the #1 organic listing still captures the most click activity, but it takes users almost twice as long to find it compared to a desktop.

The study’s second finding was that even though organic is still important, position matters more than ever. Users will make the effort to find the top organic result and, once they do, they’ll generally scan the top 4 results, but if they find nothing relevant, they probably won’t scan much further. In the study, 92.6% of the clicks happened above the 4th organic listing. On a desktop, 84% of the clicks happened above the number 4 listing.

The third listing shows an interesting paradox that’s emerging on mobile devices: we’re carrying our search habits from the desktop over with us – especially our need to see at least one organic listing. The average time to scan the top sponsored listing was only 0.36 seconds, meaning that people checked it out immediately after orienting themselves to the mobile results page, but for those that clicked the listing, the average time to click was 5.95 seconds. That’s almost 50% longer than the average time to click on a desktop search. When organic results are pushed down the page because of other content, it’s taking us longer before we feel confident enough to make our choice. We still need to anchor our relevancy assessment with that top organic result and that’s causing us to be less efficient in our mobile searches than we are on the desktop.

The study also indicated that these behaviors could be in flux. We may be adapted our search strategies for mobile devices, but we’re just not quite there yet. I’ll touch on this in next week’s column.









The World in Bite Sized Pieces

It’s hard to see the big picture when your perspective is limited to 160 characters.

Or when we keep getting distracted from said big picture by that other picture that always seems to be lurking over there on the right side of our screen – the one of Kate Upton tilting forward wearing a wet bikini.

Two things are at work here obscuring our view of the whole: Our preoccupation with the attention economy and a frantic scrambling for a new revenue model. The net result is that we’re being spoon-fed stuff that’s way too easy to digest. We’re being pandered to in the worst possible way. The world is becoming a staircase of really small steps, each of which has a bright shiny object on it urging us to scale just a little bit higher. And we, like idiots, stumble our way up the stairs.

This cannot be good for us. We become better people when we have to chew through some gristle. Or when we’re forced to eat our broccoli. The world should not be the cognitive equivalent of Captain Crunch cereal.

It’s here where human nature gets the best of us. We’re wired to prefer scintillation to substance. Our intellectual laziness and willingness to follow whatever herd seems to be heading in our direction have conspired to create a world where Donald Trump can be a viable candidate for president of the United States – where our attention span is measured in fractions of a second – where the content we consume is dictated by a popularity contest.

Our news is increasingly coming to us in smaller and smaller chunks. The exploding complexity of our world, which begs to be understood in depth, is increasingly parceled out to us in pre-digested little tidbits, pushed to our smartphone. We spend scant seconds scanning headlines to stay “up to date.” And an algorithm that is trying to understand where our interests lie usually determines the stories we see.

This algorithmic curation creates both “Filter” and “Agreement” Bubbles. The homogeneity of our social network leads to a homogeneity of content. But if we spend our entire time with others that think like us, we end up with an intellectually polarized society in which the factions that sit at opposite ends of any given spectrum are openly hostile to each other. The gaps between our respective ideas of what is right are simply too big and no one has any interest in building a bridge across them. We’re losing our ideological interface areas, those opportunities to encounter ideas that force us to rethink and reframe, broadening our worldview in the process. We sacrifice empathy and we look for news that “sounds right” to us, not matter what “right” might be.

This is a crying shame, because there is more thought provoking, intellectually rich content than ever before being produced. But there is also more sugar coated crap who’s sole purpose is to get us to click.

I’ve often talked about the elimination of friction. Usually, I think this is a good thing. Bob Garfield, in a column a few months ago, called for a whoop-ass can of WD 40 to remove all transactional friction. But if we make things too easy to access, will we also remove those cognitive barriers that force us to slow down and think, giving our rationality a change to catch up with impulse? And it’s not just on the consumption side where a little bit of friction might bring benefits. The upside of production friction was that it did slow down streams of content just long enough to introduce an editorial voice. Someone somewhere had to give some thought as to what might actually be good for us.

In other words, it was someone’s job to make sure we ate our vegetables.

Consumers in the Wild

Once a Forager, Always a Forager

Your world is a much different place than the African Savanna. But over 100,000 generations of evolution that started on those plains still dictates a remarkable degree of our modern behavior.

Take foraging, for example. We evolved as hunters and gatherers. It was our primary survival instinct. And even though the first hominids are relatively recent additions to the biological family tree, strategies for foraging have been developing for millions and millions of years. It’s hardwired into the deepest and most inflexible parts of our brain. It makes sense, then, that foraging instincts that were once reserved for food gathering should be applied to a wide range of our activities.

That is, in fact, what Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card discovered two decades ago. When they looked at how we navigated online sources of information, they found that humans used the very same strategy we would have used for berry picking or gathering cassava roots. And one of the critical elements of this was something called Marginal Value.

Bounded Rationality & Foraging

It’s hard work being a forager. Most of your day – and energy – is spent looking for something to eat. The sparser the food sources in your environment, the more time you spend looking for them. It’s not surprising; therefore, that we should have some fairly well honed calculations for assessing the quality of our food sources. This is what biologist Eric Charnov called Marginal Value in 1976. It’s an instinctual (and therefore, largely subconscious) evaluation of food “patches” by most types of foragers, humans included . It’s how our brain decides whether we should stay where we are or find another patch. It would have been a very big deal 2 million – or even 100,000 – years ago.

Today, for most of us, food sources are decidedly less “patchy.” But old instincts die hard. So we did what humans do. We borrowed an old instinct and applied it to new situations. We exapted our foraging strategies and started using them for a wide range of activities where we had to have a rough and ready estimation of our return on our energy investment. Increasingly, more and more of these activities asked for an investment of cognitive processing power. And we did all this without knowing we were even doing it.

This brings us to Herbert Simon’s concept of Bounded Rationality. I believe this is tied directly to Charnov’s theorem of Marginal Value. When we calculate how much mental energy we’re going to expend on an information-gathering task, we subconsciously determine the promise of the information “patches” available to us. Then we decided to invest accordingly based on our own “bounded” rationality.

Brands as Proxies for Foraging

It’s just this subconscious calculation that has turned the world of consumerism on its ear in the last two decades. As Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen explain in their book Absolute Value, the explosion of information available has meant that we are making different marginal value calculations than we would have thirty or forty years ago. We have much richer patches available, so we’re more likely to invest the time to explore them. And, once we do, the way we evaluate our consumer choices changes completely. Our modern concept of branding was a direct result of both bounded rationality and sparse information patches. If a patch of objective and reliable information wasn’t apparent, we would rely on brands as a cognitive shortcut, saving our bounded rationality for more promising tasks.

Google, The Ultimate “Patch”

In understanding modern consumer behavior, I think we have to pay much more attention to this idea of marginal value. What is the nature of the subconscious algorithm that decides whether we’re going to forage for more information or rely on our brand beliefs? We evolved foraging strategies that play a huge part in how we behave today.

For example, the way we navigate our physical environment appears to owe much to how we used to search for food. Women determine where they’re going differently than men because women used to search for food differently. Men tend to do this by orientation, mentally maintaining a spatial grid in their minds against which they plot their own location. Women do it by remembering routes. In my own research, I found split-second differences in how men and women navigated websites that seem to go back to those same foundations.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, however, you need to have some type of mental inventory of information patches available to you to in order to assess the marginal value of those patches. This is the mental landscape Google plays in. For more and more decisions, our marginal value calculation starts with a quick search on Google to see if any promising patches show up in the results. Our need to keep a mental inventory of patches can be subjugated to Google.

It seems ironic that in our current environment, more and more of our behavior can be traced back millions of years to behaviors that evolved in a world where high-tech meant a sharper rock.

The Secret of Successful Marketing Lies in Split Seconds

affordanceThe other day, I was having lunch in a deli. I was also watching the front door, which you had to push to get in. Almost everyone who came to the door pulled, even though there was a fairly big sign over the handle which said “Push.” The problem? The door had the wrong kind of handle. It was a pull handle, not a push. The door had been mounted backwards. In usability terms, the door handle presented a misleading affordance.

I suspect the door had been there for many years. I was at the deli for about 30 minutes. In that time, about 70% of the people (probably close to 50) pulled rather than pushed. Extrapolating this to the whole, that means over the years, thousands and thousands of people have had to try twice to enter this particular place of business. Yet, the only acknowledgement of this instance of customer pain was the sign that had been taped to the door – “Push” – and I suspect there was an implied “(You Idiot)” following that.

I suspect most marketing falls in the same category as that sign. It’s an attempt to fight the intuitive actions that customers take – those split-second actions that happen before our brain has a chance to kick in. And we have to counteract those split-second decisions because the path we have created for our customers was built without an understanding of those intuitive actions. After we realize that our path runs counter to our customer’s natural behaviors do we rebuild the path? Does the deli owner pay a contractor to remount the door? No, we post a sign asking customers to push rather than pull. After all, all they have to do is think for a moment. It seems like a reasonable request.

But here’s the problem with that. You don’t want your customers to think. You want them to act. And you want them to act as quickly and naturally as possible. The battles of marketing are won in those split seconds before the brain kicks in.

Let me give you one example. A few years ago I did a study with Simon Fraser University in Canada. We wanted to know how the brain responded in those same split seconds to brands we like versus brands we have no particular affinity to. What we found was fascinating. In about 150 milliseconds (roughly a sixth of a second) our brain responds to a well-loved brand the same way we respond to a smiling face. This all happens before any rational part of the brain can kick in. This positive reaction sets the stage for a much different subsequent mental processing of the brand (which starts at about 450 milliseconds, or half a second). And the power of this alignment can be startling. As Dr. Read Montague discovered, it can literally alter your perception of the world.

If you can rebuild your path to purchase to align with your customer’s intuitive behaviors, you don’t need to put up “push” signs when they stray off course. You don’t have to make your customers think. Here’s why that is important. As long as we operate at the intuitive level, humans are a fairly predictable lot. Evolution has wired in a number of behaviors that are universal across the population. You would not be risking your vacation fund if you placed a bet that the majority of people would try to pull a door with a door handle that suggested your should pull it, even if there was a sign that said “push.” As long as we operate on auto-pilot, we can plot a predicted behavioral course with a fair degree of confidence (assuming, of course, we’ve taken the time to understand those behaviors).

But the minute we start to think, all bets are off. The miracle of the human brain is that it has two loops of activity – one fast and one slow. The fast loop relies on instinct and evolved behavioral habits. It’s incredibly efficient but stubbornly rigid. The slow loop brings the full power of human rationality to bear on the problem. It’s what happens when we think. And once the prefrontal cortex kicks it, we are amazingly flexible but we pay the price in efficiency. It takes time to think. It also brings a massive amount of variability into the equation. If we start thinking, behaviors become much more difficult to predict.

The longer you can keep your customers on the fast path, the closer you’ll be to a successful outcome. Plan that path carefully and remove any signs telling them to “push.”

Consuming in Context

npharris-oscarsIt was interesting watching my family watch the Oscars Sunday night. Given that I’m the father of two millennials, who have paired with their own respective millennials, you can bet that it was a multi-screen affair. But to be fair, they weren’t the only ones splitting their attention amongst the TV and various mobile devices. I was also screen hopping.

As Dave Morgan pointed out last week, media usage no longer equates to media opportunity. And it’s because the nature of our engagement has changed significantly in the last decade. Unfortunately, our ad models have been unable to keep up. What is interesting is the way our consumption has evolved. Not surprisingly, technology is allowing our entertainment consumption to evolve back to its roots. We are watching our various content streams in much the same way that we interact with our world. We are consuming in context.

The old way of watching TV was very linear in nature. It was also divorced from context. We suspended engagement with our worlds so that we could focus on the flickering screen in front of us. This, of course, allowed advertisers to buy our attention in little 30-second blocks. It was the classic bait and switch technique. Get our attention with something we care about, and then slip in something the advertiser cares about.

The reason we were willing to suspend engagement with the world was that there was nothing in that world that was relevant to our current task at hand. If we were watching Three’s Company, or the Moon Landing, or a streaker running behind David Niven at the 1974 Oscar ceremony, there was nothing in our everyday world that related to any of those TV events. Nothing competed for the spotlight of our attention. We had no choice but to keep watching the TV to see what happened next.

But imagine if a nude man suddenly appeared behind Matthew McConaughey at the 2015 Oscars. We would immediately want to know more about the context of what just happened. Who was it? Why did it happen? What’s the backstory? The difference is now, we have channels at our disposal to try to find answers to those questions. Our world now includes an extended digital nervous system that allows us to gain context for the things that happen on our TV screens. And because TV no longer has exclusive control of our attention, we switch to the channel that is the best bet to find the answers we seek.

That’s how humans operate. Our lives are a constant quest to fill gaps in our knowledge and by doing so, make sense of the world around us. When we become aware of one of these gaps we immediate scan our environment to find cues of where we might find answers. Then, our senses are focused on the most promising cues. We forage for information to satiate our curiosity. A single-minded focus on one particular cue, especially one over which we have no control, is not something we evolved to do. The way we watched TV in the 60s and 70s was not natural. It was something we did because we had no option.

Our current mode of splitting attention across several screens is much closer to how humans naturally operate. We continually scan our environment, which, in this case, included various electronic interfaces to the extended virtual world, for things of interest to us. When we find one, our natural need to make sense sends us on a quest for context. As we consume, we look for this context. The diligence of our quest for that context will depend on the degree of our engagement with the task at hand. If it is slight, we’ll soon move on to the next thing. If it’s deep, we’ll dig further.

On Sunday night, the Hotchkiss family quest for context continually skipped around, looking for what other movies J.K. Simmons had acted in, watching the trailer for Whiplash, reliving the infamous Adele Dazeem moment from last year and seeing just how old Benedict Cumberbatch is (I have two daughters that are hopelessly in love, much to the chagrin of their boyfriends). As much as the advertisers on the 88th Oscars might wish otherwise, all of this was perfectly natural. Technology has finally evolved to give our brain choices in our consumption.