The Myth of the Universal Player

12 10 2010

Malcolm Gladwell  spoke at TED on the subject of spaghetti sauce and business lessons learned from Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher and Psychophysicist famous for his studies in spaghetti sauce and consumer behaviors.

In his talk, Gladwell shares how Moskowitz fundamentally changed the way the food industry thought about human tastes and what makes the consumer “happy”.  Moskowitz discovered 3 break-through concepts in his work, questioning the validity of historical assumptions in the food industry:

1. People don’t necessarily know what they want to eat or what will make them happy. When it came to food tastes, focus group results did not correlate with their test data.  A critically important step in understanding our own desires and tastes is to realize that we cannot always explain what we want deep down.

2.  The importance of horizontal segmentation. There is no “perfect product”, but rather many flavors of the same product.  Moskowitz democratized the way we think about tastes.

3.  Confronted the notion of a platonic dish and that there was only one way to serve a dish. In the 1970’s, when the industry talked about “authentic tomato sauce” it implied thin, Italian tomato sauce with no visible solids, and that to please the maximum number of people, they had to provide culturally authentic tomato sauce.  They discovered that this was not the case.

Maxwell describes the industry’s past obsessions with the search for the ultimate cooking universals, finding one taste that suited all of us.  And those universals were sought after in all fields of study.  Psychologists, medical scientists,  economists, were all interested in finding out the rules that govern the way all of us behave.  Moskowitz’s spaghetti sauces changed all of that.

The revolutionary shift in science over the past few years is the movement from the search for Universals to the understanding of variability.  And as Moskowitz says “When we pursue universal principles in food, we aren’t just making an error, we are actually doing ourselves a massive disservice.”

We can infer similar scenarios in game genres, game mechanics and our tastes in fun.  Different segments of the population will have different interpretations of what they find fun, hence the importance of understanding variations in human behavior and psychological profiles.  Regardless of who’s personality type model the designer is building towards (different models are shared in this blog, your choice!), the primary point is that in order to engage a broad, online population, one has to design for varieties in motivations.

And of course the upper parameter should also be set, as Barry Swartz (another TED talks psychologist) warns us.  Too many choices can lead to paralysis and overwhelming numbers make it hard for people to choose anything at all, leaving us ultimately dissatisfied with our decisions.

The answer: Create a variety of choices, tailored to a few key clusters of preferences.  Anything beyond may create stress and confusion.

And as Malcolm Gladwell closes, “In embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a sure way to true happiness.”

[Edited to add:]  One question to ask is, if we don’t believe in the myth of the Universal Player, then why do we see so many universal ranking systems?

Malcolm Gladwell’s TED talks video:

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16 10 2010
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