5by5: Bringing the human-centered approach to consulting with Stephan Goetschius, Director of Design at Final Mile

“It isn’t always easy to effectively synthesize the intersection where business goals and user goals overlap. Businesses are very good at identifying the existence of  ‘a problem.’ but not always so effective at defining the problem in an effective manner…human decision making and behavior is extraordinarily complex. Applying the sciences is not a science in itself. It’s mostly art. Business contexts do not always/ often lend themselves to this complexity and nuance.”
Stephan Goetschius

Question 1: As a consultant, what are key considerations that go into bringing a human- centered approach to customers? What are things that get in the way?

RE: Human Centricity
The core value proposition of Final Mile’s work is to 1. more effectively model human decision-making to most accurately understand ‘business as usual’ behavior, then 2. having done so, design interventions to influence those behaviors (or create new ones) to
satisfy business and social objectives. This work is inherently human-centered because it begins and ends with the target group’s context, emotions, heuristics, goals, motivations, influencers, biases, etc.

RE: Challenges of Application
Two significant challenges come to mind:
First, I might say that remaining ‘human-centered’ isn’t as much of an issue as is balancing ‘user-centeredness’ with business objectives. The goals of the business, and all inherent assumptions that go along with them, often bind people to the goals and context of the user. It isn’t always easy to effectively synthesize the intersection where business goals and user goals overlap. Businesses are very good at identifying the existence of  ‘a problem.’ but not always so effective at defining the problem in an effective manner.

Second, human decision making and behavior is extraordinarily complex. Applying the sciences is not a science in itself. It’s mostly art. Business contexts do not always/ often lend themselves to this complexity and nuance. People, in general, and businesses in particular, want easy answers with easy execution. Answers that are simple to understand, have few operational implications, and solve every problem… Suffice it to say that, while these are good aspirations and ideals to have, they are extraordinarily rare in practice. Most of the work in behavioral design is challenging. Most of the work requires effort. Convincing partners that the effort is worth it… that’s probably always going to be a significant challenge.

“Different societies, at different times have had different answers to these ethical challenges. Ethics come down to the question of “what should we do?” Sometimes we know, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t. It’s a fundamental design problem. What kind of future do we want? What kind of present do we want?” —Stephan Goetschius

Question 2: What are ways in which you / your company hold your customers to a “right” ethical standard, esp. when business and consumer values may feel in conflict?

The business world is full of decisions that answer only to what is expedient. This type of ethical lapse will likely always be with us. But, I’m not sure that we see our responsibility as ‘holding others to a right ethical standard’ as much as holding ourselves to a right ethical standard. We do that in a number of different ways.

First, we don’t work outside the law; we abide by the laws and norms of the markets we work within. That one is pretty simple and straightforward. Second, we’ve made some choices about industries that we don’t have any interest in serving. Weapons and tobacco are prime examples. There’s lots of money in both, but we don’t feel like those industries serve the values we hold, therefore, we don’t pursue projects in those domains. But these, again, are easy, relatively black and white examples. Some fuzzier examples reside within the domain of consumer finance.

Are credit cards ethical? Are personal loans ethical? There’s no single, correct answer to these questions. Different societies, at different times have had different answers to these ethical challenges. Ethics come down to the question of “what should we do?” Sometimes we know, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t. It’s a fundamental design problem. What kind of future do we want? What kind of present do we want?

I don’t imagine that we believe we’re the paragon of ethical standards. But, our personal moral radar is our guiding heuristic in deciding the kinds of projects we’ll take on, which behavioral interventions we’ll recommend. This may be the best we can do in our current capacity.

Most people are good people, trying to do good things, contributing to the greater good. The danger comes when we fool ourselves, when we blind ourselves (intentionally, or not) to the ethical grey areas, and subsequently slip mildly, or otherwise, into questionable territory.

Thaler and Sunstein tried to account for this dilemma by preserving choice. That’s a perfectly sensible strategy. Another is to ensure the intervention calculus accounts for user goals and values, satisfying not only the companies goals, but the users’ goals as the users define them. This, of course, requires that you get close to, and empathize with, your users. By so doing, you integrate their value / ethical system. If you’re a fully formed human, you can’t help but be moved, by some small humanity, to account for this in your designs.
As Gandhi said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Question 3: What would you like to see happen in the future at the intersection of design and behavioral economics?

In a phrase: Integrated Framework
Over the course of the past 10 years, Final Mile has been exploring behavioral economics
(narrowly) and behavioral sciences (broadly). In our effort to comprehensively study, explain and influence human behavior we have come to understand the lack of an overarching framework among the behavioral science disciplines that can account for the various categories and hierarchies of behavioral drivers and structure.

If we were to take Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory, as one example, their framework is beautiful and brilliant in its simplicity and insight, but it fails to take into account the emotional appraisal dimensions of personal agency in influencing outcomes, (not to mention non-linear probability effects), which drastically impact ones orientation to risk/ reward and the perceived probability of achieving one’s desired outcome. By accounting for personal agency, prospect theory might suggest a whole different level of insight and intervention potential.

There are many such examples when you consider the full systems dynamics of decision taking. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is a phenomenal book that illustrates some of the complexity we are grappling with, and why such a framework is likely some time in coming.

Question 4: What are some failures that you have had while incorporating a human-centered problem-solving approach? What could be learned from those?

There are two perennial categories of challenge/failure (similar to question #1’s challenges) that I might claim as the most predictable and the toughest to manage.

First is stakeholder buy-in to strategy when there is a perceived lack of appreciation between (behavioral intervention strategy) x (business strategy). This doesn’t always arise, but when it does, resolution often comes down to trust in the relationship. When all strategies are untested and speculative, then the decision to move forward comes down to personal judgment and confidence. A heuristic for informed confidence is often trust. So, where there is limited trust, this is often a breakpoint.

The second category is related to the first, but of a slightly more functional nature, and that is: challenges of implementation. These generally arise as a failure to account for some limit of the business context (usually self-imposed by the business).

Across the scope of an entire project, many speculative interventions arise. These necessarily derive their form from assumptions of touchpoint, stakeholder involvement, channel availability/feasibility, measurability, etc, (the list goes on). The most effective theoretical intervention is useless if it can’t be brought to fruition.

Ideas are cheap. Implementation is hard. There are no easy, silver bullet answers to the challenges of implementation. It is an iterative process of accounting for the seemingly infinite factors within the business context, then synthesizing infeasible parts into a feasible whole.

Question 5: What advice do you have for a young professional entering the field?

Four thoughts come to mind. They are all continuous processes.

  1. Continuously work to identify your values. They will be your compass. Facing ambiguous ethical challenges… you will only have your values to guide you. Facing ambiguous meaning… your only metrics of success may be the implicit contribution you personally feel you are making towards your values. Two sources of value contemplation I have found useful: VIA Survey of Character Strengths (for personal values), and, Russell Ackoff has been particularly inspirational for me (for social values).
  1. Never stop learning. Be painfully curious. If this isn’t already one of your core values, well…
  1. Think & credential-ize ‘interdisciplinarily.’ Disciplines are artificial distinctions. Design is common to all fields. Every choice is an act of design. All people actualize it (implicitly or explicitly / deliberately or intuitively). Don’t pigeonhole yourself too narrowly. Hopefully your career will evolve in ways you can’t predict. Flexibility of identity, broad exposure, connecting the dots across a variety of contexts… these will be more useful than any one specialized skill and/ or domain knowledge.
  1. Orient yourself to the challenge. Often in life, we are so focused on ‘happiness’ and avoiding pain that we lose sight of the fact that situations of challenge and frustration are usually where meaningful work and development come from. Learning is hard, it’s painful. Coordinating and learning with others can be immensely frustrating. When you find yourself in pain, try to realize the gift that it is. (Always easier to conceptualize than to practice, but it is what it is.)

Interested in this topic? Register to be part of a larger community at the Design Intersections conference in Chicago May 24-25, 2018.

Interview by Twisha Shah-Brandenburg and Thomas Brandenburg, a collaboration with 5by5.blog
Our charge is – we develop 5 questions and invite 5 diverse voices to answer them. Through this activity we hope to collect the different perspectives to shed light on important questions that need to be raised as design continues to evolve and gain influence. We hope that this blog is place that encourages a communal dialogue and services as a place for inspiration and understanding.