Book Review: Influence

Some books you read because you are obligated to—they are required reading in a class, or they are considered the “gold standard” of knowledge in a particular subject. Others you read because they’re interesting, or they bring new light to a subject that the reader has found mystifying in the past.
For those whose jobs ever require getting another person to say “yes,” Influence, by Dr. Robert Cialdini, fulfills both roles exceptionally well. Weighing in at around 250 pages, Cialdini describes six “weapons of influence” that are so adept at guiding our behavior that most of us don’t realize we’ve fallen prey to them until the smoke clears and we realize that we’ve been had. In brief, Cialdini’s primary weapons of influence are:

  • Reciprocation: the idea that people give back to you what you give to them. Evidence for this rule abounds in human culture; Cialdini cites several sources that suggest it exists in cultures around the world.
  • Commitment and Consistency: our almost obsessive need to appear consistent with what we’ve already decided to do, particularly commitments made in public. Our need for consistency, while often a good and valued part of being human, also seems to get us into the most trouble; for example, the smoker who knows full well the risks of smoking, but still manages to minimize his vulnerability to those risks (Gibbons et al, 1997).
  • Social Proof: the idea that we look at what those around us are doing to guide our own behavior. This is another key area where, when we are mistaken in our search for the right action in a given situation, the impact can be dangerous. The so-called “bystander effect,” in which an increase in witnesses to an event actually decreases the likelihood that the person in distress will receive help, is well demonstrated in the chilling example of Catherine Genovese, a young woman murdered in 1964 New York City while 38 of her neighbors watched, each believing that someone else must have called for help (Influence, pp. 112–118).
  • Authority: the way that we often defer to people who are perceived to have authority or knowledge on a topic. Note here the use of the word “perceived;” the most interesting facet of this principle is that simply having the appearance of authority—for example, a uniform—can have the same effect on our behavior as a legitimate authority figure. Con artists, Cialdini notes, make use of this principle often.
  • Scarcity: the idea that the more limited the availability of a given opportunity, the more we want that opportunity. This is often seen in retail sales, where customers are warned that stock of a particular item is “going fast!”
  • Liking: this principle states, quite simply, that we tend to want to help people that we like and trust. This one seems almost a no-brainer; what’s interesting about it, however, is the many ways that influence practitioners can facilitate the liking process, or use our relationship with friends to get something from us. Cialdini opens the chapter with the example of home Tupperware parties, where the attendees are driven to buy more often on the basis of their friendship with the host than a genuine need for the product (Influence, pp. 141–142).

The thing to remember, Cialdini argues, is that in most cases these tendencies are actually good for us; they help us make sense of an increasingly complex world, and prevent us from spending each day in a state of analysis paralysis. The problem lies in the ways that these otherwise adaptive strategies can be used against us by forces who want to get something from us; those that Cialdini describes, in an interview about the book with business blogger Guy Kawasaki, as “Smugglers:”

Smugglers, on the other hand, do know—quite well—what the principles are and how they work. But they import these principles into situations where they don’t naturally exist. An example would be a salesperson who pretended to be an authority on a particular computer system in order to get a customer to buy it. Although the smuggler’s approach often works in the short run, it’s deadly in the long run. Because only one person—the smuggler—wins. The customer, who gets fooled into buying the wrong system, will be unhappy with it and will be unlikely to ever return to that salesperson or dealer for future business.

Cialdini identifies a variety of influence smugglers throughout the book. These range from advertising agencies who use actors to pose as “regular customers” of their products in order to make others think people just like them love the product (demonstrating the principle of social proof), to Hare Krishnas, whose recruitment tactic of giving a small gift to pedestrians plays into the reciprocation principle so effectively that people go out of their way to avoid coming into contact with them. Each chapter cites a wealth of examples, both anecdotal and academic, describing how these principles can impact our behavior; each chapter ends with a reader anecdote on the chapter’s subject.
Another key feature of Cialdini’s book is a section in each chapter called “How to Say No.” In this section, he not only shows readers how to recognize influence principles at work, but he also offers ways to counteract them. It is here that Influence is most useful, but it’s also where Cialdini tends to lapse into a cranky long-windedness that hurts his message more than it helps. In his chapter on the theory of social proof, Cialdini calls for a mass boycott of products advertised with actors representing customers—what he calls “phony ‘unrehearsed interview’ commercials.” But far beyond simply suggesting the reader stop buying these products, he recommends launching an aggressive counter-attack of the company’s “bad social proof:”

“Moreover, each manufacturer of the items should receive a letter explaining our response and recommending that they discontinue use of the advertising agency that produced so deceptive a representation of their product.”

In most cases, the advice given in each “How to Say No” section is useful—particularly in the context of putting these theories to practical use. However, in this case, as well as in his imagined response to the “stunning young woman” who duped him into buying an overpriced entertainment package by playing on his desire to impress her (Influence, p. 94), the advice Cialdini gives seems reactionary, and overblown for the issues that he’s describing.
Despite these flaws, Influence remains a valuable work, particularly for those who work in industries—such as sales, marketing and design—that depend on the ability to use the principles Cialdini outlines in an effective, yet ethical, manner.
Kawasaki, G. (2006, April 26). “Book Review: Influence—Science and Practice.” How to Change the World: a practical blog for impractical people. Retrieved from:
Cialdini, R. (2009). Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, Adobe Digital Edition. New York, NY: Harper Collins E-books.
Gibbons, F., Eggleston, T. & Benthin, A. (1997). Cognitive Reactions to Smoking Relapse: The Reciprocal Relation Between Dissonance and Self-Esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 72 No. 1, 184–195.

Thoughts on the Logo Garden controversy

Recently, there’s been a bit of a s***storm happening online in regards to, a new cheap logo site that just launched. While most designers I know (including myself) hate these sites for various reasons, this particular site looks particularly heinous. While sites like LogoWorks and 99Designs at least pretend that you’re getting work from professional designers (hint: you aren’t), this site admits to “compiling the greatest symbols from around the globe” in order to give its users the ability to quickly and cheaply “save themselves from the embarrassment of a crappy logo.” The video below, put together by these folks, illustrates the story of both types of sites pretty well:

Intro to LogoGarden

The interesting thing about this video, and about the various things that have been written about the aforementioned site (mostly by its owner), is this:

While the various “cheap logo sites” claim to have professional designers, but more often than not use untrained designers who actively steal other people’s work, logo garden basically admits to ripping off the work of professional designers directly in their advertising.

A few of my friends in the design community, including Jeff Fisher and Von Glitschka, have already spotted several of their logos being ripped off by the site; in fact, both of them seem to have found at least 20 of their logos, if not more, being offered to customers of the site.

This is all horrible, and clearly the dude who runs this site is irresponsible, if not actively malicious. But the more I read about it online, the more I wonder if actual legal action is being (or even can be) taken against these guys. Below is a conversation I had about the subject in response to Jeff Fisher’s discovery of yet another logo of his that had been ripped off by this service.

Dani Nordin: Are you and Von planning on delivering Cease and Desist letters to these guys?

Tom Stephan: Von did one better — he tagged the WWF and asked them if they’d seen their logo ^_^

Dani Nordin: +Tom Stephan That’s great, but I don’t see it as “one better.” Frankly, we can bitch and moan about stolen designs as much as we want on the internet; it’s not going to stop these idiots in their tracks until there’s real legal action behind it.

Tom Stephan: I think hitting them from all angles is best. One flashlight scares a cockroach. Floodlights stun it and make it easier to squash. I’m certainly not saying this situation is funny or amusing; I’ve had my own work stolen (not in this scope or scale) and I’m aware that it’s invariably who has the money to fight the thievery. The WWF certainly does, and that may turn the tide in favor of the ‘good guys.’ That being said, LogoGarden will shut down and reopen in a few months or weeks as “LogoForest” or something, and start again…it is what it is, and one of the unfortunate downsides to a tech-enhanced world.

Dani Nordin: +Tom Stephan I don’t disagree with that, actually; I just find myself jaded when I see several days of angry Internet conversation about something without any kind of formal cease and desist letter… of course, seeing it from the outside, it’s very possible that there has been one, but that fact hasn’t been shared. The sad thing is that these types of idiots will never go away; and at least this LG site doesn’t pretend that their competition is professional designers; in the intro video I saw online, they were pretty clear that LogoWorks, etc. was the alternative for this market. They even called out several of the key reasons that professional designers advise against sites like that; the cheap labor, the dude who knows Photoshop (sorta) and throws things together quickly.

Ultimately, the market for all of these sites is the cash-strapped “entrepreneur” who has a “million-dollar idea” but doesn’t know what’s really required to get something like that launched. In other words, the types of clients that most professional designers (especially independents) find crazy-making.

In which Todd Nienkerk, founder of Four Kitchens, rants with me about restaurant websites

I’ve been hard at work transcribing some of the interviews that I have done in the last several weeks for Drupal for Designers, and I just came across this great conversation with Todd Nienkerk that didn’t quite fit in the book, but was still a Very Interesting Conversation. I offer it below, for your reading pleasure.

Todd, if you’ve never met him, is one of the founders of Austin’s Four Kitchens, a team that works on big websites for great clients. They’re also the people who co-created Pressflow, a Drupal distribution built especially for large-scale websites, and they also run DrupalCamp Austin, which is happening in November.

The following conversation happened a few weeks ago, and covered a huge range of topics — mostly grid systems, design for Drupal, responsive design and various snarky tangents. In this bit of it, Todd and I go off on restaurant websites, and we also talk about working with clients who don’t understand the cost of creating a good web presence.

Todd: I have noticed that the #1 factor in project success from a design standpoint is: has the client done this before?

If this is a client who has tapped three or four people who are junior-level, or are new to this, and they’re communications or marketing people or something, and the CEO says “hey, we need a new website — you’re sort of in charge of that…”

Dani: yes — “you’ve done HTML before, right?”

Todd: exactly, and the person is thinking, “I’ve never done this, I’ve never built a website before,” they come to us and they say, “hey — I’ve never been through the process of building a website before and I don’t know what to expect.” There are two possible outcomes that come from that. Either they have full faith in us, and their bosses have full faith in us, or they listen to us, and they have full faith in us, but their bosses don’t. Or their bosses are saying “we’re a non-profit that has never really done a serious website, and we don’t really get project management — I don’t really understand why UX is necessary. It seems like a lot of extra fluff to me.”

They don’t take us quite so seriously, or their attitude is, “that looks good enough. I don’t want to spend any more money on design. I just need the website to ‘do’ certain things. I don’t really care how it looks.” Those are typically the people who have never been involved in a web project before.

Dani: I also find that part of dealing with non-profits, especially in the client intake/sales process, is reading between the lines, and listening to how they *say* “we’re a non-profit.” I’ve done a lot of work with non-profits, and I find often in conversations with fundraising/development managers that if you hear them say, “well, we’re a non-profit,” in a certain tone, that it’s often a cover for a host of things that they don’t want to deal with.

Todd: Yes, that ends up becoming code for “we’re a non-profit, so we do everything bare-bones.”

Dani: Yes. We do everything bare-bones, we don’t have a lot of money, and to put a sort of New Age spin on it, it’s sort of a “lack” vs. “Abundance” mentality; you think that because you’re a non-profit, you basically have to spend almost no money on your marketing; meanwhile, if you look at the list of biggest, most effective non-profits with the largest reach in the Boston area, most of them spend about 5-6% of their revenues on fundraising efforts — including their website. They’re spending that money, and as a result, they are getting more donations, and they’re able to do more work, than perhaps 100 smaller non-profits in that space combined.

Todd: it’s surprising, too, how many people don’t seem to understand that the most effective dollar they can spend is on a better website. It’s sort of like, when you go to a restaurant’s website, what do you care about? Phone number, address, menu. That’s really all you care about. Who’s the chef? That’s an afterthought — that’s what you might get into when you’re starting to dig around and learn more about the restaurant.

Chances are, when you’re at a restaurant website, you’re about to leave the house and go out to eat, you need the number for reservations, you need the address so you can look it up on a map, you need a menu to make sure that your friend who’s gluten-free can actually eat something there. Or you’re looking at it — which is even more likely — on your phone, and that address is locked into an image, and you have to somehow put that address into your memory long enough to switch apps on your phone and type it all in to find the restaurant — or the menu is locked into a PDF, and you don’t have a PDF reader on your phone.

This is all super-basic stuff, and yet restaurant websites, more often than not, tend to be about the show, not about the information. That sort of conflicts with what I said about advertising dollars, but I suppose it depends on the industry. In the case of a restaurant, chances are that you’re not going to learn about the restaurant on their website, but on Yelp, or some other thing that is gauging its value. It’s not like a non-profit, where you do have to learn about the non-profit and what they do on their website. I don’t think there’s a real “rating system” for non-profits. You’re going to their website because you want to a) donate, or b) learn more about them.

I find that so many websites just assume that the website is little more than a brochure, or a television commercial, or it is some thing that is not a website.

A website has to do what the users of that site expect it to do. And restaurant websites are a good example of how many websites *don’t* do that, because they’re so egregious. They, on the whole, entirely miss the mark. You arrive on the website, and it’s a fashion show. It’s this Flash thing with all the dishes fading in and out, and all this sliding stuff, and you’re like “no. I don’t need this. I just need your address.”

Dani: well, I also think that, at least in the restaurant world, that you’re going to find all that other information on Yelp. So you don’t “need” to have it on your website.

Todd: perhaps.

Dani: The other problem, I find, with restaurant websites — I’ve actually done quite a few, and while I was able to talk them out of Flash slideshows, I’ve done my share of downloadable PDF menus — the biggest problem with creating a good restaurant website is actually updating the menu. The reason is that most restaurants don’t actually have a marketing person. The person updating the website is often the owner of the restaurant, or the owner’s son/daughter/whatever. They’re a chef, they often don’t have very much tech savvy, they usually work 12 hours a night or more.

If you’re a chain with a big marketing department, or you’re a hometown diner with 20 things on the menu that never change, it’s not a big deal, but if you’re like any of the restaurants that I’ve worked with, where you’re a relatively small place with a focus on local, seasonal food, you’re constantly changing your menu. With one of my clients, I basically just set up a Pages template and showed him how to upload a PDF. Because his menu changed every week, and he didn’t have the time or ability to figure out how to update the code of his website. Another client calls me every time he has to change his menu because it’s written completely in HTML and he can’t figure out how to make changes.

So yes, you’re probably just looking for the menu, or the contact information, but the problem with a lot of restaurants — and the reason I think so many of them are horribly bad — is simply because either they’re sort of “fashion” websites, where it’s not so much about the food as it is about the atmosphere, or they are restaurants where you have someone in charge of the website who doesn’t have time, knowledge or interest in maintaining this website.

Todd: Right.

Dani: So really, either way you’re screwed.

Todd: Yep. I imagine that partly, this is — and I think this speaks to all types of industries, and all types of websites — that so much of it requires buy in from the owner of the website, or the owner of the business it represents. In the case of restaurants, you need the owner or chef/owner to not only update the document where they update their menu and print it out — because no chef, no matter what, would not announce the menu in some way; whether they put it on a black board, write it on paper, or maintain it in a Word Document. Because, duh, you can’t not have a menu.

It should be, in my opinion, and I think that this will change over the next several years; it’s changing now, in fact — it needs to be just as “duh” that you have to update the website when you change the menu. Or maybe, you change the menu on the website and print it off from there. Maybe keeping the menu in a Word document or something similar is doing it backwards. Why not kill two birds with one stone and have a good printable template that’ll print directly from your website?

Dani: See, now that sounds like a Drupal distribution that needs to be made, there, Todd. I think we need to work on that.

Todd: [laughs] That would be be cool.

Dani: I think we’ve figured out what we need to do next.

Todd: You’d need one “menu” page node with a good, printable template.

Dani: Absolutely.

Todd: I like this idea. 

Dear Apple: REALLY?

Here’s the rundown:

My mother, because my niece is now officially a Middle Schooler, decided in a fit of generosity and proudness, to buy my niece an iPod Touch, which she’d been begging for for MONTHS.

She didn’t, however, do any research into actually *owning* an iPod Touch, which meant that she didn’t realize that owning it required my 12-year-old niece to create an Apple ID, which requires her to put in somebody’s credit card information.

So when the niecelet told Grandma that they needed a credit card in order to let her set up an account, Grandma said, “hell no,” and thought no more of it.

Then she got her credit card bill. And lo, the niecelet did FIND her credit card, and go more than a little bit crazy on the App Store. With two separate cards.

So now, the tech-savvy aunt gets called, and I get to spend my weekend cleaning up a big old mess.

Here’s my problem with all this:
When I called the Apple Store, to complain about the fact that there’s no actual option to CONFIRM that an Apple ID belongs to a child and set restrictions on it, I was advised to simply get her an iTunes gift card instead of using a credit card (and where in the UI for setting up an account is that even mentioned?). Or, alternatively, I could set her up with a pre-paid credit card that I keep adding money to as rewards for good behavior. Good idea, if she was 13; most pre-paid cards require the user to be at least 13.

Both of these are excellent suggestions, and ones I had thought of when I was planning on buying her a Touch (before Mom decided to do it herself). However, there’s still a single, epic fail at work here:

Apple does not bother checking to see whether you are a CHILD before you set up an Apple ID. Or rather, it does, but it makes it way too easy to lie about your age.

And if you are a parent, setting up an Apple ID for a child, it does nothing to help you monitor and create restrictions on the account. For example, if I set up restrictions on the Touch (which, believe me, I have), all I can do is disable the ability to access iTunes or the App Store altogether; there’s no way to, for example, allow her to download all the free apps she wants, but require a passcode that I set up to download any paid apps. And they sure as hell don’t make it easy to figure out how to remove your credit card information from a given account, which is evidenced by the over 5 million results for “removing credit card information from iTunes.”

Really, Apple. This is serious s***

I have no problem admitting that I’m a rabid Apple fangirl. But on this topic, they have majorly, epically failed. I love the idea of changing the way that we buy music and apps; but really, if you’re going to do that, it’s pretty much common sense to recognize that kids are consumers too — and give parents a way to easily (note, I said easily) prevent their kids from bankrupting them on Justin Bieber mp3s and multiple seasons of a TV show you’ll never watch.

Here’s a simple way to do it:
The moment you enter your date of birth into the Apple Store, and it shows that you’re less than 16 years old, don’t require a credit card.

Their current practice — simply telling you that you “don’t meet the minimum age requirement,” is the same kind of stupid cop out that Facebook uses. Both of them want to pretend they don’t have to take responsibility for what tweens do on the service. There’s nothing that will prevent a kid from simply lying about her age, or that requires someone to actually verify their age somehow. So, my 12 year old niece simply pretends she was born a couple of years earlier, and hilarity ensues.

Let’s face it: if you make a fun product, parents will want to buy it for their kids. And not all parents have the technical prowess to deal with all the crazy wrenches Apple throws you to simply use their products. Yes, it’s easy(ish) for someone who is used to everything that Apple makes, but for someone who just wants to own an iPod, there’s a ridiculous, and DANGEROUS, learning curve that Apple has decided to throw in the works for any kid who gets one of these things for Christmas.

And yes, I’m COMPLETELY fired up right now.

Usable vs. Poetic interactions

In Thoughts on Interaction Design, author Jon Kolko talks about “poetic interactions.” The thrust of his essay was that a truly poetic interaction went well beyond simple “usability” – whether a task is easy or efficient to perform – and that too much of interaction design, especially in the digital realm, focuses on usability to the exclusion of other factors. As Kolko writes in his essay,

“Some practicing designers balk at the idea of designing poetic interactions. One early reviewer of this text was as blunt as to say, ‘I have other things to worry about – like shipping a working product that isn’t awful.’ Yet if designers focus only on the low-hanging fruit of functionalism or usability, the human experience with designed objects is destined to a level of banality. As ideological as it may appear, what if that piece of enterprise software offers – for a fleeting moment of use – a poetic or soulful experience?”

This dichotomy of usable vs. “poetic” interactions is something I’ve often come across as a designer, before and after the transition to UX. When I talk to clients and hiring managers, user experience is far too often discussed in terms of usability testing, to the point where the terms are interchangeable. When asked what kind of user experience activities a team might do in a course of a project, often the answer is wireframes, a few user flows, and user testing – in fact, the ability to write and execute a test plan is the most often requested attribute of UX designers in job postings, aside from knowing a whole bunch of front-end coding stuff that many UX designers don’t touch.

This got me thinking more and more about the author’s discussion of poetic interaction, and the idea of creating something that isn’t just usable, but can actually shape behavior. Whether we want them to or not, the interactions that designers create can help shape behavior, for better or worse. Facebook, for example, has changed the way that we think of social interaction on the web. Is the interface “usable?” Yes, once you get used to it. But the point of Facebook isn’t an easily intuitive interface; it’s about getting you to interact with people in a new way.

Likewise, the RMV isn’t necessarily “usable.” But it does have some poetry to it. When you arrive at the RMV, you’re sorted according to what you’re there to do, and then you get a number that corresponds to the task you’re there to perform. By separating the tasks with a letter (as they do in Massachusetts), and giving you an approximate wait time up front, you’re prepared for the task of waiting. You know what to expect. So you bring a book, or your iPod, or you find some other way to occupy your time.

This is the difference that exists between things that are “usable” and things that are “poetic.” You may not understand the poetry, you may not appreciate the poetry, but it exists. And subtly, it changes you.