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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.

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