There’s an abundance of great new talks up on the TED web site, following the most recent conference in February 2010. One gem was delivered by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winner in behavioural economics.

The riddle of experience vs memory

Early in the talk, an example is given to demonstrate the difference between what we experience and what we choose to remember:

A man described how he had been listening to a glorious symphony. At the very end, there was a dreadful screeching sound – “It ruined the whole experience”. But it hadn’t. What it had ruined was the memory of the experience.

The talk centres on the difference between what we remember and what we actually experienced, and it’s impact on our happiness. Six years ago, Dan Gilbert, author of ‘Stumbling on Happiness’ delivered a very similar talk. His approach came from the other side – what we expect to experience versus what we actually do experience. He challenged the the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want or things don’t go as planned.

Why are we happy?

A powerful example from this talk:

Given a choice between winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic within the next 12 months, which would make you happy? When we simulate this, the choice seems obvious. The reality, taken from real-world data, is that both lottery winners and paraplegics are happy. Winning or losing in any situation have far less impact than people expect them to have…

Whilst both talks focus on self, our flawed assumptions about happiness can have worse consequences when we apply our assumptions to somebody else. We think we can imagine life in another’s shoes. Both talks above demonstrate that we cannot.

Hidden Project Requirements…

Back in 2003 I was presenting to the SharePoint product group, providing customer feedback from beta testing of what was to become SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (SPS 2003). The first version of SharePoint (SPS 2001) had plenty of shortcomings that led to a massive re-write. But re-writing involved eliminating a number of features completely and they were parked for later release (some have still yet to reappear…) One of my slides went along the following lines:

“Last year, customers were complaining how bad the workflow is in SPS 2001  …Now that you’ve removed it, they’re saying it’s great and want it back”

People didn’t hate workflow, they loved the idea of it (the simulation) and hated how it worked (the actual experience) to the point nobody had a good word to say about it. But removing the feature completely caused all sorts of headaches at the time (the memory was suddenly a lot rosier).

The type of projects I work on usually involve introducing technology that will change the way people work. But change goes in both directions. People’s behaviour will influence how effective (or not) the technology is. Hence the interest in behavioural economics. At the start of a project I’ll often hear comments like: ‘Users will never use this feature’, ‘They won’t work that way’ or ‘They don’t need to know…’ But we never know for certain what will happen until people actually start using the technology. It’s why I prefer to get organisations to prototype ideas before going for full-scale project implementations. After the initial statements about what users do and don’t do and will and won’t like, projects often head down the road of ‘Now that I see it, it isn’t what I want’ or ‘Didn’t know it could do that…’ or ‘Never thought that would be useful…’ Prototypes offer a glimpse into the actual experience – you wear the shoes instead of remembering the worn out pair or trying to imagine what a different pair would feel like to walk in.

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