Max Vorhauer

March 3, 2022

Reading list February 2022

I want to read one book per week in 2022. This blog series documents my monthly progress, summarizes each book, and hopefully sparks a conversation between us. Here is February 2022. It did not read a book a week, but there more important news to follow. You can check out the other months here.

Making Numbers Count – Chip Heath & Karla Starr

What is the difference between 1 million and 1 billion seconds? Both are very large numbers. Both have a few zeros. In our brain there is not much difference between these two numbers. But 1 million seconds are just 11.5 days. 1 billion seconds on the other hand are a bit more than 31 years. Wow!

In their book “Making numbers count” Chip Heath and Karla Starr not only highlight astonishing examples in which our brain is failing – they also make some good suggestions on how to communicate numbers more effectively. They argue that most people aren’t numbers-people, but our world is dominated by numbers (just open todays newspaper and have a look at all the large numbers). Initially, our brain was wired to only recognize small amounts of one thing.

To make numbers more relatable the authors provide a few useful tips. Of course, the best way is to avoid numbers at all by using other comparisons (instead of using the percentage of woman in CEO roles in Fortune 500 companies, you can just say that there are more CEOs named James than are woman). Or you could translate numbers to a more user-friendly scale (see seconds example above). Maybe you’ve seen Covid-19 guidelines to keep your distance – some countries got creative and didn’t use numbers but fathoms (i.e., keep the distance of one alpaca between you and other people). In total they recommend 18 different methods, all suited to different situations.

I absolutely loved reading the book. Not only is it helpful, but it is also written very refreshingly. The book contains a lot of inspiring and funny examples, which really help you memorize the methods. You might have spotted already a few occasions where I used their tricks (post #1 and post #2).

Recommended for: people that need to communicate numbers regularly – i.e. Marketing or Finance

The most memorable nugget: Translating numbers into something concrete (like Lego bricks) makes them more emotionally charged.

Hooked – Nir Eyal

Why can’t I stop opening Twitter? Why do people check their phone before they even leave their bed in the morning? What makes you play Candy Crush every time you wait for someone? The answer is simple: habits (it could also be addiction which is the most extreme form of habits).

Though Nir Eyal’s “Hooked – How to Build Habit-Forming Products” is already 8 years old, its message can’t be more suited for this time. Especially Social Media apps try to capture every second you spend with your phone (though the Netflix’s and Robinhood’s of today also have their fair share of addictive behavior). Eyal provides a framework that can help you build a habit-forming product. He provides for phases: (internal & external) triggers, simple actions, variable rewards, and investment. The goal of his framework is to get people into a cycle of constant actions and rewards, triggered by notifications and fueled by your data investment. He also offers some guidelines on how to not drift into manipulation, or at least he tries to appeal to your moral principles (if you really want a discussion on addiction, I rather recommend Irresistible).

Though the last paragraph sounds like I would not recommend this book to anyone, I still liked a few sections. Things like providing simple actions to your users is the golden rule of good UX. He highlights the elements of simplicity, that help you determine if your actions are well designed: time, money, physical effort, brain cycles, social deviance and non-routine.

Recommended for: Product managers and UX designers of consumer applications

The most memorable nugget: If it improves a user’s life and you, as the creator, would use it, your application is not manipulative. What improvement means is not totally clear.

Drive – Daniel H. Pink

What really motivates and drives people? For many years it was believed that carrots and sticks would be enough to make people do things for you. What might work for routine tasks, will hinder your creative workforce in the long run. Because the human brain is thirsting for rewards, and once you install any kind of extrinsic reward, the human brain expects more and more.

This is the baseline of “Drive - The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Danial H. Pink. While if-then rewards might improve short time performance it slowly extinguishes intrinsic motivation and crushes performance. What might work for people of Type X (fueled by extrinsic motivation) is not enough for Type I people (fueled by intrinsic desires). And if you have to rely on the performance of Type I people, you should cater for their motivation. He provides three areas that help Type I’s strive: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy refers to the working culture. How much room do people have to act with choice? Can employees decide what they do, when they do it and how they do it? If these aspects are present, well-being is close. That is why at descript we use the approach of Shape Up in our programming processes to allow our developers more autonomy within the product scope. Mastery is the level you have within certain skills that are needed for your job. On the way to mastery, you will encounter the Flow-state, where the activity is its own reward. The glue, holding autonomy and mastery together, is purpose. If a company caters to these three aspects within their workforce, well-being and success will come.

Recommended for: Everyone with personnel responsibility but also everyone looking for a place to start finding a purpose.

The most memorable nugget: The three laws of Mastery drive my resolution to read one book per week to get more capable in the things I do. Mastery is a Mindset and intelligence can be increased. Mastery is Pain and requires a lot of effort over time. Mastery is an Asymptote that never can be reached.