Innovation & Design

Upping The Ante


Like many people in the United States, I've become caught up in the recent poker craze. Though I've played a bit since childhood, it was only through the recent cultural rise of poker into the mainstream of sports and entertainment that I've really taken it seriously. This process started a few years ago when I first saw a televised poker tournament. After watching a second show, I started to seek it out. That graduated into playing on the internet, then playing cash games in casinos, then playing in professional tournaments. At this point it is a pretty serious -- and increasingly profitable -- hobby.

You learn a lot about people when you play poker. Things like character, strength of will, intelligence, discretion, guts, and discipline all bubble to the surface over long stretches of play. Unlike most other casino games, poker is a direct one-to-one competition between the bettors. (The casino takes their cut of the money in play, and facilitates competition between the players.) Deeply observing the other players becomes an exercise of survival -- the better you can read and understand your opponents, the more likely you are to win. Trouble is, they don't want to be read. So they are either trying to prevent you from reading them altogether, or attempting to misdirect you so that your read isn't accurate. It becomes a complicated interplay of game theory, observation skills, psychology, intuition, and skill.

Business shares a lot in common with poker. The goal in both is to make as much money as possible -- either over the long or short-term -- to win. You are competing against other people with similar objectives, with a finite amount of potential returns available. In order to be successful, you must observe and understand people and situations, devise strategies based on those observations, and use skill to successfully execute the strategy and accomplish your objectives. In gambling, it's called play; in business it's called design.

When I started to make the connections between the two, it was incredible how much playing poker began to inform my thinking and understanding of both design and business. The people, behaviors, and situations happening at the poker table directly correlate to the processes in business and design, and through this series of articles, I hope to share some of those insights.

I've learned the hard way that in poker, understanding your opponents is perhaps the key skill that separates winners and losers. In the beginning, I just sat down and played the game. This was precipitated by the fact that I was only playing online, where your physical actions beyond simple betting are invisible to your opponents. But once I started going into real card rooms and losing some money, it quickly became apparent that people's perceptions dictate how they play.

PERSONAS: More Than Skin Deep

My voice was icy, matching my stare as I looked with feigned disdain down at the player in Seat 6 -- a paunchy early 20-something wearing a brown retro T-shirt with the words Meat Market in puffy white script on the front, and a bright "Red" baseball cap pulled low on his head. I already realized that even though his hand was weak and he was really hoping I would fold, I probably wouldn't be able to push him off it. And my AsKc gave me little chance to suck the hand out with 4s 2d Qh 9h on the felt. In fact, I knew that I was going to fold as soon as he bet out $40, but I wanted to shake him up and continue to enhance my strong table image. So I took advantage of my over-$500 stack, and requested a count.

The setting: Foxwoods Casino in rural Connecticut. Owned by the Mashantucket Pequot American Tribal Nation,and located on their reservation, Foxwoods promotes itself as the largest casino in the world. And it just might be: a gaudy, poorly designed monstrosity that evokes many of the things that make Vegas something less than paradise: Too big. Too sterile. Surprisingly ugly.

I was only a few hours into a Saturday afternoon game of 1-2 No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em, with a maximum $100 buy-in. It had already been a good day, as I was not only ahead more than four times my initial buy-in, but I had established a dominant personality at the table. One of the secrets to creating a strong persona is to lose hands the right way. Indeed, sometimes losing a hand can make your image stronger than if you had won, a strategy I used repeatedly on this day.

Typically, I ask my opponent to count their chips in order to help make a decision on my bet -- by analyzing how they respond, speak, and count. But in this case, I already knew what my decision was going to be. I just wanted to enhance my image, and diminish his. So I let him finish his count. His voice was shaking a little. His counting was not steady. He finally announced he had $132 total. I carefully stacked out $132 of my red-and-white chips to match his remaining total, and let them slide slowly between my fingers, collectively clinking together. After a fashion, I looked at my cards again.

"I've got two pair, but I think he spiked his 9's," I announced to the table.

I actually knew he wasn't that strong -- a pair of 9s at best -- but I wanted to make him think I was inaccurate with my read, even as I was playing myself as reading strong to everyone else. After a while of toying with him, I folded. He sighed with visible relief, and began to rake his chips. My seeming disgust was barely betrayed by the hint of a smile: even in losing, I had won.

The persona as a design tool is ubiquitous. But in my experience, personas tend to be applied in very shallow ways that do not necessarily get to the essence of the real problem -- understanding our customers.

Perceptions are at play

I've learned the hard way that in poker, understanding your opponents is perhaps the key skill that separates winners and losers. In the beginning, I just sat down and played the game. This was precipitated by the fact that I was only playing online, where your physical actions beyond simple betting are invisible to your opponents. But once I started going into real card rooms and losing some money, it quickly became apparent that people's perceptions dictate how they play. For example, if you are perceived as a strong player, people will give you more respect and allow you to get away with bluffing more than they should. But if they perceive you as a weak player, they give you less respect and are more likely to put pressure on you and force you to bet all the way through the end of a hand. During my game at Foxwoods, I quickly figured "Red" out, and tailored my style of play accordingly when we were betting together. I established a strong persona, put a lot of pressure on him, and took down various pots that he likely could have won. He wasn't at the table very long before he lost his last chip and glumly slunk out of the poker room.

In design, we've similarly learned the importance of designing for our customers. The idea of design happening in a black box or behind a magic curtain is generally considered quaint. We recognize that we need to understand our customers, stakeholders, and market, and we make design decisions predicated on that strategy. But what we aren't yet doing consistently is truly getting into the psyche of our customers.

Sure, we talk about understanding our customers. And we build into our projects things like marketing requirements documents, user research, and usability testing -- each of which attempts to incorporate the user in different ways. But in application, these things often happen in a vacuum, have a very one-dimensional effect on the design process, and do not successfully infuse the design and deliverables with the user's perspective -- much less successfully meet their needs and desires. One commonly-used tool that rarely delivers on its promise to the design process is the persona.

Beware the persona

The persona as a design tool is ubiquitous. But in my experience, personas tend to be applied in very shallow ways that do not necessarily get to the essence of the real problem -- understanding our customers. For example, one client of mine, a mid-stage start-up, internally developed a set of personas in order to guide the design process. But they were typically superficial and idealized. Their most important customer was "Carol, a hard-working soccer mom who juggles her three children and boutique interior design business." She was even working really hard to save money to send her children to private school, yet struggling to make ends meet, and went to Wellesley College. Somebody spent a lot of time bringing Carol to life. But now I'm expected to, by association, understand the needs and wants of the entirety of my client's most important customer segment? This is the Eureka, the path to understanding customers and optimizing design?

I've watched too many poor user experiences develop from this sort of an approach; if I analyzed my opponents in that way on the poker felt, and devised my strategies and play on a similarly superficial basis, I would have long ago quit my forays into poker as a dismal failure. Indeed, my success against "Red" is not based on objectifying and categorizing him. It is about noticing the little things: how he only raised before the flop on weak hands, attempting to bluff opponents; how he only seemed nervous when he had a decent hand -- as opposed to hands that were either clearly strong or weak; that he only made slow betting decisions when he was on a draw instead of a made hand, carefully and laboriously calculating the odds in his head. It was a product of really paying attention, identifying his tendencies, tying it to his behavior, and then using that behavior against him. In design, of course, we are trying to use our understanding of people's behaviors for them, but the groundwork remains the same. And personas very rarely achieve this.

Have your design professionals go along on some ethnographic research to see real customers for themselves. While they are there, invite them to ask a question or two, and take some pictures. Have them page through some direct customer response forms, or qualitative research results. That's how to create genuine empathy and understanding.

The better personas that I have seen -- and the only ones I personally use -- are intended not as "magic keys" to enable design professionals to empathize with their customers, but as communication tools; tools used to translate the basics about customers to everyone who is involved with -- and ultimately evaluating -- the design. Here, personas can be uniquely valuable, because it can be difficult to communicate with other people (particularly non-designers) the purpose and rationale of design decisions. Tools like personas make our motivations much easier to understand. By providing a general picture of the customer, we have a universally understood point of context to serve as interpreter for the design. They really aren't personas as we've come to think of them. Only rarely could our customers reasonably be considered an intrepid army of "soccer moms." (And it's almost indulgent to imagine legions of customers that own their own interior design businesses while grittily striving to afford private school for their children.) Those little "smiles" intended to make the persona more "real" only make them less so.

Real experience is the key to real empathy

My version of Carol is much more basic and focused on the general facts that are applicable to large chunks of the customer base: Carol tends toward certain demographic and psychographic characteristics, much like the plain marketing research of days gone by. It is more flexible, more general, and less specific. If the goal is to create empathy and understanding of your customers through the design process, there are better ways. Have your design professionals go along on some ethnographic research to see real customers for themselves. While they are there, invite them to ask a question or two, and take some pictures. Have them page through some direct customer response forms, or qualitative research results. That's how to create genuine empathy and understanding. Distilling the rich, detailed, experiential components of real people into melodramatic caricatures means missing 99% of the customers who aren't like Carol. In order to see beyond this, design teams need to get their hands dirty.

In poker, this is the equivalent to getting offline and into real casinos. The goofy avatars and usernames that opponents use to represent themselves online often confuse your play more than inform it: while the graphic might be a slick, tough looking cartoon man with the seemingly-transparent "gator_paul_84" username (male, went to school at the University of Florida, probably 40ish), you don't really know who it is, or how to play against him (or her). If you let those surface-level representations guide you, you are going to lose your money. It is only by looking across the felt, taking the player's measure, seeing the hands shake slightly and the edge of perspiration bleeding through the band of the "Red" baseball cap, that understanding becomes a reality, and we can respond to the actual person.

When personas are poorly crafted or are used in lieu of roll-up-your-sleeves exposure to actual customers and contexts, the design suffers. Rather than truly providing for user's needs and desires we miss the mark; rather than understanding and empathizing we end up problem solving on half-baked assumptions. An entire generation of design professionals has been educated on the dogma of personas, despite their use in practice often proving to be misguided. Even though we can benefit from using sensible personas as a communication tool, the heart of great design is not in this sort of a cookie-cutter notion of design process and best practices. It is centered in paying attention to and truly understanding the people you need to design for. And if you still need an object lesson, I encourage you to buy in with me at a no-limit table sometime and trying your luck. As always, being there provides the most valuable lessons of all.

Now...give me a count.


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