Monthly Archives: April 2013

Design for Instincts for 2016 Presidential Election

One of the feel-good technology stories during the 2012 presidential election was Obama campaign’s successful use of big data analytics.  Its ability to micro-target voters was widely praised.   On the contrary, Mitt Romney’s Orca app was widely panned for its failed Orca app.   CNET ran a detailed story about the failures of the app.  A number of media sites ran similar stories.  The gloomy stories of the app should not lead us to miss the fact that this app took a first stab at “design for instincts” ideas.  I have been repeatedly saying this: “If the 2012 election was about big data analytics, the 2016 election will no doubt be about the design for instincts.”  Orca has laid the foundation for 2016.   How campaigns exploit the laid foundation will be a key success factor.

Why the “Design for Instincts” theme Fits with Politics?

No other domain has a more significant appeal to instincts than politics .  These appeals to instinctual behaviors are well embedded in our societies.  If you think about it, politics is one the few contexts where we truly talk about grassroots and how to excite them.  No matter which party people belong to, they argue for their position from the standpoint of instincts.  Being in a college town in the conservative state of Indiana, I have heard both sides.  For example, a number of my democratic friends argue from the position of compassion for the fellow citizens when asking for governmental interventions.  Similarly, a number of my republican friends argue from the position of freedom when rejecting government interventions.  What’s nice about the US is that most politicians and even the voters clearly identify with their respective fundamental positions (obviously, there are some “evolving” positions these days but those don’t seem fundamental change in views).  So, there is a clear demarcation of views and rarely people switch positions.

Not only are the views clearly demarcated but political parties are also organized like teams.  Elections are nothing but competitions between the teams.  When we compete, our instincts to behave like in tribal fights kick in.  This is the reason behind why we have seen irrational statements/actions pursued by either party.

Both these factors – our individual instincts for the positions and our tribal instincts to war – are the key motivators for engagement in politics.  Arousing either or both of these instincts is fundamental to driving successful campaigns.

Why is it beyond Big Data Analytics?

One of the first questions I get asked is: how is the design for instincts different from what the Obama campaign ran?  You’d understand the difference if you understood the difference between Britannica Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, then.  In Britannica Encyclopedia, a few authors wrote the reference material under a hierarchical directive from a company (Sears Roebuck originally).  Wikipedia is an effective platform for self-organizing authors to write similar reference materials.  What Obama campaign did was similar to Britannica Encyclopedia, it used big data analytics to hierarchically organize the actions.  With what I am proposing, you let the grassroots self-organize themselves using a flexible platform that appeals to human instincts.  So, what is the outcome I expect?  Wikipedia is practically the only one standing in the encyclopedia market….  Success of self-organizing platforms are quite well known.  Secondly, one may have this question as to whether the quality of entries in wikipedia is comparable to an encyclopedia and a study in Nature has already shown that to be the case.


This is a shout-out to Rubio or Christie on the Republican side and to Cuomo or Clinton on the Democratic side.  Technological evolutions are unavoidable.  If all you are going to focus on is the same success factor in the 2012 election, you are likely to be outwitted.  Be prepared for the “design for instincts” platform in the next election cycle.  Romney campaign’s ORCA app already laid the foundation.  So, it is not too unrealistic for the technology to mature.  Next time someone talks to you about big data analytics in 2016 election, remember: “If the 2012 election was about big data analytics, the 2016 election will be about the design for instincts.”


What is “Design for Instincts”?


In the beginning of the 20th century, two major hair color product manufacturers launched advertisements with specific themes. For one of them, the ad launch was before women’s rights movement of 1960s while the other was after.  The ad themes used were: “Does she or doesn’t she?” and “Because I am worth it,” and both were successful launches that hold success even today.  If I asked you to guess which theme corresponds to the pre-women’s rights era and which one to the post era, you are most likely to answer this question correctly.  Those ads were the successful launching pads for hair products from Clairol and L’Oreal, respectively.  To this day, the legacies of both the ad launches being strong is well known.  The creator of Clairol’s “Does she or doesn’t she” campaign, Shirley Polykoff, has been inducted to Advertising’s Hall of Fame. L’Oreal’s current theme is a variant of its original theme is “I am worth it.”  What’s important to us is why those launches were successful.  Obviously, these ad themes (and also, the ads themselves) were aimed at appealing to the instincts of woman of the appropriate era.

If we can successfully appeal to the human instincts of the target audience and achieve the desired outcomes, then why should it be limited to marketing? Why not adopt it across all parts of the organization? Think about your HR, operations, R&D, among the others.  Naturally, your target audience is going to be different with each domain you focus on, as will the details of the implementation.  The main idea if you can design product, process, or policies appealing toward human instincts, you will be successful.  In the next few paragraphs, I highlight a few of the successful designs for human instincts.


There are three examples on this dimension that are worth noting Zara, Gore-Tex, and Microsoft.  They have gone ahead and implemented design for instincts.  (In the blog at Forbes, FirstInsight details my thoughts about how these examples link to design for instincts). Summary: Zara designed it to appeal to woman’s desire to have clothes that others don’t have access to.  Gore-Tex designs its HR policy based on how humans tend to organize.  Microsoft crafted a team-based competition to stimulate its employees to discover bugs.

If instinctual behaviors have existed forever, then why is it important now?

As Thomas Friedman points out in his popular book, “The World is Flat,” global trading activities, which were originally performed by the states (think East India Company, Christopher Columbus) and then by multi-national firms (via FedEx and DHL), can now be facilitated by individuals.  As the power shifts toward individuals, designs for human instincts are naturally going to be highly successful. The reversion to natural instincts should not be surprising.

Arguably, the theme of a business organization became valid only from about the early 1900s. It is also around the same time that Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s ideas about motivating work through extrinsic rewards were taking root.  While the nature of work we do in businesses has evolved since 1900s (it relates to the discussion about knowledge economies versus manufacturing-based one), the businesses have continued to rely on the age-old extrinsic rewards to motivate.   There are often examples where people don’t always behave in a manner that maximizes their extrinsic rewards.  In fact, the domain of Experimental economics, which has been recognized with a Nobel Prize to Vernon Smith, is primarily interested in how instinctual behaviors and cognitive limitations inhibit  “rational” actions (i.e., in a manner maximizing extrinsic rewards).  I believe we are at the next stage where we are not just analyzing “irrational behaviors” but designing systems that incorporate human instincts to shape behaviors that result in desired outcomes.  The technology developments are making these appeals to human instincts more feasible.

The question:  how is your organization positioned to deal with “design for instincts”?