John Lenker 0:06
so when you know the right people, you know the people you're speaking to, you know when and where they're encountering your message and you know what you want them to do, then and only then can you formulate the actual craft the actual message, then and only then do you know what the content and substance of your message should be in order to point them towards that goal.
Matt O'Leary 0:26
This is Matt O'Leary, and you're listening to the influence hacker podcast.
Let's face it, marketing doesn't have a great reputation. While cynicism about the field grows, making people care about products, services, platforms and good ideas isn't going away anytime soon. That's why we need to chart a path forward to learn how marketing can be both growth oriented and good to humanity. This podcast is an unlikely collaboration between marketing expert John Lenker, academic philosopher Kevin deLaplante, and myself, a counselor by training. Through fascinating interviews and in depth analysis. Our purpose is to educate everyday consumers such as myself to be more critically minded and discerning about marketing messaging, while educating marketers to be more ethical and effective as they strive to influence consumers. We affectionately call this process influence hacking.
John Lenker 1:40
How do you craft information to be the most effective on the human mind? Right. And I remember thinking back in the day, that we spend so much time on our projects, trying to get our websites and all these things to work well on machines, so they don't break almost no time trying to think through how to make them work well on people.
Matt O'Leary 2:00
In this episode, we interview our very own John Lenker, about his unique path to authoring an influential book on web design philosophy, and founding a fast growing marketing company. We'll hear John's unique perspective on information and experience design in marketing based on his work for top companies like IBM and Chrysler.
What is experience design? And why does it matter? Well, marketing is all about solving problems, eliciting positive emotional responses from people, and ultimately driving consumption usage and behavior. Experience Design is an approach to creating experiences that do those things. It's arguably the heart of marketing.
Now, this kind of thinking can be applied to any kind of experience. And think about when people walk into a building, architecture or interior design, could be restaurant design, product design, you know, what about workplace onboarding of new employees just about anything? But there's little question about which industry is the undisputed king of experience design in 2022? Yeah, you heard the bleeps? You heard the bloops. As right. It's games, video games.
Imagine a world where marketing was as engaging as Red Dead Redemption or Halo. Yeah, I might have the gaming taste of a millennial stuck in 2010. But bear with me Elden ring, okay. I don't know anything about it. But there you go. kiddos.
John Lenker 3:58
You know, if the world of marketing doesn't understand how people learn, how is it that they can teach them anything about why they should buy into their value proposition? And so that's why I felt there's so much mediocrity in advertising and marketing because people don't understand how to properly engage with people's minds.
Matt O'Leary 4:16
John believes that in order for marketers and businesses to truly influence people, they need to understand the way people learn and how to meet them where they're at, on an increasingly individual level, much like video games do. Our goal is to learn how this concept of personalization from tech and elearning and other industries applies to marketing, and how it can help businesses of all kinds gaining competitive edge. But first, let's learn a little bit more about John and how his thinking was formed.
Kevin deLaplante 4:48
You published your book, Train of Thoughts, designing the effective web experience back in 2002. So I want to take you back to the moment the year when or just prior to starting the book When you had the idea what was going on your life that inspired you that a book was needed, and that you were in a position to make a contribution here.
John Lenker 5:09
Two things I had worked for Dr. Michael Allen, who was many people consider the father of interactive multimedia, he created a platform called Authorware, which is the basis of most corporate training for like 20 years. And he had a consulting firm helping companies do elearning. He brought me in as a very junior person, I wanted to go from kind of my background in consulting, and also heavy emphasis on publishing and design. And I wanted to learn about sort of the science of guiding people into new experiences, which was really what his company was all about.
Matt O'Leary 5:49
Without any background in elearning, John became Executive Creative Director in three years.
John Lenker 5:56
There's quite a bit of mentoring that happened from Michael Allen. First of all, he was one of those guys who, when he can tell that someone really cares about what he knows, he is extremely generous with his time in nurturing and mentoring people. And he saw a genuine interest on my part in the real nuts and bolts of what he understood both scientifically and philosophically about how people learn. And I wanted to advance his purpose using technology.
Matt O'Leary 6:26
In the ripe old days of the late 90s, there was a big shift from CD ROM based elearning, to web based elearning. Long story short, John led the charge on a project to shift one of Michael Allen's key technologies to web using Flash, he took a class in Atlanta and really connected with the teacher there, a truly influential guy in that chapter of John's life named Scott Hoffman,
John Lenker 6:51
long story short, he ended up asking me to help him write flash five magic through new writers publishing, and I had two chapters in that book I was responsible for, and it all had to do with kind of the interactions and the things that I was doing it Alan, Database Driven interaction design. So I did well developed a good relationship with new writers publishing. So that was, the first thing that happened is, I became somewhat of a flash guru. And because of the vehicle of Michael Allen's company, I was immediately put into some of the most prominent elearning projects on the planet, I'm working with, you know, generally teams of four or five people to come up with major solutions for companies like IBM and Chrysler. And, you know, I learned quite a bit. And it didn't take long before I was really the person who understood how to really make the technology work. So in that case, you're creating courseware that is designed to kind of tap into what people already understood about technology and the internet, and carry them forward into an understanding of what this new initiative was going to be at IBM. You know, on the other hand, we were doing projects for like NSP local electrical utility about how to be safe around power lines, you know, we did this whole 3d immersive environment of a person's yard and house and call before you dig in, you know how to behave around power.
Matt O'Leary 8:12
Arguably the most pivotal moment in John's journey to his first book, Train of Thoughts was another book Logic and Design by Chrome Barrett, a super dense read, filled with crazy graphs and charts that cross disciplines of art, science, geometry, music, and more. The sections on experienced design in architecture really connected with John.
John Lenker 8:36
the edifice of the building. And then when you walk into the lobby, and then the unfolding of getting into more granular locations within that building, really spoke to me and I realized that a lot of what we were doing in elearning, was following a similar type of approach where you've got somebody who's being confronted with an experience that they're about to have a learning experience, and they have to kind of get their orientation they have to become inspired and you have to tap into their basic motivations to get them to really lean in and engage
Matt O'Leary 9:14
This is the silver bullet right here, lean in and engage what causes people to lean in and engage.
There are many conceptual models that try to explain this human experience. flow state is probably the most popular concept more commonly called the zone. You know, that dudes in the zone. Being a former counselor, I actually learned where this phrase comes from. And of course, it's Russia. Lev Vygotsky zone of proximal development or ZPD refers to the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what a learner can do with more guidance, more assistance. In other words, it's that space between what's possible and impossible, what's secure, and what's dangerous and new. That's the sweet spot of learning but also of Wonder of fun of inspiration of influence. The ZPD is a crucial idea, not just in education, but in marketing as well.
John Lenker 10:25
This idea of cybernetics, from the world of elearning, which is we can put systems in place that will put the next most important thing in front of the person so that they move forward in the most optimal way for them as an individual. It's the one to one model using technology, instead of the one to many model, which has inherent inefficiencies and Train of Thoughts. I drew a diagram to show the traditional system. And it's like the Plinko game on the prices, right? You put a puck in the top, it's a pyramid, and there's all these little pegs, and it bounces and bounces and bounces and maybe you win $10,000 Maybe you get nothing, right? And what I said is, here's a system where we put everybody through the same system, and you get a bell curve of outcomes.
Matt O'Leary 11:11
Whoa, whoa, there slow down. What is John talking about here? Bell Curve, cybernetics. Plinko. Let me help you out. John built elearning technology using cybernetic systems, meaning that through a feedback loop of information coming from each learner, his team was able to design every step of their courses to maximize engagement for each individual, personalized learning. Traditionally, in many industries, it's very different. It's a one to many model, it's more like that pyramid Plinko game, you stick a puck in the one slot at the top, and it could end up anywhere at the bottom, which is this bell curve of results, John's talking about Plinko got it? Good!
John Lenker 11:57
What would happen if you flip that game upside down, recognize that people are all coming from different starting points. And scaffolding out from there, which basically, if you think of like the girders in the building, and you're making the building taller, well, you've got to take the girders that are there, take the new girders, connect it welded or riveted. And then you go up a level now it's all solid, it works. You can't just like hold something out there and let go of it. If it's not connected, it falls away, which is what happens when most people are confronted with things that they're going to learn. And it doesn't connect, they don't get it, they fall behind. And then the most important thing, they become discouraged and they checkout.
Matt O'Leary 12:44
Now just picture that inverted pyramid just flip it around in your mind. Flipping the Plinko pyramid means placing the puck into one of many slots at the top. This represents the many different starting points, knowledge bases, backgrounds, or skill sets that the people you're teaching, or marketing to are coming from the pegs the puck touches on the way down are still unique. But the end spot is the point of the pyramid, which represents the optimal learning outcome. This is John's ideal.
John Lenker 13:18
So I realized that the cybernetic idea in elearning was applicable to the world of marketing. And that the world of marketing had almost no real expertise around how people learned.
Kevin deLaplante 13:34
People in web development and design like to talk about the information architecture of a website. And one of the themes of your book is that this metaphor of architecture isn't always helpful. And it can get in the way of a better web experience. So what is the problem with talking about the information architecture of a website?
John Lenker 13:57
Well, the the metaphor of architecture, if you think about building a building, it's a very expensive endeavor. It takes planning, everything is very fixed, you pour a foundation, you build walls and pour concrete and it's a very fixed thing. Yes, you can give it a facelift every few years. But fundamentally, the structure isn't going to change. And in the world of interactive multimedia, and marketing, communications around the idea of persuasion, I realized that the problem is that in human interactions, everything is always changing. If two people are interacting, they're they're constantly learning about one another and making slight adjustments in their approach to make things more optimal. And with a building, the building is always going to make the people relate to it. You have to adapt to it. You have to get used to it. And yes, you can make changes but they're expensive. They take a lot of planning take a lot of time. They're not agile at all. And so what I realized instead of thinking of the world of online communications as being a rigid structure of links to fixed rigid components. It was more like a sequence of events that happened to you, or continuing down a kind of feedback loop and communications where you're putting something out, it's being received, it's being processed, it's being responded to, and then you're receiving it processing responding, and you progressively zero in on an optimal situation if things progress correctly.
Now that you hear and kind of understand John's vision for experienced design a bit better, you can see how his philosophy of personalization is demonstrated perfectly in video games, which are constantly receiving feedback through the thumbs of the gamer. Thus, they're able to diagnose a player's current position and situation in the game environment, and present something that's situated right between the possible and impossible. This feedback loop keeps the gamer engaged by making them rewarded and challenged in equal measure, since John's book from 2002, which industries besides video games have developed this model of personalized experience design,
dating sites, when you're looking for a partner on a dating site, and you put in certain criteria, it tries to learn about what it is you respond and click to and connections you make, and show you increasingly more of the same tries to pre populate with those people. And when you are presented with this, you get into this kind of click frenzy of oh, there's somebody I could date and here's another person I could date as you know, it's like, and then this has also happened on Tik Tok is more of a recent manifestation is that the algorithm on tick tock is so good, and so quick and making adjustments, that the sequence of things that come are so absorbing that they literally have to put more in a video camera, hey, wait a second, you've been doing this for way too long, snap out of it, go do something else, you know, go. And then you're like annoyed, and you flip past because you want to get to the next thing.
Matt O'Leary 17:13
Big Tech's algorithms are probably the most notable manifestation of John's vision from 20 years ago, Google, Amazon and E-COM, social media, this is the personalized web of 2022, spitting at you more and more of what you want to hear, buy, see, etc. Kevin gives a really compelling example of how this could work in the world of website.
Kevin deLaplante 17:39
Now, one of the models I have in my head for the concept that John was working through in his book is the idea of a smart AI driven like a cybernetically driven information system that it has the ability to engage in a kind of dialogue with the participant and can adapt to the next thing it says are shows is responsive to all the previous learning, it's done about you. So imagine like a Wikipedia page, if you just had a good example of an information based site, let's say the articles on sleep, and like the science of sleep, and you have all these different types of users who can come to the site, let's say it's a child of 10 years old, or a middle school kid, or high school or college or an expert. And they land on that page. And the data that the system has the expert system has it all right. But he would never you would not want if you wanted to have an optimal learning experience, you wouldn't show the same information to the child and the middle school student and the expert. You come to it. And if it's a smart Wikipedia, in the sense in which John is talking here, like a flow path management system, right? Where what it's designed to do is ask you, like learn something about you, oh, you're a 10 year old, oh, you know, something then. And there's an exchange of information that goes back and forth. And the child walks away having learned something accurate and true, but age appropriate about sleep. Whereas if the expert college student comes in, and has that then have a different experience. You think of a what is the information architecture have to be for that smart Wikipedia page to work? It's got to be a system of branching. It's a conditional logic system. It's a learning system. It's a cybernetic system. It's not any kind of flat architectural page where you just have layers of information, because even if it's stacked up some even if you've got sub pages with more information than other pages, so you can find them. The way that works best is if it's presented to the audience at the right time in the right way. So that the audience is served up something that is meaningful to them in that moment, so that they're never overwhelmed. They're never bored. Right? That's the kind of personalization, something like a smart cybernetically driven web interaction experience. And what you're designing for are these moments of interaction.
Matt O'Leary 20:18
What all these examples have in common is that they need feedback from the end user to operate correctly. Every output from Google search engine is based on an input of what is searched, same on Tik Tok.
One reason I think video games could be the most successful industry in this regard, is the immediacy of their feedback mechanism. That is, you know, the thumb is constantly moving the joystick. So the inputs are continuous, versus a webpage, like Kevin describes, which can track clicks and maybe scrolling and trackpad movement, if it's really smart. That's not a lot of input compared to a joystick, which makes the output of a smart webpage much less smart. When you're obsessed with feedback and inputs, in order to generate more effective outputs, the end user becomes the ground zero for every decision you make, in your design in your engineering. It's this idea that John is borrowing from elearning and other industries to try to apply to marketing.
John Lenker 21:27
And the success formula goes like this, the first thing that you need to understand is who are the right people? Who is it that you're speaking to and interacting with, you have to determine that, then the next thing you need to know, is where and when are they encountering your message? What is the environment? Are they driving down the street? are they hearing a presentation? Are they stopping on a landing page? Where and when are they encountering that? The third thing is what is it that you want them to do as a result of encountering that information? What is the outcome that you're seeking? So when you know the right people, you know, the people you're speaking to, you know, when and where they're encountering your message, and you know what you want them to do? Then and only then can you formulate craft the actual message, then and only then do you know what the content and substance of your message should be in order to point them towards that goal.
Matt O'Leary 22:19
Most marketing is done by business owners who maybe don't have the resources for professional marketing, or just don't see the need. They aren't trained marketers, copywriters, or designers, and they're trying to do their own marketing, copywriting and designing. All too often, this leads to websites and other forms of marketing, that are dominated by the what that is the content, or the output, instead of the input, they can say a lot, but achieve very little, the marketing becomes static, uninspiring and ultimately ineffective.
John Lenker 22:55
I remember going on a date once and no one was like, Do you want to have more kids within 10 minutes, because I don't even want to waste my time. If you don't have more kids, this isn't going to work out. So just tell me now. That's what she said to me. And I was like, I'm sorry, you know, this, this is taking me by surprise. I'm not ready to talk about this. Another thing men will talk about how much money they make or how successful they are. And they'll go on and on and on about themselves. And try thinking that they're impressing or making themselves more attractive. The other person, the other person's like, oh, my gosh, they've checked out and they're trying to figure out how to get away. We do this with our websites, we feel like the most important thing in the world is what we have to say. And we want to cram or websites is full of the things that we have to say as possible. And we want to make sure everybody is going to read everything, which is never going to happen. We know people bounce when they're confronted with things that don't engage in and grab hold of them right away. So when you follow the success formula, though, that was developed simultaneously with forming this idea way back in 2002. Is that to get the right information to the right people the right time. So it takes the right actions begins with understanding who the right people are wearing, when are they encountering your content? What is it you want them to do as a result of the interaction, and then crafting the information to be ideal and optimal to get to the next goal. In dating. First Date, the goal should be to get a second date. And if you know, that's the only goal. Everything you say everything you do should be focused on somebody saying something like this at the end. Wow, I had a really great time. I would love to go out with you again. If you know that that is the thing that you want to hear. That's the target is to have the other person say, Wow, I really enjoyed myself tonight. This was really a great time. I would love to go out with you again. If you know that. You can push away almost everything that you could possibly talk about and you're only focused on eliciting that response.
Matt O'Leary 23:12
This might be a ridiculous analogy to some people but getting to the second date is a lot like getting to the second interaction with the audience of a marketing message, the best conversations come from the best listeners. Similarly, the best marketing message also comes from the best listeners, those who can get continuous inputs from the audience like the body language of your date from across the dinner table. As marketers, we'd like to say that marketing has kept up with the pack in the way of personalized experience design. But it's only partially true. We have concepts like flow path management and customer journey maps. And we also have technology like CRM, marketing, automations retargeting ads and such. The mechanisms are getting better and better, but the inputs are still quite slow and intermittent.
John Lenker 25:43
Well, I mean, I think the I mean, the mechanism, that's one issue. I remember right after I wrote Train of Thoughts, I wrote an article about my experience shopping on Amazon, and how I was buying Christmas presents for my mother. And I look for a book I can remember about knitting or something. And then immediately, Amazon has shown me all the time the stuff about knitting, it's like, why couldn't they have just made one small change? When I come in to shop? Are you shopping today for yourself or for someone else, and then it can use the algorithm more accurately in order to know Hey, I'm not going to show John a bunch of knitting books going forward, right? I know that when he's doing that he's shopping for his mother or whatever he can switch. So that's about making the mechanism smarter. Now, fast forward to 2022, the mechanism is extremely smart. But what people are aiming that mechanism at is not very noble.
Matt O'Leary 26:40
It's safe to say that the average marketing agency or in house marketer is not taking full advantage of the power and capabilities of our modern personalization technologies, that CRMs and other tools offer. But even in other industries, there's a lot of lagging behind of what these tools can really do for us.
John Lenker 27:00
And what I'm interested in, is thinking about what is it that we can do with a mechanism that's going to actually advance people's lives. Now, ironically, or maybe not ironically, I'm looking back at education now go having started there and go to marketing, and then looking at the problems in education, most kids have access to technology. But what people are doing with the technology is still very unrefined. We have not taken the cybernetic systems and turn it into something that's actually going to help optimize learning experiences for kids. It's almost as clumsy as it could be. You know, we're using Zoom now for remote learning and teachers conducting classes in the same way as they would in a traditional classroom with similar kinds of results, rather than plug people into flow paths that are going to lead them into comprehension of whatever the idea is, and having teachers kind of assist and coach and find their way in to nurture and mentor along that path. Teachers are still trying to take responsibility for the learning path of every single person, which is an impossible task, then it leads to mediocrity. So I would be interested in seeing some company really do something with cybernetics, and personalization, to help solve this education problem. And also the opportunity gap that exists in different social classes really, different people just don't have exposure to things that will help get them to a place where they have access to opportunities. And with technology, we can really level the playing field so to speak, but nobody has taken responsibility for that yet.
Matt O'Leary 28:41
There doesn't seem to be a strong correlation between strong experienced design and strong values. That is, the best and brightest at implementing personalization technologies aren't necessarily the most interested in human wellbeing.
Kevin expands on this point.
Kevin deLaplante 29:08
And now we see it I think the fulfillment of this has come from different directions like, like a chat bot on a site has some of this conditional logic baked in where we can talk to a system and it'll answer your question to so on. But the fulfillment in it's sort of kind of most sort of gruesome way has been social media, and the big tech companies using machine learning driven algorithmic engagement, you know, just as you said,
Matt O'Leary 29:35
Yeah, I was gonna say the Wikipedia ideas are much more wholesome.
Kevin deLaplante 29:39
Right, right. Right. So it's, it's all about what are you optimizing for, right? And if the system is optimizing for engagement, retention, and so on, then it will, it will hack your mind your hind brain in order to get you to stay on longer, regardless of what it says it shows you right. But if the goal of objective is to inform me about something that might actually be beneficial to you that might be valuable to you, then the interaction is going to be different. It's going to be optimized for different things. And this is where it's precisely the branch off point between that and marketing and teaching and education. Because the goal of teaching is not simply to keep your audience hypnotized and enraptured by your speech. It's to deliver information that's useful and valuable, right?
Matt O'Leary 30:33
We're not saying we have all the answers on this topic, but we see how the field of marketing is lagging behind some of the very best examples of experience design, personalization, flowpath implementation, you know, whatever it is, you want to call it. And we want to see these tools be incorporated into the work of the noblest and most virtuous companies and marketing.
This is just part one of what's bound to be a lot more conversations with John Kevin and others about this topic. If you're interested in a really thought provoking book about web design, you can pick up John's book Train of Thoughts on Amazon now, for a little deeper dive into the influence hacker mindset. You can read our companion piece on medium, the influence hacker journal. You can also help us grow our audience with a five star review and by sharing with coworkers, friends and family. The influence hacker podcast is executive produced by John Lenker and Kevin deLaplante our mixing and mastering engineer is Patrick Doberman, the producer of this podcast as well as the writer of the narrative and original music is yours truly, Matt O'Leary.