Book cover. Switch: How to change things when change is hard, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Making the “Switch” to running

I recently read the book “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath. I was inspired to read it by TS Balaji, who mentioned it in his interview with DesignBetter. I expected it to be all about corporate change management, but was happy to see it cover everything from large-scale cultural change to individual change.

Instead of writing a review or summary, as I’ve done in the past for The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Interviewing Users, and Elon Musk’s Biography, I’m going to use the concepts from Switch to explain the bizarre human phenomenon of running.

What is this ‘running’ thing?

When you actually stop to think about it, running is a strange, strange behavior. Who in their right mind would buy expensive shoes, spend incredible amounts of time and energy, and risk repetitive strain injury just to end up right back where you started?

Ron Burgundy said it best:

Veronica and I trying this new fad called, uh, jogging. I believe it’s ‘jogging’ or ‘yogging.’ it might be a soft j. I’m not sure but apparently you just run for an extended period of time! It’s supposed to be wild.

Running is weird. Becoming a runner is not a very easy change to make.

My story

I used to be a runner. I have spent hundreds or maybe even thousands of hours of my life putting one leg in front of the other for a while then ending up back where I started. I’ve ran to the point of injury, too many times. Shin splints, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and more.

The author running on a road in a small town

Me running an adventure race in 2014 in Cumberland, British Columbia

About four years ago, I started cycling and stopped running. The injuries stopped too! I could cycle ten hours a week and still not get injured, whereas running half that much would land me at the physiotherapist’s.

The switch

Fast-forward to this past weekend. Shane, the ex-runner, sets his alarm for 7:00 on a Saturday 😱, battles 1000 other maniacs to find a parking spot 😱, and runs five kilometers in the April snow 😱. All after six weeks of training 😱, two physio treatments 😱, and countless hours of stretching and strengthening exercises 😱.

So why did I do it?

Back to the book Switch for a moment. This article does a way better job of explaining it than I do, but the analogy that the book sticks to is simple: a rider, an elephant, and a path. The brain is like a person riding an elephant. The elephant is very irrational and emotional but very strong. The rider, on the other hand, is very smart and rational but weak and sometimes indecisive.

Picture this rider and elephant walking along a path. If the path changes, for example if it’s blocked by a fallen tree, then the rider and elephant will be forced to change direction, even if neither of them actually want to.

In order to change someone’s behavior, you should appeal not only to the analytical rider, but also to the emotional elephant. You should also shape the path to make the change easier.

Brown elephant walking through a plain

The elephant is strong and emotional. Photo by elCarito on Unsplash

I resumed the strange habit of running because my rider, my elephant, and the path were all encouraged to make the switch.

Rally the herd

One way to “shape the path” for change is to show the people that you’re looking to change that “everyone else is doing it”. That’s why tip jars at coffee shops are never empty, even at the start of the day. An empty tip jar sends the message that no one tips and is easy to ignore. A tip jar with a few $5 bills and lots of change is much harder for customers to overlook.

Tip jar on counter with money in it

You don’t want to be the only one not to tip, do you? Photo by Kody Gautier on Unsplash

The main reason that I first signed up for this race was that my coworker suggested that we do it as a team. I definitely would not have done this race on my own.

Shrink the change

Heath and Heath explain that one way to motivate the elephant is to make the “ask” as small as possible. They tear apart the U.S. food pyramid, saying that it is hard to understand and completely overwhelming. They then tell the story of a campaign to convince the public to drink 1% milk instead of whole milk. That caused a significant drop in the intake of saturated fat, because it was a much more manageable change than obeying the food pyramid. 

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Who cares about the cookies? If you want to be healthy, make sure the milk is 1%. Photo by Elliot Banks on Unsplash

If my coworker had asked me to sign up for a marathon instead of a 5K, I probably would have told him no, even if the rest of the team was doing it. That’s a huge commitment. This helped my stubborn elephant get moving.

Script the critical moves

Switch touched on the phenomenon of decision paralysis. For example, a gourmet shop offered samples of 6 different jams one day and 24 different jams the next day. Customers who saw only 6 jams were 10 times more likely to make a purchase than those who saw 24. This is because the analytical rider doesn’t have the energy to analyze all 24 jams to make the best choice, and thus decided to make no choice at all.

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Try our gourmet jams! Just don’t try too many of them or you won’t buy any. Photo by Bernard Tuck on Unsplash

My coworker helped my rider by suggesting a specific race. He didn’t give a vague suggestion that we should all get into running. He gave a simple option of yes or no. Not much analysis required.

I helped my rider by finding a 5K training plan then adding it into my calendar. There was a bit of up-front planning required but after that, I was just following the script.

Point to the destination

The authors cite ambitious, black-and-white goals as a great way to direct the rider. As an example, BP once publicly announced a goal of “no more dry wells”, which was downright impossible, yet it led to significantly reduced exploration costs.

Oil well at sunset

Instead of “lower exploration costs by 80%”, how about “no dry wells”? Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

Soon after I signed up for the 5K, my coworker asked me what my goal was, and I blurted out “25 minutes”. It was an arbitrary goal but it was black and white: I would either run a sub-25 5k or I wouldn’t. Late in my training, I analyzed my training data and it looked bleak. My goal was to run five kilometers at about 5 minutes each, but in my 70 km of training that I had done so far, I hadn’t even reached that pace once. (See my original tweet)

But somehow, that black-and-white goal stuck in my mind during my race and I’m pleased to say that against all odds, I finished in 24:54.

 

 

In other words, I not only took up running again, but I absolutely embraced it. I did this because my rider was directed, my elephant was motivated, and my path was shaped.

More than just for running

I’ve used my return to running as an illustration, but obviously the techniques in this book can be applied to so much more. Whether you want to make a switch with yourself, your family, your company, or the world, Switch contains practical advice for changing riders, elephants, and paths!

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Visualizing vesting schedules

I recently wrote about the book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte.

That book inspired me to explore ways of visualizing the vesting of savings and awards.

Background

Skip this section if you know equity!

Vesting

Vesting is when stock or cash becomes available. This allows companies to reward their employees for staying with them for a long time. Savings plan matching and stock options are two examples of

Savings plan matching

Savings plan matching encourages employees to save for their future. For every dollar an employee saves, the company will contribute a certain amount. This happens every paycheck. That company contribution is often subject to vesting. In other words:

Dear employee, you saved $1. Good job. You can have this quarter… but only if you are still working here one year from now.

Stock options

Stock options freeze the price of a certain number of shares for employees, who can then buy them a few years later. It’s like:

Dear employee, the stock price today is $30. If you’re still working for us in two years you can buy 200 shares for that price. In three years you can buy 100 more. And in four years 100 more!

Why?

This promise of future money is a win-win. It helps the employee because they get rewarded. It benefits the company because employees are owners too and are less likely to leave. Some people call it “the golden handcuffs”; I like to think of it as a carrot on a stick. There’s always some money just out of reach, which encourages employees to stay.

Résultats de recherche d'images pour « bugs bunny carrot on a string »

Kind of like Bugs Bunny motivating himself with a carrot on a stick

My process

Vesting and employee equity can be hard to explain but once you get it, you get it. I’ve spent a lot of time lately exploring ways of representing equity visually.

I have done a ton of sketching. And thinking. And sketching again. It’s funny how ideas in your head can seem perfect but their flaws are revealed when the pen hits paper.

Initially I explored the idea of plotting time vs quantity of upcoming vest events.

That didn’t always work because there are often large gaps between vest events. So I decided to order the vest events by date instead of scaling by date.

Here are some of my sketches.

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A collection of sketches. Spot the coffee stain!

I settled on a sparkline showing the quantity of vest, the award price, and the market price. What I like about this is that the area of each shape is proportional to its value. It explains complex concepts like stock options vs. RSUs at a glance.

I’ll illustrate this with an example. For a fictional employee with a few savings plan contributions and a recent stock option grant, the raw data might look something like this:

Type Vest Date Quantity Grant Price Current Market Price Estimated Value
Savings plan 01-Aug-19 10 $0 $103.30 $1,033.00
Savings plan 15-Aug-19 11 $0 $103.30 $1,136.30
Savings plan 01-Sep-19 12 $0 $103.30 $1,239.60
Savings plan 15-Sep-19 11 $0 $103.30 $1,136.30
Savings plan 01-Oct-19 9 $0 $103.30 $929.70
Savings plan 15-Oct-19 8 $0 $103.30 $826.40
Stock option 28-Sep-20 50 $114.23 $103.30 -$546.50
Stock option 28-Sep-21 25 $114.23 $103.30 -$273.25
Stock option 28-Sep-22 25 $114.23 $103.30 -$273.25

There’s a lot to digest here. And this is a simple example. For many employees, we have to limit the number of vests that we show because there are too many. But it becomes much more visual and compact if we represent it using what I like to call a vesting sparkline.

vesting sketch

A vesting sparkline for the data in the above table. Note the savings plan vests on the left and the (underwater) stock option vests on the right.

What I love about this is that it reduces all the complexity with grant prices and vesting timing into simple geometry!

The area of each box is proportional to its value. The savings plan vests are narrower because they’re smaller, but their $0 grant price makes them quite valuable. The option vests are currently underwater, meaning their grant price is higher than the market price. But if the price jumps, they’ll be much more valuable than the savings plan vests.

I think this idea has potential.

Or am I crazy?

I’ve obsessed over these sparklines on and off for a month. I’m way too close to them to be objective. So, readers, please let me know if this idea sucks!

And more importantly, I need to try these charts out with real data. What will it look like for typical Australian employees? What about German executives?

If I’m satisfied that I can cover all cases with the design, I’ll then test prototypes with coworkers and real customers. Do they understand what they’re looking at? How can I tweak the design to help?

I’m hoping that this will make it into production but even if it doesn’t at least I had fun doing it!

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte- Book Review

“A little light reading, hey?” the doctor from Pennsylvania asked me on a recent flight. “Do you have to read that for a course or something?”

“No,” I said as I showed him a fascinating chart of Napoleon’s army’s advance to and retreat from Russia, “I’m actually just reading it for fun.”

And despite the fact that the cover looks like required reading for a 1960’s advanced course in Macroeconomics, it WAS fun.

The book

Even the cover is fascinating. The graph on it looks like a meaningless jumble of lines, but it actually contains the entire train schedule of France from 1885. It is so rich in information and so elegant. It’s a thing of beauty.

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The beautiful cover of the book

The book goes on to highlight many amazing graphs, as well as a few counter-examples, and explains what makes them good or bad.

It all boils down to just a few principles. The ones that stuck with me were:

  • Don’t waste “ink” on unnecessary or distracting “chartjunk”,
  • don’t use a chart when a table will do, and
  • don’t lie.

An example of wasted ink included using internal grid lines, which often reduce the readability of the actual data. This should be avoided.

As for using charts vs. tables, the “magic number” that Tufte gave was 20. If there are fewer than 20 pieces of data, it’s often better to print those values directly in a table than for to abstract them into a chart.

The book contained several examples of charts that lie. The biggest offense was shifting axes for some or all of the data in a chart to make the data seem better or worse than it actually is. Tufte also recommended adjusting monetary values for inflation whenever possible.

Applying these ideas

I work as a UX designer for Solium, an equity compensation software company. What does that mean in English? Many companies reward their employees by giving them ownership through things like stock options and savings plans. Solium makes software that helps those companies keep track of these plans.

We recently released a redesigned interface for these employees (participants). These participants have appreciated the new interface, though there are still a few important questions that it doesn’t fully answer for them. One of which is “When am I going to get my money?” because these equity compensation programs usually have what’s called vesting, where rewards are only released after the recipient has worked for the company for a certain amount of time, usually 1-4 years.

I’m now working on a simple, compact, easy-to-learn chart that shows the vesting schedule for a participant. It may never end up being released in our software, but it’s definitely been a fun exercise exploring different concepts based on what Tufte taught me!

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Some of my sketches for vesting schedule visualizations

For details on these charts, see Visualizing vesting schedules.

Definitely worth a read!

Anyway, The Visual Design of Quantitative Information was a great read. I’d definitely recommend it if you work with data or are curious about how these things work… Or if you want to impress that doctor sitting next to you on a flight.