Reporting Fives—Week Two

I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom,

Monday, 23 January 2017

A case for cognitive strain

The human brain is as amazing as it is fallible; our ideologies blind us and our experiences bias our behaviour. Most are now coming to understand these vulnerabilities, but just to what extent the brain can arrive at flawed conclusions is still widely unappreciated.

One of the most interesting models of the human brain is described by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book summarises an exhaustive body of work dating back to the early 1970s, developed in large part with fellow physiologist Amos Tversky. This model describes two systems, one fast (System 1) and the other slow (System 2).

The two systems are deeply entwined. The first relies on association to arrive automatically and effortlessly at an approximation of reality, which the second deliberately builds upon to present rational judgements. But this deliberateness comes at a price—System 2 can become overwhelmed and tires easily.

Perhaps this is why we celebrate intuitive design solutions. Intuition is in the domain of the fast and effortless System 1. The cogitative ease felt while using a truly intuitive product is a pleasure, however, less desirably, it also promotes casual and superficial thinking. By contrast, if a product requires a user to invest more effort, hereby engaging System 2 they are likely to make fewer errors. This effect is illustrated in a study of Princeton students as Kahneman recalls it.

> The experimenters recruited 40 Princeton students to take the CRT. Half of them saw the puzzles in a small font in washed-out gray print. The puzzles were legible, but the font induced cognitive strain. The results tell a clear story: 90% of the students who saw the CRT in normal font made at least one mistake in the test, but the proportion dropped to 35% when the font was barely legible. You read this correctly: performance was better with the bad font. Cognitive strain, whatever its source, mobilizes System 2, which is more likely to reject the intuitive answer suggested by System 1.

This finding could make a case for products which promote cognitive stain where absolute precision is required, providing that the risk of fatigue is not too great. Perhaps if we challenged each other with more straining solutions, dispensing with the trend toward oversimplified products, we might raise to the challenge and grow towards a more considered, personally responsible mindset.

Inspired by: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

There’s more than one of you in there

It seems few people don’t have at minimum some doubts about their trajectory through life. And while most are rather adept at navigating their way from one opportunity to another, few understand that wayfinding is not simply determining which path to take, it is also realising that there might be more than one destination.

The more crippling question is where those destinations might be. This is not all that different to being charged with the task of designing a new product. It is impossible to design something before the problems have been identified. Stanford lecturer Dave Evens, shares his experiences to that effect from his time as lead engineer of the mouse team at Apple, »before problem-solving there must be problem finding«, he says. But Evens goes a step further by explaining that in life we face two kinds of problems, tame problems and wicked problems.

> A tame problem is one you know how to solve. A wicked problem is one where the criteria are changing all the time, even if you come up with a solution you don’t get to reuse it over and over again, the status of what you are working on changes constantly and is never stable.

Evens believes that, »wicked problems are particularly good for the method of design thinking. Because design relies on the empirical process of iterating multiple ideas with prototypes«. He suggests this process of testing and iterating on practical ideas can apply to life. »There’s more than one of you in there«, he tells his students. Rather than searching for optimal outcome, try some experiments and learn from them.

Inspired by: Hidden Brain: Getting Unstuck

Wednesday, 25 January 2017


In 1947 the average volume of a refrigerator according to Rosenfeld et al. and the AHAM (Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers) was 0.233 cubic meters. By 2008 that average had grown to 0.605 cubic meters which is in excess of 159% larger.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) reports that from 1990 to 2008 the daily intake of kilocalorie per individual increased by 2.875%, while in a similar period the refrigerator grew in volume by 8%. The same body reports that globally some 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted each year, that is a 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption. One might begin to wonder if this disproportionate increase in refrigerator volume to human consumption (assuming our food has equivalent caloric density) might be contributing to increased waste. After all, in Europe and North America, where refrigerators are bigger, consumers waste between 95-115 kg per person per year, while in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, that number is only 6-11 kg.

Inspired by: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Day of Mourning

On this day in 1938, Jack Patten, William Ferguson and William Cooper united as the APA (Aborigines Progressive Association) lead the first ‘Day of Mourning’ protest. This date marked the 150th anniversary of the European seizure of the lands we call Australia from its native inhabitants. European Australians celebrated this same date in part by reenacting the arrival of the First Fleet in Port Jackson with Aboriginal men plucked from their homes and kept overnight in the Redfern police barracks stables.

The APA was launched one year earlier, by William Ferguson, a trade unionist and Aboriginal politician, along with civil rights activist and journalist, Jack Patten. Its mission could be summarised by the resolution that appeared on their proclamation.

> WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, assembled in Conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen in the past 150 years, AND WE APPEAL to the Australian Nation to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and for a new policy which will raise our people to FULL CITIZEN STATUS and EQUALITY WITHIN THE COMMUNITY.

Following the Congress, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons spent two hours with the organisers, but nothing practical resulted, which is largely true of the 79 years since.

Inspired by: The Guardian view on Australia Day: change the date

Friday, 27 January 2017

Humans as part of the system

Human-centred design is among the most noble of the design methodologies. However, at first glance its name implies a tendency to act in favour of the human above all other things. This self interested interpretation is entirely understandable, but it fails to explain that in some instances the best way to serve the human may be to serve our environment.

This was the experience of Agnes Pyrchla, a strategist at frog, who recently found herself marrying participatory design and permaculture in the Brazilian rainforest. In one example, Pyrchla found that putting something else at the centre of our design had a positive effect on both human and environment.

> If the fish were happy in the pond that we built, we would spend less energy and fewer resources trying to keep them there.

This multidimensional approach, sometimes referred to as holistic design, is a slower and far more difficult process, but it may be the most reliable tool we have to maintain human interests sustainably.

Inspired by: Designing Beyond the Human Experience