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Microsoft’s Matt Wallaert talks tech & psych in Philly

Matt Wallaert of Microsoft

Matt Wallaert of Microsoft

On Monday, August 18, 2014, a Behavioral Scientist from Microsoft (MS) came to speak to a crowd of entrepreneurs in Philadelphia about the intersection of psych and tech. Former Philadelphia resident Matt Wallaert studied at Swarthmore College under Barry Schwartz but left Cornell’s PhD program to begin a life in start-ups. After developing and flipping three business, Wallaert took a job at MS using his knowledge of the human psyche and decision-making process to help the MS engineers to design better products. Wallaert also works as an MS consultant to businesses looking to boost their customer experience.

Competing Forces

Matt’s high-energy talk entitled “A double threat: Behavioral Psychology and Technology” was filled not only with delightful profanity but with graphical representations of his own theories. Several of the 50-or-so people in attendance were taking notes of Matt’s inhibiting and promoting theories of human decision-making. He used a few recent examples of product development, like Uber, and some old standards, like M&Ms, to demonstrate his points.

Simply put, the buying inhibitors for M&Ms are cost and availability. The promoting pressure would be pure deliciousness. So how to sell more M&Ms? Keep the cost down and sell them everywhere.

The audience taking notes

The audience taking notes

Uber’s promoting behaviors were pretty much established: people will always want a ride from Point A to Point B. There wasn’t much there to promote. Instead, Uber concentrated on taking away inhibitors that may steer people away from using Uber. The service made an easy app and implemented other “smoothing” strategies to get riders to adopt the service.

two arrows tip to tip, the red top arrow pointing down, the green bottom arrow pointing up

Wallaert’s model of Inhibitors in decision-making (red arrow) and promoters (green arrow). We tend to brainstorm promoting behaviors when we think of products and new tech. (I added the colors. Matt was using a whiteboard and a black marker)

Negative Space

In his experience, Matt added, the biggest disruptors usually come from brainstormed ideas in the inhibiting space instead of the promoting one. Uber is one of those examples. If you remove inhibitors to buying better than an established brand, your product will move.

Another example of smoothing inhibitors is the #IceBucketChallenge. The “calling out” of other friends erases some stops. One may feel silly randomly dumping ice on their head but if a friend asks them to do so, they have an external reason to “blame.”

Yet another example: sending a donation to charity via text. Wallaert called it “slippery smooth.” It’s so easy to text a short number to donate real dollars.

Wallaert went on to discuss psychology concepts like ego threat and group identity, and how product/service design should take behaviors like these into deep consideration.

Beers at the cocktail hour - me tweeting (naturally)

Beers at the cocktail hour – me tweeting (naturally)

My Tweeting Angst

It was right about this time in the talk where my general career frustration leaked out in a tweet. I educate clients on all the things Mr. Wallaert mentioned. I’m also more formally educated in Psychology than Matt (although I don’t have his entrepreneurial experience). I felt that “rrrrrg” feeling you get when you see someone else making a living doing the thing you love, and frankly, probably getting paid handsomely to do it.

Here’s where I’ll skip a bunch of other details about the night to jump to the end, when I had a nice amount of one-on-one time with Matt after the crowd dispersed. Matt and I have a mutual friend, Cecily Kellogg, and perhaps that connection smoothed the space for us to chat honestly. I spoke with Matt openly about my background, my goals and my roadblocks. He listened intently and then gave me heartfelt and constructive advice. I won’t write about it now but I will say, as someone who is constantly giving great ideas away, it was very nice to be on the receiving end of some game-changers. Matt is everything he seems on paper and more. Brilliant, generous, and – in the very best way – chivalrous (check out Matt’s GetRaised.com for proof).

After his talk, Matt stayed to speak with every last person in line

After his talk, Matt stayed to speak with every last person in line

Shout Outs

This was one of the first events in town where I didn’t recognize many faces. I’d met Kayne through my friend David Dylan Thomas at the EFA talk on Solutions Journalism, and Bruce Segal I recognized from the Philly marketing arena (but at first he confused me with my friend “@cupcakie” Carrie Estok). I managed to meet and talk with Alex Polyakov, newbie Brian Dragotto, Rayvann Kee II – a clinical psychologist, and his friend Omar Thompson about their adventures, and I got to finally see the VentureF0rth offices.

Deleted Tweets

On the way out I mentioned to the VentureF0rth tweeter that as a journalist I didn’t appreciate the only hashtag made available for the event was the name of the venue: #venturef0rth. I used it in a pinch, but it felt like my coverage of the event was simply a marketing ploy. I added the hash #behavior to help my tweets get to a wider audience in the subject area but they still carried the ad in them. I came home and deleted about 15 tweets with the #venturef0rth hashtag and apologized to my followers. I have never deleted tweets. It went against my transparency policies. I was in a tough spot. In the end I figured my conscience would suffer more if the tweets stood.

Iffy hashtag practices of the hosting venue or sponsors will force a decision on whether to be a part of the larger knowledge share or communicate solo. Or perhaps not communicate at all. Since I was the only one tweeting the event, the conversation was one-sided anyway. There was nothing to aggregate later. The only reason I used the hashtag was to be a part of the chatter. When I saw there was no chatter, I wasn’t going to allow those tweets to stay posted. That was a tough lesson which I hope will inform my future work.


How the #IceBucketChallenge can harm ALSA

Banner ad in a carousel (yes, a carousel) on ALSA.org's homepage

Banner ad in a carousel (yes, a carousel) on ALSA.org’s homepage

It only takes one angry mother of a hurt kid to haul ALSA into court for promoting a meme that many videos have shown can go very wrong.

ALSA is willfully tone deaf, of course. They are raking in tons of money. They think a promotional page like this is a good idea:

ALSA.org's page about the ice bucket challenge



But now that the meme has jumped the shark and the backlash is starting, ALSA should start listening better. This is when the lawsuits come. This is when the sour tastes are left in people’s mouths about ALSA because they are annoyed about their social media feeds being taken over.

Is it crazy someone would sue ALSA for hurting themselves with a bucket of ice? Sure. But ALSA is surely courting danger by staying silent on the dangers and promoting the actions of the meme so clearly. They need better risk management and PR people. I’m not saying the ALSA should be sued. I’m saying they probably will be if they don’t practice some good ol’ American CYA soon.


Preparing for 2025

a picture of toddlers in an amusement ride of tracked cars

Driverless cars, version 1.0

Pew Internet asked a bunch of experts about the coming wave of tech and what it may do to our lives. Will the new tech take jobs or make them?

“The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025.”

I’m solidly in the “make jobs” camp. History shows that human culture adapts and changes. New jobs are created with each technological advance. Why? Because standards change. My favorite example of this is the invention of the washing machine. It actually created more work because the standards of cleanliness went up. No longer was it acceptable to wear twice- or triple-worn clothes. We all needed more clothes and more washing to keep up with the changing standards.

Let’s imagine driverless cars. What standards will change when driverless cars are ubiquitous? I can imagine that children will be transported to and from school in driverless vehicles, but there will still be a need for one or more adult chaperones, perhaps professional schedulers who will cart your child to school, after school activities, then home. Driverless cars may make more time in our day, so more tasks will be expected to be accomplished. We’ll need to hire people to complete some of those tasks, just as we send out our dry cleaning now.

We don’t know what 2025 will look like, but we can clearly see the pictures the past has painted. The key now is to educate the future generations, to prepare them for a world that will surely look differently than it does today. What are some of the new jobs you can imagine coming into existence? Let me know in the comments.


For more of my writing about new tech, check out the following articles on purplecar.net:

Learning to Accept New Tech

Fear of Facebook: The Lifecycle of New Tech


Flickr photo by Henry Burrows

Vetri’s latest rant

Fiery hometown celebrity chef Marc Vetri is fueling the flame wars once again on social media.

Vetri is known on Twitter and other online networks as a mercurial host. Much to the probable chagrin of his public relations chum Craig Kaplan, Vetri takes on all comers, publicly calling them out with the zeal of a Broad Street Brawler. This time he calls out a persnickety “gluten intolerant” diner and her trendy ilk in a rant on Huffington Post. Vetri vents his frustration in no uncertain terms. “Truthfully, unless you have celiac disease, which is a major issue in 1 percent of the population,” Vetri writes, “you probably don’t know what gluten is.”

As a person with an official medical diagnosis of the auto-immune disorder known as Celiac’s Disease, I am in that 1%. Unfortunately it isn’t the right 1%. Mr. Vetri’s establishments attract the elite Philadelphia 1% who can afford to effect whatever trendy malady they like. For Vetri to whine about his rich clientele and their false idiosyncrasies on HuffPo is bad form. 

Most people, disease-fakers or not, won’t have the chance to dine at a place like Vetri Ristorante. For the 2 million Americans who suffer from Celiac’s (according to the National Institutes of Health), it’s hard enough to afford a gluten-free diet on any salary less than 6 digits. 12 ounces of Schår pasta, a gluten-free European brand that doesn’t taste entirely like wet cardboard, costs roughly $4.50. Compare this to 16 ounces of San Giorgio spaghetti at around $2.00, and you’ll start to see why the other 99% doesn’t play at having Celiac’s. If we could go back to eating more affordably, we would. 

As a freelance writer married to an Assistant Dean at Penn, normally I would never be able to experience Vetri’s flagship bistro at 13th and Spruce streets, but 2 years ago when a grateful client gave me a generous gift certificate, my husband and I got a babysitter and set a date. With much apprehension, I called ahead. The staff was more than welcoming. “Of course we can accommodate you,” the hostess said. “We’ll make a note on the reservation.” I hung up the phone feeling nervous anyway. Well before his rant in HuffPo, I knew what chefs like Vetri thought of me. I half-expected to be “glutened,” as it is called in Celiac forums, because the staff wouldn’t take me seriously. I hoped that one of the finest Italian eateries on the east coast would be a safe bet.

The dining room in Vetri’s converted brownstone is more than cozy. We sat so close to start-up entrepreneur David Bookspan and his companion that it felt like a double date. The tight quarters made me even more nervous, as other diners would hear of my medical condition. I asked the server to bend down so I could whisper in his ear. With a nod, he disappeared into the kitchen to start the process. Vetri serves a “tasting menu.” For my fellow common folk, this means the kitchen has a pre-set spread for the evening, based on local sources and seasonal flavors. The stream of tiny meals is constant, one taste complementing another until you reach dessert. If you have a couple extra Benjamins, you can add a wine pairing experience to the meal. My husband and I stuck with water. 

I had a different menu than my husband, but it was nonetheless amazing. Delicate meats, tender seafood, creamy side dishes, and crispy vegetables with freshly ground spices kept appearing like magic in front of me. All of it, unbelievably, was gluten-free. Numerous times during dinner, I found my eyes quietly welling up with tears. Until that moment, I’d thought a Celiac’s diagnosis precluded me from heavenly tastes like these. With just a few bites, I realized I didn’t have to settle for sub-par gluten-free food. Delicious meals, with a little extra effort from me, were always within my reach. This experience at Vetri changed my life.

That’s why I find Vetri’s latest screed sad and ironic. Instead of discouraging his high-maintenance debutantes and jet-setters from demanding special treatment, it will simply close the door on my fellow Celiacs, some of which are undoubtedly in the populations his nutrition-education Vetri Foundation serves. The 501c3 claims to “give children the nutritional foundation they need to grow and thrive,” but its founder’s rant will only encourage people to stay home and remain frightened to try new things. With his charitable efforts and his 6 venues (including the original Vetri Ristorante, Osteria Restaurant, Osteria Moorestown, Amis Trattoria, Alla Spina and the new Lo Spiedo set to open in Fall of 2014), Vetri seems serious about bringing fine dining experiences to Philadelphians of various socio-economic situations. Although I share his disdain for trendy posers, I hope Vetri sees the damage his public voice can do. Instead of closing doors, he should be opening new ones like he did for me that fateful night two years ago. Marc Vetri should build a gluten-free/allergen-free restaurant; I guarantee he’ll never know a more grateful crowd.

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Solutions Journalism

On Wednesday, July 30, 2014 I attended a talk given by a reporter of that ol’ Gray Lady of the Newspaper Realm, the New York Times. At Center City co-working space Benjamin’s Desk, Tina Rosenberg spoke to a crowd of approximately 40 journalists, content creators and consultants about the “Solutions Journalism” movement she and David Bornstein push forward with their writing at the NYT’s Fixes Blog. Rosenberg and Bornstein, along with a healthy team of writerly minions, also run the website SolutionsJournalism.org.


“Sex sells” is out. “Sun Sells” is in.

Being new(ish) to creating journalisticky things (as opposed to existing as a mere consumer of said things), I’m intrigued and perplexed by the current trend of splintering journalism into separate categories. This past year I’ve been studying Investigative Journalism and Data Journalism through some MOOCs and books. And like the rest of journo-townsfolk, I’m fascinated by the onset of Explainer Journalism and Vox.com. Last night’s talk was on what Rosenberg calls Solutions Journalism –not entirely sure she didn’t coin the term – and it centered on the reporting of manifested attempts to solve specific societal issues. Solutions Journalism concerns itself with the “How” part of the 5Ws&H reporting on problem-solving. “It focuses on the work,” Rosenberg said.

3 Questions

I’d love to get back to basics and define “journalism” then tell you where “solutions journalism” fits. Alas, the first slide Ms. Rosenberg put up was a 3 question list, the first question being “What is journalism for?” The answers served up by the audience were varied, largely unsatisfactory, and hovered precariously around the nouveau concept of shareable content. A sign of the times, no? We are in an era, Folks, where a roomful of journalists can’t pin down the purpose of their own occupation.

The other two questions were “What is newsworthy?” and “How do journalists best serve our audience?” were also met with some befuddlement, but they set the stage for Rosenberg to answer them herself.

Rosenberg said a “reigning myth” of journalism is that it “uncovers problems and exposes what’s going on with the world.” But journalism should uncover the good, too. Journalism is supposed to be a mirror of all things, good and bad. Solutions Journalism is related to community journalism. Many journalistic investigations focus on problems, but hardly any articles shed light on how communities addressed those problems. Sharing the solutions could help other communities implement change. (Seems like it’s influenced by Explainer journalism too).

But we are to be wary of the activist slant, Rosenberg warns. Solutions Journalism is not activism. It is merely a reporting of the facts. The subject could be activists, but the journalist’s investigative eye is trained on the changes effected by those who are addressing the previously reported problem.

Ms. Rosenberg further defined Solutions Journalism with 10 questions an article should answer. No one solutions story covers all 10, but journos should try to hit as many as possible. Here are the 10 questions:

  1. Does the story explain the causes of a social problem?
  2. Does the story present an associated response to that problem?
  3. Does the story get into the problem-solving and how-to details?
  4. Is the problem-solving process central to the narrative?
  5. Does the story present evidence of results linked to the response?
  6. Does the story explain the limitations of the response?
  7. Does the story convey an insight or a teachable lesson?
  8. Does the story avoid reading like a puff-piece?
  9. Does the story draw on sources who have a ground-level understanding, not just 30,000 foot expertise?
  10. Does the story give greater attention to the response than to a leader/innovator/do-gooder?

Positive Psychology for Journalism

I asked Ms. Rosenberg if she was familiar with the pitfalls of the Positive Psychology movement, because Solutions Journalism seems to me like Positive Psychology for Journalism. Positive Psychology’s base theory is that the science of Psychology should not be confined to studying pathology. After all (Martin Seligman and his cronies surmise), we can’t help people reach their highest potential by studying humans at their lowest points. Positive Psychology is a branch of the behavioral science dedicated to studying what goes right. Unfortunately, Positive Psychology as a science has valid criticisms lodged against it, not the least of which being shoddy research and poor statistical methods with funding coming from dubious sources. Indeed, it seems as though the entire Positive Psychology discipline was conceived solely at the behest of corporate clients in hopes that fully-actualized, Myers-Briggs validated workers can be squeezed for a few extra drops of sweat.

Ms. Rosenberg was not familiar with the swirling controversy in my field of origin. I attempted to explain how poorly-interpreted statistics can bring down an entire branch of a science and how Solutions Journalism can be quite dangerous in the statistically-unaware reporter’s hands. Ms. Rosenberg agreed with another audience member who reminded us that any branch of journalism falls under the same peril. I didn’t get to expound on my main point, which was the more important reason I spoke up: Positive Psychology is the bitch of Corporate America; The promise of “feel-good” journalism is soon to be the bitch of the newspaper industry. Rosenberg herself admitted the NYT is hoping solutions journalism sells more papers (yet later admitted that the NYT isn’t doing too much to measure the engagement on her work. Just a matter of time, I’m sure). Solutions Journalism is poised to be the next Corporate bitch. You think sex sells? That’s so 20th century. Now? Sun sells. Spread a little sunshine on your reader’s morning toast and they’ll keep clicking back for more.

The Pitfalls

Ms. Rosenberg understandably didn’t offer reservations with the concept of solutions journalism. She did mention that many old school newsroomers (my term) and even the new kids don’t want to write up solutions stories because the inevitable positive undertone will portray a hard-scrabble journo as gullible. Being swindled by a source or a story is the worst felony in the journo world, Rosenberg admitted. Not many reporters are willing to risk it.

I’ll reserve full judgment until I really take a look at some examples of Solutions Journalism. But I can see the pitfalls could very easily mimic those in the Happiness Industry (the overly commercialized, money-making outgrowth of Positive Psychology). Solutions Journalism could be easily leveraged by mastheads to build up the backlinks and bring in the business. It could be so easily consumed the demand will go up, which will mean the quality of the work will plummet. Integrity would disappear. It’d become the laughing stock of journalism.

I’ll wait to jump on the bandwagon. I’ll watch and see how Solutions Journalism’s trajectory correlates with Positive Psychology. But if it does follow the same path, and if the pop psychology gurus are any indication, Rosenberg and Bornstein could be sitting on the edge of a sickeningly lucrative industry. Think: Buzzfeed for the literati. Distractify with distinction.

Come to think of it: I’m in.


Check out my STORIFY collection of tweets from the event, Solutions Journalism examples,  a call for applications for a solutioner-in-residence and a link to a webinar presented by Rosenberg about Solutions Journalism.

For more reading on how 100% of the stats you hear reported are wrong, read Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to be Wrong. For in depth critique of Positive Psychology, read work by Julie Norem and Barbara Ehrenreich. Also listen to this NPR story about the origins of Positive Psychology, its ties to religion and its iffy iffiness.

Photo Credit: Me, Christine Cavalier, PurpleCar All Rights Reserved 2014



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