Principles to help solve user issues

Murphy's Law.If anything can go wrong, it will. There are hundreds of corollaries to this law, all pointing out that too often we do not "expect the unexpected." Murphy's law is a sobering reminder for us to control our assumptions about how every part of our plan, solution, or idea will work out. Named (possibly but uncertainly) after Ed Murphy, 1949. Corollaries of note include nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and everything takes longer than you expect.

The Hawthorne Effect. The attention paid to people when a problem solver offers them a solution or benefit can have a greater positive effect than the solution itself. The psychological happiness produced by the fact that the solver "cares about" the person with a problem can produce increased motivation, production, health, and so on. Therefore, the solution itself may not be the cause (or the entire cause) of the positive results. (Compare the Placebo Effect.)

The Placebo Effect. A placebo is a harmless pill (usually made of sugar or starch). During the testing of new medicines, one group of people is given the medicine under test, while the other group is given a placebo, so that no one knows who is getting the real medicine and who is getting essentially nothing. The first amazing fact in the placebo effect is that sixty percent of those taking the placebos report feeling better. The second amazing fact is that this holds true even when the people are told they are taking a dummy pill.

Occam's Razor. Entities ought not to be multiplied except from necessity. The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions or presenting the lowest level of complexity is most likely to be the correct one. In other words, when two or more explanations satisfy all the requirements for a satisfactory explanation of the same set of phenomena, the simpler explanation is the right one. This "law" was proposed by William of Occam (also spelled Ockham), a fourteenth-century English philosopher. It isn't always correct, but it's a useful idea.

The Peter Principle. In every hierarchy, whether it be government or business, each employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence; every post tends to be filled by an employee incompetent to execute his duties. The idea is that when people perform a job well, they will be promoted out of that job and up to a more complex or difficult one. Eventually, they rise to a job of such complexity or demand that they can no longer do a great, or even competent, job, so they are no longer promoted. They stay at the level where they are no longer competent. This "law" was partly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but there is a distressing amount of truth to it. (A corollary is that work is accomplished by those who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

Parkinson's Law. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If a project is given six months for completion, it will require six months to finish. If the same project is given two years for completion, it will require two years to finish. Two factors are responsible for this phenomenon. First, when a deadline appears to be far off, people work more slowly and put tasks for that project farther down their priority lists. Second, when a large amount of time is available, people will do more inessential things on a project than when less time is available. Most projects are so defined that many non-required tasks could be performed or not performed, depending on the available time.

In any project, activity increases exponentially as the deadline nears, because human beings have a tendency to procrastinate and do most of the work near the deadline. The solution to this problem is to set multiple deadlines for segments or parts of a given project, to assure that the project advances in a sane and timely way. Deadlines are very valuable for producing results. Any project assigned without a deadline is likely never to be completed.

Parkinson's Second Law is that expenditure rises to meet income, and Parkinson's New Law is that the printed word expands to fill the space available for it. The same might be said for television news, management levels, and a whole host of other entities. Named after professor C. Northcote Parkinson of the University of Malaya, 1955.

The Pareto Principle. This is also known as the 20/80 rule or the rule of the vital few and trivial many. The principle is that the vital few are responsible for the majority of effect or importance: 20% of the company's salesmen are responsible for 80% of sales; 20% of a company's customers provide 80% of the product volume; only 20% of the problems on a long problem list are responsible for 80% of the difficulty; and so on. The percentages are not intended to be real--ina given case, 13% of the employees may make 87% of the phone calls, etc. The idea is to realize that a small core--of people, problems, ideas, products, events--are responsible for the majority of effect or importance. If you know, for example, that 20% of a grocery store's product items provide 80% of the store's sales or profits, you might want to set up a mini-market that carries just that 20% inventory.

Remember that the Pareto Principle works in reverse, too. If 20% of what you do accounts for 80% of the impact your work will have on civilization, then 80% of what you do accounts for only 20% of the impact. This principle was named after its enunciator, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923).

The Rule of Redundant Systems. Every critical system should have a redundant backup system. When failure of a system would cause serious harm, there should be available some substitute means of performing that system's functions. In airliners, for example, there are sometimes triple redundancy control systems: three separate systems operate the control surfaces of the aircraft. A new high-speed train will have three braking systems: one electric, one hydraulic, and one compressed air. In business, a redundant accounting system might be employed, such as computer and paper, disk mirroring (where data is written to two different storage devices) and so on. In a family situation, redundant communications channels may exist: regular family talks, refrigerator notes, special retreat time, after dinner problem solving. Another area where redundant communication channels is desirable is in business. If the company newsletter fails, there is a staff meeting also. If the memo is forgotten, there is a phone call as well. The Rule of Redundant Systems is not intended to excuse sloppy or defective systems by using the excuse that there is always a backup; rather, the redundant system is there in case the primary excellent system should fail.

The Zeigarnik Effect. This is the desire to complete one task before beginning another. There is a pronounced psychological need in most of us for completion: we do not like to drop one project in midstream and begin another. This effect explains why some people especially resist interruptions, why some people work after hours to finish a task before going home, and why some people have difficulty simultaneously handling multiple, protracted projects. This completion need can be handled by structuring tasks around natural interruptions like breaks, lunch, quitting time, and so forth, and by training yourself to view interruptions or task-switching as acceptable and normal.

The Contrast Principle. In the perception of two items or events, one right after the other, if the second item or event is quite different from the first, we will tend to see the second as much different than it really is. If we talk to a nice person after talking to a nasty person, the nice person will seem even nicer. Similarly, researchers discovered that after looking at photographs of beautiful people, test subjects rated their spouses as less attractive than before looking at the photos. After reviewing a failure or bad suggestion, a success or good suggestion will appear to be much better than it really is.

The Contrast Principle can have a profound effect in problem solving and decision making because the idea or decision that arrives right after a bad idea or decision will tend to be overrated.

Cognitive Dissonance. This is an uncomfortable psychological state or feeling occurring when someone experiences two incompatible beliefs or thoughts. In such a case, there is a powerful tendency to resolve the conflict by rationalizing or altering one's view of one or both of the beliefs. A striking example would be the shock you would feel upon learning that someone you love dearly has just murdered someone. The dissonance set up by such a situation would have a tendency to be resolved: The murdered person must have deserved it; or I'm sure it was an accident; or I never really loved my beloved anyway. Note that the tendency is to change things so that the beliefs are compatible.

Hearing about crime often causes people dissonance--between their belief in justice and morality and the events that occur. When a woman is raped, dissonance is set up because such things should not happen. Therefore, the woman must have done something to "deserve" it: she should not have dressed that way; what was she doing in that part of town at that time of night?; why did she have her window open, anyway? and so on.

Note this kind of thinking: my idea was rejected; but it was a good idea; good ideas are not rejected by honest people; therefore the boss is crooked, paid off, or playing favorites, etc.

The Principle of Perceptual Consistency. We tend to pigeon-hole people, things, and circumstances into simple, generalized entities. Once we have done that, we tend to perceive new information about those things as supporting our generalizations. We also tend to generalize from our impressions about one trait or circumstance of a person or situation. For example, good looking people are usually judged by others to be more intelligent and capable than they really are while unattractive people are judged to be less intelligent and capable than they really are, simply because of this generalized transference. And once a person has been tagged as intelligent or unintelligent, subsequent events surrounding that person will tend to be perceived as reinforcing that generalization. If, for example, Person A has been judged to be an excellent problem solver, idea X will be judged excellent if he enunciates it. But if Person B, who has been judged a poor problem solver, enunciates idea X, the idea will be judged as poor.

If several people are watching a game on television and one person says, "Look what a klutz Williams is," everyone will begin to interpret many of Williams' actions as klutzy. If, on the other hand, the person had said, "Look how efficiently Williams moves," everyone watching will begin to interpret many of Williams' moves in a positive way.

The net effect of this principle is that much time and evidence will be required for us to change our view of a person or situation. Before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, much evidence was discovered that a surprise attack was imminent but top military leaders refused to credit it because they already "knew" that no such attack was coming.

This perceptual consistency principle explains why people wearing ties appear to be more important and intelligent than those without them. Similarly, women wearing glasses are viewed as being more intelligent than those wearing (invisible) contact lenses.

The Turnpike Effect. The availability and unforeseen utility of a resource leads to greater use than was predicted. In the past, builders of highways projected use of the new roads based on historical flow over existing roads. But every highway that was built was very soon used much more than predicted. When people discovered the existence of the highway and the ease of travel that was now possible, they used it much more than they did the old roads to the same places. Similarly, when any new resource is made available, whether computer terminals in the library, free meals on skid row, a new airport, piles of scratch paper near a phone, a company ombudsman or other resource person, a telephone answering machine, all of these resources will most likely be used more than would be predicted by researchers doing surveys about the need or desirability for such a resource.

Thus, the statement, "We don't get many calls for such an item [or service]," doesn't necessarily mean that the item or service wouldn't be used if it were available. We see something and we want it or use it. You may want to take the turnpike effect into account when you plan for the usage of some service or resource you are developing. One rule of thumb is to add at least 15% to your predicted demand.

The turnpike effect explains why there is such an aggressive struggle to get consumer goods on store shelves. Manufacturers are willing to pay individual stores thousands of dollars for shelf space to get their products in front of the consumers' noses. Similarly, the books that are in the stores get read more than the ones that have to be special ordered. Perhaps a brief way to express the turnpike effect is to say that availability shapes demand.

The Reason Why Factor

Or "I'll do almost anything if there's a reason..."

A study done at Harvard University demonstrated that when we ask someone to do a favor for us, we'll do much better when we have a reason. This is self-evident.

However, what the study proved was that the actual reason itself wasn't important.

Here's the experiment. The researcher went to the front of a line at a Xerox machine and said, "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I cut in front?" 60% of the people were gracious enough to allow it.

The message was then modified to, "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I cut in front because I'm in a rush?" Now 94% of the people studied allowed it. A huge lift but there was a good reason, right?

The experiment could have ended there, but they took it one step further. Now the researcher said "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I cut in front because I have to make some copies?"

93% still allowed it -- even though no real reason was given.

The study concluded that the trigger feature was the word "because" and that once people heard it, the vast majority simply nodded their heads and allowed the person to cut in without even thinking about the words that followed.

So what are some of the trigger features in direct marketing?

To start with, there are trigger words. As you might image, free" and "new" are two of the most important ones. But remember that people tend to look at things before they read them (actually, that's when they decide if they'll read them.) So the words shouldn't be buried in copy, but rather jump off the page.

The word "because" may be a trigger in direct mail as well. Too many direct mail packages drone on about features and benefits, without ever proving them. However, if you can cite a feature and a benefit and then support it -- chances are, it will be much more believable. And that may improve your response.

There are also visual trigger features, such as star-bursts, underlined words and other techniques that draw the eye. The presence of a coupon is also one, when it comes to advertising. Research has determined that advertising with coupons get 13% higher readership than advertising without coupons -- regardless of what the coupon says.

I think it's because the coupon alerts the reader that "there's something here for me" or even "it's not just an ad -- they're offering to send me something!" that is responsible for this lift. So if your advertising does not include a prominent coupon, maybe it would be wise to put one in.

The Perceptual Contrast Principle

Or, "Why Bait and Switch usually doesn't work."

There's an old joke where a man approaches another one on the street and invites him to buy an elephant for $500.

"Are you crazy? What would I do with an elephant?" the second man protests. "Where would I keep it? I live in a small flat..."

"All right, all right..." says the first man, "How about two elephants for $500?"

The second man says, "Now you're talking..."

You may smile because everyone wants a bargain, or everyone wants to feel special, but there is another important principle at work here, and that's Perceptual Contrast.

What that means is that we perceive things differently when they are presented one after another.

In direct marketing, one of the ways it is used effectively is by up selling. One of my clients produces a catalogue of office forms, business cards and other paper products. When someone calls in an order, the telemarketer is instructed to tell them the difference between their order and the next size up.

For example, you call in to order 1000 business cards. The telemarketer says, "Okay, that will be $79. By the way, did you know you can get another 1000 cards for only $29? Would you like to increase your order?"

They are successful in up selling more than half of all customers -- who would balk at the new total price ($108) but bite at the small increment of $29 over the larger first price of $79.

Another way it might work is in fund-raising. By asking for a larger donation first, you might be more successful in getting people to make a smaller donation. And good news -- the smaller donation could be the one you would have asked for in the first place.

The Perceptual contrast principle flies in the face of the typical sales "Bait and Switch" technique. This involves getting people into a store or car dealership by featuring an incredibly low price, and then selling them something more expensive.

Tests in the States have proven that the opposite works much better. By first showing someone a very expensive item (say a $500 sweater) it becomes much easier to sell them a more reasonably priced one.

The Obligation Factor

Or "We have to send them a gift...they sent us one"

What do you think is the strongest motivation for sending out Christmas and holiday cards?

Yes, it's out of the goodness of your heart. And, of course, you want to share your warm wishes with your family and friends. I would never suggest any other reason.

But what about those people you never see anymore? Or even those who you don't really think of as friends or colleagues? And how about those people who -- you have to admit -- you don't even know why their names are on your list?

Psychologists did a study a few years ago where a researcher sent out cards to absolute strangers, picked at random from the telephone book. The response was amazing -- dozens of people sent back cards, even though they had never heard of the person.

When someone does something for you -- you are almost compelled to do something for them.

This, of course, is a noble trait, and much of civilization has been built on this principle. But, as direct marketers, how can we use this to our advantage?

Fund-raising companies already know the power of this principle. That's why, in the States, they will often include a small gift in their solicitation package. It could be name and address labels, it could be a small selection of greeting cards -- anything to make you feel obligated to return the favor.

Other companies send out samples of their product, such as a pen imprinted with your name on it, or a small address book. This works for two reasons: First, it is a gift and it does make you feel obligated in some small way. Second, it is very, very hard to reject something with your name on it.

The obligation principle is also effective when it is used to provide a free trial of a product. Once you've used something, and benefited from it, you are much more likely to buy it.

So, if you can do someone a favor -- even a small one -- they will be much more likely to respond to your direct mail package.

The Consistency Factor

Or "What kind of person do you think I am?"

Dean Rieck cited a California study in the March issue of Direct Marketing magazine. They asked people to put a large billboard-type sign on their front lawn that said, "Drive Carefully." Only 17% agreed to it -- which shouldn't surprise you.

They then went to a second group of similar homeowners and made the same request -- and a whopping 76% agreed to it.

What made the difference?

The second group had already been approached two weeks earlier by other researchers, who had asked them to place a tiny 3-inch sign saying "Be a Safe driver" in their windows. Almost everyone agreed to this reasonable request.

But when they did, something changed inside them. The second group now saw themselves as "concerned citizens" and "people who care enough about driver safety to take a stand." Also, they believed that's how other people saw them.

So, when they were approached again, over three-quarters of them agreed to something unreasonable just to be and appear consistent.

How this might work in direct marketing is by using an assumptive close. In other words, you might not ask people to respond, you might say something like this.

"You've proven to be an excellent judge of collectible art in the past. Your purchase of our last item has already shown to be a wise investment. That is why I know that you will want to reserve this new..."

This principle can be used even more powerfully in telemarketing.

Many companies have discovered that they can increase response when they start off the call by asking "How are you feeling this evening?" or "How are you doing today?"

They usually get a polite, friendly answer -- and dramatically improve their response.

The theory behind this tactic is that people who have just said that they are doing fine will consequently find it awkward -- and inconsistent -- to be rude (and hang up on the caller) or stingy (and refuse to help).

But then, they went further. They conducted a study where the telemarketer didn't start with a question, but rather a warm and friendly comment. So instead of asking, "How are you this evening?" the telemarketer said, "I hope you are feeling well this evening."

It was less than half as successful.

By the way, I think it was not only the consistency factor, but also the principle of involving the person.

The Authority Figure

Or "I'm not sure, but they must know what they're talking about..."

You may remember this famous TV commercial.

It opened on a well-known personality, who confided, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." He then went on to extol the virtues of an over-the-counter headache pill.

The campaign was extremely successful. After all, who wouldn't want a headache pill recommended by...um, an actor?

We're all looking for authority figures who can tell us what to do. In particular, we want authority figures who are on our side, who can take us "into the tent" and share some insider secrets with us.

The way we can use this principle in direct marketing is by providing those authority figures for our prospects. These can be testimonials, client lists, awards or certifications, or even case-histories.

There's also another way. My colleague, Nancy Harhut, who is an extremely talented creative director for the Mullin agency, once said, "General advertising always uses celebrity presenters. Why can't direct marketers have somebody famous sign the letter?"

Wouldn't you like to get a letter from Tiger Woods?

The Scarcity Principle

Or, "The last one? I don't care what it is... I've got to have it!"

The Collectibles companies have known about this principle for years. They intentionally limit the number of plates or statues they sell, because they know it will increase response.

But the principle can apply to just about any product or service. I tested a package for a new client several years ago, where we tried to get people to attend a high-level seminar. Our goal was to get as many people as possible (the goal of most seminars). We averaged about 12 people, and the client was satisfied.

But I wasn't.

I created a very similar package with one change. We limited the number of participants to 18 -- "to ensure personal attention" and we encouraged people to reserve their place as soon as possible. Our new average number of attendees was 18, and we even had a waiting list.

The Special Consideration

"Make me feel special, and I'll follow you anywhere."

One of my clients is Brink's Home Security. They wanted to sell a deluxe system to people who lived in more expensive house.

The outer envelope I designed for them said, "This mailing will go to only 1 out of every 5,000 homes. Here's why yours is one of them..."

If you can make your prospects feel special; if you can make them believe that they're getting some extra consideration; they will respond at much higher rates.

And if you can make your customers feel special, you will never have to worry about prospects.

So do you have to be a psychiatrist to create effective direct mail? Maybe not, but a good understanding of what motivates people and how to use it to your advantage, will certainly increase response.

Besides, our time is up.

Parts reprinted with permission from http://www.virtualsalt.com/crebok3a.htm and http://www.alanrosenspan.com

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