Why we do what we do: Fighting fear – Loss Aversion

One of the challenges that just about any group new to testing has is trying to get buy-in and support from various other groups, usually with strong opposition from UX and branding teams, but also from just about any other group that interacts with the site. The largest reason for this is Loss Aversion, or “the disutility of giving up an object is greater than the utility associated with acquiring it.” To put simply, we get too caught up in what we lose that we miss what we gain. People fear the lack of control that opening up their ideas to analysis brings, and with that fear comes some of the biggest hurdles that programs need to overcome.

How many times have you had to try and get sign-off from a new group only to have them push back or say that doesn’t “feel right”. How many times have you wanted to bring testing to new people only to have them shy away the first moment what they were sure would win, loses? The irony of this is that some of the most ardent supporters of testing in mature programs are the very people who were challenging the programs at the very start. Anyone that has built their reputation on their artistic talent, or by declaring “here is how we are going to do this” has to overcome their fear of losing that control in order to gain the power and efficiency that testing can bring.

How many times have you gone into a conference room with people to brain storm? Or gone to an offsite just to come back with a long list of who you are going to target? Or some written rules on color guidelines or the like. There is a lot of hard work that goes into those efforts, but the problem is that they are filled with assumptions and compromise. They are designed to either make everyone feel like they contributed, or to make the HiPPO happy. What testing does in the best cases is stop that cycle, so that you are no longer trying to figure out the one way to make things work, but instead have open discussions on what is feasible. It democratizes ideas and is agnostic as to the value of them. The entire point is to be able to measure the value of each idea against the others and figure out the best one to go with. There is a great deal of fear, what if you are wrong? Does this make me look bad? My way has always been “right”, and so on. People have built empires on this fallacy, often with no one holding them accountable to the actual value of those ideas.

So how do you fight this? The first thing you must do is to get everyone to agree on what you are trying to accomplish. This has to be a single thing that you can measure and that is universal across the site (this is not about group A versus group B, this is about everyone working together to improve the site). I have seen so many programs struggle, get no value, or end up in political quagmires simply because they refused this first step. It can be very difficult or very easy, but at the end of the day, the single greatest determination of future success for optimization is agreement on what you are trying to accomplish.

Once you have that measure, then it becomes about taking those ideas and measuring them against that goal. Remember you want to challenge the common theory, meaning you should include null assumptions and things that contradict what you think will win. It serves you no good if you align everyone on finding an answer to a question if that question is irrelevant or sub optimal. What is funny is that there is almost an inverse correlation between what people think will win, and what does win. Get opinions from multiple sources, especially from one or two from outside the group that has owned that concept or portion of the site.

Step three is simply test. But at the end of the test, don’t worry if you were wrong, and don’t make it about you versus me. This is about everyone working together to find what works. If everyone is working for the same goal, then it is easy for everyone to get the credit and for everyone to align. The entire point was that the better the ideas feed into the system, the more diverse and risky those ideas are, the more you learn and the better the results you will have. You have to stop worrying about who was right and instead encourage people to be wrong. Being wrong gives you so much more than being right, and it gives you new learning to share and bring value to other parts of the site.

If you do this enough, you will get to the point where you no longer need to have those large conferences or off sites, you just need to compile the feasible options and move forward with letting the test tell you where to go. It becomes less about trying to fit the square peg into the round hole (or in some cases, into no hole) and more about aligning to move forward with what you learn. You will not end up at the feared 48 shades of blue axiom, but instead you will end up where you treat all feasible ideas as valuable. It frees up your UX and creative teams to try new things and to not worry about upsetting their superiors. It allows them the flexibility and the ability to be “wrong”.

Everyone is fearful of the unknown and the risk of giving something up. What is important is to share the challenge and the reward and to make it about adding value to what they were already doing, and to not blame anyone when they were wrong. Testing an idea is not about the loss of control, it is about helping to make it as successful as possible. This can’t be about you versus them, or my idea versus yours, in order to succeed you need everyone to work on achieving the same goal. Any system is only as good as its input, and any input without a proper system to facilitate it will always lack value in the end. Encourage new ideas, encourage trial and error, as long as you have a system in place to mitigate loss, you have so much more you can gain from learning a new path or stopping a bad practice on your site.


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