iMedia Connection

Usability Studies 101: Maslow's Hammer

Joseph Carrabis

I was recently involved in some discussions about defining web analytics and related standards. Based on the flow of the conversations, I had to wonder if the term "moving target" meant anything to the folks sitting around the table.

Maslow's Hammer

Abraham Maslow said, "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail." I strongly believe in this aphorism, commonly called "Maslow's Hammer."

Let me give you Carrabis' Corollary to Maslow's Hammer: "When all you can see are nails, every tool becomes a hammer."

People were confusing their hammers and their nails when creating their definitions, I think. Web and related analytics standards should be based on the desire to understand people's interactions with information rather than their reactions and responses to information.

One presentation demonstrated a focus group's reactions to some TV spots, showing a strong correlation between the group participants' attention and interest level at specific points in the TV spots. These specific points all had one thing in common -- an unforeshadowed change in transient volume. When the TV spot suddenly got louder or quieter, there was an increase in both attention and interest level.

This is where I believe people were only seeing nails, so every tool had to be a hammer. Had there been any evolutionary anthropologists in these discussions they might have shared that changes in transient volume cause the human sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to increase pulse, respiration, blood pressure and change other body functions as well.

The SNS reacts to unforeshadowed transient volume changes this way because humans evolved to respond quickly to changes in background noise. It usually meant that a lion or tiger or bear was close. It's survival instinct, plain and simple. We respond to volume changes, even in the safety of our homes. We hear a loud noise; we check it out. The kids get quiet; we get up to find out what's going on. Those reflexes kick in to a lesser degree when there's a not too loud a noise or a not too quiet a silence. Our attention goes to where the noise or lack thereof is originating and our interest level goes up. You never know. There might still be lions and tigers and bears behind the sofa.

Be sure what you're measuring is what you want measured

Here's where moving targets come in and why I think people are putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble. People and societies change and evolve. There are drivers to this evolution. All of these drivers are environmental. Technology is part of the environment, and the internet is part of technology. Just as everything from TV to the wheel changed how people lived, worked and breathed, so the internet is changing how people live, work and (maybe) breathe. Any technology that is embraced by a society changes that society to make the embrace ubiquitous and easier to manage.

The internet is constantly changing and therefore is changing us as both individuals and as a society in order to make the internet ubiquitous and easier to manage. As we change, we change the internet so that it can be more ubiquitous and easier to manage.

This process is called "Reciprocal Evolution." We change it, and it changes us until we're literally made for each other. Reciprocal Evolution is what creates environmental niches in which only certain birds can get to certain food sources, so the food sources and the birds become mutually specialized to benefit each other.

Response, reaction and interaction

The difference here is that birds and people respond and react to environmental stressors only after they've interacted with them. Good salespeople know this; you don't want the client to respond or react to a proposal, you want to control their interaction with the proposal. Control the interaction and you get the response and reaction that you want. Fail to control the interaction and you get the reaction the environment has designed them to give, and the response they've learned works best in the environment.

Separating the hammers from the nails

So you want to determine if your website, your brochure, your email campaign, your leave-behind will be successful (note that we want to know if something will be successful, not if something has been successful).

Here are three simple -- yet hard and fast -- rules from the worlds of anthropology and ethnology;

1. Figure out what you want to measure

Be as exact as you can be in this. Don't crash a big red cymbal off to the left, count the number of people who suddenly turn to the left and then proclaim, "Nine out of ten people are drawn to the color red! We need to make things more red!" Bring out the big red cymbal and don't crash it. Now count the number of turned heads. Now hide the cymbal and crash it. Count the number of turned heads. Note the difference. Now go interview all the people (those who did and didn't turn their heads) and ask them what they were thinking during the time period in which your experiment occurred. Look for correlations.

2. Figure out how to measure the correlations

Be as exact as you can in this also. Don't crash a big red cymbal if you want to measure people's reactions to the color red. Look for direct correlations between what you're measuring and what you want to measure. Want to know how much weight someone can lift? Ask them to lift some weights. When they can't lift a certain weight, you have your answer. Want to know how people are responding to your latest marketing brochure? See how many times and for how long they lift it (do they focus on one thing and not another? do they scan it once and not again? do they read it with a thoughtful expression or a smirk?). When they stop lifting it, you have your answer.

Now, right at this point and when you think you've got your data, stop. You haven't begun getting the information you really need because next you need to…

3. Determine the interaction that is causing their reaction and response

Now that you have figured out what you really want measured and how really to measure it, determine the interaction which is causing that specific reaction and response. Once you've isolated that interaction you'll know how to test for it and it alone, which means you're now controlling the interaction, which means you're now able to modify the reaction and response to suit your needs, which means you are now the driver in the environment, which means there are no moving targets unless you move them, which means your hammer will drive your nail correctly and accurately each and every time.

Joseph Carrabis has been everything from butcher to truck driver to Senior Knowledge Architect to Chief Research Scientist. His 22 books and 225 articles have ranged among cultural anthropology, mathematics, information mechanics, language acquisition, neurolinguistics, psychodynamics and psychosocial modeling -- and other eclectic topics. His knowledge and data designs have been used by Caltech, Citibank, DOD, IBM, NASA, Owens-Corning and Smith-Barney among others.

Carrabis is CRO and Founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global [], and he is the founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He is the inventor and developer of Evolution Technology. Joseph will be speaking at the Sept 05 MCAN management meeting in Baltimore on "Six Web Techniques that Get New Business." Come on by and introduce yourself.