Design

🧠 How Design Shapes Human Experience

🎙 Podcast: JT Talks Cognitive Science with PhD Anja Jamrozik

John Thomey
John Thomey
Apr 12, 2021
🧠 How Design Shapes Human Experience
🔒 Member-only content. 🔒
OR

Happy Urban Tech Thursday! 🙌

Today’s edition is pretty special. It is the first conversation ever for the Urban Tech Podcast. 🎧

Places to listen:

Apple Podcasts | Spotify Amazon Music| In Browser

I spoke with Dr. Anja Jamrozik, a cognitive scientist who studies design and how it shapes our experience in the physical and digital worlds. Anja is one of my favorite people I met while working in press and comms before going back to school.

Anja and I met when she was working as a researcher for flexible space provider Breather. My job was essentially to get Anja's exciting research and point of view into stories like this Fast Company piece about redesigning your office for productivity.

In our conversation, we covered a wide range of topics:

  • The ways design delivers utility to customers and users
  • Why design is at the core of everything Airbnb does and the role of design in hospitality
  • The differences in design in physical and digital environments

Below is the transcript from the show. The transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.

Share

You should definitely listen to the audio conversation though, it was so much fun. 💯

JT: I'd love to start at a high level. If you could summarize how you think about design and what a common theme is between design in the built environment and design of digital tools; so what are some of the common ways that you're thinking about it all? 

AJ: I would say, the products we use, the tools we use, and the spaces we inhabit impact our experience. That means our thoughts, our feelings, and our behavior.

And what my role is, is to understand how that occurs and to optimize experience. 

When people are occupying a space or when they're using a tool to make sure that those products or tools are doing what we intend them to do. And I think there are two parts to that.

First, applying existing research. We have a ton of research from cognitive and behavioral science that could be applied to these problems. In a lot of cases, the research isn't being applied, which I think is sad and should be fixed, as well as doing specific research, for example, a new product or, to test how a product or a space is working.

JT: Maybe I should have started with this, but what exactly does cognitive science mean? I know when I read it, it sounds super cool. I know it deals with the brain, but maybe if you could explain how it plays in, that would be super helpful for the audience.

AJ: Cognitive science is a study of the mind. My PhD research was about understanding analogy and metaphor. So how people see relationships between situations and how we can highlight those similarities, which is a big part of creativity. More broadly, I understand how people reason, how people think, how memory works, how language works.

I think people often talk about designing from first principles. I think cognitive science is actually a great application of the first principles of how people work and how the mind works. If you're designing a new tool, how do you make it understandable? How do you make it in line with the mental models that we have? How do you enhance people's thinking through a tool? The same goes for spaces or products. 

JT: I love that because I think this is something I found when I was working with you. After having done comms for a lot of design work and done the aspirational, “eight ways to improve your office space,” I love the more nuanced lens that you brought to design, where you're thinking about it from a deeper way than just. “let's make this look cool.” It’s, “let's make this functional, let's get utility out of it.”

AJ: Thank you. And I think oftentimes we gravitate to things that are beautiful because beauty is often a shorthand for functionality For example, in nature, some of the most beautiful objects or creatures, lifeforms, are also really beautiful and have a specific function. Oftentimes I think we just go for that shorthand. if it's going to be beautiful, it's going to work. But when we're creating the things, the products, oftentimes it doesn't go like that. Something could be very beautiful, but not serve the purpose that it's intended to have. 

JT: That's awesome. I wouldn't say I have the best design eye in the world, but I try to think through the utility of design and more of the urbanism elements of design and how it folds in the cities and how cities can become better places to live through design.

I know a lot of the same themes that you research crossover between the built world and the digital world. But could you maybe talk a little bit about how cognitive thinking and the approach of design is different or similar between those two sides?

AJ: Yeah, I think we increasingly live our lives both online and in a physical space, but there are some important differences. I think the biggest one is that the physical world is really annoying in comparison to the digital world. The digital world is designed to be super reactive. And I think we've come to expect that the physical world isn't.

And I think that's where the future of the physical world is, that it should be more reactive and it should be more integrated. But right now we have these frustrations with the physical world. I think the other thing is that it's a lot easier to iterate on a digital product. Maybe it's not easy, but it's certainly easier to scrap everything and start from scratch.

Once you've built a building, you're not going to tear it down because there was a flaw. And I think the importance of research is in some ways, placed at different points of the development cycle for physical and digital products. For physical products, there has to be a lot of thought before the thing is built.

You can't iterate. You can evaluate how it works after the fact and learn from it for the next product, but you should front-load all of that research into understanding how people are going to use that space and whether they will benefit from it. Verses for a digital product, you could start with some idea and start testing it, iterating, and developing it. I think that process is different and you can learn more as you're working on it.

JT: That’s super important. That iterative nature for the tech and software side for product design. I'm forgetting the name of the big documentary that was on Netflix (The Social Dilemma), about the ways design has been used to make products more sticky and addicting for consumers.

It can be good or bad, but design plays a crucial role, no matter what. Certainly, the people who are building tools are always thinking about this stuff. For the best product minds, the design is at the core of everything. 

AJ: I think maybe that's a theme that I saw a lot in Sidewalk Labs, for example, the Quayside project in Toronto, which actually felt to me like hubris coming from the software side.

This idea that you could iterate really quickly, that you could iterate the physical world as you would the digital world, which I think if you're coming from a world where we're all, in this kind of iteration, that's a common mindset to apply, but you're not going to change the orientation of a building after it's been built. While there were some elements that I could see how they would be more responsive than traditional elements in a lot of these cases, I think the idea of, Iterating on these large scale projects isn't actually possible. You're selling a vision that's not at all realistic.

JT: For sure. First a disclosure from me: at my first job out of college at a communications firm, I did press work for Sidewalk Labs and worked on the Quayside project at a low-level. [The Quayside project was an ambitious smart city development project in Toronto.]

I think that's a totally fair assessment and definitely something that’s a fair critique of the project more generally.

It will take some time for all of this. The tech side is still figuring out how to communicate with the urbanism, government, and design sides. There's a lot of tension between those groups and you see it a lot in transportation and Proptech.

You also see it in city governments.

AJ: I think we should have more responsive elements in the built environment, but I think it has to be done extremely thoughtfully and not just apply the exact same framework in the same process, because it's just not going to work.

JT: Definitely. I know I asked about the difference between design and the digital world versus designing the built world, but what type of elements are different when you think about design in the workplace or design in your home? 

AJ: The goals are very different, when you're thinking about those two spaces. These kinds of spaces should support different behaviors. For work, the kind of behaviors we're interested in are collaboration, teamwork, creativity. Yes, it's good. If you can relax at work, but you don't want to relax to the same degree that you would in your living room. 

For the home it’s about the family. In some cases of relaxation, restoration depends on what the goals of the people habitating the home are. That should actually be a lot more specific. There is research that depending on people's personality, for example, if you're more extroverted or introverted, the design of your living room changes.

That's a consideration that's important. Verses for work, you should be designing for the task you have in mind. Whether that's, brainstorming or a strategy session or some sort of individual work, the design of the space should reflect those needs.

JT: I know that was something, I heard you talk about a lot when you were working with Breather.  I feel like you see it a lot in coworking and spaces optimized for meetings, or space designed for planning and strategy sessions.  I just love thinking about how it's different from how we design our intentional spaces in our homes. 

I try to design my space in my own apartment to be productive, but also relaxing. Now that I work from home, I don't even know where to start to make it better.

I'm curious, as you watch the work from home revolution, do you think it's going to change the internal design of spaces; what are you seeing? 

AJ: Yeah, I think in a couple of ways. First, the idea that people want a separate space in their home to work, that's more optimized for work. That's going to be important and a lot of people are already creating that on their own as much as they can. 

Another consideration is there are elements in a workplace that are there to make workers work better. For example, ergonomic furniture. That's something that companies provide in part, because you're going to get a wrist injury if you're in a bad position and you can focus better if you have this nice furniture, but maybe you don't have that at home. 

I wonder if that's going to change where somehow work has more of an effect on your home. If you're working from home or maybe you get a kit of items from your employer that you should put in your workspace, or at least to have that offer to give people.

The opportunity to make the company not responsible seems big. I'm not sure whether that will happen, but that could be a kind of a curious side effect.

I think also as people move further away from city centers, or maybe only commute in once a month, or a couple of times a week, then the structure of the home will change as well with people wanting to have more outdoor space or to have a bigger home. You can have your bigger home office at home.

I guess another thing is that there are certain elements that as people are universal. For example, good air quality, good water quality, are going to be important everywhere. There are certain physiological needs that we have that no matter where we are — those are important. 

JT: Those are two great ones that are easy to miss, but I remember you doing research on the importance of air quality and in your office space. I was blown away by the results.

AJ: We were doing work on combinations of environmental factors as well. Sometimes people think that the air quality is poor when it's actually a combination of other environmental factors that are affecting them.

JT: To switch gears just a little bit, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Airbnb with the IPO. It's also one company that I love thinking about in this space, because of how much of an influence it's had by creating a new category with home sharing.

Given the Airbnb founding story, with the cofounders Brian and Joe being design students at the Rhode Island School of Design, design is at the core of everything Airbnb does. 

I'd love to hear if you had just had any thoughts about design and Airbnb specifically?

AJ: First, I'm definitely a long time user. I checked today and my first booking was in 2013. Maybe I'm not in the first cohort, but I've certainly been using it a long time. It's definitely what I would prefer to use whenever I go on vacation. And I like the experience of getting to inhabit different people's homes.

I think the design of the digital experience is great. It's very consistent. I love the app. I like communicating to hosts through the app. I like the consistency, but then as soon as you leave the digital experience, the consistency stops. You have to do a lot of work in understanding the reviews and understanding what other people have written in order to understand what that actual experience might be like.

You have to look at the pictures, you have to check the reviews about whether people said things like the furniture changed or there's a lot of noise or any of these other factors. The physical experience is outside of the scope of Airbnb and can be different from space to space and different from expectations.

You're also relying on other users to provide vital information for you to understand what that experience would be like. It's interesting that the structure of it is clearly designed and easy to use, but at the same time, there are many elements that are left to external influence. I think that's a very interesting combination. 

JT: That's a great point. I've been reading a ton of the stories about how during COVID, Airbnb has had to pivot and shelve some longer-term stuff and big vision stuff. 

They are still trying to remove friction from the entire experience, They figured out how to do it in one part. But like you said, as someone who has booked Airbnbs and had great experiences and terrible experiences, there's a lot of variability in the process. They certainly are incentivized to figure out both parts.

AJ: Yeah. I think people, what people will remember is not the digital experience. If you stay at a terrible Airbnb, you're not going to be like, “that was terrible, but I loved booking.” 

No, one's going to say that. It's a holistic experience. You can't break it apart, and so I thought it was interesting, the fact that when I checked recently, for example, hotels are now on Airbnb, Sonder is now on Airbnb. There's the premium level, I forget what it's called. There are  Superhosts. These are all categories to give people the idea that the physical experience we'll have will be up to a certain standard. It's interesting that they're trying to impose it through these categories because otherwise there's no way to know whether it's going to be what you expect.

JT: That is so interesting. There's a lot of longer-term reputation stuff that Airbnb is still figuring out and is doing. I think the ethos that they approach all this stuff is with their best intentions and always trying to figure it out in the best way possible.

But, when you're innovating, you create a new category and at that scale, you have a lot of hard things to figure out. 

AJ: I think it's interesting too, that people are having longer stays through Airbnb and with more remote work, the fact that you could go somewhere for a month and stay somewhere and work from there. The fact that they are moving into even longer stays is super interesting, but then the information that you displayed becomes even more important, because if you go somewhere for a weekend and it's not great, that's fine. But if you go somewhere for a month and the physical experience sucks, then you're in trouble.

JT: All stuff Urban Tech will be watching. Hopefully, we'll get to talk to you again about it when it's a little bit more clear after the excitement of the IPO stuff settles down

I'd love to use this as a chance to segue, to hear a little bit about the work you're doing with Composer. I know I saw it in our friend, Packy McCormick's Not Boring newsletter, and I've seen some stuff on it

AJ: At Composer, we're building a portfolio management platform that lets people build, test and manage automated investment strategies.

The idea is to give regular retail investors a powerful tool to improve the way that they invest. I think here we've touched on the cognitive science element. I think that cognitive science element runs all throughout it. Oftentimes the tools that we use and the products that we use help expand our minds and help expand what we can do.

In this case, I'm doing research and strategy to help develop this product and to help it, be a product that helps people make better decisions to make better investing strategies and to see their portfolio in a more cohesive and creative way. Also to have more fun with investing.

JT: Fintech is not something I know a ton about, but it's something I keep my eye on because the way people think about money and the future of banking is all stuff that impacts people who live in cities pretty heavily. 

I'm curious. Thinking about design from a Fintech services perspective, and thinking about services more generally, how would you say services in that context is different from maybe a real estate firm offering services?

That's probably not a great way to frame the question, but I'm just trying to see how maybe there's something unique to design in Fintech services that's different to design in the context of real estate or hospitality services. 

What's important there?

AJ: That's an interesting comparison. The biggest one would be customization. With a lot of robo financial advisors you are giving this black box money and it's investing it for you and you're getting a return, but there's not much that you're doing other than setting maybe a few parameters.

This is more about giving people tools and knowledge to be creative and come up with their own strategies.

In this analogy, maybe it would be a multi-functional space that helps you come up with something versus just consuming a package. For example, I don't want to invest in fossil fuels, so I have an ETF that's the S&P minus fossil fuels.

But what if there's another company that perhaps I have, feelings about that I wouldn't want to invest in? There's not a tool right now where I could take the S&P and take out all of the ones with fossil fuels and any others that I don't like, but still have it remain the same structure. 

This is something that you could do with this tool, which personally I would definitely use.

JT: Is there anything I should've asked you or anything that you thought of that would be worth sharing?

AJ: The one tie-in that I thought of is I have a newsletter about research and design. One of the topics that I recently covered was about IPO names and profitability. The findings are that companies with more pronounceable names tend to perform better on the first day of trading and that holds both for the name as well as just the ticker.

That also ties in with the composer, functionality in that I imagined that I could make a strategy, which just looks at the pronounced ability of upcoming IPOs and invests in those that are easy to pronounce, and then sells the first day, like automating that. I think that would be pretty and a creative use of research.

JT: Very interesting and the type of fun stuff we love to share in Urban Tech! Thanks for chatting with me again. This was great.

A big thanks to Anja for sharing her insights! If you want to follow her work or are interested more in topics like the ones we discussed, you should check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

Hope you enjoyed the conversation! I’m hoping it gives you a feel for what’s ahead for the Urban Tech Podcast, and how we will use it to augment everything UT does.

I’m in the process of booking more guest for the podcast, if you or someone you know is interested in chatting with me, please fill out this quick form.

Chat with UT!

I’ll be back on Monday with our regular playlist of the essential city and tech stories that you need to know — have a great weekend.

✌️JT

Happy Urban Tech Thursday! 🙌

Today’s edition is pretty special. It is the first conversation ever for the Urban Tech Podcast. 🎧

Places to listen:

Apple Podcasts | Spotify Amazon Music| In Browser

I spoke with Dr. Anja Jamrozik, a cognitive scientist who studies design and how it shapes our experience in the physical and digital worlds. Anja is one of my favorite people I met while working in press and comms before going back to school.

Anja and I met when she was working as a researcher for flexible space provider Breather. My job was essentially to get Anja's exciting research and point of view into stories like this Fast Company piece about redesigning your office for productivity.

In our conversation, we covered a wide range of topics:

  • The ways design delivers utility to customers and users
  • Why design is at the core of everything Airbnb does and the role of design in hospitality
  • The differences in design in physical and digital environments

Below is the transcript from the show. The transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.

Share

You should definitely listen to the audio conversation though, it was so much fun. 💯

JT: I'd love to start at a high level. If you could summarize how you think about design and what a common theme is between design in the built environment and design of digital tools; so what are some of the common ways that you're thinking about it all? 

AJ: I would say, the products we use, the tools we use, and the spaces we inhabit impact our experience. That means our thoughts, our feelings, and our behavior.

And what my role is, is to understand how that occurs and to optimize experience. 

When people are occupying a space or when they're using a tool to make sure that those products or tools are doing what we intend them to do. And I think there are two parts to that.

First, applying existing research. We have a ton of research from cognitive and behavioral science that could be applied to these problems. In a lot of cases, the research isn't being applied, which I think is sad and should be fixed, as well as doing specific research, for example, a new product or, to test how a product or a space is working.

JT: Maybe I should have started with this, but what exactly does cognitive science mean? I know when I read it, it sounds super cool. I know it deals with the brain, but maybe if you could explain how it plays in, that would be super helpful for the audience.

AJ: Cognitive science is a study of the mind. My PhD research was about understanding analogy and metaphor. So how people see relationships between situations and how we can highlight those similarities, which is a big part of creativity. More broadly, I understand how people reason, how people think, how memory works, how language works.

I think people often talk about designing from first principles. I think cognitive science is actually a great application of the first principles of how people work and how the mind works. If you're designing a new tool, how do you make it understandable? How do you make it in line with the mental models that we have? How do you enhance people's thinking through a tool? The same goes for spaces or products. 

JT: I love that because I think this is something I found when I was working with you. After having done comms for a lot of design work and done the aspirational, “eight ways to improve your office space,” I love the more nuanced lens that you brought to design, where you're thinking about it from a deeper way than just. “let's make this look cool.” It’s, “let's make this functional, let's get utility out of it.”

AJ: Thank you. And I think oftentimes we gravitate to things that are beautiful because beauty is often a shorthand for functionality For example, in nature, some of the most beautiful objects or creatures, lifeforms, are also really beautiful and have a specific function. Oftentimes I think we just go for that shorthand. if it's going to be beautiful, it's going to work. But when we're creating the things, the products, oftentimes it doesn't go like that. Something could be very beautiful, but not serve the purpose that it's intended to have. 

JT: That's awesome. I wouldn't say I have the best design eye in the world, but I try to think through the utility of design and more of the urbanism elements of design and how it folds in the cities and how cities can become better places to live through design.

I know a lot of the same themes that you research crossover between the built world and the digital world. But could you maybe talk a little bit about how cognitive thinking and the approach of design is different or similar between those two sides?

AJ: Yeah, I think we increasingly live our lives both online and in a physical space, but there are some important differences. I think the biggest one is that the physical world is really annoying in comparison to the digital world. The digital world is designed to be super reactive. And I think we've come to expect that the physical world isn't.

And I think that's where the future of the physical world is, that it should be more reactive and it should be more integrated. But right now we have these frustrations with the physical world. I think the other thing is that it's a lot easier to iterate on a digital product. Maybe it's not easy, but it's certainly easier to scrap everything and start from scratch.

Once you've built a building, you're not going to tear it down because there was a flaw. And I think the importance of research is in some ways, placed at different points of the development cycle for physical and digital products. For physical products, there has to be a lot of thought before the thing is built.

You can't iterate. You can evaluate how it works after the fact and learn from it for the next product, but you should front-load all of that research into understanding how people are going to use that space and whether they will benefit from it. Verses for a digital product, you could start with some idea and start testing it, iterating, and developing it. I think that process is different and you can learn more as you're working on it.

JT: That’s super important. That iterative nature for the tech and software side for product design. I'm forgetting the name of the big documentary that was on Netflix (The Social Dilemma), about the ways design has been used to make products more sticky and addicting for consumers.

It can be good or bad, but design plays a crucial role, no matter what. Certainly, the people who are building tools are always thinking about this stuff. For the best product minds, the design is at the core of everything. 

AJ: I think maybe that's a theme that I saw a lot in Sidewalk Labs, for example, the Quayside project in Toronto, which actually felt to me like hubris coming from the software side.

This idea that you could iterate really quickly, that you could iterate the physical world as you would the digital world, which I think if you're coming from a world where we're all, in this kind of iteration, that's a common mindset to apply, but you're not going to change the orientation of a building after it's been built. While there were some elements that I could see how they would be more responsive than traditional elements in a lot of these cases, I think the idea of, Iterating on these large scale projects isn't actually possible. You're selling a vision that's not at all realistic.

JT: For sure. First a disclosure from me: at my first job out of college at a communications firm, I did press work for Sidewalk Labs and worked on the Quayside project at a low-level. [The Quayside project was an ambitious smart city development project in Toronto.]

I think that's a totally fair assessment and definitely something that’s a fair critique of the project more generally.

It will take some time for all of this. The tech side is still figuring out how to communicate with the urbanism, government, and design sides. There's a lot of tension between those groups and you see it a lot in transportation and Proptech.

You also see it in city governments.

AJ: I think we should have more responsive elements in the built environment, but I think it has to be done extremely thoughtfully and not just apply the exact same framework in the same process, because it's just not going to work.

JT: Definitely. I know I asked about the difference between design and the digital world versus designing the built world, but what type of elements are different when you think about design in the workplace or design in your home? 

AJ: The goals are very different, when you're thinking about those two spaces. These kinds of spaces should support different behaviors. For work, the kind of behaviors we're interested in are collaboration, teamwork, creativity. Yes, it's good. If you can relax at work, but you don't want to relax to the same degree that you would in your living room. 

For the home it’s about the family. In some cases of relaxation, restoration depends on what the goals of the people habitating the home are. That should actually be a lot more specific. There is research that depending on people's personality, for example, if you're more extroverted or introverted, the design of your living room changes.

That's a consideration that's important. Verses for work, you should be designing for the task you have in mind. Whether that's, brainstorming or a strategy session or some sort of individual work, the design of the space should reflect those needs.

JT: I know that was something, I heard you talk about a lot when you were working with Breather.  I feel like you see it a lot in coworking and spaces optimized for meetings, or space designed for planning and strategy sessions.  I just love thinking about how it's different from how we design our intentional spaces in our homes. 

I try to design my space in my own apartment to be productive, but also relaxing. Now that I work from home, I don't even know where to start to make it better.

I'm curious, as you watch the work from home revolution, do you think it's going to change the internal design of spaces; what are you seeing? 

AJ: Yeah, I think in a couple of ways. First, the idea that people want a separate space in their home to work, that's more optimized for work. That's going to be important and a lot of people are already creating that on their own as much as they can. 

Another consideration is there are elements in a workplace that are there to make workers work better. For example, ergonomic furniture. That's something that companies provide in part, because you're going to get a wrist injury if you're in a bad position and you can focus better if you have this nice furniture, but maybe you don't have that at home. 

I wonder if that's going to change where somehow work has more of an effect on your home. If you're working from home or maybe you get a kit of items from your employer that you should put in your workspace, or at least to have that offer to give people.

The opportunity to make the company not responsible seems big. I'm not sure whether that will happen, but that could be a kind of a curious side effect.

I think also as people move further away from city centers, or maybe only commute in once a month, or a couple of times a week, then the structure of the home will change as well with people wanting to have more outdoor space or to have a bigger home. You can have your bigger home office at home.

I guess another thing is that there are certain elements that as people are universal. For example, good air quality, good water quality, are going to be important everywhere. There are certain physiological needs that we have that no matter where we are — those are important. 

JT: Those are two great ones that are easy to miss, but I remember you doing research on the importance of air quality and in your office space. I was blown away by the results.

AJ: We were doing work on combinations of environmental factors as well. Sometimes people think that the air quality is poor when it's actually a combination of other environmental factors that are affecting them.

JT: To switch gears just a little bit, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Airbnb with the IPO. It's also one company that I love thinking about in this space, because of how much of an influence it's had by creating a new category with home sharing.

Given the Airbnb founding story, with the cofounders Brian and Joe being design students at the Rhode Island School of Design, design is at the core of everything Airbnb does. 

I'd love to hear if you had just had any thoughts about design and Airbnb specifically?

AJ: First, I'm definitely a long time user. I checked today and my first booking was in 2013. Maybe I'm not in the first cohort, but I've certainly been using it a long time. It's definitely what I would prefer to use whenever I go on vacation. And I like the experience of getting to inhabit different people's homes.

I think the design of the digital experience is great. It's very consistent. I love the app. I like communicating to hosts through the app. I like the consistency, but then as soon as you leave the digital experience, the consistency stops. You have to do a lot of work in understanding the reviews and understanding what other people have written in order to understand what that actual experience might be like.

You have to look at the pictures, you have to check the reviews about whether people said things like the furniture changed or there's a lot of noise or any of these other factors. The physical experience is outside of the scope of Airbnb and can be different from space to space and different from expectations.

You're also relying on other users to provide vital information for you to understand what that experience would be like. It's interesting that the structure of it is clearly designed and easy to use, but at the same time, there are many elements that are left to external influence. I think that's a very interesting combination. 

JT: That's a great point. I've been reading a ton of the stories about how during COVID, Airbnb has had to pivot and shelve some longer-term stuff and big vision stuff. 

They are still trying to remove friction from the entire experience, They figured out how to do it in one part. But like you said, as someone who has booked Airbnbs and had great experiences and terrible experiences, there's a lot of variability in the process. They certainly are incentivized to figure out both parts.

AJ: Yeah. I think people, what people will remember is not the digital experience. If you stay at a terrible Airbnb, you're not going to be like, “that was terrible, but I loved booking.” 

No, one's going to say that. It's a holistic experience. You can't break it apart, and so I thought it was interesting, the fact that when I checked recently, for example, hotels are now on Airbnb, Sonder is now on Airbnb. There's the premium level, I forget what it's called. There are  Superhosts. These are all categories to give people the idea that the physical experience we'll have will be up to a certain standard. It's interesting that they're trying to impose it through these categories because otherwise there's no way to know whether it's going to be what you expect.

JT: That is so interesting. There's a lot of longer-term reputation stuff that Airbnb is still figuring out and is doing. I think the ethos that they approach all this stuff is with their best intentions and always trying to figure it out in the best way possible.

But, when you're innovating, you create a new category and at that scale, you have a lot of hard things to figure out. 

AJ: I think it's interesting too, that people are having longer stays through Airbnb and with more remote work, the fact that you could go somewhere for a month and stay somewhere and work from there. The fact that they are moving into even longer stays is super interesting, but then the information that you displayed becomes even more important, because if you go somewhere for a weekend and it's not great, that's fine. But if you go somewhere for a month and the physical experience sucks, then you're in trouble.

JT: All stuff Urban Tech will be watching. Hopefully, we'll get to talk to you again about it when it's a little bit more clear after the excitement of the IPO stuff settles down

I'd love to use this as a chance to segue, to hear a little bit about the work you're doing with Composer. I know I saw it in our friend, Packy McCormick's Not Boring newsletter, and I've seen some stuff on it

AJ: At Composer, we're building a portfolio management platform that lets people build, test and manage automated investment strategies.

The idea is to give regular retail investors a powerful tool to improve the way that they invest. I think here we've touched on the cognitive science element. I think that cognitive science element runs all throughout it. Oftentimes the tools that we use and the products that we use help expand our minds and help expand what we can do.

In this case, I'm doing research and strategy to help develop this product and to help it, be a product that helps people make better decisions to make better investing strategies and to see their portfolio in a more cohesive and creative way. Also to have more fun with investing.

JT: Fintech is not something I know a ton about, but it's something I keep my eye on because the way people think about money and the future of banking is all stuff that impacts people who live in cities pretty heavily. 

I'm curious. Thinking about design from a Fintech services perspective, and thinking about services more generally, how would you say services in that context is different from maybe a real estate firm offering services?

That's probably not a great way to frame the question, but I'm just trying to see how maybe there's something unique to design in Fintech services that's different to design in the context of real estate or hospitality services. 

What's important there?

AJ: That's an interesting comparison. The biggest one would be customization. With a lot of robo financial advisors you are giving this black box money and it's investing it for you and you're getting a return, but there's not much that you're doing other than setting maybe a few parameters.

This is more about giving people tools and knowledge to be creative and come up with their own strategies.

In this analogy, maybe it would be a multi-functional space that helps you come up with something versus just consuming a package. For example, I don't want to invest in fossil fuels, so I have an ETF that's the S&P minus fossil fuels.

But what if there's another company that perhaps I have, feelings about that I wouldn't want to invest in? There's not a tool right now where I could take the S&P and take out all of the ones with fossil fuels and any others that I don't like, but still have it remain the same structure. 

This is something that you could do with this tool, which personally I would definitely use.

JT: Is there anything I should've asked you or anything that you thought of that would be worth sharing?

AJ: The one tie-in that I thought of is I have a newsletter about research and design. One of the topics that I recently covered was about IPO names and profitability. The findings are that companies with more pronounceable names tend to perform better on the first day of trading and that holds both for the name as well as just the ticker.

That also ties in with the composer, functionality in that I imagined that I could make a strategy, which just looks at the pronounced ability of upcoming IPOs and invests in those that are easy to pronounce, and then sells the first day, like automating that. I think that would be pretty and a creative use of research.

JT: Very interesting and the type of fun stuff we love to share in Urban Tech! Thanks for chatting with me again. This was great.

A big thanks to Anja for sharing her insights! If you want to follow her work or are interested more in topics like the ones we discussed, you should check out her website and follow her on Twitter.

Hope you enjoyed the conversation! I’m hoping it gives you a feel for what’s ahead for the Urban Tech Podcast, and how we will use it to augment everything UT does.

I’m in the process of booking more guest for the podcast, if you or someone you know is interested in chatting with me, please fill out this quick form.

Chat with UT!

I’ll be back on Monday with our regular playlist of the essential city and tech stories that you need to know — have a great weekend.

✌️JT

🧠 How Design Shapes Human Experience

John Thomey

John Thomey is a founder of Urban Tech, a newsletter and podcast. He’s a graduate student at the University of Southern California, studying Public Policy and Urban Planning.

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