Best PracticesIndustry News & Trends

Your Mind Is Misleading You: How To Keep It Simple

You gotta be familiar with the concept of Occam’s Razor…

…it’s something I quote often here at String whenever we’re faced with a problem whose solution isn’t immediately obvious.

Occam’s Razor is attributed to William of Ockham, a 14th-century philosopher of sorts who is best known for his thoughts on probability. In its modern form, his “razor” theory states that the simplest explanation to a problem is usually the right one. In other words, if you don’t know all the facts, and you’re trying to figure something out, stick with the simplest explanation.

Occam’s Razor typically holds true because the more variables you involve in a decision-making process, the more opportunities you have for things to go wrong. In other words, all else being equal, the probability of two things happening is higher than the probability of three things happening.

Is it more likely that a driver got into an accident because he was texting, or because he was texting and a deer ran across the road and he swerved to avoid it? Even though the deer makes for a more interesting story, throwing another element into the mix makes that story less probable.

You’re Wrong

This way of thinking about the world is called a “heuristic.” Heuristics help our minds make sense of the world around us by simplifying our surroundings through mental “rules.” Heuristics are so ingrained in us as humans that we might not even know we’re applying them. They can be very helpful, but they can also mislead us in making decisions if we’re not aware we’re using them.

Another heuristic at odds with Occam’s Razor is something that we all fall prey to periodically: It’s called the “availability bias.”

Think of it this way: If you don’t know the answer to a question, but need to come up with an explanation, you might think of the most immediate examples that come to mind as reference points. For example, if I asked you what percentage of car salespeople were female, you would probably be able to venture a decent guess based on your own observations within your own dealership or market.

Let’s look at another somewhat morbid example that you probably don’t have as much experience with.  Are you more likely to be killed by a shark attack, or by falling airplane parts?

In fact, you are 30 times more likely to be killed by falling airplane parts than by a shark (1 in 10 million vs. 1 in 300 million). Why might this seem untrue? Part of the explanation involves the availability heuristic, meaning that it’s easier for most people to recall shark attacks (think news stories) than it is to think of incidents involving falling plane parts (generally not reported as much).

Don’t Be Fooled

Why is all of this significant?

Because it’s really, really important to recognize when you might be falling victim to a heuristic like the availability bias, and, in such situations, to use a principle like Occam’s Razor to help you make a decision. In the face of incomplete information, instead of going with what’s most familiar [your “gut”], take a few seconds to think about the logic around what might be the most probable explanation [your “head”].

There are lots of tools out there that we use to make this sort of decision-making process easier. Whether or not you’re a user of vAuto or other pricing / stocking tools, those apps do a good job of helping you make critical data-based decisions and avoid getting mislead by heuristics (“I feel like used SUVs are hot right now…” vs. “I know that used SUVs are hot right now…”).

The same concept holds true with lead scoring, market share data, sales heat-mapping, website conversion optimization, gross margin reports, customer profiling, and on and on and on.

Digitally-Speaking…

To speak to a topic that should be familiar to everyone, back when I was starting out in the industry about ten years ago, dealers wanted websites that packed as much information onto the homepage as possible, like this [circa 2003…and this isn’t even a terrible example]:

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Crazy Homepage

We look back on that now and think that viewpoint was a bit naïve, but at the time, to many people, it seemed like a logical path to take. Why? Of course, technology on both the client side (browsers, devices, screen resolutions, bandwidth) and server side was a lot more limited. Search engines were also not quite as robust or as ingrained in our lives as they are now, so getting exposure for pages deep within a site was more difficult, making the homepage vitally important as “the” catch-all for every web visitor.

But I’d also venture that acceptance of the web was not as mature as it is today, and most dealers were applying the availability bias to this new technology: They were taking what they knew well [i.e. newspaper / traditional advertising] and transplanting that knowledge and comfort to a totally new medium.

How many times have you experienced a fire drill on a Friday where you had to get a massive, paper-sized image of your newspaper ad up on your site before the weekend?

As an industry, we now know from crunching lots of website engagement and conversion data, performing countless usability studies, and so forth, that more is not always more: It can often be much less from a user experience – and therefore sales – standpoint.

To illustrate the points above, here are links to articles citing research on four common web-related concepts:

“Below the fold” is still no-man’s land, so simple, relevant, interesting content above the fold is key:

http://moz.com/blog/life-above-and-beyond-the-fold

Keep your content short, because nobody really reads it (typically only 20-28% of the on-page text!):

http://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-little-do-users-read/

Use concise, relevant, original images if you want people to pause while skimming:

http://www.nngroup.com/articles/photos-as-web-content/

Clear calls to action are a must to maximize your landing pages:

http://stringautomotive.com/effective-mobile-landing-page-anatomy

Our own data mining, heat-mapping and usability studies back these claims up as well.

I’d say that we’re right in the thick of the same sort of debate today around responsive sites vs. adaptive sites vs. dedicated mobile sites: We’re trying to figure out the best path forward in the face of incomplete and subjective information. Exciting, terrifying, but always spirited.

Data and tools, of course, are important, but they’re only part of the story. The other key factor is the human being making the decisions, which is why I spent this post writing about a couple of guidelines that can be applied to help influence your thinking.

There is certainly a place for “gut” or instinct in our lives, but it’s important to remember the lessons of our good friend William of Ockham, to slow things down a bit, think them through, and keep your reasoning simple. Your top – and bottom – lines will thank you as a result.