Tag Archives: system

The Neuroscience of Mobile App Engagement

My old pal Dylan Tweney @Dylan20 at VentureBeat wrote this fun article about Why Instagram is Worth 1 Billion and Your Startup Isnt.

The crux of the article is that Instagram fits my neuroscience model for user engagement. This is based on the observation that the Limbic System is primarily focused on three “threads” that run continuously in the background:

  • 1) Can I Eat This?
  • 2) Will this Eat Me? and
  • 3) Can I reproduce with this?

These threads come on line at different stages of human development.

Can I eat this comes first… a newborn baby doesnt even have much of this, except for maybe the ability to nurse. But soon this thread kicks into gear and babies crawl around like mad stuffing things into their mouths.

Will it eat me (The threat processing thread) comes online next, but it’s highly dependent on a maternal threat coprocessor and the user interface is the mom’s face. If mom looks scared, watch out, otherwise everything is ok. Babies dont have enough hardware to recognize and process threats. If you watch TV this is recapitulated in the “reaction shot” where a car blows up and the camera does a close shot of Farrah Fawcett’s face looking all shocked. (1970s Charlie’s Angels reference)

The reproductive thread doesnt spin up until puberty.

It turns out that there’s also a subthread in high-investment mammals which is the “it’s cute so I should protect it” thread, which is primarily about defending the young. This thread seems to show up weirdly early, which perhaps is related to siblings protecting each other.

Social impulses are built on top of this limbic system “platform”, in the sense that the “village” of your social network (in the Robin Dunbar sense) is what provides you with nutrition, protection and even a supply of reproductive partners.

How does this relate to the world of Mobile Apps? Exactly as Dylan perceives in this article… the highest engagement apps appeal to the lizard brain. The limbic system sits very close to the hindbrain and spine and is the big driver of action.

The other day someone tweeted “Why does California spend N Billion dollars on prisons and so much less on Schools?” What they might not realize is that the neocortex (responsible for things like thinking) is about the thickness of six playing cards stacked on top of each other, and that the word cortex means “bark” which kind of shows you how thin it is.

This kind of deep engagement shows up in applications like Pinterest. For example my Pinterest board is filled with good things to eat. I independently discovered the “cuteness” thread because I was searching for a broccoli recipe and a bunny rabbit named “broccoli” showed up. Since then pictures of cute animals have been replicating on my pinboard like umm… rabbits I guess.

In any event, this is my neuroscientific analysis of user engagement in mobile applications. Thanks for reading.

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There is no “I” in IT: Oh wait yes there is.

The Dynamic Enterprise
I’m in the airport in Victoria on my way back from giving a talk sponsored by the Office of the CIO in the Government of British Columbia entitled “Enterprise-Scale Business Transformation with SOA and BPM”. Increasingly, I’m seeing efforts around large-scale Business Transformation involving the dynamic system of Business and IT.

In my talk, I asked the following question:
How do you achieve “Business Transformation” in a system that:

* Is exceedingly interdependent (or in the words of the CIO here, “tangled”)
* Responds unpredictably and dynamically to change
* Is complex enough that no single human is capable of understanding it all

In short, a system that exhibits dynamic complexity as well as high-order entropy. I have an elegant solution for this problem, but this blog entry is too short to contain it.

One Continuous Mistake
I’ve seen lately many methodologies that depend on “objective data” and measurement to align organization. Don’t get me wrong, measuring the business value of any activity is a way to align activity in a paradigm of continuous improvement. I’ve long been an admirer of Toyota Kaizen, whose principles of long-term employment, respect for the individual, empowerment and “Moving Forward” (continuous improvement) are based on a balanced and “lean” adaptation philosophy that evolves dynamically with the business environment. Not only has this facilitated the transformation of Toyota from a car maker to a hybrid car maker, but it powered their transformation from a maker of mechanical looms to a carmaker after World War II.

The granularity of the improvement cycle is a key success factor in using continuous improvement as a paradigm for business transformation. This is because a short cycle reduces the risk expose to certainties that “simply aren’t so”. @bmichelson @mtdonahue tweeted it very well by saying:

Walking on water and developing software from a specification are easy if both are frozen – Edward V Berard

What is of higher value in transformation of dynamic systems is not how you succeed, but how you fail. The ability to fail continuously and improve continuously is the secret to transformation. This requires the organization to firstly overcome fear of being “locked in” to static business processes and governance policies. Unlike the old infrastructure, the new infrastructure of Business Transformation is based on continuous improvement on short cycles and thus empowers active participation and collaboration in the shaping of optimal process. As Toyota knows, nobody knows more about process optimization than those who execute the process.

Mechanisms need to be in place for lowering the cost of failure. Short cycle times address this (borrowing from Agile), but also things like Cloud Computing’s Elastic payment model dramatically reduce the cost of failure. The era of huge IT failures should be replaced by the era of distributed intelligent transformation. Thousands of microscopic iterations of process improvement managed within a frame of trust and coordination.

An airplane is continuously off course, but also continuously reorients towards its best sense of where it’s going. As such it is capable of optimizing itself both locally (to avoid weather features and air traffic) and globally (to reduce fuel consumption and travel time). This dynamic interplay of local and global optimization is in the sweet spot for the transformational agenda.

There is no “I” in IT…oh wait yes there is.
I’ve had the great pleasure to read @davegray and his insightful post about a general theory of Information Relativity


The lovely insight here is the fundamental lack of separation between information and intention. I keep seeing transformation methodologies that depend of “objective information” to align organization, but this insight helps us to understand that information (the “difference that makes a difference”) is different from data and that the transformational power of information is inextricably intertwined with principles of presenter bias, observer bias and other key factors.

A nice commentary by toothpastefordinner.com

Nowhere is this more evident in the emergent behavior of “KPI Gaming” that manifests in organizations who have successfully implemented organizational alignment through continuous measurement of Key Performance Indicators, and have tied those KPIs to individual and organizational incentives, job descriptions and roles and organizational structure. I spoke with a CIO in Australia who bragged about how dramatically he improved project delivery time to get a fat quarterly bonus, but received a wink and a “no comment” when I pressed him on whether he rescoped any projects in order to get there. Obviously if you cut one project into 10 you can deliver projects “ten times faster”.

This connects with the idea that “direct observation” of reality is rare and almost always mediated through our past experience and the filter of social expectation, culture and near-instantaneous mental reinterpretation. Mediation is a fundamental pattern that underlies scale in organization, as it provides a way to enforce policies, culture, route information and detect patterns. Routing information means that the organization gains the ability to amplify inspiration and best practices, while policy enables organization to enforce best practice and define itself. Of course the “mediation” pattern in Service Oriented Architecture typically involves placing a piece of hardware and/or software in the path of message flow, but there are technical architectures that perform mediation functions embedded in the endpoints.

For humans, embedding organizational culture, policy, pattern detection and information routing in the endpoint means fostering a culture that understands deeply when to escalate issues, when to share information, where to share information and when to report, stop or perpetuate behaviors. This internalization of behavioral patterns, habits and culture allows organization to achieve what Peter Drucker refers to as the goal of organization: “To enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

Lorraine Lawson wrote in her blog today:
“Honestly, I’d rather write about anything besides governance, particularly SOA governance.”


This post explores the concept of Federation, the balance of regional and central authority as the differentiation between Governance and Management. Ultimately this brings me to Daryl Plummer’s folk definition of Federation which is:

“What do I have to give up in order to be a part of something bigger”.

Linking that with Drucker’s “organization enables ordinary people to do extraordinary things”, one is led to the hope that scale does not equate to life-sapping and stultifying constraint and that the autonomy that one yields to belonging is amply compensated by the scale and longevity (legacy in the positive sense of the word) of Enterprise. Although both Dilbert and “The Office” suggest that the sacrifice is your life in exchange for 20 pieces of silver, we must envision a world where great problems can be addressed at great scale.

Cycle time for continuous improvement empowers the individual to make changes in their local environment and thus experience empowerment and ownership. It’s only the rigidity of policy and process that leads to the snuffing of the individual life-force in the Enterprise.

Or perhaps Mother Teresa is right and we cant do any great things, we can only do small things with great love.

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Entropic heat death of IT

I originally wrote this piece in November of 2007. I wanted to revisit it today because of the strong emphasis in the downturn on two major themes:

* Consolidation and
* Modernization

Both of these are ways of dealing with the past–consolidation is a way of rationalizing and reducing the ongoing burden of the past, while modernization is a way of bringing the past into the present.

In any event, these thoughts, penned a few years ago seem to still have resonance for me in thinking about customer problems in large scale software projects.

In reflecting on this post, I think measuring entropy solely in terms of “people” needs to be revised, and virtualization is a good way to ensure that utilization of systems is maximized, therefore maintaining a high level of energy available for work. I think this might be a valid way of looking at the overall IT budget.

Increasingly I’ve been referring to SOA using a folk definition that includes “a way to maximize the business value of the existing and ongoing IT investment”. Keeping that in mind, Entropy is a key variable to watch.

As a final note which I hint at in this piece, the natural conclusion is that if there is no way to reverse entropy, the entire system achieves “heat death”. Another source of inspiration is the evolution of biological systems, where local entropy is reversed through the addition of solar energy. The thing is, we get more and more IT funding and budgets each year (not that the budgets get bigger mind you, I’m just pointing out that there is such a thing as ongoing funding) so what remains is how we apply that funding to the system as a whole.

Now on to the original post:

How is time measured in IT?

The key unit of time in IT is the “project”. Projects are funded, each of which seeks a specific ROI and each project succeeds or fails on it’s own.

How is time measured in Physics?

In Physics, the concept of the “arrow of time” is modeled using Entropy. It’s how we know time is passing, which is the increase in the Entropy of systems. You put a drop of ink in water and it spreads out.

So what can we learn from physics through applying the analogy of Entropy to IT systems?

First of all we must understand what is axiomatic about Entropy:

* Definition: Entropy is the measurement of the energy in a system that is unavailable for work.
* Tendency: A closed system tends towards maximum entropy.

If Entropy is defined as the energy in a system that is unavailable for work, it means that some quantity of your IT systems are unavailable for work. I would suggest that you could roughly measure this by the number of IT persons dedicated to supporting, maintaining, troubleshooting and otherwise babysitting unmaintainable messes left by previous generations of IT projects.

Now you could blame the business projects for causing Entropy in IT systems, but you’d only be partially correct. The mechanism for reversing local entropy is adding energy. You could consider the influx of capital (project funding) to be a way of locally reversing entropy and putting more of your IT systems to work.

The problem is that without a structure in place, the energy is just converted into heat, not into more structure.

Therefore business projects have the potential to reverse entropy locally in IT systems… but it has to be applied correctly.

What I tend to see are Business Projects which are funded and executed without any respect for the implications to IT and I see additional unmaintainable complexity being shoved down into IT in order to meet short term business goals. Some of this complexity is shoved down into offshore teams. This is an attempt to reverse entropy locally within a subgroup. For example, the business team can push entropy to the development team and they can push it to the offshore team. Unfortunately, unless you optimize the whole system towards local decrease in entropy, you will eventually degrade the ability of the entire system to produce work.

This is a perhaps the most important principle in SOA–that unless you’ve aligned your business and IT organizations you will continue to increase entropy in your IT system. The implication is that less and less of your IT system will be available to do work.

This means that eventually IT will grind to a halt.

The organization that is unable to reverse this process will not be competitive.

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