Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History, 4th edition

NextStage: Predictive Intelligence, Persuasion Engineering, Interactive Analytics and Behavioral Metrics It’s with great pleasure and a little pride that we announce Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History, 4th EDITION.

Reading Virtual Minds V1: Science and History, 4th edThat “4th EDITION” part is important. We know lots of people are waiting for Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Experience and Expectation and it’s next in the queue.

But until then…

Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History, 4th EDITION is about 100 pages longer than the previous editions and about 10$US cheaper. Why? Because Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Experience and Expectation is next in the queue.

Some Notes About This Book

I’m actually writing Reading Virtual Minds Volume II: Experience and Expectation right now. In the process of doing that, we realized we needed to add an index to this book. We also wanted to make a full color ebook version available to NextStage Members (it’s a download on the Member welcome page. And if you’re not already a member, what are you waiting for?)

In the process of making a full color version, we realized we’d misplaced some of the original slides and, of course, the charting software had changed since we originally published this volume (same information, different charting system). Also Susan and Jennifer “The Editress” Day wanted the images standardized as much as possible.

We included an Appendix B – Proofs (starting on page 187) for the curious and updated Appendix C – Further Readings (starting on page 236). We migrated a blog used for reference purposes so there may be more or less reference sources and modified some sections with more recent information.

So this edition has a few more pages and a few different pages. It may have an extra quote or two floating around.

You also need to know that Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History is a “Let’s explore the possibilities” book, not a “How to do it” book. As such, it deals with how NextStage did it (not to mention things that happened along the way). It does not explain how you can do it. This book’s purpose is to open a new territory to you and give you some basic tools for exploration.

There are no magic bullets, quick fixes, simple demonstrations, et cetera, that will turn you into jedis, gurus, kings, queens, samurai, rock stars, mavens, heroes, thought leaders, so on and so forth.

How to Do It starts with Volume II: Experience and Expectation and continues through future volumes in this series. We’ve included a Volume II: Experience and Expectation preview with a How to Do It example on page 302 so you can take a peek if that’s your interest.

That noted, I’m quite sure that you won’t get the full benefit of future volumes without reading this one because unless you’ve read this one you won’t understand the territory you’re exploring in those future volumes.

Reading Virtual Minds V1: Science and History, 4th edThat’s Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History, 4th EDITION. It’s so good and so good for you! Buy a copy or two today!

Posted in Analytics, Consumer Psychology, Marketing, NextStageology, Predictive, Research, Social, Tools, {C,B/e,M}sTagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Here Are Your NeuroMarketing Options

I was at a conference recently and took many turns through the exhibitors’ booths.

I took many turns through the exhibitors’ booths because I had no idea what I was doing at the conference. I’d been invited and someone else was paying my way, and I hoped seeing the wares presented would offer some insight into why some group would contact me to attend on their behalf and essentially pay me to do so.

Before going further, let me state that I don’t remember any NextStageologist saying or writing “We do neuromarketing.” It’s been said about us often enough and I’ve publicly written that I think people say we do neuromarketing (skim down to “3. What the heck is a NeuroMarketer?” in the link) because 1) it’s a term du jour, 2) they don’t know what else to call us, 3) they’ve called us many pleasant and few unpleasant things in the past and seem to think we change as do the buckets they want to put us in, …

People say “But you guys do so many things” and that’s true. Our response is “That’s because the brain does so many things. The brain doesn’t only make decisions or only control breathing or only look at pretty people or only guess about the future and if the brain could only do one thing we wouldn’t have evolved much beyond amoeba. We do lots of things because, like the brain, we have no limits.”

Okay, we have some limits.

But, as I was typing, some of the vendors did…something…at the conference. I watched. It looked a lot like what I’ve been told is traditional, historical neuromarketing. You know, traditional and historical, like the stuff going back a year or more ago?

It was fascinating.

Now before going any further, none of the people shown here claim to be neuromarketers and that includes NextStage. I merely offer these as examples of what others who call themselves “neuromarketers” do.

Here are some of your NeuroMarketing options…

Option 1 – See the Brain in Real Time

Cap Showing the Brain in 3D

The fellow in the picture above is brilliant. He and his team (if I understood correctly) have developed a cap that generates a image of an individual’s neurophysiology in real time. The medical implications of this are incredible.

But it’s not neuromarketing as I understand it. Seeing the brain work is not the same as knowing what the brain is working on. Seeing specific brain areas associated with likes and dislikes is not the same as knowing what the brain is liking or disliking. Tomograph, fMRIs, neurographs, etc., of heat and blood flow in the brain while showing a picture of a brand product is not the same as that individual wanting, desiring or avoiding that brand product. They are, at best, proxies. There may be a direct connection or they may not be. A dislike of a particular brand might have more to do with a bad memory of someone who used that brand than the brand itself, and building a campaign on such evidence is…is…a really interesting way to spend your budget.

But credit where credit is due, if I ever get a brain lesion, I want the guy in the picture above in my corner.

Option 2 – If the Device Fits, Wear It

The video below is of a young woman being fitted with a device that allows the wearer’s brain to interact directly with an image on a screen. Doing that is impressive. The device itself is nicely designed and packaged. The gentleman in the video is someone trained by the company that markets the device. He’s a trained professional. After two minutes and twenty seconds he still hadn’t gotten the device to work correctly, and he’d applied enough saline solution to make Brylcream proud because this time, a little dab wasn’t doing ya.

Fairness time; lots of people at this conference sat down to have this device placed on their heads. I talked with several of them who wanted to take part but couldn’t because the device couldn’t read their signals reliably if at all.

Option 3 – You Can Find A Company that Claims to do NeuroMarketing

A long standing NextStage client was told by his GM to go talk to the GM’s friend who had started a neuromarketing company. You could tell they were a neuromarketing company because they used “neuromarketing” on their site a lot.

I asked the client how it went. Here’s the conversation:

“Hi! I’m speaking with these guys today, …, it looks like they are taking a similar theoretical approach as you, although their execution is paleolithic compared to yours.”

Be sure to tell them that.

“The guy is a friend of the GM. The GM hears me say the word neuromarketing, this guy says the word neuromarketing, GM says lets all meet. I say, ‘Why would I let them put headbands on 5 people when I can learn way more about EVERY one visiting a site without looking like Olivia Newton-John?’ I can assure you that basically I’m going to tell them they’re in the stone ages. No reason to drive the ford Edsel when you have the rocket car sitting in the garage!”

(a few days later…)

How did it go with your GM’s friend?

“The neuro guy was a joke, an entrepreneur who saw a cool graph on a screen, no plan, no insight, no training, no business plan, not even an elevator pitch nor the brains to run it.”

Hmm…but he has money? Maybe he’d like to buy us out…?

“He doesn’t have that kind of money….”

Sorry it was so ungood. And may I quote you?

“Quote me?”

Yes, I’ve been working on a response to all the neuro blather and would like to include an anonymous note about someone who went looking for neuro solutions and came up short.

“No problem ;)”

(and here’s to hoping you, dear reader, have similar luck)

Recapping thus far

Thus far we’ve seen the need for devices that may or may not work for everyone, require a skilled professional to place on the test subject’s head correctly, are limited to subjects who basically raise their hand and say “Yes, I’ll wear one of those”, and people with pretty websites, high level friends and are a joke (so said the client, not us).

First, what happens to those people who raise their hands but can’t make the device work? How many will be satisfied with “Here’s your $20 and sorry your head’s not the right shape” or “Here’s your $30 and your brain’s not giving off any signals we can detect” or “Here’s your $50 and our equipment doesn’t seem to be working right now, no need to come back later because it won’t work for you, then, either”?

You’d probably go with a variant of that last one but then you have people walking around telling others how their incredible noggins broke your fancy-dancy mind-reading headgear.

And if people can train their brains to do what’s required, how long do you think it’ll be ’till companies start selling “Brain-Trained” individuals for testing purposes, or offer “Brain-Training” courses and all so that, when the neuromarketing goblins come a’knockin’, your results will be through-the-roof kind-of good?

And you thought buying Fans, Friends and Likes was scummy?

And do remember, none of the folks in the above images claims to do “neuromarketing”. At least they didn’t claim to when I asked (and I did ask and I did ask permission to video and photograph so I could use the video and photographs on one of my company’s blogs). I took the pictures and video because the folks shown above do things that other companies have called “neuromarketing”.

Second, the GM’s friend. Let me repeat myself. “The GM’s friend.”

Option 4 – In the Time You’ve Been Reading…

In the 1-5 minutes you’ve been reading this post, NextStage’s Evolution Technology has analyzed the behaviors of anywhere from 3-25,000 individuals. It has determined how they think, how they make decisions, what types of things convince them, whether or not they believe whatever they’re viewing, whether or not they accept whatever they’re viewing (belief and acceptance are two very different things), when they’re likely to spend money and what needs to be changed on a client’s digital property so that they, the visitor, will spend money on the client’s digital property or in their brick&mortar store. You can get an idea of what NextStage’s Evolution Technology can determine in our example NextStage OnSite reports, you can get an idea of where we’re currently being used on our NextStage SampleMatch Countries listing and you can get an idea what people are saying about everything we do in our Comments section.

And remember, we don’t do “neuromarketing”. We just give you results. From your entire online audience. There’s a lot of neuroscience in what we do, true, and there’s also a lot of anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychology, mathematics, and other sciences in what we do.

That’s why I prefer to offer that NextStage does NeuroAnalytics rather than NeuroMarketing because we’re more interested in how to use what the brain does naturally to make your marketing work.

As one happy client wrote in my LinkedIn Profile,

I’ve been working with Joseph and his tools now for several years. As a “digital analytics professional”, there are several phrases I can use to describe the man and the technology he creates related to my field of work: game-changing, mind-blowing, visionary.

I don’t use those words lightly. I’ve seen the future of advanced analytics, and it’s the next generation technology Joseph has invented and continues to develop.

How do you measure website engagement? Page depth? Time on site? Top viewed content? Satisfaction surveys? These are proxies for what we in digital analytics think reflects visitor engagement. Now imagine a tool that you could put on your website that silently measures engagement by actually determining how visitors feel about content, without having to ask them.

Then imagine that the same tool can then alter visitor website experience on-the-fly and present more engaging content. Then imagine watching your conversion rates go through the roof.

It’s not fiction or magic. It is a real tool, it is real science, and you can use it on your website to drive real extraordinary business results.

And that’s just the tip of Joseph’s iceberg. He’s continually creating new tools, new technology, and new thinking to enable marketers to measure and enhance the effectiveness of their work in ways that haven’t even been thought possible before.

I consider myself lucky to have met Joseph, and I am continually awed and humbled by the man. If you’re in business and want to do better, I’d suggest you get to know him and his marketing toolbox as well.

If nothing else, you’ll at least get a few good jokes out him!


Posted in Advice and Content, Analytics, Marketing, NextStageology, OnSite, Predictive, ToolsTagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , 2 Comments

Using NextStage’s OnSite Visitor Analysis Tool – TireKickers To Buyers Breakdown

This post is the first of several (we think) about using NextStage OnSite‘s many reports. The audience for this post and series is NextStage’s business clients and prospects. The goal is to provide some “connecting the dots” between reports and actions. We’re starting this series with the TireKickers to Buyers Breakdown. “TireKickers to Buyers Breakdown” is a descriptive but wordy title and we usually refer to it simply as the TireKickers Report.


NextStage’s tools have been in public use for about three years now and all our tools are based on client requests. The tool that’s grown the most in that time is NextStage OnSite. That growth shows up as OnSite‘s many reports.

Visitor Age Groups for a 30 day intervalThere are currently sixty (60) different reports in the NextStage OnSite Tool. These reports span everything from visitor AgeGroup breakdowns (a 30 day report is shown on the right) to a QuickOptimizer report that provides three and only three suggestions for quickly optimizing a site. For example, QuickOptimizer suggested the following modifications for one of our clients for a recent thirty day period:

  1. Important – A blog, podcasts, a link which starts an audio feed or music from a source which matches the mood of your site.
  2. Desireable – A single image on the upper to middle left of the screen, at most 1/4 screen width and height, clearly showing your product or your service in use or a satisfied user of your product or service
  3. Critical – Having all selling points to your product or service in the center third column of your screen. Anything that does not demonstrate your product’s or service’s features should go to either side

Most clients get 25-30 reports (some they request, some we know they’ll need) and there’s a lot of information in those 25-30. Sometimes we’ll include a custom report or two among those 25-30 for clients who we believe will benefit from them.

NextStage OnSite offers clients a report palette because (we believe) using reports individually is like looking at stars through only one type of telescope — your understanding is based on only one type of light. Different types of telescopes (NextStage OnSite‘s 30 or so reports) trained on the same object provide a fuller understanding of what’s happening to and with that object.
TireKickers to Buyers Breakdown for a one day interval

TireKickers Report Basics

NextStage OnSite‘s TireKickers Report (a one day report is shown on the right. Clicking on some images opens larger images in another window) is named for the proverbial used car shopper who walks around the lot, finds a car they want then kicks the tires to demonstrate that they’re not going to get swindled.

What it reports is described in 2006’s Listening to and Seeing Searches:

What we’ve discovered is that these [report] numbers (which will vary from site to site) remain stable for each site except when something new — such as a product release or updated pages — is placed in the mesh.

  • Knowing what percentage of site visitors are serious buyers versus tirekickers is an important tool in keeping your expectations and sales forecasts in check, and for designing entry pages appropriately.

  • Visitors who are “grazing,” “tirekicking,” “talking themselves out of it” and “planning to make a decision” are still in the search funnel.
  • Visitors who are “planning on how to use it,” “talking it over,” “making a decision” and “buying” are in what most people recognize as a sales funnel.
  • The transition from searcher to buyer occurs at “talking themselves into it.”

TireKickers to Buyers Breakdown for a seven day intervalNotice in the above bullet list “…these [report] numbers (which will vary from site to site) remain stable for each site except when something new — such as a product release or updated pages — is placed in the mesh.”? Compare the 1-day report shown above with the 7-Day TireKickers report on the right. Same site, but this time reporting on the past seven (7) days instead of the last one (1) day. You’ll notice there’s not a lot of variation in pie slice size.

We encourage most clients to run reports for time periods of 30 days or longer unless they’re doing highly targeted or spot campaigns. For example, if you’ve just made an update to your site, introduced a new product or service, made an announcement, et cetera, check for changes over shorter periods of time.

But consider the two figures above. These two figures are similar and not identical. All charts in this post are for the same page. Only the report interval is changed (top to bottom, they are 1 day, 7 days, 14 days, 30 days). What you’re seeing is the normal variation that occurs on sites. Especially when you compare the above one and seven day cycles with the following 14 day cycle and 30 day cycle further down in this post.

TireKickers to Buyers Breakdown for a 14 day intervalOnce you get past the 20% that were buying in the one-day cycle (“Making a Decision” and “Buyers” combined. Ninety-nine percent of people who get into “Making a Decision” become “Buyers” before they leave a site or will conclude their purchase offline) you’ll notice that the seven and 14 day cycles have similar “Making a Decision” and “Buying” numbers — 13-14%. The 13% cumulative “Making a Decision” and “Buying” numbers are repeated in the 30 day cycle.

First Take-Away

These numbers haven’t varied in quite a while. This site is going to max out at about 20% total conversions and probably the online numbers will be closer to 13%.

We now have a baseline. The current version of the site is going to do 13-20% business. That’s where we are. Now it’s time to improve.

TireKickers to Buyers Breakdown for a 30 day interval

Large versus Small Populations

Consumer psychology and buying behavior are fascinating subjects to study. One thing that’s very impressive about them is that large populations are the easiest to influence. Knowing that large populations are the easiest to influence comes from social dynamics. NextStage demonstrated this with an audience participation exercise at a SNCR conference several years back during my TS Eliot, Ezekiel, Beehives and Mighty Mouse – Why “Whispering to Be Heard”? presentation.

What we demonstrated was the relative transmission speeds and dispersion rates of the same message in a large and small population, followed up with examples of how to increase transmission and dispersion. In a nutshell, large populations tend to have fewer broad reaching influencers and quorum sensing behavior rules. The large population behaves as a single body but without a lot of discretionary and (dare I suggest) intelligent behavior. Quorum sensing was pretty much the consumer psychology rule in the old media days (as noted in Why Isn’t Marketing a Science, Part II ).

Small populations tend to have much tighter social bonds and interactions. This is necessary for the smaller population to survive. The large population’s quorum sensing becomes the small population’s smart mob behavior, meaning people talk to each other more, rely on each other more, there are more influencers because the population realizes that the person who’s a great cook may not be the best harvester and so on.

TireKicker Reports show small populations as small pie segments. Instead of a small population being a “neighborhood” or “town”, the small population in these TireKicker Reports are (for example) “Tirekicking” at about 2% and “Planning to Make a Decision” at about 2.5% across all reports. Like neighborhoods and small towns, the visitors making up the “Tirekicking” and “Planning to Make a Decision” segments may not be directly talking to each other but they are talking to people who are talking to each other.

Second Take-Away

You want the Tirekickers value to be as small as possible. Small Tirekickers values indicate that all visitors (save the “Grazing” segment) came to your site with the intention of getting something done. They may have wanted to purchase or do research, but your site was their intended target.

“Tirekickers” indicates people who are killing time. They were looking for something to do and your site was what caught their eye. They may convert and it’ll be a long while before they do so the smaller this number is, the better your site is working at bringing you visitors who are actually in the sales funnel.

“Grazing” indicates people who came to your site by accident. You want that number to decrease, either because fewer people get lost on the web or because your marketing is so good only people who want to be on your site arrive there.

On these charts you’ll notice that the largest population segments are “Talking Themselves (Out of/Into) It” and “Talking It Over With (Themselves/Others)”.

What’s most important (from a consumer and behavioral psychology perspective) about these two populations is they describe people engaged in internal dialogue. Most people engage in internal dialogue and do so most often when they’re making decisions. If you’ve ever spoken to yourself out loud or just in your head, debating whether or not to do something, to buy something, to say something, going over pros and cons back and forth, you were engaged in internal dialogue.

We recognize internal dialogue is taking place because both populations are Talking (dialogue) and to or with Themselves (internal). People who are talking themselves out of/into it are the tougher sell so let’s start with people who are talking it over with themselves or others.

These are people who want to act but lack the confidence to act. They are looking for justification to act (convert) and seeking either themselves or others to provide that justification. Some times they’ll ask their peers, some times their friends, some times their parents. Browsing is still a solitary activity — we don’t often encounter masses of people sitting in the same place, facing the same device, agreeing where to navigate and what to click on — so who will these visitors seek justification from?

Readers of Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History know that the first “person” to be asked is the site itself and at this point it is time to learn what the page being TireKicked is telling them to do (the page’s form and function1).

The form and function of the page being TireKickedThe layout sans content (form) of the page being TireKicked is shown on the right. We learn from the client that the function of the page is to describe product/offering/service features. What can we do to nudge the roughly 26% of visitors who are “Taking It Over With Themselves/Others” into either “Making a Decision” or “Buying”?

We start by looking at the page’s TargetAudience. NextStage considers material’s TargetAudience as the audience that will best respond to that material. The best responding audience is the audience that shows up most often, stays and acts. This best responding audience may or may not be the audience the content creators had in mind when they published. The gulf between best responding audience and intended audience can be amazingly wide and we often suggest clients use our AgePersuader, GenderPersuader, PersonaScope and related tools to better target their content before publishing.

In this case, NextStage OnSite‘s PageTargetAudience report determined that this TireKicked page is best designed for:

Gender: Male
Age: 35-44yo (±9%)
Education: Post Doc
RichPersona: V9

  • These people are moved by what they see
  • They are drawn to the negative of things
  • These people tend to be process oriented
  • They tend to be confused by “what if this happens?” type of questions

Let’s take the above one element at a time:

  1. Gender: Male – NextStage has demonstrated an extremely high accuracy determining age and gender online. The accuracy we’re comfortable with is about 83% across all our reports (we’ve tested higher), so we can accept that this specific material is indeed oriented towards a male audience
  2. Age: 35-44yo (±9%) – This material is best designed for 35-44 year olds and could serve for 32-48 year olds (the ±9%)
  3. Education: Post Doc – NextStage OnSite makes this determination based on how much cognitive effort and life experience would be required to understand the material
  4. RichPersona: V9 – “V9” is a NextStage RichPersonaTM designation. People familiar with our PersonaScope and Sentiment Analysis Tools have seen these designations many times. Other psych-behavioral classification systems would recognize this as “ENTJ”2

Review and Forward

So far we’ve learned the following:

  • 26% of the audience is seeking justification to convert
  • the material will best influence a mid-30 to mid-40 year old,
  • well educated,
  • males audience

Visitor Gender Analysis for a 30 day intervalHolding just that much information we can look at two other NextStage OnSite reports, AgeGroup and Gender. A 30 day visitor AgeGroups analysis for the TireKicked page is shown at the top of this post. The image on the right is a 30 day visitor Gender analysis for the same TireKicked page.

AgeGroups tells us that better than a third are under 25yo and we see on the right that there’s a fairly even male-female gender mix.

Before going any further and in a very few minutes of time (assuming some training on how to use NextStage OnSite) we’ve discovered that the TireKicked page isn’t designed for its actual audience. Remember, we’re not considering intended audience — who the site owner wants as visitors — we’re looking at who’s actually showing up and wanting to do some shopping.

The site owner informs us that the actual audience is the intended audience. Excellent! The question shifts from “How do we get the intended audience on the page?” to “What can be done so that the audience does more buying?”
Suggestions based on visitors during a previous 30 day interval

Suggestions, Suggestions, Suggestions

NextStage OnSite includes a Suggestions report (a 30 day report is shown on the right) that provides three levels of suggestions (General, Levels 1 and 2). The immediacy of each suggestion is indicated by Desireable, Important and Critical. We encourage clients to start with the General suggestions and work their way up through Level 1 suggestions to Level 2 suggestions. I, as a researcher, find the Suggestions report a deep dish of information.

But I as a business person? That’s an awful lot to swallow.

The difference between research and business person is one of constraint. Researchers love knowing all possible suggestions because they usually have the freedom to select what constraints they’ll work under as part of their experiment’s design. Business and online analysts usually are given a list of constraints based on corporate requirements and policies regarding color palette, logo placement, images, text and so on. As one business client said, “Design is finding solutions within constraints.”

The specific business constraints for this TireKicked page are:

  1. Adjust the copy within the body area of the page
  2. No changes to the design or placement of navigation
  3. Adding “nav-looking” links on the right is acceptable
  4. Creating a number of “orphan pages” where navigation between the pages is via breadcrumbs is acceptable

Knowing constraints ahead of time is excellent as it allows us to know which Suggestions we’re able to work with. For example, one of NextStage OnSite‘s Suggestions for this TireKicked Page is

Desireable – Provide (more) visitor-participatory navigation so that visitors become consciously aware of their navigation decisions.

Not sure what “visitor-participatory navigation” is? Not a problem. NextStage OnSite‘s Suggestions report tells you:

Visitor-Participatory Navigation – Menu style navigation is replaced by a single question in place of the standard menu. The question has several answers (that are themselves based on traditional menu options) and one of the answers is the option to return to a traditional menu system. Further, each loaded page includes BreadCrumbs so visitors have a clear understanding of where they’ve been on a site.

Why Training Is Important

Live training on any NextStage Tool goes beyond “click here, click there, now click that and get your report”. Live NextStage trainings cover human behavior, communication, behavioral psychology, consumer psychology and the like in depth. This is obviously true for our listed trainings and is also true for our tool trainings. Tool trainings focus more on how to use tool recommendations and results to cause the desired human behavior, et cetera, and students still learn a great deal about how humans interact with their environment and each other3.

In this case, a little social and behavioral psychology provide some obvious solutions.
What We're Allowed to Modify on the TireKicked Page

Form to Function

The image on the right is the form of our TireKicked page. The area we’re constrained to is bordered in red. Because the actual audience is young we’re going to make use of how youthful minds (under 25 years old) demonstrate social cognition, mirroring and group identity. Remembering that the client has told us this TireKicked page’s purpose is to demonstrate product/service/offering features (and by the numbers):

  1. Adjust the copy within the body area of the page
    • Any feature-descriptive text must indicate how this product/service/offering will create or continue connectivity between friends, peers and related others. Write anything about TXTing, sharing video, et cetera, content with friends and family and you’ve scored a success.
    • Include images of groups involved in some activity (walking in a downtown setting, biking, but stopped, et cetera) with two or more group members using the product/service/offering
    • Any banner offer image should show two or three peer group members demonstrating enjoyment due to their use of the product/service/offer.
    • If the audience is too young to make independent purchase decisions (they require parental approval), modify the banner image such that a single peer group member is on the left of the banner, the parent is on the right of the banner and make sure the parent is smiling or otherwise demonstrating acceptance and agreement.
      • The audience is fairly evenly mixed male/female so use a female parent image. Use a male parent image if the audience starts to skew and stay male.
    • Use short, decisive sentences to list features, use images to demonstrate features (two of NextStage OnSite‘s suggestions were “Critical – Use language which emphasizes understanding and logic, and demonstrates present capabilities” and “CriticalUse simple, concise language to differentiate items“. Other suggestions were along similar lines)
  2. No changes to the design or placement of navigation – The Suggestions Report offered several modifications, none are applied at this point in time
  3. Adding “nav-looking” links on the right is acceptable
    • Several NextStage OnSite suggestions apply to where “nav-looking” links should take visitors (remembering that this page’s purpose is to demonstrate or list product/service/offering features)
      • Critical – Include a video demonstrating the endgoal of the visitor specific to the current page. Make the video informative, educational and entertaining. Example: a video of someone in the target audience using the product, good or service specific to the page. The video demonstrates some simple and common operations using the product, good or service.
      • Important -Any “self-help” pages should have an image montage of the any steps involved. The image montage is synched to an audio feed explaining each image, its purpose, et cetera. The visitor must be able to control the image/audio progression.
      • Important – Use images which demonstrate your product or service being used 1-2 seasons ahead to do specific tasks.
  4. Creating a number of “orphan pages” where navigation between the pages is via breadcrumbs is acceptable
    • This is one of NextStage OnSite‘s suggestions, as noted above. Combine breadcrumbs with the product demonstration and self-help suggestions above and the redesign work is done.

What We Did Within the Business ConstraintsA rough mockup of some suggestions (for starting point purposes only) is shown on the right.


Any tool is going to require some training in its use and some tools will require users to incorporate new information, new ways of thinking and problem solving methods.

This post has gone through one of NextStage OnSite‘s thirty reports — TireKickers — and demonstrated how to use it to increase conversions.

The next post in this series will pick up with the other big visitor population chunk, that 22.5% that are Talking Themselves Into/Out of converting.

Third Take-Away

One NextStage client was boasting about the 35%+ gains they received based on various NextStage tool recommendations at a recent conference.

1 – Normally, NextStageologists (our consultants who help clients) look at site pages as a last resort because the moment someone looks at something they form an opinion and that opinion changes the observer and what is observed forever. Our own prejudices, likes, dislikes and personal requirements are the last thing clients need when they ask us to help them redesign their pages.

In the case of NextStageologists, we actively guard against our unknown biases and prejudices affecting our understanding of the reports or what they’re reporting on. We may ask about form and function but rarely content.

2 – V9 is one of NextStage’s RichPersonaeTM designations. NextStage’s RichPersonaeTM do not necessarily map one-to-one to other psych-behavioral systems.

3 – NextStage also offers client specific and customized trainings. Contact us for information.

NextStage Tool Previews in the Members Area

I mentioned in Next Tool Releases from NextStage that we’d be releasing some new tools in the coming months, some of which are being previewed in the NextStage Members area (probably a good reason to become a member, access to tools in the development stage, a chance to shape them before release, discounts on their use thereafter, …)

  • NSPM – NextStage PersonaMap works much like NSPS – NextStage PersonaScope in that it determines behavioral, psychological, cognitive and strategy factors of individuals. It is different in that it uses data collected by NSOS – NextStage OnSite rather than having you submit an individual’s material for analysis. NextStage PersonaMap lists some industries ET has knowledge of, you pick one and it reports how web, print and video material should be designed to capture that audience and what traits any personae should have if designed for this audience. It also lists known Myers-Briggs Equivalents.
  • NSPE – NextStage Predictive Echo scans web server logs and previous web pages to determine how visitors were thinking, determines how much of your audience was getting your message historically, then makes suggestions for your next design efforts.
  • NSSM – NextStage SampleMatch lists psychologic and behavioral traits about visitors to various sites we monitor worldwide. The information is presented in regional, industry, time and gender based formats. This information is useful when designing marketing and creative material for specific audiences. More industries, locations, etc., will be available as we have time and before the tool is launched. The tool updates once every 24 hours.
  • NSVG – NextStage Veritas Gauge uses data from NSOS – NextStage OnSite to determine how many visitors to sites are entering truthful information online to blogs, comments, forms, etc.


Explaining NextStage’s second patent … sort of.

Joseph has asked me to explain the differences in the two patents and, at risk of saying something inappropriate (at least in the context of what attorneys would deem appropriate), here goes:

The easiest way to look at this patent is the conclusion of a painfully long process that started back in 2001 when we filed the original application. After battling with the patent examiner, who engaged in much handwringing over the breadth of the claims and his inability to find prior art on point, we ended up appealing our claims to take the patent out of the hands of the patent examiner. That Examiner withdrew his rejection and presented a new rejection that was not all that much more interesting. We appealed again.

The results of the appeal were mixed. Some claims were allowed and others were rejected as they were written a bit too broadly. At that point we had the option of revising the rejected claims in light of what the appeal board indicated was allowable, but to do so we had to go back to the original patent examiner, with whom we never saw eye to eye. Instead, we permitted the allowed claims to issue and revised the rejected claims in a second patent application we filed. The patent that issued Tuesday is that second patent application that contains those revisions of the rejected claims.

Since the first patent, the Supreme Court has looked at the patentability of software (In re Bilski) and made changes to limit the patentability of some software. The Supreme Court has also looked obviousness and, raised the bar for obtaining patents. The second patent was issued despite these changes in the interpretation of patent claims and evidences the durability both patents will have in the changing patent landscape.

Rather than trying to describe the differences between the two patents, I would say that the second patent expands on the breadth and scope of the protection afforded by the claims in the first patent and closes the loop in the protection of NextStage’s Evolution Technology as it was devised nine years ago. We have more patent applications in the pipeline that reflect improvements made by NextStage in the technology as well as more focused applications of the technology and building blocks of the technology. With these two patents, we have completed the foundation from which we will build the rest of the patent structure.

NextStage Resume Rater Tool – NSRR – V2

NextStage's Resume Rater ToolNextStage’s Resume Rater Tool was released to the public late in 3 Sep 10 and in the month and a half we’ve learned a lot from its users.

For one thing, the overwhelming majority of users are hiring people rather than job seekers. We also learned what this majority audience wanted to learn about candidates.

Long story short, we modified the NextStage Resume Rater Tool to better respond to what the bulk of the audience wanted. Specifically:

  • New
  • Removed
    • 0-100 scale Confidence Gauge
    • Instructions on how to improve a resume
    • How large a response the resume will receive

People who’ve purchased NSRR runs since 1 Oct 10 should be receiving a note indicating they’ve been credited with more runs. Please contact NextStage if you have purchased NSRR runs since 1 Oct 10 and do not receive a credit notification. Remember to have your receipt available when contacting us.

Posted in ToolsTagged , , , , , , , ,

Next Tool Releases from NextStage

I posted this earlier on LinkedIn and Facebook, now for the general public as well…

NextStage AgePersuader

NSAP reports what age groups will respond best to material and in what percentagesThe next tool out of the gate will be The NextStage AgePersuader (NSAP). NSAP is much like NextStage’s GenderPersuader Tool (NSGP). You give it material to analyze, it indicates what age groups are most likely to respond and in what percentages (NextStage’s GenderPersuader Tool indicates which genders will respond and in what percentages). Like all NextStage tools, NextStage AgePersuader is easy to use (enter your bona fides, enter a file or url to be analyzed, hit [Submit] and get your result) and the results are (we think) easy to understand. NextStage Political Analyzer Tool (NSPA) users are familiar with the NSAP output as age persuasion is part of NSPA’s output.

NextStage GeoScope

NSGS reports what age group percentages, gender percentages and RichPersonae exist in a given geographic locationNextStage GeoScope (NSGS) – NSGS is different from most of the other tools in that it derives data from NextStage’s OnSite Tool (NSOS). Some group members may remember conferences where, during my presentations, I presented charts of how different geographic locations were thinking and responding to online material, and how to design navigation to make use of their thinking/decision making/motivational styles (ala NextStage’s PersonaScope Tool (NSPS and aka the {C,B/e,M} matrix). NSGS will do much the same and will include both an age and gender breakdown of online traffic for a given geographic region.

The home page will present a list of geographic locations ET has learned about via NSOS. Entries can vary from something as specific as “Washington, DC” to something as broad as “Scotland” and are dependent on how much traffic has been analyzed from what geographic locations in a given time period (we’re thinking we’ll update it weekly). If you see a geographic location you’re interested in, enter your bona fides, select a geographic location from the list (that’s the only input you give it). NSGS returns the age breakdown (as in NSAP), gender breakdown (as in NSGP) and top four RichPersonae (as in NSPS) from that geographic area.

NextStage GeoScope pulls data from the NextStage OnSite tool (so it’s pulling data from what’s really out there) and you don’t have to be a NextStage OnSite subscriber to use it. Also this is a tagless tool, meaning you don’t need to tag anything to use it.

We’ve been thinking about this tool for a while and some work I’ve been doing with an international design&marketing firm has solidified the idea and need for this tool. For those who’ve been following us for a while, it’s basically an extension/upgrade of our InFocus Reports. The image above is from an InFocus Report. NSGS will be similar.

NextStage BlueSky-Confidence Gauge

NSBC is the NextStage BlueSky Meter and the NSSA Confidence Gauge in a single reportNextStage BlueSky-Confidence Gauge (NSBC) – NSBC is literally the BlueSky Meter and NSSA’s Confidence Gauge in one tool. We’ve decided to combine these two functions into a separate tool based on the number of people who are using the NextStage Political Analyzer Tool (NSPA) simply to get a combined BS-Confidence result. I was explaining these two elements during a training, that some of the results were indicating “This person is extremely confident what they’re writing is BS”, “This person has absolutely no confidence in what they’re writing, hence they believe it is BS”, … and half the class’s eyes lit up, so a separate tool it’ll be.

NextStage Information Designer

NSID determines the best information layout for a given audience, product/service, delivery platform, output medium and outcome combinationThe last tool in this cycle is NextStage Information Designer (NSID). NSID is very similar to NextStage Ad Placement Tool (NSAD) in that it asks some 30 questions regarding the audience, offering, delivery platform, output medium (brochure, webpage, tri-fold, mobile, kiosk, flyer, …) and desired outcome and determines the best outer (“landing” in web terms) and inner information formats (“pages” in web terms) to use to maximize desired results. This is another tool we’ve been thinking about for a while and some recent work has solidified the necessity of it.

On the horizon:
NextStage Advertising Intelligence (NSAI) – The closest online tool to our full desktop TargetTrack tool (an old, out of date brochure can be seen here. TargetTrack will always be available as part of our consulting packages) we’re finishing up some of the equations, at which point Charles, our CTO, will have his folks turn it into working code.

Charles is also busily at work on an “OnSite Lite” that will only have the three most often used reports and be available at a fraction of the cost of our current OnSite tool (or so he tells me) and handle geometrically higher traffic volumes/site.

And that’s the news from Scotsburn and Nashua.

May it be a happy, busy and profitable Autumn for all of us.


During conversations yesterday I was reminded that NextStage had several free online tools that could easily be converted to our new store system. One of these, InFocus, is mentioned above as the precursor to NextStage GeoScope.

Some of these other tools will be rolled out in our store system over the coming months. Most will be pulling data from our OnSite system (currently monitoring visitor traffic in over 50 countries). Only data allowed by OnSite clients will be used in these tools. These tools will be tagless, meaning you won’t need to tag your site to use them.

These tools include:

  • NextStage Market Persona (NSMP) – NextStage Market Persona will offer a list of markets (travel, medical, educational, automotive, industrial, legal, … for example). Pick the market area of interest to you and NSMP will report the top RichPersonae (what NextStage PersonaScope reports) for that market. Knowing how the majority of people in a market think, make decisions and what motivates them should be useful when developing creative. We think so, anyway…
  • NextStage Predictive Echo (NSPE) – NextStage Predictive Echo is for clients who don’t want OnSite and still want to make use of NextStage’s Evolution Technology in their online efforts. NSPE reads through traffic logs, the web pages the traffic logs involve and determines how to improve site performance regarding messaging, goals, redesign, etc., are concerned.

There are other tools still on our shelves. We’re learning what tools make sense based on how current users are using the existing tool set. Interested folks can also contact us directly should you need a tool you can’t find elsewhere. Chances are we already have it, something quite close or can make it in record time.

Nostra Culpa re NextStage Sentiment Analysis

NextStage’s Evolution Technology calls for human help whenever it encounters something new, unique, or out of its normal experience. Reading Virtual Minds Vol. 1: Science and History readers know our technology does this because I’ve documented it in that book.

This time our system alerted me about a specific Confidence value (from the Intermediate Sentiment Analysis Report) that was a little askew compared to other values it had determined, so I sent an email to the user who’d run the report and offered to go over it with them so we both could learn what that Confidence value applied to.

On Friday (2 Jul 10) afternoon, after our coders had left for the July 4th weekend, the user wrote back very graciously (thanks!) that they’d need to learn how not to fabricate in their writing.


Their response threw me. What did “fabrication” have to do with this Confidence value?

Development History

Readers who’ve followed NextStage Sentiment Analysis development and beta users may remember that NSSA’s Confidence report grew out of a request from FindMeFaster CEO Matt Van Wagner for a tool that could determine if a blog author was full of BlueSky (Matt had another term) or not.

It took a long time to come up with something that I was comfortable with as determining blue sky because there are so many different factors to determining intentional BS from unintentional BS from joking BS from … This discomfort showed up with almost daily rewrites of the Confidence descriptive text. The rewriting process was similar to Mark Twain’s “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

What we came up with was a Confidence equation that included various BS factors because I couldn’t figure out how to completely separate the two (we can discuss the Confidence-BS link at a convention or training sometime, if you’d like. It’s pretty interesting). I wasn’t completely satisfied with the formulation we came up with, could accept it for what it was and told everyone who was using the tool about my concerns.

Then in early May 2010, during conversations with some brilliant researchers specifically about how BS is formed in cognition, we came up with a way to separate BS from Confidence and proceeded to completely spin off Matt’s BS Meter into a separate tool that dealt with whether or not some writing was fabrication or not.

Mea Culpa

But I focus on the charts whenever I look at our reports, not at the descriptive text included in the reports. I’ve been seeing these charts and such for better than ten years at this point so I simply look at the charts, know what’s being reported and respond to that.

I don’t look at the text anymore.

And I obviously should. When this user emailed me that they needed to work on fabrication I went “Huh?” and looked at the report again. “What does this have to do with fabrication?” Then I looked again. Then again. Then I read the report.
The descriptive text for the Confidence report was:

Confidence Gauge – The above gauge indicates (on a scale of -100 to 100) the author’s confidence in their own material. Values from -100 to -80 can most likely be considered pure fabrication although this may not be the author’s intent. Also note that someone writing fiction is intentionally fabricating information. Skilled authors and dramatists can write pure fiction and this meter will indicate confidence is high merely because they have high confidence in their work. This chart is most applicable to people with moderate to no creative writing training.

That descriptive content was the best we could come up with prior to spinning off the BS Meter. The funny thing (to us) was that the suggestions (not shown here) were based on Confidence metrics, had nothing to do with BS and had been part of the Confidence report from the start. Those never changed.

But we’d spun off the BS Meter.

And we’d written new, more accurate descriptive text for the Confidence report:

Confidence Gauge – The above gauge indicates (on a scale of -100 to 100) the author’s confidence in their own material. Some examples:

  • Values from -100 to -75 can occur when the author believes strongly in their material (is confident) and also believes it will not be well accepted, understood or acted upon by their audience (isn’t confident about its reception).
  • Most research and technical writing will score between -20 and 0 because researchers and technical writers tend to have an “I should check this one more time” mindset.
  • It is common for natives of the USA to score between -15 and +10 when analyzing casual, “every day” writing.
  • Truly confident writers will score between 15 and 35.
  • Scores higher than 80 often indicate the author will come off as either sarcastic or vain, based on the author’s acceptance by their audience.

This chart is most applicable to people with moderate to no creative writing training.

And we (I) completely forgot to put it in.

Let this be proof that I’m not as clever as (it seems) many people think.

Making Amends

It’s amusing that this mistake was discovered after we reported our best sales month ever.

But Principles are Principles and when squeezed, one discovers the flavor of the juice.

So by the time this post sees the light of day, everyone who purchased NextStage Sentiment Analysis use since 12 June 2010 (when the BlueSky Meter was released) will have received email notification that their subscription has been renewed. Please contact NextStage if your subscription isn’t renewed (and have your purchase data handy).

Hey, it’s not exactly an oil spill in the Gulf and we do what we can to make things right.

Posted in Analytics, NextStageology, Sentiment Analysis, ToolsTagged , , , , , , , , , ,

If you think I’m sexy and you like my <BODY>…

Rod StewartOkay, so that’s not quite the way Rod Stewart sang it.

This post is going to be about things being not quite but close to and in a way will follow the tone of The High Cost of Cancelling WorkOutWorld Membership. It’s going to be about the long loong loooooong road to NextStage’s new interface, one that will be going across all our sites in the coming months.

And it begins better than a year ago. I think two years ago at this point… (just looked it up. Yep, two years ago at this point…)

Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Long ago I was asked what the new NextStage interface should look like based on the new audiences we were attracting. I came up with a crisp, clean, neat and highly actionable design. There were only three things you could do on that page I designed; Go to the NextStage Analytics site, enter the NextStage Evolution site or become a NextStage Evolution member (and hence gain access to our research and core Evolution Technology (“ET”) itself).1

I drew out the design by hand with lots of explanation of color schemes, fonts, image sizes, logo, …

The NextStage Evolution homepage I designedMy notes and drawings became the image on the right. People loved it when I showed it to them. One marketing maven thought devoting so much screen real estate to transferring people to the NextStage Analytics site (the big blue box on the right of the image) was wasteful. My response was a question, “Do you design such that the site’s goals and the visitor’s goal synch?”2

Umm…cough…nervous smile and furrowed brow… “Yes, of course I do.”

uh Huh.

The NextStage Analytics homepage I designedThe design I came up with recognized NextStage’s two audiences and that those two audiences would rarely sit at the same table together. One audience is marketing folks. Few of those folks really want what NextStage Evolution offers (pure and applied research, access to our researchers, research papers, …) , therefore quickly, cleanly and easily get them over to the site of a company that does offer what they want, NextStage Analytics. That site (also designed by me) is shown on the right. That big center box would hold a video or flash that was activated by the three large buttons on the left, from top to bottom “Learn About”, “What We Do” and “Who We Are”, the three functions we had learned were upmost on the minds of our shifting audience.

NextStage Analytics has a much more markety3 feel to it. The two sites share color schemes and such due to branding, they differ where they have to due to the different audiences they’d serve.

Visually distinctive and highly actionable designs with extremely good visual cues regarding what to do, what goals are achievable and how to achieve them, colors specifically chosen to echo people’s concerns about what we do and guide them past their concerns and into acceptance, all that NextStagey kind of stuff…

These two images — just the images. I drew out and explained the designs, color schemes, action paths, …, remember? — together cost about US$78,000.

People thought NextStage’s consulting prices were high?

I was told not to worry about the cost.


I’m skeptical by nature. People are surprised by that. You may have noticed in my blog posts, presentations and such that I tend towards caution, tend not to make a move without lots of evidence, rely on data-driven information, actively seek the counsel of others, …

One of the ways this manifests is that I don’t spend money unless I’m absolutely convinced there will be real, recognizable benefit to doing so. I’m frugal. And for the going on ten-plus years I’ve been doing this, no one ever, anywhere at any time has been able to prove4 to me that money spent redesigning a site consistently, directly, unequivocally, unquestionably and with a better than 83%5 certainty turned into increased revenue from that site.


And I’ve asked people. Lots of people. Ten and better years of people.6

And nobody ever gave me an answer. Some…in fact, the majority by close to 100%… said that I shouldn’t ask that kind of question. It had nothing to do with what site (re)design was about.

Say what? What do you mean I can’t equate the cost of a site redesign to revenue from that redesign moving forward? No wonder marketers and analysts don’t get along. And people wonder what planet I’m from?

This whole exercise started with a request to help new visitors migrate to a more comfortable interface. Migrating people between interfaces is something NextStage is very familiar with (it’s covered in Reading Virtual Minds Volume 2: Theory and Online Applications. I really need to finish that book. In the meantime, go read Site ReDesign to Maximize Visitor Acceptance and Branding). Migrating people between interfaces allows past audiences to combine with new audiences in ways that keep both audiences happy and converting.7

And these images work how? Explain to me how these jpgs become a website again, I seemed to have missed that detail the first time

Once past sticker shock I wanted to know “How do you create page templates from these images?”

Well…you don’t. There were no templates. It was all handled by an advanced CMS.

Fair enough. “The CMS system must break up the image somehow, right? I mean, you don’t drop an image of the completed page on the browser each time someone clicks on a different page, do you?”

That’s all handled by the CMS.

“Fine. How?”

I don’t know.

“Where are the docs for the CMS?”

There were no docs for the CMS. It was a custom CMS. You’ll have to trust us.

“Okay, where does the CMS go that’s going to cms our site?”

On your server.

Where it went. And went untouched. By them. For…I’m not sure, I’d have to ask Charles8, but I think it was between 3-6 months.

Oh, they did a few things on it at first — installation alone took over a month because they forgot to make sure all the software they needed was installed before loading the CMS — and then fewer…and fewer…and then…

And during none of this time did we see those beautiful designs turned into operational reality. I did see a “dev” site once with menus that opened when you clicked on the buttons, but no menu item led anywhere and the dev site never got past that homepage.

Which was loaded as a whole image, I think.

I finally asked Charles to look through the CMS data and see if there were any templates, any pages, any anything we could use.

He didn’t find any templates or pages, no…

But he did find contact and business data for all the other customers this group had worked with in the past.

Out went “You’ll have to trust us.” Real quick.

I asked the design firm contact why nothing had been done. “You hurt [the designer’s] feelings.” Not to mention that said designer thought I was a #%&!!MCU**^@! because I kept on asking for results along with the bills.

But wait a second…I hurt the designer’s feelings? How so?

“You didn’t take his suggestions.”

I said to the contact, “But even you admitted you preferred my design to his, that my design moved you at a gut level and in a positive direction. You admitted his didn’t do either, that it was ‘sexy’ but ineffective and non-motivational.” Not to mention that in a standard A/B test9 people stayed on my design and replayed it — the video or flash centerpiece — an average of three times to the ‘sexy’ design’s once and usually moving on before it completed a single run.

I asked, “And how come nobody’s concerned about my feelings? I don’t suppose he could take this as a learning opportunity, could he? God knows I am.”

I was once again told I “shouldn’t ask that kind of question.”10

Next I asked the design group contact to show me how the CMS worked because “This makes it so much easier to manage sites and change features.”

Okay. Fair enough. And I will admit that the new design image did come up on the screen. But only inside the CMS, not in a web browser. I pointed to a button in the image, moved my finger to another part of the screen and said, “Move that over to here.”

That’s not what the CMS is designed to do.

Uh…yeah. Perhaps my emPHAsis was on the wrong sylLAble. Perhaps it wasn’t CONTENTmanagement but contentMANAGEMENT. “Okay. Do something. Anything. Show me how this tool does something that I can recognize as ‘something got done’.”

Five minutes later I was still waiting.

An incredibly complicated tool that…did…nothing…

But dang it sure did cost a lot!11

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

“Charles, that business data you found. Is it still in there?” It was.

“Could you just pull the names for me? Nothing else, nothing more. Just the contact names.” He did.12 I recognized some of the names. Knew them on a friendly level. I called them and asked, “What can you tell me about such-and-such-and-so-and-so CMS?”

The best (meaning, least painful sounding) response was “We had it {note “had it”} for two years and could never get it to work right.” About middle was “We had it {again with the “had it”} on our servers but every time we wanted to change our site we had to go to them because there were no docs and there was no training.”

Great way to insure job security, that. No docs, no training, and by selling a tool that’s so complex to use only the people who built it know how to use it.13

I was quickly realizing there was an unsatisfactory solution in the making. Time to rethink and reassess. I’ve written elsewhere that one of my math mentors once told me, “For god’s sake, if you’re going to make a mistake make it at the beginning. It’ll be easier to find and you’ll have less invested in getting to the result.”

Good advice, that. We were still close enough to the beginning…I mean, there was no operational site and only some jpgs to play with…so I called John, someone I’ve known for years and who designs toys, statues, cars, comics, bookcovers (he did Reading Virtual Minds V1 and he’ll be doing the rest if I ever get them written), just about everything. “John, I need something to bridge the NextStage site design while adding certain other elements towards a new design. Interested?”

Migration Behaviors – Designing for them and Understanding them

First, you don’t have to be a bird, a caribou, a bison or some other animal to take part in migration. Humans were migrating a long, long time ago (see Birth Control’s Long History for an example) and you’ll probably be shocked to learn that the parts of our brains used to move from one geography to another are the same parts of our brains used to move from one interface to another.

Think of it this way; We have all that neural horsepower just waiting for something to do but most of us don’t perform seasonal migrations anymore (people who travel from a summer home to a winter home and back aren’t performing migrations in the ethological or behavioral sense). However, we do regularly migrate cognitive landscapes.

Cognitive landscapes? You probably call them interfaces. And not just software interfaces, but any commonly used human-nonhuman interaction point, place, method or system is an “interface”.

For example, I’m a’ guessing that one of the most obvious human-nonhuman interaction points is hardly given any thought by the vast majority of people reading this post although it was a major stepping stone in each reader’s personal histories and without it, your ability to socialize would be severely handicapped. That interaction point is the toilet.

Bet you never thought of the toilet as an interface, let alone a cognitive landscape. But enter a public or private bathroom and not have the interface you’re use to and whompus! don’t you do some thinking? Some looking around for what you know should be there? Don’t you experience some confusion?

Well, thinking, visual searching and confusion are all aspects of cognition. When you think about yourself doing something in some place you’re familiar with then find yourself needing to do that same something in a place you’re unfamiliar with, you create a image of that familiar place in your mind, match what you know to what you don’t know and mentally “walk” through the familiar while looking around the unfamiliar to figure out where what you need is located.

Have you ever misplaced something and thought back in time to when you last knew you had it or saw it, then mentally moved forward in time to figure out where you last had it?

Congratulations, you were navigating a cognitive landscape.

Have you ever sat down to use an upgrade or completely new version of some once familiar software and had to figure out how to perform a once familiar task, perhaps saying to yourself something like “Hmm…that use to be on this menu. I wonder where they put it now?”14

Congratulations, you were navigating a cognitive landscape.

These cognitive landscapes are everywhere and people involved in usability, product and information design and the like would do well to study them. Have you had to drive an unfamiliar car?

You can do the “major” car function pretty easily — you can drive it to get where you’re going. But what about the lights? Anybody remember when highbeams moved from the floor switch to the steering column? Anybody remember when the horn went from the center of the steering wheel to the steering wheel ring itself (that one didn’t last)? And what about the radio? Or the mirrors?

Cognitive landscapes again and a tribute to the evolution of automotive design. You want to sell cars to lots of people? Make the “major” car functions as standard as possible. You want to sell your cars to lots of people? Make the “minor” car functions just different enough that they’re both distinctive and more easily performed than in your competitors’ models.15

Anyway, moving people from one interface to another is an exercise in helping them migrate from one cognitive landscape to another.

A simple problem that’s already been solved many times in many places.

Here are the migration goals16 as they apply online:

  1. Uniformity across web presences…
  2. While demonstrating individuality among interfaces…
  3. That doesn’t alienate the known audience…
  4. While appealing to the new audience…
  5. And retains a simple, elegant functionality.

By the numbers…

1. Uniformity across web presences

We wanted a “standard” interface for branding purposes. What is the brand we want recognized across all interfaces?

NextStage Evolution (Duh!).

The brand/logo moving forwardSimple enough. Most people recognize the little figure with the concentric circles around its head as the NextStage logo. It’s on our cards, our current website, in our presentations and letterhead. In truth, we’ll probably never get rid of it because we’ve grown quite fond of our little homunculus. But our audience is changing and growing, so change and grow must our logo as well. Especially now that we’re releasing our desktop tools as web-based tools. But let our regular audience know it’s still us while letting our more recent audience know we’re growing and changing with them.

Also, our color has traditionally been blue. The concept of “blue” carries with it many, many messages (regardless of culture) that we find favorable, so stick with that, just bring it out more.

The NextStage KnowledgeShop, where the right to information is the right to be free...or at least far...So if you’ve seen NextStage’s new storefront (and you should really go check it out. We’re adding items daily right now) or our BlueSky Meter, OnSite, PersonaScope, Sentiment Analysis, and I have no idea how many other tools we’ll have out by the time this post sees the light of day, you’ll quickly recognize that some standardization is at work.

NextStage BSMeter - NSBM. Want to know how much crap they're telling you? Use this little gem...In fact, our new banners are remarkably similar…except in the bright, sunburst yellow, product specific title just left of center on each banner.

NextStage OnSite - NSOS. Learn that yes, people really do think your site sucks and a few simple changes would up your conversions a few hundred percent!And yes, there is a very specific and excellent reason that we used that sunburst yellow color for our product titles. And yes, there’s a specific and excellent reason that our product titles are just left of center in the banner.

NextStage PersonaScope - NSPS. Oh, my gosh, those people really are a??holes!It won’t matter which tool people use, they’ll very quickly know that they’re on a NextStage site and the specific tool that site is serving.

NextStage Sentiment Analysis - NSSA. Yes, that author truly is a sniveling wreck and not only that, but the audience knows it! Yeeha!It would be great if similarity of banners was all that’s required. We also want to make sure that people who use any one tool will be able to quickly and easily use every other tool. Therefore…

A plain, simple and functional menu

…standardize the menu across all sites.17 Use a menu on one product site and you can navigate on all product sites.

2. While demonstrating individuality among interfaces…

Did you read what I wrote above about the banners being different and then only in the name of the product or place?

And why yellow? Sunburst yellow? Just left of center (a clue — when the number of our visitors from south of the equator increases a bit we’ll make our sites sensitive to that and reverse the banner layout)? In a blue background? Sky blue background?


Do some optocular-psychophysics and you learn that the sunburst yellow, sky blue color combination is something the visual system has had millions if not billions of years adapting to (the just left or right of center not so much so and still enough). It creates a calling in the very bases of our psyches such that denied sunlight and blue skies for enough time humans become suicidal, homicidal and worst of all, less likely to convert!

Oh, my goodness no!

But give our psyches sunburst yellow in a deep blue background and it’s Convert, Baby, Convert!

3. That doesn’t alienate the known audience…

Did you read above about using colors that had always been our colors? Or keeping our homunculus mascot and logo? Or our wonderful sense of humor and bon vi vance?

It turned out that our logo is so unique and so identifiable that people often equate it with NextStage’s other predominant brand, me. And even those people who don’t know it’s our logo know it doesn’t belong to any other company they’re aware of.

More to the point, when people who know nothing about us are shown the logo and asked to say something about the company behind it, they always answer that the company has something to do with minds, brain science, neurology, medical devices for measuring or analyzing the brain.

“…measuring or analyzing the brain” “…brain science…” “…minds”.18


As I’ve written in this post before, I’m good with that.

4. While appealing to the new audience…

Did I mention that our traffic volume and conversions have gone up while our bounces have gone down?

5. And retains a simple, elegant functionality.

Four simple menu items for products; Home, Pricing/Order, About, Contact.

Six in the KnowledgeShop and based on what people purchase from us; Home, Books, Papers, Presos, Tools, Trainings.

And so…

Sexy? I’m still not sure what the word means exactly in a design context. I do know that I can’t get more than a few people to a) agree on a definition and that small number decreases rapidly when I ask them to b) determine metrics for it. There is a science that can be thought of as a study of “what is sexy?”, Koinophilia or Koinophology, and yes, we’ve been doing about two years’ worth of research on it (most recently and with many thanks to fellow researcher, Greg Peverill-Conti, who’s supplying us with images to use in the research). Brad Berens presented some of our research to date to RedBull International and they were both interested and intrigued (thanks, Brad!).

What is “sexy”? For that matter, what is “professional”? It’s like the congressional definition of pornography, “Pornography is what I’m pointing at when I say it.” Explain “sexy” and “professional” as some kind of achievable ROI metric, then define action items that you have great surety will achieve that ROI, then demonstrate that ROI has been achieved in such a way that the data actually unequivocally undeniably indicates that what you did caused this result and there’s no two-ways about it, and I’ll believe you.

Until my research indicates something different or better.

People remember extremes, not middleground. Whatever else, NextStage is remembered (and thought of fondly, we hope). NextStage has always designed to be remembered and nobody confuses our brand with anybody else, so we’re good for two.

Designing incredibly well is one of the simplest things to do yet one of the most difficult to achieve because everybody believes they’re an expert while not having repeatable, demonstrable expertise. The end result? Lots of incredibly expensive, difficult to navigate, “sexy” to some while crap to others, debranding and unmemorable websites emerge and are quickly forgotten.

Add to this mix “the more specialized (single purpose) a tool is the more expensive that tool becomes”, add in site design, branding, navigation and conversion and you can go out of business (or close to) before anything is achieved. And if you’re a user who wants a taste for free then know you’re free sample is going to increase the ultimate cost of whatever you’re sampling for free at some point in time and you’ll end up paying for free whether you want to or not.


Google, Plain and SimpleOn the day I finished the rough draft of this post I was sent Why Google backed down on home page backgrounds and Remove Google Background Critics Plead by some of our researchers and I was reminded of the person who, commenting on NextStage’s simple interface, said, “Well, it works for Google.”

Yep, sure does. And didn’t they learn something when they went to change it?

Well, pretty much, yes, they did learn something…what’s in Site ReDesign to Maximize Visitor Acceptance and Branding.

Gotta love it!

1 – Just so you’ll know, our loyal NextStage Evolution audience would have a link to the old site and be emailed login and passwords to the new site, something described in Site ReDesign to Maximize Visitor Acceptance and Branding.

2 – You can read more about this at Claudiu Murariu’s If you could ask one question to a certain segment of traffic, what segment would you choose and what question would it be? post).


3 – “markety” as in “Designed to appeal, entice, excite and engage people with a marketing mindset.” You’ll be shocked (Shocked!) to learn our Evolution Technology can determine such things and has been doing so since…oh…2003 or so (see Reading Virtual Minds Volume I: Science and History, Chapter 4 “Hans Reimar Gets Offered a Job in Sales” for an example of this).


4 – I will share an incantation with you, one I learned long ago and have used ruthlessly ever since. It is one of the most powerful magic spells known to humankind. It has stopped the high and the low immediately, confounded the minds of the wise and simple and brought strong men and women to their knees in remorse and shame. That incantation is…

Prove It!


5 – I use “83%” because that’s been ET’s average accuracy since 2001. We’ll be doing a major upgrade to our Language Engines sometime this year (2010) and we expect that accuracy to climb a few notches although how much higher is due to [agonizingly long mathematical discussion deleted by Susan. Bet you’re glad, ain’t’cha?].


6 – I actually started asking back in the late 1990s, during the dot com boom. I came to think that the dot com bust was due to people thinking a complete redesign meant more revenue when all they could guarantee a complete redesign meant was increased cost for the new design.


7 – Isn’t it nice that we euphemize it to “converting”? I guess I’m the only person on the planet who wants them to buy buy buy.


8 – Charles, I guess it’s time to reveal, is NextStage’s CTO. He’s been our little secret for quite a while now and we’ve convinced him to start shining his light. To that end, he’s writing and publishing articles under his own name (see Sample Size and Sampling Error in Social Media for an example).

I’ve known Charles since the early 1990s and in a completely different context than CTOish type things. He was, in fact, one of Evolution Technology’s (ET) earliest adopters and promoters. We’d gotten into the habit of emailing each other regularly and talking on the phone one or two times a week just to chat.

About a year back I was complaining about the fact that a “very good. He’s smart and can do what we need” data designer and programmer had already taken two months, charged US$30k and so far had failed to convert ET’s data system into something robust enough to move from desktop applications to a software as a service model.

I had explained to the “very good, smart” designer/programmer that ET’s data system was an identity-relational model, something that mimicked how the brain-mind recognizes things (as documented in Reading Virtual Minds V1: Science and History). Yes, I used a traditional entity-relational database technology to do it, but please don’t look for transactional processing, it doesn’t happen.

Two months, US$30k, and nothing. This very good, very smart person even wrote our contact that the design didn’t make sense and couldn’t work. Eventually our contact wrote us “…it was much too complicated that I thought to begin with” but only after first denying the situation for a while. Denial tactics don’t cut it with me much. Have you seen our Principles, specifically #6 – Take Responsibility for Your Actions and #15 – It is not easier to get forgiveness than permission?

So one Sunday, while talking to Charles, I mentioned this.

“Mind if I take a look?”

No, please. Be my guest. Knock yourself out.

An hour later Charles called me back. “I have your database working in SQL. Mind checking to see if it’s returning correct values?”

Within ±2db, it was. How did you do it so quickly?

“Your design had been working fine for better than ten years so it obviously did what it was suppose to do, and I know I don’t know how it’s suppose to work because even you admit you created that d?mned identity-relational model specifically for ET, so I just copied your structure into SQL, made only the necessary changes to make it SQL and tested to see if it worked. It did, so that’s that.”

Since then, Charles has learned more about how identity-relational models and improved my original designs greatly.

Introducing CharlesFor much less than US$30k. In much less than two months. His improvements to my original designs are why what originally took ten minutes now takes about ten seconds.

And if you think I’m scary, say something you can’t prove with facts — lots of ’em — to Charles sometime.


9 – Yes, we do perform A/B and such tests although only in a greater “A/B” frame — if A is a traditional A/B test and B is NextStage’s methodology, which produces greater ROI?

Well, NextStage does. See Panalysis’ Rod Jacka Said It for a public example of this.


10 – Note to people who wish to interact with us in the future: We’re RESEARCHERS!!! What we do is ask questions. All the time. And we don’t give up until we get answers that make sense along with all the other answers we’ve ever gotten. That’s probably why we’re such tough sells. We ask questions companies don’t want to answer.

Then again, it’s also probably why we’re so effective. Think of it as a corollary to Holmes’ “…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth“, “When you have eliminated all that doesn’t work, whatever remains, however improbable, must work.”


11 – Have you been following my rants (well, for me they’re rants) about outrageous pricing models? Sentiment Analysis at a Price Everyone Can Afford or Sentiment Analysis Costs How Much?, for example.

Funny how there's always enough to go around, ain't it?This concept that quality can only come at a high price reminds me of purchasing manure spreaders for the farm. Manure spreaders only glisten and shine when they’re on the showroom floor and the salesperson who doesn’t talk about spreading capacity, throw distance, rate and volume either doesn’t know what they’re selling or doesn’t have much respect for who they’re selling to. Manure spreaders can be right pretty when they’re not working or doing anything useful other than standing still doing nothing. They stop glistening and shining after the first use, usually the most junior farmhand is tasked with cleaning it after its used and it won’t work at all without a correctly geared and throttled tractor pulling it.

The big difference between farmers and businesses is that farmers know the manure spreader will get covered with sh?t as soon as it’s used, so buy one based on ability, not on looks.


Charles's imitation of Barack Obama's 'gazing-at-the-distant-horizons' posture.12 – Did I mention that Charles is incredibly good at doing exactly what I ask, no more, no less, and when he does more he always gives me what I asked for first, then let’s me know there’s more if I want it and because he’s so good at what he does I always want the “more”. And you wonder why we’ve kept him secret? Wouldn’t you like to work with someone who responds to your requests that well and that quickly? Hmm?


The original NSSA interface13 – One of our NextStage Sentiment Analysis beta testers commented that the original NSSA interface (shown on the right) was completely functional but she couldn’t show it to anybody. Another person offered that she couldn’t show it to management.

Fortunately, I’m good with that. I wanted to know if they ever had trouble using the tool.

“Nope, it works every time.”

It’s not difficult to use?

“Nope. You login, you enter what you want analyzed, you press [ENTER] and that’s it. A few seconds later you get your report.”

Several beta users commented that it was amazingly fast. They thought it would take a while to finish it’s analysis and were surprised when they didn’t even have time to stand up (that’s that “Charles in ten seconds thing” I mentioned earlier).

Are the reports difficult to understand?

Not at all. You explained one over the phone and it was pretty obvious…almost intuitive (well, I should hope so, really. Intuition is one of the ways the non-conscious communicates with the conscious, and as that is what Evolution Technology is geared to do, voila!).

You still using it?


So…easy to use (check!), understandable (check!), actionable (check!), works every time (check!), still using it (Check!!!) …

I’m good with such things. Handing me a gold hammer equates to telling me you’ve never driven a nail (gold, softer than steel, will deform each time you strike the nail). Yes, a gold hammer looks real pretty in your hand but for heaven’s sake don’t use it. You’ll hurt yourself, you’ll ruin the pretty and expensive hammer and you won’t get squat done.

And besides, NSSA Advanced and Voices versions includes spreadsheets of their analysis. If you need a gold hammer, you can make exactly the one you need because we provide all the parts.

Now about not showing the interface to management…during a training I mentioned that the tool would process any material although we preferred text for now. Somebody asked if it could process emails.

“Yeah, sure.”

And they promptly sent through an email from management.

And I explained the output for them without knowing what they had sent through.

And they were laughing their heads off.

And then they told me it was a management email about the new benefits package.

With Confidence about -90%, Trust at 0%, Destructive at 88%, They’re Not Good People at 80%, …

Lots of people are sending through management and other emails, we learned, so we’re coming out with a tool to specifically read emails. I’ll announce it on Twitter, I’m sure.


14 – Our constant interviewing of common people continually pulls up interesting tidbits. Regarding redesigns debranding, one individual who was (was!) a loyal visitor told us “ just redesigned their homepage and lost me for one as a visitor. It’s busy, confusing and takes too much effort to find what I want.”

Way to go, Fox!


15 – I once owned a very high end BMW. Everybody was impressed by it. Valets in Boston, Montreal, Hartford, New Haven, NYC and Quebec City always commented on what a great car it was, how good looking it was.

The only problem was that the seats fit neither Susan’s nor my butt. We looked great, people took note of our comings and goings and it was one of the most danged uncomfortable rides we ever had. Not to mention that once or twice the car’s computer forgot we were driving, that I was the owner, had entered the correct code and decided to shut itself down anyway.

While we were on the highway.

Going 70mph.

So I’ll go with simple, clean and neat (I now drive a ten year old Jeep Cherokee). I don’t need to look good. Especially if it means I’m going to be uncomfortable and at risk.

All I need to do is get there.

Things any car should be able to do. But having one that can do it easily, economically, reliably and is comfortable to use?



16 – You can get a primer on migrating users between interfaces in Site ReDesign to Maximize Visitor Acceptance and Branding.

I also need to add here that I’ll be posting some of NextStage’s research findings about who prefers “sexy” interfaces and why on The Analytics Ecology. It has been truly fascinating (at least to me) as it deals with why some people prefer “sexy” pages and others don’t. It has little to do with the page and lots to do with people’s feelings and attitude towards what’s offered and who’s doing the offering.


17 – At one point Charles wanted to know if we’d be designing for all the different devices out there. I asked some NSSA beta testers and our Advisors and the universal response was “Don’t design for everything, you’ll go nuts.”

So when someone contacted me to let me know our menu didn’t show up on their mobile device — everything else worked fine, all the images showed up, but the menu didn’t work — my first thought was that this was a fascinating piece of information that hearkened back to “Don’t design for everything, you’ll go nuts”.

But this wasn’t a design issue, it was a usability issue. The menus not showing up means the site was unusable to this person and lack of usability is a concern.

But wait a second…I have data on how many bounces our new sites are getting and the numbers are decreasing from what they were (our old site had 19% bounce rate. It’s less than that now). This individual, not being able to navigate and leaving the site after one page, would be considered a bounce.

And I have a fairly good idea of the ratio that forms between some one person sharing information and how many non-sharers that person probably represents.

And that number is still lower than our bounce rate, so the number of people coming to our sites on mobile devices that don’t load our menus is…


I checked with some people anyway. That’s the way I am. Overly cautious, highly methodical, a RESEARCHER, remember?

I know quite a few people with mobile devices; LG smartphones, iPhones, ‘Droids, … Were there any other mobile devices having problems? It turned out that menu-appearment was device dependent and the mobile device market is highly in flux. As one person explained to me, “The menus show up. I have to do a “long press” for the drop down to work. But my phone reads that input as wanting to save the image. I can back out of that and then click on the expanded menu though. Many touch-screen phones are just that. Predominately single-touch menu interfaces. Something like a rollover on a typical website may take some finagling to get to. Depending on how the site is coded I’ve had the phone bring up its own menu of the items in the drop down. But that varies from site to site.”

So we’re not going to worry about that right now. When we get lots and lots and lots of people coming to our sites over mobile devices, maybe, and not right now, thanks.

But don’t you love it when the data actually unequivocally undeniably indicates both what to do and how to do it?

I just love that.

Final comment on this thread: this individual suggested NextStage hire a web designer/programmer so we wouldn’t have to worry about things like this in the future.

Thanks. Great suggestion. Getting bit for US$78k once was enough, though.


Maybe we should start selling these in the KnowledgeShop?18 – We once set forth a bunch of our researchers on a bright summer day, each of them wearing a t-shirt with our little homunculus on the front. A little girl wanted to know what other toys we made but all the adults asked what kind of psychological testing service, counseling agency, opinion research, … we did.


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It All Started With That First Bite Of Food

If you’ve been following along, you know NextStage is poised to release a set of web-based tools based on its long proven desktop technology. If you’re wondering why it hasn’t happened yet (at least at the consumer level) it’s because we’re rebranding and rebuilding the NextStage store.

A recent discussion between myself, NextStage’s CTO and the VP Technology of a third company was incredibly rewarding (for me, anyway. I learned how Evolution Technology’s neuromathematics is implemented in software). There was one element of that discussion that truly caught my attention.

It dealt with whether or not new tools should require training in order to be successfully and completely utilized. One reason this element caught my attention is because I’m busily writing Chapter 2 of Reading Virtual Minds Volume 2, the chapter entitled “Usability”.

And lest you think everything at NextStage is de facto sympatico, nay nay. The disagreement was between myself and our CTO, Charles.

Readers who follow my postings here, there and everywhere probably know my position on the subject (see Learning to Use New Tools if you don’t). Charles’ position (Charles, please feel free to comment here if I’m incorrect) is that any tool should be so simple no training is needed in its use.

The truth is Charles and I disagree on a reasonable amount of things. My feeling is that while our disagreements make for good conversation they don’t matter much otherwise.

This disagreement, though…

Defining “New”

Things are defined as new in experience when there is no basis for them in prior experience. “Newness” is, therefore, a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma, of a sort. Humans learn by pigeon-holing things. We are designed to like similarities, to prefer metaphors and similes, because they allow us to decide quickly whether or not something is good or bad for us.

Food good. Food go in mouth.This is excellent from an evolutionary neuroanatomy standpoint. We learn that something is good for us and we spend the rest of our lives determining if everything else fits that model. Example: Food goes in our mouths. It could be argued that “food goes in our mouths” is the first lesson babies learn. It goes without argument that babies spend a great deal of their time putting everything else within reach in their mouths, much to the terror of parents, older siblings, so on and so forth.

Food good. Food go in mouth. Therefore anything that go in mouth good.This “food goes in our mouths” can also be argued as humans’ first lesson in applied logic and how not to form an argument. Consider the following:

  1. Food is something that goes in the mouth.
  2. Food is good.
  3. Therefore anything that goes in the mouth is good.

The example most often used in elementary logic classes to teach this is something like “Homer was male. Homer was Greek. Therefore all Greeks are male.” and is called Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent (yes, I’ve taken a few liberties. If you’d like a formal introduction to logic, let me know and I’ll hook you up).

This early lesson makes itself known in English by such phrases as “It left a bad taste in his mouth”, in Italian (translated into English) as “I’d like a small taste”, and the simile and metaphor aspect comes in because these phrases are rarely used to describe foodstuffs. The former most often describes a negative experience and the latter most often describes a request for some small part in a business transaction.

He bit off more than he could chewThus those first life lessons — food goes in the mouth — is used throughout life to symbolize the good and bad of things. How many of us have bitten off more than we could chew? Or had eyes bigger than our stomachs? And while these are all variants of “food goes in the mouth” metaphors, how often are they used strictly for foods and mouths?

What is recognized in all the above is Charles’ being accurate within some semantic considerations; tools should be so simple no training is needed in their use.

I completely agree with Charles’ statement provided that some metaphor or simile — some pigeonhole — exists in our experience in which said tool comfortably fits. Or at least can be hammered into without lots of destruction to either the tool, the pigeonhole or the hammer.

And I’m guessing that the majority of readers of this post understood the previous paragraph. At least the readers who’ve had some experience with hammers, with forcing something to fit into something else (packing suitcases for a trip, for example), with “pigeonholing”, …

We create new rules when old experience failsBut at some point nothing we do will make what’s in front of us fit into our experience. The “food” is not only too big to fit in our mouth, it puts up a fight. Someone may even come along and inform us that what we’re shoving in our mouths isn’t food at all, it’s our sister’s pet.

What occurs now is called confusion and according to Michael Gelb, “Confusion is the welcome mat at the door of creativity.”

Confusion occurs in humans (all self-aware, cognitive species, actually) when there is no past experience — no pigeonhole — that is a comfortable or even hammerable fit for present experience. What literally happens is a trans-derivational search, the brain can’t provide the mind with an acceptable fit so the mind tells the brain to go look again and again and again and again. Each “and again” request is sent with an increasing sense of urgency (regardless if there is any need for urgency) and eventually panic sets in.

Unless the mind accepts the brain’s “this is beyond my experience” information and sends a different request; “This is something new. Make room for it.”

Children are constantly making room for new things. They have to. For one, their brains and minds haven’t differentiated much so there’s lots less confusion because everything is new to them. Second, they don’t have a whole lot of experience to go on so again, everything is new.

It’s that different request, that “This is something new. Make room for it” that leads to creativity.

Dear God Don’t Make Me Think! If I Think, Things Might Change

New also occurs when we use old things in new waysCreativity…that spark that ignites from within the mind and expresses the heart…

The ape in 2001: A Space Odyssey that stopped seeing the tapir’s femur as the remains of a meal and started seeing it as a hammer was — dare I write it? — evolving to the — I’m going to do it again — next stage along the path to becoming human. Us. This happened because the ape saw something that conflicted with its previous experience; when the femur struck other bones they shattered and flew apart. It had seen bones shatter and fly apart countless times, no doubt.

The newness was recognizing that the bones were shattering and flying apart because of something he was doing.

Instead of running away from the wildly flying bones — the panic reaction that kept us safe in the wilds for ever so long…well, long enough to become us — this ape made new space in its brain for the new experience.

And by doing so it created a tool unlike any that had ever been known before.

Then the ape showed its new tool to some friends. Many of them scattered. Some the first ape was able to train, not necessarily in how to create new tools, but at least in how to use this tool.

An interesting part of this is that most humans don’t like change. There’s no way to avoid it because everything changes, so humans spend lots of time and money minimizing what changes in their lives or at least controlling what changes and how so things don’t change unless they’re prepared for it.

So again, tools that require no training, that can be operated and understood based entirely on past experience, are ideal.

But again, there’s a catch here.

Who’s experience should a new tool be based on? There comes a point where people’s experiences are going to diverge due to culture, language, regionality, … If this wasn’t the case, you could ask for some soda anywhere in the USA and be assured of getting some kind of caramel-colored, carbonated concoction. Charles and I have highly divergent backgrounds. Tools that are completely understandable to me are (so he tells me) a mystery to him and vice versa.

What is it?I remember going to a microbiology lab party at Dartmouth. The hostess held up what’s shown on the right. Before reading further, any ideas what it is?

Well, she held it up to the 25-30 extremely bright, highly intelligent, PhD candidates, post docs and professors assembled and asked, “Who knows what this is?”

And I stopped chatting with Cathy Lukaize and Susan, looked up, offhandedly said, “It’s a molinillo, you use it to stir hot chocolate in Mexico,” and went back to my conversation.

The hostess shook her head. “I should have known you’d know what it was, Joseph.”

But nobody else did and the reason was simple. It was not a tool they had been trained to recognize, they had no experience of it and there was no survival-based requirement that they make a new place for it in their brain so aside from being an interesting party gadget…

It’s also worth noting that I wouldn’t know what to do in their labs if I had to. Such microbiology work was completely out of my experience. I had no place in my brain for the tools they routinely used.

So tools should be obvious and require no training providing they are completely based on your past experience. It must be completely based, it can’t even be fundamentally based on past experience. Fundamentally based means your back to hammering something into the pigeonhole to make it fit, which is a metaphor for either taking a class or training yourself in the tool’s use.

Once you get past that, you either have to be creative, intuitive (something that neuroscience indicates only comes with lots of highly divergent experiences) or trained.

I mean, I know Charles is one heck of a CTO. I don’t think it happened in some moment in time when he said, “Ah, from this point forward, I am going to be one heck of a CTO!” But I do know he was able to take something I’d written that took ten or so minutes of processing time and make it produce reports in less than ten seconds. Does he understand the math? He says no. Do I understand his code? Not really.

I know it took me a heck of a time to get my knowledge in the fields in which people now hire me. And (stating this purely for example purposes only) I didn’t create “a whole new field of technology” (according to the USPTO, those aren’t my words) by running away from splintered bones and tapir’s femurs.

Learning to use tools that aren’t based on your experience also means the tools are new to you. You can get past this newness tolerance break if you’re willing to go further and further back in someone’s experiential matrix until you find the point where their experience diverged from yours, then bring them along on your path.

This means the question becomes “How far back do you want to go?” Somethings, believe it or not, may require teaching people that oddly colored, cold, sticky substances go right good in the mouth.

Othertimes, me thinks, it’s simply easier to start with “This is a new tool and you’re going to require some training in its use.”

Don’t you think?

NextStage’s CTO, Charles, Responds…

Frankly, I don’t recall the exact words I used, but if I used “…is that any tool should be so simple no training is needed in its use.” I would say that I stated it poorly. I don’t believe this formulation anyway.

We were speaking, at the time, about software tools. And, based on long experience (;-)) working with both software and users extensively, I long ago reached the conclusion that this is true for software tools. I don’t believe that this conclusion is different from your own, I just come at the same issues with different ends in mind, and this formulation is specific to software.

Pretend for a moment that ET doesn’t exist. Never did.

Virtually all end user software tools have been created to do something (or do something faster) that people were already doing or trying to do. Almost by definition, there is a certain level of familiarity going into it for most of the people who have laid out cash to purchase software. The most straightforward example is accounting software. People have been tallying possessions for centuries, and by the time computers came along, they had come up with some fairly universal rules for how it should be done. The first accounting software was simply a translation of those rules and activities. The people who bought it usually knew the rules and were looking for the part of the tool that performed the familiar task and trying to discern how to make this tool perform this task. They knew how to do it with a calculator and pencil and were seeking the specific procedure needed to repeat it here.

Take someone with no understanding of accounting, and, sure enough, they will be lost. They’ll be trying to learn two things at once (three if they’re new to computers, as well) and the task will be overwhelming because all aspects of it are out of their understanding and experience. Normally, in a business setting, this is not the case. You don’t take someone off the warehouse floor and plop them in front of an accounts receivable package and expect output. If you did, you’d be an idiot to expect your balance sheet to be correct the next day.

But if you take someone who’s been doing the accounting for a company, put them in front of a package and they aren’t able to even recognize the major functions they expect to be able to do, then the problem is with the tool. (The essential point here is that they’re not trying to do something new, they’re trying to do something old in a new way. More on this later).

The problem is akin to the issue of simplicity. I noticed in college that asking a grad student a simple question about a complex subject would usually result in a mish mash of an answer. Ask the same question of a good professor with long years experience in the subject, and you’d get a clear, concise answer that elucidated the subject and resulted in “AHA” understanding. Not a newly sprouted expertise, mind you, but understanding. I realized that until you really understand something, you can’t state it simply. And if you can state it simply, it’s because you really understand the subject.

(Remember, we’re still pretending ET doesn’t exist).

The same bears true in software tools, I believe. Until you can set it up so that it can be used simply, either you haven’t really gotten the point of having software in the first place, or you don’t understand the task the software is supposed to perform well enough. And people who have created software that lacks that simple interface generally make software that has other failings, as well, usually because they didn’t really understand what they were about. I’ve seen this often enough that whenever I see a company that emphasizes that it provides training in its software to handle standard business functions, alarm bells go off.

(In particular because in many years of asking how computer classes went, the response has invariably been that the teacher was either good or bad, but the material studied didn’t have much to do with what the user was going to be using the software for).

(Did you remember we’re still pretending ET doesn’t exist? Hang in there. It can spontaneously generate soon.)

In what may seem like an off-subject ramble: Accountants love spreadsheets. (I knew a banker, once, who wrote all his business letters in Lotus123). Pages of columns and rows and formulas. And it all recalculates automagically. What else could you ask for in life? Few accountants/bookkeepers I’ve known really like databases much. And only the smart ones really understand that some things work better in spreadsheets and others work better in databases. Most think in terms of putting everything new into their favorite hammer, a spreadsheet. And I’ve seen some of them do amazing things. And I’ve seen other devote hundreds of hours of labor to making spreadsheets do a task that would have taken half an hour to create using a database.

Truth be told, spreadsheets and databases share some essential basics, and each can do most of what the other can do, if you know what you’re doing and spend enough time tweaking them. The proper choice depends on which kind of task you need to do most efficiently. Knowing the proper choice has a direct impact on how easy it is for others to use the tool you create.

And when I first dove into this discussion with Joseph, I pointed out that I had seen people use Dremel Mototools to do amazing carvings that were incredibly beyond my capabilities, but that I have often used Dremel Mototools to take the heads off screws. Same tool. Different purpose.

His response (if I’m remembering it correctly, can’t seem to find it) was that the artist could take the head off the screw much better and more skillfully.

Well, that’s probably true, but I doubt I could get him to come to my messy garage to take the head off of a screw for the amount I’m willing to pay him.

(OK, the time has come. Abra-cadabra, POOF! ET has just sprung back into existence).

“Whoa! What is that?!?”

“It’s something new. It lets you do an amazing number of things we could never do before.” (Here follows a long list).

Cool. Can it do. . .” (Here follows another long list, almost all of which are answered by either “yes” or “yes, but. . .”). “Wow. That’s amazing. But I don’t understand all of these things. How does it work? I’m getting a headache. Hey, is this blood coming out of my ears?”

“I know. It’s a new thing. Almost nobody understands it. But I can teach you how to use it.”

“OK. So that means there’s a manual I have to read?”

(Sorry, couldn’t resist poking a little fun).

I see now that I really used the wrong tool in my analogy. I should have used the computer itself. With more than a couple of decades worth of experience, I dug down deep into half a dozen different software tools to create a new tool that did something fairly straightforward with another tool I don’t completely understand, but can relate to things that I do understand. Did all of this on my desktop computer, then uploaded it to another computer that served web pages. I was using old tools and new tools to make another complex new tool to do a complex new thing.

Meanwhile, my 76-year-old mother-in-law is using her computer to check her email and avoid a trip to the drug store by creating birthday cards. A complex new tool to do simple old things efficiently and conveniently. The tools she’s using are complex beneath the surface, but the interface is — trust me — necessarily simple. She can use them because she’s known a long time how to communicate with the written word, and she understands the concept of the birthday card — and the interface is simple.

The interface for the NSSA tool is pretty simple. Little if any training is necessary, and that can be provided in a few lines of text on the page. The output, on the other hand, is some extraordinarily complex stuff. The software requires virtually no training. Understanding and effectively using the output requires a fair amount. But let’s go back to the warehouse guy that somebody plopped down in front of the accounts receivable package. His problem is not that the software is too complex, but that he doesn’t know what a chart of accounts is. The same package can be quite simple and obvious to the bookkeeper because it’s designed for him/her. It is possible, however, using the same package to train the same warehouse worker to fill out a bill of lading. I’ve done it. Took ten minutes. He’d filled out lots of bills of lading before.

I don’t believe any of this challenges the babies putting things into their mouths blog entry. Never had a moment’s disagreement with any of that. I just think it limits ET too much.

My position is not that ET should only be used if it’s dumbed down enough that anybody can use it. My position is that ET is a tool of such versatility and power that it — like computers — can be used to 1) do things that are new and complex and need at least a modicum of training in the disciplines behind them and 2) also do familiar old things in new, improved ways that make those things faster and more convenient, and 3) several variations along a continuum between the two.

In many of these instances, it should not be necessary to understand accounting if all you want to do is fill out a bill of lading. (One of the things I’ve also learned is that, while it might be useful to have your warehouse guy understand accounting, it simply ain’t gonna happen). But it is kind of important for the screen to have elements that are recognizable as bill of lading items.

So there.

Joseph Responds

Well, stated, Charles. Thank you.

The only thing I could possibly add to this is (once again, Serendipity doing it’s job in my life) today’s quote, Never forget that it is a waste of time to do the same thing twice, and that if you know precisely what is to be done, you need not do it personally at all. Forces are faster than human hands, they are tireless and they neither slip nor make mistakes. (Rovol), because it seems so fitting.

Other thoughts/comments, anyone?