Meaningful Conversation 4: Mongooses and User Experience

I am running a social experiment to have more meaningful conversations. This is a recap of one of my attempts. If you want to see why I am doing this, please read this: My Experiment to Have More Meaningful Conversations.

This is the first conversation in this series that is not centered on my work, but rather focuses on someone else’s work. I was in New York last week and one evening, I went to dinner with two friends and a girl I did not know.  At the table, she and I shared a side.

We started with small talk: the weather, what people did for work, etc. She mentioned that she was in the Columbia Anthroloplogy PhD program and I told her that I ran a startup. We moved on to cover food (we were at a pretty amazing Japanese restaurant), our trip to NYC, and other generalities. Since I am now constantly worried about falling into Type 2 Conversations, the basic trajectory of conversation worried me. So, I asked her more about her research. I told her that at a high level I knew what Anthropology was, but not really much more than that.

She started describing one of her former research projects, a study to preserve the seabird population in a specific habitat of Hawaii. Unfortunately to do that, their team had to control the mongoose population, which was eating many of the birds.

Animal rights issues aside, it fascinated me that someone was able to come to the decision that the seabird was more valuable than the mongoose. There are so many factors that determine an animal’s value in an ecosystem that I think it would be almost impossible to understand them all.

Rikki Tikki Tavi is the only mongoose I know

The thought process seemed unethical, until I found an analog in my life: controlling user behavior in a mobile app.

While not a predatory animal, any mobile app has predatory buttons, menus, and options that all compete for the user’s attention. When trying to determine how to have users take the actions we want, we also run experiments. Much like the researchers did with the mongoose, we have to predict the number one reason users are being led astray from what we feel is the optimal behavior.

For example, we just faced this with our new user tutorial. We created two versions, 1) have every new user make a Clippo and 2) have every new user just watch popular Clippos. We decided that having a user make a Clippo would make them understand the purpose of the app better. Then, we executed on that plan by actively restricting elements that competed for a user’s attention.

Though the teams had Anthropology and software development backgrounds, our experimental approaches were similar. I think the major difference is that unlike the mongoose, our users can choose to participate in the experiment. Then, to take that to the extreme, the mongoose lost its life in the process. This makes me a bit uncomfortable, but perhaps is the result of me not understanding the research industry.

What do you think?

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