Small creative acts and opportunity perception

July 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

Without the amazing skill of opportunity perception we would be an extinct species. But what is opportunity perception? In psychological research it is hardly ever considered and I have not seen it seriously used in the study of perception or attention either. It is a marginal concept, often and originally used in the studies of entrepreneurship failure or success (cf. Gaglio & Taub, 1992). In real life we meet challenges of opportunity perception  daily like the signs below, from Lago d’Orta, Northern Italy, showing the way to the city centrum.

With Mark Nelson at PT Lab Stanford, we have been inspired by the potential value of this concept in designing innovative models, tools and frameworks for peace innovation. How could we learn to see novel and available but not yet perceived opportunities to promote peace and non-violence?  How to better see through the jungle of traditional and dominant ways of perceiving the present reality? There is a massive scale of creative potential in the evolving social, financial, political, and mediated communication in general.

Scene 1. Helsinki Airport. Your flight is just about to leave, you rush towards the gates and enter an elevator to reach the right floor for check-in and security check. In the crowded elevator, in haste you try to find an unobstructed view over the shoulders of your fellow travelers down to the row of buttons to find out which is the right floor for check-in. There really is no extra time for mistakes and a minute objectively lost is an hour subjectively. It’s like an inverse time dilation of subjective relativity in a hurry.

Finally people get out from the elevator and you stare and stare at the buttons for information. To leave the elevator or not to leave? There is no answer to your question, no information offered, you don’t know how to choose, you don’t see an opportunity for this small success, and you just have to guess – or if you are lucky, you can remember it right from your last flight here. Maybe you just try and see. The designers have not been interested in your opportunity perception.

Maybe you really make it in time, but you have already paid an unwelcomed psychological price for this uncertainty. You realize that you have missed something but what is it? This feeling is deeply bothering.

If your frustration is repeated, you start thinking of a better route or service provider next time. But of course, you learn on the way and at least you know better next time in this elevator. You will not miss the opportunity to find a way to do what is valuable to you, despite the design hindrances. It is not your problem, not in these elevators.  But now you have new and important knowledge: someone else will face that problem. This is real collective knowledge and experience of a bad service. It is very difficult to study in any market research because of its distributed and meta-knowledge nature, but it is real knowledge that has serious but difficult-to-predict consequences for customer behavior and attitudes.

This familiar incidence is a peculiar type of user/consumer situation:  you are required to know how to behave in order not to miss the opportunity to perceive and to do what is valuable to you. But you don’t know how to accomplish that and the design solutions don’t help. Hundreds of travelers daily make it so that from the outset this might look like the design solution had succeeded. What about the experiences of the people who used the elevator? Nobody knows. Is it a design success? In a collective and invisible sense it is not.

These small incidences are significant because they concern asymmetric consumer experiences. It is not a matter of zero-sum game because the missed subjective opportunities and negative experiences have multi-dimensional, subjective weights and it takes more time to build positive experiences than to get rid of the effects of the negative ones. In addition, a good customer experience cannot be created by just removing the reasons for the bad experiences.

The designer of the elevator controls has blocked your personal opportunity perception, and prevented you from a small act of personal creativity. They have removed this joy from your travel.

Scene 2. San Francisco Airport. The same story, now you are at the check-in automat of AA. It has a clear and readable display that tells you which buttons to push and instructs you to slide in your passport in order to input your personal information in the machine and to receive your tickets. But it’s 5.30 AM and you are not really interested in putting your passport anywhere, all that you want is to see an opportunity to go through the check-in and the security gate as fluently as possible. But that opportunity is not offered to you and you have no chance for a small creative act that would help you at this early morning hour.

There is no place to insert the passport and you try to slide it into a horizontal slot below, where you see an inviting, red laser lighted square and bar code symbol. The passport matches nicely the size and form of the slot, you can even insert it there, which seems like a natural thing to do. “Excellent affordance” as Gibson would comment on it, but unfortunately a false one, an illusion of opportunity. You try and try. Nothing happens and apparently there is no place for your passport in the automat. And you are in a hurry to the next queue for baggage drop.

You opportunity for a small creative act, a fast move to the gates has been blocked.

Reality and subjectivity

But of course there was information about the right floor in the elevator and the signs were really easy to see and understand. Of course there was a place for your passport, even written in so LARGE AND CLEAR LETTERS , on the top of the automat that anyone should see them – if he/she happened to look there. This is where the roads of the human designer and an engineer designer depart.

For a careful engineer, the information is there simply because it was well and wisely defined in the design requirements and it has been placed there accordingly. For a less careful human user, there is no information if it is not within his or her opportunity field. It does not help even if his life were threatened, quite the contrary.

This is negative engineering magic by which the systematic and standards-obeying designers fool us and repeatedly make us understand how bad we are in   r-e-a-d-i-n-g    t-h-e-   i-n-s-t-r-u-c-t-i-o-n-s  carefully. Or maybe they implicitly think of the Gaussian distribution of intelligence and decide that a loss of stupid customers is no real loss. The less intelligent ones are not the most valuable future customers anyway. Perhaps they are right, perhaps not.

The immaterial power of opportunity perception

Opportunity perception is a most non-physical, immaterial, and human phenomenon. It is difficult to put into the design requirements and it is more than attention or cognitive problem solving: it is a creative, holistic, forward-orienting human and animal process of perception and experience. So far, computers don’t have even a capacity for intelligent attentive behavior and those who claim otherwise simply fool us. We don’t even deep-down know what attention is.  That is why engineers so often either neglect it (don’t pay attention to it), misinterpret it (as a problem of simple perception), underestimate its psychological consequences (don’t see the impacts) or just over-scifi it (use too specific scientific models to deal with it). Opportunity perception has not been perceived in perceptual psychology.

Present psychological and neuro-physiological models of attention and perception have very little to offer to opportunity-friendly and naturally engaging design. The studies on human attention are interesting theoretically but they are simplistic and seldom authentic (they deal with problems like e.g. serial vs. parallel search, automatic or not, exhaustive or non-exhaustive search, feature based search or not, single channel vs. multiple channel etc).

Luckily there are also context related approaches like the ones offered by the human factors community research but it is a mystery how can it be such a long distance from for example the excellent airplane cockpit design to other apps at the airport? We all know the organizational answer to this but it is a weird pathology of design cultures: you would think that even stealing these good and simple ideas and concepts would be easy and profitable.

Design briefs that can take the test of life

Sören Ingomar Petersen has analyzed the huge benefits of design (see e.g. Perhaps this could be a useful addendum to his holistic views:  The main reason for failures in opportunity-friendly designs is that perception of opportunities is always connected with complex human intentions, interest, feelings, will, motivation, need, social situation, near and far history, and preferences. If and when these simple everyday drivers but complex theoretical and design-related entities are missed, no psychological theory in the world helps to a better design. In future service design these human behavior needs and drivers must be taken as the most basic starting points of any design solution. But we need a concept to map these life processes in a valid way.

What are we actually doing that designers should know?

Bank at home. Almost all personal and home bank applications are designed to help us self-service the bank processes. They have taught us to take care of both our own accounts and the bank’s accounts. But this is a major design failure. People are not at all interested in managing their personal accounts, let alone their bank’s accounts and processes. Their main interest is to manage the everyday life, economy and finances fluently, securely, profitably, and in a way that makes economic follow-up and planning profitable, useful, easy, fun and practical for the family if needed.

To provide account apps to us is a totally different matter than to provide real economic help and services. Family finances if any are full of challenges for opportunity perception. There are also major disasters easily available to anyone seeing illusions of opportunities. For example, in a few seconds anyone can destroy his/her financial life and future totally with these self-destruction allowing systems. How can this be possible today!? A true opportunity-oriented system would help us see also the opportunity threats.

Going for a holiday trip. When we prepare for a holiday trip it is not the just the trip we are interested in but everything that is connected with it – in our personal world. A trip is never the same for all of us. We are not mainly interested in finding and choosing the best place to stay. Almost always we want to share that visit, interest in it, and planning with someone, often with a friend or a family member. We enjoy visioning and planning our time and life arrangements around the trip. We enjoy preparing for it in many indirect ways, including various aspects of our life logistics, coordinating with our other activities, creating possibilities for relevant activities before, during and after the trip. The internet materials available for browsing travel destinations are excellent, but there are practically no inspiring, cumulatively functioning, collaborative services available for this. Miniscule signs of this thinking can be found in various sites but the offerings are scarce. The good side of it all is that there are huge possibilities for competitive advantages already.

When a service want to become intimate

Our everyday life is full of opportunity perceptions and we are continuously oriented towards the possibilities of these small, enjoyable, and creative acts of everyday life. When businesses and service providers manage to support that aspect of our life we allow an engaging relationship with them. If our intimate life processes and contexts are then well served, we will enjoy it spontaneously.

When any service intends to touch our lives and to have an intimate role for us it has to earn this right. It becomes necessary for service designers to understand the basic human perception, behavior, and experience drivers that are then relevant. In these example cases, the designers did not understand our life processes and our need for small creative acts of life and living. They did not respect our ways and will to perceive opportunities. At those particular moments they failed to create a bond of trust with us and will have difficulties in future to do so.

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