We don’t perceive the world as it is, but as our brain constructs it.

By the time a perception has reached conscious awareness, raw sensory data has already passed through multiple layers of processing. And understanding the key variables in how the brain constructs that conscious experience is of great significance for any organization designing products and services that engage with customers, or creating company environments and cultures that foster innovation, creativity, well being, and the release of human intellectual potential.

For years, today’s guest Frank Capek, founder of Customer Innovations and pioneer in the field of Cognitive Experience Design, has been helping companies apply those concepts to great effect.

Related Mental Models: Hardware & Software, Subterranean

Links, etc:

Customer Innovations
The Orchestra Myth (detailing the return on  Frank’s work with the California Symphony)
Selected articles by Frank Capek:
Unfolding Time and Losing Wait
Cognitive Design and Human-Machine Collaboration
A Customer Experience Is NOT a Journey
The Dawn of Cognitive Experience Design
An Overview of Customer Innovations
Frank Capek on LinkedIn
The Brainjo Collective, a community of lifelong learners

Episode Transcript

Josh: In the opening series of episodes here, I’ve discussed some of the core mental models of cognitive neuroscience. One of those being the amount of operations powering human cognition that run beneath conscious awareness. Those subterranean operations are central to human intelligence and they profoundly influence our behavior.

Another is that what our conscious mind receives and what we perceive in the window of our subjective experience is a construction of the brain. So by the time any of what we experienced has reached our awareness it’s already gone through a considerable amount of processing and analysis. But all we can ever experience by definition is that construction. And I would claim that failure to understand the influence of these subterranean networks has led to major oversights and blind spots in our understanding of human intelligence and human behavior.

Josh: What we stand to gain by correcting for this and incorporating our understanding of those influences has been perhaps most famously demonstrated recently in the field of behavioral economics where economic models were long based on the idea of humans being purely rational actors.

And psychologist Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize by demonstrating that this was far from the truth and that economic models often failed because of their incomplete model of human behavior which failed to account by cognitive biases that are driven by these subterranean networks. And that accounting for them could lead to much better predictions, much better models, and better interpretation of economic data.

Josh: And this has also been true in other fields that are concerned with helping to facilitate changes in human behavior. As a physician I know well that in our education even though a relatively minimal amount of time is spent on how to help people change their behaviors, the time that is spent usually focused on appeals to reason and rationality of trying to leverage the power of will. And in many ways it’s using the same flawed approach as classical economics, of overlooking some of the major drivers of human behavior.

Josh: Additionally, these ideas are also relevant for anyone concerned with improving the experience of a customer who’s consuming a product or service or an employee working inside of a company. And it’s relevant for anyone concerned with creating work environments that release the potential of their human intelligence.

By the same token a lack of awareness for these issues can lead to creating customer and employee experiences that are unintended and can lead companies to constraint the intelligence of their workforce in ways that they’re entirely blind to. So releasing the potential of the brains in any organization requires a robust model of human intelligence including the influence of the reality our brain constructs what those inputs are so that it elevates the human experience, promotes wellbeing and releases human potential.

Josh: So this is obviously of enormous importance to anyone leading an organization, especially an organization concerned with things like innovation and creativity. And it’s also relevant to any organization that has a product or service that interfaces with a customer. And this understanding of how environmentally variables shape the way our brain constructs perceptual experience is one area in which the application of insights from cognitive neuroscience can lead to significant changes and for companies can produce a significant return on a low cost investment.

Josh: And my guest on the podcast today is Frank Capek who is an expert in this area, known as cognitive experience design. And he’s been helping companies reap those kinds of returns through thoughtful attention to how the brain constructs experience, for many years now. And you’ll hear about some of that fascinating work in this interview. So Frank has quite a varied background, two bachelor’s degrees, one in mathematics and another in mechanical engineering from MIT.

He subsequently went on and studied cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and applied math at Harvard. And as you’ll hear, he was doing AI research and work long before it was cool. He’s now the founder of Customer Innovations which is based in Atlanta and applies and integrates that diverse background in a really unique and powerful way.

Josh: Incidentally speaking of remarkable returns, you’ll hear Frank mention in this interview some work he recently did with the California Symphony and shortly after we concluded the interview the executive director of the Symphony posted an article on Medium attributing among other things 300% increase in their audience retention to the changes he helped facilitate. So yet another example of how much stands to be gained from adding in this perspective of cognitive experience design.

Josh: As a reminder you’ll be able to find the links that are mentioned in this episode along with links to several of the articles that Frank has written on the website by going to, clicking on podcasts. You’ll also find the full transcript of this interview.

Josh: So without further ado, here is my interview with Frank Capek.

Josh: All right, so I am very excited to be joined today on the podcast by Frank Capek. Hi, Frank.

Frank: Hi, Josh. Very happy to be here.

Josh: Yeah, thanks so much for joining me. So initially I connected with Frank a very short while ago on Linkedin when he I think extended an invitation to join his cognitive design group there. And shortly thereafter I think you posted an article about time perception and elasticity and specially how we can use our understanding of how the brain constructs our subjective experience of time to improve customer experience. And I got really excited reading that because this was a concept that I’ve thought a lot about.

And I felt like had been largely unexplored even though I think you’ve been exploring it maybe for 30 years or so. And because it seemed like you were interested in many of the same ideas that I’ve been interested in for quite some time. Plus finding a neuroscience related article on Linkedin that’s credible it’s like a needle in a haystack. So that was [inaudible 00:06:45].

Frank: I appreciate that.

Josh: That was another win. And then I realized you were in Atlanta. So I had to have you on because the work you’re doing is so important and so interesting. From what I’ve gathered since we’ve talked more broadly your sort of area of expertise is in cognitive experience design I think is the name you give it. In a recent article you posted about human and machine collaboration, you said the following quote which I wanted to read because I think it frames really well why your work overlaps with the themes of this podcast.

So there you said, “Rather than designing based on naive assumptions that people are consciously aware and make fully engaged and rational decisions, we now accommodate and design for the fact that behavior is heavily influenced and sometimes determined by operations of the brain of which we have no conscious awareness. We take advantage of what humans are good at and make affordances for what they’re not.”

Josh: That’s something I’ve been talking a lot about on the themes of the podcasts. How much of our brain’s operations are subconscious beneath the surface and how much of our cognition intelligence is there and how important it is to be mindful of that for a lot of reasons.

Josh: So maybe first just because it’s such a cool concept and one that many folks may not be exposed to very much. Can you tell us a little bit about the ideas that were in that article that you wrote that were about time perception?

Frank: Yes, and actually I have been thinking about that for quite some time although it does seem like it hasn’t been that long which is a temporal issue in and of itself. So I actually got started in that as part of a research project I was doing as a student at MIT. And this was in the 1984, so it was about 35 years ago. I was working with a professor who had expertise in the psychology of time and time perception specifically in service situations. So you spend a considerable amount of your time waiting for service and that can range from waiting on hold, waiting for a meeting to start, getting stuck in traffic. I mean when you add it up actually the several years of life have spent waiting.

Frank: And so we dug into this to really understand how when people have to wait for service, how do they perceive that time unfolding and develop a set of observations, findings, and design principles for organizations when they really couldn’t think about how do they create a better experience without necessarily making expensive investments in increasing the service levels.

Frank: And one of the things, I’ll just give you an example, was a finding that at the time really opened my eyes to the power of this. We were studying a particular type of a serpentine line. So a serpentine line is, and I’m sure everyone is familiar with this, you get in and you wind your way back and forth and back and forth until you eventually get to the front of the line. What happens subconsciously initially is you start to recognize people heading in the opposite direction. And it creates almost a mental tempo to that unfolding of time in the experience.

Frank: Now if you design a shrinking serpentine line, in other words where each loop is successively shorter than the previous loop, you begin to pass people in the opposite direction at an increasing speed or reducing interval. It creates essentially the time equivalent of an optical illusion. A five minute wait in a serpentine line not only feels like you have a sense of progress, but in a shrinking serpentine line, it seems like time is accelerating in ways that you process subconsciously.

Frank: One of my favorite examples of this if any of you’ve been to Disney they have a line like this at Spaceship Earth. And so clearly they’ve thought very much about creating experiences for people that create a sense of flow in the park.

Frank: So that was 35 years ago. It got me started on really trying to understand the way people process the experiences that they have in order to understand how an organization can create products that are more intuitive, services that are easier to engage with, and experiences that are satisfying but also help the organization meet their business objectives by more positively engaging their customers.

Frank: And so following this work on time perception I got involved with companies. Virtually ever industry in the 35 years since then through a number of different formats that I’ve had for my business. I’ve worked with about 200 companies on the design of their products, services, and experiences in a way that improves the wellbeing and how easy it is for people to engage in those offerings and do it in a way that also meets the objectives of the business in terms of growing the business, engaging more customers, keeping satisfied customers longer, and so forth.

Frank: And so time is a universal dimension within which virtually experience that we have unfolds. Whether it be experiences that we have in the real world or the way we re-experience the things that have happened to us as we recall them and as we anticipate things that are in the future. And there’s a very close connection between temporal cognition and spacial cognition which also is when you think about it there’s a physical element to lot of the way we experience things because the connection that our minds and our bodies have with the physical world shapes the way we think about things. And so many people apply concrete physical metaphors to their visualization of time.

Frank: So a lot of times it’s like a location and journey-based metaphor. In other words, the future is out in front of you somewhere. You’re standing right here in the present. The past is behind you. And the fact is time doesn’t have anything to do that spatial dimension. It’s just that our minds have a very difficult time making sense of abstract concepts. So we’ve evolved into structures that make it easier for us to make sense of abstract concepts using physical metaphors like the metaphor for time.

Josh: In terms of our time perception are there other … what are the sort of the inputs that we’re using that can be manipulated to some degree to influence how we perceive the same event, right?

Frank: So absolutely. I mean one of the things that was also a surprising finding, maybe it was surprising that it was surprising, but we were looking at the satisfaction and the emotional reaction that people had to waiting for elevators in high-rise office and condominium buildings in New York. And as you can probably guess, elevators are an expensive component of any building. They take up a lot of valuable space. And the technology to move people from it could be 50 floors as you have multiple elevator banks it multiples the amount of space that you’re losing and also amplifies the investment in all of the technology.

Frank: And so what we found is that you might have an investment that would be on the order of millions of dollars to optimize or to introduce faster elevator technology. The satisfaction that people had with that experience was actually much more influenced by putting mirrors in the elevator banks. So on the order of a few thousand dollars to put those mirrors in versus a few million dollars to invest in elevator technology. Because the mirrors give people a way of occupying their mind while they’re waiting for the elevator. You can fix your tie, check your hair. There’s more socially acceptable ways to check out the other people that are waiting for the elevators, while you’re doing it in the mirror.

Frank: And so what stood out for me in that very simple example, is for most organizations that are in the business of creating an experience for their customers, they naturally think about all of the technology and the processes related to serving their customers. So the organizations tend to overestimate or overvalue things like the millions of dollars of elevator investments without realizing that you can really make a difference in the experience that people have by paying more attention to how people perceive and make sense of that experience. And that shows up in virtually every situation that we’ve seen.

Frank: We applied a lot of the same approach working with an electric utility that had the unique challenge … There were five operating companies for this utility, and they were all in the fourth quartile of their customer satisfaction. And one of their operating companies was dead last in the country. And so we looked at the nature of how people perceived and made sense of and reacted to their experience with utilities.

Frank: Turns out there’s really only two things that matter. What happens were there’s a service interruption? And so how do customers make sense of what happens while they’re inconvenienced unexpectedly, the lights go off, and you’ve got to figure out what’s going on. The second is when they get a bill that’s surprisingly high. So in other words, if I’m running $200 or $300 a month and all of a sudden I get a $600 bill. I open it up and I talk to my wife. And I’m like, “Oh, no!” It’s like you stand running around the house shutting off lights and yelling at the kids to stop watching the television and all these things that don’t really make a difference, right?

Frank: And so it turns out that this utility was paying attention to … They had 50 projects that were focused on their customers. And they were moving the needle, turning the dials on every little service level that was the equivalent of investing in elevators. When we looked at it, I said, “There’s only really two times that people really engage with their experience with a regulated electric utility.” Otherwise the average customer spends about six minutes a year focused on the utility. We get the bill. We open the bill. We pay the bill and occasionally the lights go off.

Frank: And so what we started with was the service interruption or outage experience. And this company we went and we did a lot of research with how their customers perceived and interpreted the whole experience of a service interruption. And what they needed to know in order to have a satisfying experience that the company is doing everything that they could to get the lights back on. And so the utility made a couple of changes based on what we learned. They provided an explanation.

Frank: First of all they proactively reached out to every customer that was affected if they had the customer’s contact information. It turns out that they were able to reach well over 90% of the customers that were affected by an outage. You’d get a call that says, “We understand your lights are out,” or the electricity is out. It’s because some kid hit a pole on X road. They provide an explanation of what happened. We’ve dispatched a crew to this location. They’ll be onsite shortly. We expect that it’s going to take this amount of time. We also told people how many other customers were affected. So it’s not like you’re sitting there alone in the dark by yourself.

Josh: You haven’t been singled out.

Frank: So we looked at what pieces of information people needed to have in order to construct a physical, mental image about what happened, what the organization was doing, how many people were affected. All of these things were meant to activate physical representations of a story that people had in their head.

Josh: They’re constructing a narrative either way.

Frank: Yes. Absolutely. And this is a way to shape their sense making. This utility implemented it. Within 18 months all five of their operating companies were in the top five spots nationally-

Josh: Wow.

Frank: … for proactive outage communications. And whereas they were all the businesses, all those lines of business were in the fourth quartile of JD Power satisfaction rankings, that one change alone pulled all of the operating companies up to first or second quartile because it was one change that was addressing in a very high contrast and very customer-centric way. One of the only two things that mattered most to that customer. And it was very much like that recognition of the difference between investing in elevators and investing in mirrors.

Josh: So one of the themes of the podcast so far is the idea of mental models. And so just the idea of cognitive experience design is it in itself a mental model. And without it, models are how we can interpret phenomenon and without that particular model it creates these blind spots that people may have so they’re not able to understand like for the elevator example they didn’t even maybe occur to them that you could do something other than changing the elevator itself. That you could modify the experience of the wait time as a different variable to manipulate.

And I could see it also leading to all sorts of results and feedback that you can’t explain unless you have that particular model. Also the wait time thing as a physician obviously I know the absolute worse thing you can do if you have a delay in your office is not tell people, give people nothing, no information. Just any information is better than no information.

Frank: Absolutely.

Josh: It’s such an easy thing to do and it makes such an impact. If you can sort of give us a broad bird’s eye view of how you think about this area of cognitive experience design or what’s under the definitions are for that.

Frank: Let me build on your comment about mental models because this is like right at the heart of what we’ve done with the organizations that we’ve worked with because there’s almost always a prevailing mental model about customers, the business that we’re in, how the business that we’re satisfies and engages those customers.

And that mental model is almost always wrong because customers they don’t have an understanding of all of what goes into designing your product, providing your service, orchestrating the experience. There’s a lot to think about that designing from the mental model of the experiencer.

Frank: And so I was like, “That’s a cool way to say it.” So I looked up what experiencer means and it actually most of the definition of experiencer applies to people that believe they’ve been abducted by aliens. And so there’s like organizations of experiencers and the experience that they’re referring to is being abducted by aliens. And when I looked at I thought okay, I can’t use that word. But then I realized that’s actually a really good way to describe it because most times when I’ve talked to people within an organization, they have that reaction like it’s almost like our customers are thinking like they’ve been abducted by aliens. And the process that we go through and the tools that we use, what we’re really doing is helping design from the mental model of the experiencer how do they process information.

Frank: And so as you probably know I mean at any second of the day we have access to it could be millions of bits of experiential information. But most of the time our brain and our body filter out virtually all of that by making predictions about what things are likely to be like. And so you have an experience of your shoes right now. The way they feel on your feet and your whole kind of nervous system filters out that experience of your shoes until I mention it, right?

Frank: And so what happens is the implicit assumption that people have when they design things is that the customer, the user will pay attention to a lot of the details. But in most cases people can only really attend to five or six, seven concepts in their train of thought at any point in time. In most cases what they’re focused on is all the other things that they’re attending to in their lives. And so what you have to do is find a way to create an experience that fits into the way they’re living their lives, the things that they’re thinking about without distracting them with meaningless details. And most companies dramatically overestimate their customer’s willingness to really try to understand and make sense of things that they think are important.

Frank: We did several years ago we helped Nationwide design structure and run their On Your Side Program. A lot of what we were looking at was what is on your side actually mean? They had a brilliant marketing tagline that most people could like complete the jingle or complete it without really understanding what that means. And of course if they were having something that customers felt was something other than an on your side experience that jingle would be going through their head as they were on hold or dealing with a hassle around a claim or something and goes, “You guys are not being on your side.”

Josh: Exactly.

Frank: And so one of the most interesting pivot points for them in the mental model of the company versus the mental model of the customer based on this metaphor and construct elicitation process that’s part of our experience design approach, we realized that most drivers make sense of their automotive insurance policy as if it were a container. It’s a very familiar physical metaphor.

We see a lot of things in our lives as containers. We put something in. We take it out. When you were a kid, you probably thought a bank was a lot like a container because it was like your piggy bank. A lot of times kids when they evolve their understanding of the way banks work, they’re surprised to find out that they put their money and they may get somebody else’s money out. Right? That it’s not kind of a one-to-one correspondence because a bank isn’t actually a container. But it’s just how we make sense of it.

Frank: So the Nationwide and virtually every insurance company at the time were rewarding their safe drivers by providing a better rate. And that’s a really sensible thing to do. But it also requires customers to understand probability and risk. And in order to have that type of experience you need to feel that you’re getting value from your policy every time you get in your car to drive, which as much as they would like you to understand that, that’s just not the way people think.

Josh: Not going to happen.

Frank: They see it as a container. I pay my premiums in and the only time I ever get any value from it is when something comes back out of that container. And that’s a subconscious structure, a metaphor that people apply to-

Josh: You interact with it at certain points in time.

Frank: Yes. Yes.

Josh: It’s not influencing your …

Frank: Yeah. And so based upon that research, we proposed something to Nationwide that they thought was the stupidest idea that they had ever heard. We said, “You should offer a vanishing deductible.” In other words every year someone drives without an accident and stays a Nationwide customer, we’ll take a hundred dollars off your deductible.” And the actuaries said, “Well, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Right? That’s not how it works.

Frank: But it turned out it was something that created an immediate recognition for the customer. And like the serpentine line, it is the financial equivalent of an optical illusion. But you know what? Customers actually perceive the accumulation of value in a vanishing deductible whether they actually get to take advantage of it or not. And it led not just Nationwide but the industry to refocus on tangible reciprocity based on a container-based metaphor that virtually now all the automotive insurance companies have their equivalent of giving you something back out of your container.

Frank: And the difference is it’s like how do people have quantitative thinking? There’s a good reason why in the 10,000 years of the real evolution of our advanced thinking about things we’ve dealt with numbers. We’ve had a 10,000 year history or something there abouts dealing with quantities of things and making sense of quantities of things. Blaise Pascal, 350-some odd years ago, introduced the idea that something may or may not happen. The idea of-

Josh: Probability.

Frank: … probability. And he was excommunicated, right? Because it interfered with this sense of certainty. It’s one of the reasons why people do not make good decisions about probabilities and risk. We’re not wired to think like that. We’re wired to think in terms of concrete certain examples of either yes or no.

Frank: And so it turned out that the original design for the safe driver discounts require people to think like Blaise Pascal. That’s just not the way people think.

Josh: And then the solution was kind of to package it into another form that’s more aligned with how people think.

Frank: Right. From the mental model of the customer. And so the methodology that we have and the tool set that we have really answers seven questions based on understanding how people have experiences. The first is who are these people? You and I might have fundamentally different experiences of the same set of circumstances based on ways that we approach novelty seeking, harm avoidance, or social orientation, the way we make decisions, and behavioral activation. So there are some very basic ways that people are different in terms of how they have experiences.

Josh: Mind if I interject real quick? Are you familiar with the yanny-laurel illusion that recently went viral?

Frank: No.

Josh: It was that little audio clip that some people heard the word yanny. Some people heard the word laurel. So it’s just a demonstration of just at that basic level of how already we’re differentiated in terms of our sensory constructions and it just grows from there.

Frank: Absolutely. So one of the things about getting into the experience and the mental model, the experiential model of other people is understanding how at a very basic level people’s experiences of the same set of circumstances could be very different. So that’s the first question. Who are these people? The second is what are they trying to accomplish? When people kind of navigate their way through life in their world, they might have a set of task goals. I got to go to the store and buy milk. Right? There might be underneath that a set of pursuit objectives. What I’m really trying to do is make sure we’ve got food. Make sure we’re healthy.

Josh: Feed the family. Right.

Frank: Things like that. And then underneath that is often a set of desired states that people may or may not be able to really clearly articulate. But you need to find a way to not just address the task goals, but really get to the bottom-

Josh: The deeper level.

Frank: … of what people are trying to accomplish whether they can make sense of it or not. And so the second tool is a way of kind of laddering through an understanding of the deeper desired states that people have.

Frank: The third is really surfacing the set of metaphors and constructs. So recognizing that automotive insurance was a visualized like a container. There’s image-based elicitation process that we go through to get really … And of course people categorize things all the time. I mean it’s one of the most fundamental ways that we deal with situations is putting things in buckets, mental buckets.

Frank: And so what we’ll try to understand is what’s the implicit knowledge or characteristics that people use when they do that categorization. So the constructs that we try to get to is if we’re working with a quick serve restaurant. We actually had this experience. It’s like people look at all of the common characteristics of quick serve restaurants. There’s a drive-thru. There’s a common line. There’s a register. One of the things that you look at as food come down chutes from the thing in the background.

Josh: That’s all part of the schema.

Frank: And so it’s part of the basic kind of schema. And it’s the characteristics. If you wanted to create something that was fundamentally different, you need to break that schema intentionally in a way that creates a unique signature experience. So for very prominent quick serve restaurant here in Atlanta they do lots of things that break that schema. They refill your cokes. Food doesn’t come down chutes. Right? Every bit of the signals that the restaurants sends are intentionally different than all of the other quick serve restaurants. But you have to understand and sometimes figure out, bring to the surface those constructs that people are using to categorize the experience, to put yourself in a new category or put your product or service in a new category.

Frank: So anyway it goes through all of this. You need to understand the behavioral pathways. That’s the fourth thing. The emotional reactions. That’s the fifth thing. And then really the triggers that people have that have an opportunity through [inaudible 00:34:36].

Josh: Activate those schemas or whatever, right?

Frank: Absolutely. And so there’s a structured process of going through this to really get to the bottom of how people are processing the experience.

Josh: And doing it a systematic way. That’s really interesting.

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Josh: So given that this is a kind of an area that I would imagine many organizations have given little thought to, I would bet there are some common mistakes that are made and maybe it seems like there’s some low-hanging fruit that’s available to many. So if I’m an organization who’s never kind of given this whole area a lot of thought, obviously the best course of action would be to hire you. But what are some of the common mistakes that I might be making or are there places that people should look first for maybe easy wins? Are there areas of low-hanging fruit [inaudible 00:36:11]?

Frank: We apply what I believe is a lot of sophistication to some things that don’t have to be that complicated.

Josh: Too complicated. Right.

Frank: In the end getting to the bottom of what your customers or the customers you want to have, whoever you’re trying to influence, what are they really trying to accomplish? Whether that involves what your organization does or what your product does, you need to step kind of out of your perspective and really understand, okay, who are these people and what are they trying to accomplish? You can apply a lot of science to that but the best thing to-

Josh: Just start it there.

Frank: [inaudible 00:36:51] just do it. Figure out what gets in the way of people accomplishing those things and what can you do to make it incredibly easy?

Josh: Removing obstacles.

Frank: Removing obstacles. Removing the level of effort that people have to go through what they’re doing. So I’ll just give you an example right now from a client. We’re going through this process but it’s same basic questions. We’re working with one of the leading tire manufacturers. It’s a very significant share of the OEM market. In other words you buy a car, there’s a very good chance-

Josh: Got their tires.

Frank: … you’ve got their tires on your car. When those tires start to reach the end of their useful life, all hell breaks loose in terms of what customers have to go through. It’s like, “There’re looking a little bald. Can I go another month? Can I go another year?” Start to worry about this. Does it even really matter? It seems like there are at least 20 different brands of tires and every one of those brands has a hundred different types of designs of treads that and things like that. It’s an overwhelming and complicated …

Josh: Completely overwhelming.

Frank: And you know what? This is an experience that unless you’re a car person, you don’t even want to have. So it’s not a matter of incrementally improving how easy it is for people to navigate this complex situation. And in the world of most organizations, this is a bit of a hot button for me.

They start to map out customer journeys. And this isn’t about improving the journey. This is about eradicating it entirely. And so the more you think about this, I mean the old saying is that all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It’s gotten to the point where in design and particularly in experienced design there is an overwhelming orthodoxy to the concept of journey mapping. And I think it’s fundamentally misguided.

Josh: First question is it even a journey they want to be on, right?

Frank: Exactly. People have journeys in their lives. When you think about the most important parts of your life, the course that your career takes. Like are you doing what you’re really inspired to do? The people that you marry, the people you spend time with, your family if you have kids, where you decide to live. You visualize the big stuff in your life.

Josh: Stuff that’s all connected to your core identity.

Frank: Right. And there’s something about journeys that are really interesting. They’re uncertain. You often have no idea where things are going. There’s a level of unpredictability and risk. And that I would really like to reserve the idea of a journey for the things-

Josh: For those things.

Frank: … that people feel like they want to have a journey. I do not want to have a journey with my automotive insurance company, with my drugstore.

Josh: With my tires.

Frank: Yeah, tires, right? So what happens is you have a metaphor that ends up influencing an experience unintentionally in a way where the only thing that I’ve seen it lead to in most cases is incremental enhancements of better sameness because people don’t want to be on journeys with all of their providers.

Josh: Once you’ve accepted a premise that leads you down the road, but the first thing to ask is if we even accept this premise to begin with?

Frank: And so the thing that I would say is aside from the figure out what people really want, figure out how to make it really easy for them to get what they want, is the third this is try to avoid this trap of just adopting the common tool set which is I think … And I wrote an article about this which unfortunately a lot of people who are in the industry kind of reacted, well, that’s what we do. I’m sorry.

Josh: So many things get so entrenched and then unless you go back to kind of first principles and say, “Does this make sense?”

Frank: Actually one of the most brilliant minds of the past century is an architect and an architectural theorist named Chris Alexander. Chris Alexander wrote several books on notes on the synthesis of form, a pattern language and so forth. And he’s focused on how environmental elements come together in certain combinations to lead to the emergence in generation of experiences that people have in their lives. So if you look at his book The Pattern Language, it looks how the right set of architectural and physical design principles can in the organization of a town center or city square naturally leads to the experience of dancing in the streets.

Josh: Oh, wow.

Frank: Because there’s a place that it just seems like it needs to have a band playing there. And there’s a comfortable place for people to sit and watch. And you create a set of elements that when they come together in the right combination it leads to the emergence of really important experiences that people have in their lives. Chris Alexander wrote an article a few decades ago that was a critique of the prevailing approach to architecture. The name of the article was A City is not a Tree. Now he wasn’t talking about a tree with leaves.

What he was talking about was architects had fallen into the trap of creating a hierarchical tree structure to the elements in their built spaces. And it was leading to a level of cold disconnect with the real experience that people have. So you have office complexes and squares in cities that they’re cold. They don’t draw people in. It just seems like they don’t connect with the way people actually have experiences. And he said that a lot of what had gone wrong in the predominant approach to architecture was as a result of the long mental model, this tree.

Josh: And not thinking about the human experience.

Frank: So in my article I referenced Chris Alexander’s article because I think he’s genius. Right? And I said, “A customer’s experience is not a journey.” It’s the same sort of thing.

Josh: I love all those ideas. It seems so obvious that design for the human experience should matter. But it’s amazing that it’s overlooked. And the great thing about it is if you’re a company, what better way to frame what you’re doing than to think about the experience first and start from there? So I want to pivot to another topic real quick because it’s something that I’m also I think as interested in as you are.

You wrote something recently I think on human-machine collaborations, so I think you probably have some thoughts on future in terms of the continued influence of artificial intelligence, the ways in which it will change how we work. And in particular the ways we can design to optimize the collaboration between humans and machines. And the whole AI and machine learning revolution is simultaneously a source of hope and promise and a lot of angst and anxiety, right? And we have these utopian visions at one extreme and these horrible dystopian versions at the other end.

Josh: What frustrates me a lot about that narrative is that it pretends as if we’re just passive recipients in that future, right? As if it’s going to shake out one way or the other and we just have to wait and see what future we get. But we’re the ones that are going to determine what that future looks like. And it feels like we’re at a kind of pretty significant inflection point right now. So we can design machines and AI to work independently from humans or we can design them just like all your other work to augment our capacities and vice versa which is a total win-win in designing for the human experience which is really what should frame all of this.

Josh: So we can create environments that incorporate these transformative technologies but that are still human-centered and that optimize the capacity of both. And ultimately, the goal is not just more productivity and growth. It’s to elevate the human experience for everyone. And that’s really what all the work we’re doing is for. And if we reframe that narrative from either either/or, it’s either the machine intelligence or the human intelligence doing the work, to humans with machines, augmenting each other. Then I think we can move in that better direction.

Josh: So you wrote about his recently. Maybe you can share some of your thoughts on kind of how you think about that collaboration between humans and machines and making the most of that interaction and making it human-centered and maybe even some examples of how that’s been done.

Frank: Yeah, well, absolutely. First of all I’ve had a chance connecting to one of your comments about both the hope and the cautious-

Josh: The angst and anxiety, right.

Frank: … [inaudible 00:45:50] the angst and anxiety. I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve lived through several-

Josh: Several of the wave.

Frank: [inaudible 00:45:55] hype cycles. And so I studied in AI and cognitive science in the early 80s which at MIT the time was really part of the AI lab. And so I had about a five-year portion of my career where from 1989 to 1994 I was responsible for the advanced technology, advanced analytics, and AI group for Chase Manhattan Bank. And there was a lot of really foundational work that went into really modeling the way people make decisions and how you could create a system that detected changes in people’s behavior and so forth.

Frank: And so after having spent a lot of time on that during that time period, one of the things that we built was the first system that allowed credit card companies to deal with this needle in a hack stack problem of finding fraud in millions of transactions that come in every hour for authorizations. So we build the first system that was able to learn each individual card holder’s unique charging behavior and how it changed over time. So rather than saying, “Does this look like a fraud transaction?” We did the first system that says, “Okay. Does this look like Josh using his card?”

Frank: And so that at the time it that was an unsupervised neural network application that Chase had I think going on 8 million card holders. It really changed the whole fraud detection area which is an exposure of enormous amount of money.

Josh: A huge pain point.

Frank: And actually really is a pain point for card holders. So they created a negative experience for card holders.

Frank: I think one of the things that stands out for me out of the experiences like that is making sure that you’re applying technology to things that have profound impact within a relatively constrained-

Josh: … area.

Frank: … problem set. Because it actually for all of the interesting elements of having a system learn people’s card holder behavior, it’s a relatively contained thing. And it doesn’t involve a lot of complexity to get that value. I think when I’ve re-emersed myself and kind of the state-of-the-art in machine learning it actually hasn’t progressed dramatically since the early 90s and so I go back 25 years, a lot of the underlying mathematics, a lot of the underlying approach to machine learning hasn’t changed.

Frank: What has changed is the technology that people now have in their hands and of course the processing power that people have in their hands now enables you to do things that you would not have been able to do before, input in terms of video. Image processing. And so the challenge is to find the right way to apply this in ways that if people are going to be using the technology it takes into account the way they engage with whatever this tool is going to be, unless it’s purely an offline thing like detecting fraud.

Frank: It’s hard enough to design a new can opener. Right? When people look at it goes, “Okay. I can see it. And I can see how it would open a can with that.” In other words, it’s really obvious, the way I use it, the motions that I use. It’s challenging to get the design of inanimate objects right. I’m always intrigued when someone comes up with a new way to open wine bottles. Right? Because that complexity and the need for human-centric design is amplified dramatically when you have to design a system that fits well with the way people use it.

Frank: Take a look at the evolution of automotive. And so what I’ve always been impressed by is like cars are the most mechanically complex object that’s designed in quantity, at scale.

Josh: At scale. Right.

Frank: I mean when you think about that, we’ve evolved the interface, the steering wheel, speedometer, shifting, all that stuff was relatively simple. Right? Big dials, big displays. And so when you interacted with a car there was decades of getting the interface right. Now a lot of car companies have thrown all sorts of intelligent technology into the way they assume someone’s going to be able to drive with these touch pad entertainment system which when you think about the challenges of being able to keep your eyes on the road, navigate this highly sensitive touch pad, look at something that’s not in your windshield to see where you’re actually moving a cursor. It’s scary how dangerous the design has become in terms of the man-machine interface in a car.

Frank: When you think about the positive enhancements to like overcoming sensory barriers like blind spot detectors, the ability to have a big light come on when someone’s in your blind spot, you can see it through your peripheral vision. It’s great because it gives you a signal. If you depart from your lane, sometimes there’s some combination of haptic, like say retinal feedback, your wheel shakes just a little bit, just enough to sort of get you back alert again. Because one of the challenges with driving is it becomes something that we’re so on automatic pilot when we’re doing it, we think about every other thing than what we’re actually doing. And we talk on the phone. We eat our lunch. You just see people putting on their makeup in the car. [inaudible 00:51:54].

Josh: It’s frightening to look around.

Frank: Yeah. It is frightening. But all of the enhanced safety features, they still fit within the basic motive engagement that people have when they’re driving their car. My biggest concern, now there’s been a lot of examples of places where once a car has got the ability to adapt, to break, and to stear and things like that, it allows a driver to more fully disengage. So I could be sitting passively in the driver’s seat with the wheel in front of me, but if I assume that the car’s got it under control, I could be on my iPhone sending an email. Say the pickup truck in front of me, a ladder falls off that back of that pickup truck, right? Does the car know how to steer and to deal with a flying object that could be just debris or something like that? The amount of time that it takes for people to reengage in the act of driving is fundamentally underestimated in terms of this new man-machine interface which I think is just … It doesn’t pay attention to the way people actually engage.

Josh: Even when you’re in the car, putting on makeup or whatever, that sort of driving network is still running in the background. Right? And it’s still engaged in some capacity whereas like you say if you have a fully automated car it’s going to be disengage … It won’t be running in the background anymore. So there’s a big cost to that and you won’t be able to … If you want any human element, and human safeguard there, it’s not going to be in play.

Frank: You mentioned the article that I wrote. Like two weeks after that article I drove my family here from Atlanta down to Miami to go on a cruise. And over the course of that extended drive, there were at least a half dozen situations where it was a windy day. There was debris flying in the road. We had a truck that swerved into our lane. All of these things were in a split second. Unless you’re really paying attention or have a system that is so robust for every possible circumstance, there would have been at least a half dozen times over the course of that trip where I feel like there would have been a fundamental flaw in the man-machine interface if it had been not like an actively engaged driver.

Frank: And you think about this in terms of knowledge workers. Your doctor, right? Getting doctors to adopt new technology is actually quite challenging because I think a lot of the intelligence systems and things that might help with diagnostics like more expert systems or advisory systems, they’re not designed for the way that doctors practice-

Josh: Work, right.

Frank: … and the way that doctor’s learn. I mean you become exceptionally good within your domain by repeating the same kind of cognitive process and diagnostic process and if you’re a surgeon like the physical process. The ability to create intelligent systems that work with those knowledge workers, the real challenge isn’t making the systems smarter, it’s designing it for the way that people actually work. And so it has to be done as kind of a cognitive system. And the real challenge isn’t the technology. It’s the human-centric design of based on how people actually have the experience and act on the experience.

Josh: I think doctors are also a little bit snake bit by the electronic health records implementation which started like decades earlier. I mean talk about not being human-centered. I mean it was just like it was all set up to maximize the ability to bill through [inaudible 00:55:47] and it had really no awareness of workflow or …

Frank: That’s a great example.

Josh: If it’s not aligned with how you work, it’s not going to be adopted or how you learn. Great point. Well, just curious to know, if you and how you’ve applied these concepts in your own life, to shape your own daily experiences. Are there any ways in which you’ve kind of used your area of expertise to influence your own day-to-day life?

Frank: Well, yes. Absolutely.

Josh: And I’m sure you have … I guess the hard part of this question is consciously can you think about how you’ve done it, right? Anybody who’s had a level of expertise in anything gets to where they can apply these concepts. They may not even be realizing that they’re doing it.

Frank: One of the things … And I’m not sure this is getting to your question. I’ve been lucky enough to kind of work my way towards something where I absolutely love what I do. And so the way that this has influenced my life, it really has to do with the passion and the energy that I have for digging into the way other people think and the way other people have an experience. And I mean I deal with this with the people that I know.

Frank: I get very frustrated where we’re kind of in this estate of kind of culture here in the US right now which doesn’t really dig in to understand the perspective of other people before formulating opinions and reactions to things. So some of the work that I’ve tried to take on and have had a couple of clients that have been with me on this is trying to create a better dialog across the mindsets and the value sets that exist. And this is probably the simplest way to put it, Steven Covey had seek first to understand and then be understood. Right? And so I don’t know how many times that goes through my head every day. And my kids are tired of hearing it. And I talk about it all the time. I mean that’s a very big part of it.

Frank: Every one of the times that I’ve had an opportunity to dig into some new aspect of people’s lives, it’s been … Robert Fulghum who wrote the book everything that I need to learn I learned in kindergarten.

Frank: He had one of his other books which I just really loved and I don’t remember the name of the book. But there was a little article in it that he just described how his favorite part of school wasn’t what he learned in class. It was going on the field trips. And so I feel like my life has been a series of 200 field trips into some other domain of what people are dealing with across an incredibly wide assortment of circumstances. We’ve had the chance to work with multiple clients on the design of low-income experiences for people that are dealing with real challenges in terms of the stability of the resources that they have access to and particularly people that have grown up in generational poverty. How do you create experiences that help where they can? But don’t actually create even more barriers to the most significant situations that people are dealing with.

Frank: We had a project over this past year with the same electric utility that I mentioned earlier. Their footprint is across the gulf states, Louisianan, Mississippi, Arkansas, and a bit of east Texas. And right after Hurricane Harvey we started in-depth research in terms of how customers, the residents, and business owners prepare for, endure, and recover from major weather disruptions. Hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms in order to be able to create a platform to improve the way people do that by consolidating the information that people need when you have far from equilibrium or far from normal conditions. People’s social behavior tends to revert to things that are much closer to the way civilizations existed thousands of years ago.

Josh: Interesting.

Frank: It’s a whole like we live in a relatively safe place. It allows us to in most cases navigate our lives in a form of social isolation. But when you are dealing with kind of dangerous conditions in more clan-oriented cultures, there was a constant dialog about what’s happening. What are the treats? What are the things that you do to avoid them? And people talked about that nonstop around the campfire. And so when people experience far from normal conditions, as like major weather events, major natural disasters, you need a platform that allows people to move back to a way of working that’s wired into who we are as human beings.

And so a lot of what is the platform that we’re working on allows people to connect in ways that are more natural. So because a lot of the influence on whether I say or go during a hurricane, what I do, how I prepare, it needs to be like almost a popup social network that your local-

Josh: Place for those interactions and conversations.

Frank: Yeah. So anyway-

Josh: That’s really interesting.

Frank: … each one of these things is like an intense field trip.

Josh: So I love the field trip analogy. And it kind of brings us back to the original topic. I think one of the things that one reason kids all love field trips is the novelty, right? And there’s so much novelty there. And one of the ways we encode time is by the amount of novelty in our lives, right?

Frank: Absolutely.

Josh: And so one way to kind of make your life feel longer, right, is to embrace novelty and new experiences, field trips, thinking of your life as a series of field trips is kind of a great way to do that.

Frank: You asked me ways that I’ve deliberately leveraged this? I did that very deliberately with my kids. And we went on a lot of field trips. But intentionally I had them tell stories about those experiences that they had while they were still fresh. We would have a discussion every Sunday evening-

Josh: That’s great.

Frank: … about what were the most interesting and their favorite things that happened over the course of the week. And I don’t feel this was manipulative but what I wanted them to walk away from in their childhood was a rich set of stories. And I wanted to have them practice those stories.

Frank: We did the design … We assisted with the design for one of the high profile alpine excursion companies that actually had some notoriety because they were in the movie Everest [inaudible 01:03:07] into thin air. But a lot of the way we influence that experience was the stories that people would tell over the tail-end and the final moments of the trip. So if you wanted to prime people with the stories that they would have when they went home and told other people and things like that.

Josh: And then just giving people a prompt to even like you did with your kids to write a story about the experience afterwards. I mean this is such a valuable thing to do. And we forget to do it. We just on to the next thing and we don’t reflect. Not enough time of reflection and it’s so useful. I could keep picking your brain here forever. But maybe we can do a part two at some point in time.

Frank: Yeah, well, hey, hopefully this wasn’t overwhelming.

Josh: No, it’s all fascinating.

Frank: I mean I realize I’ve got a lot of long stories.

Josh: No. It’s great. Again I don’t think it’s a topic that many people have thought too much about or hear too much, especially implementing in this way. So it’s really fascinating and really I think important.

Frank: Just my last plug for this. The whole field of design I think has grownup in a way that is overly designer-centric. And of course good designers go and understand empathically what their customers are struggling with. But the application of a rigorous approach to understand the mental model of the customer, the behavioral model of the customer, I believe fueled in part by this man-machine interface problem and the need to really take this on in order to create more collaborative experiences with intelligent technology, there will be a very significant convergence over the next 5 to 10 years in the fields of human-centric design, cognitive ergonomics which has been a field that’s been around for a few decades, that had been very engineering oriented, cognitive architecture. You have architects that are now paying much more attention to the experience of built spaces and how they influence people how they feel and what they think and their social behavior.

Frank: There’s going to be a very significant convergence in this field.

Josh: Yeah. One of the areas I’m very passionate about is ancestral health and sort of increasing the level of evolutionary concordance in our lifestyle. And there’s a lot of architectural ideas there that can really make a big impact.

Frank: Well, I’d love to hear more about that. So, Josh, tell me about … I get to turn the table here.

Josh: That’s right. So is there any particular place that people can go to learn more about you and the work you’re doing?

Frank: Well, I’m happy to provide links to several of the papers that I’ve written.

Josh: And I can put these all in the show notes.

Frank: Hey, no, that would be great. In fact, I’ll give you PDF versions of this if people want to look. And of course if anyone’s interested in this, reach out to me on Linkedin and so …

Josh: Yeah. That’s fine. So I’ll put all those in the show notes, and you can find those just going to and clicking on podcast. And you’ll see the interview with Frank and all the links there.

Josh: Well, it’s been fascinating. Thank you so much for joining me today, Frank.

Frank: Well, I appreciate it, Josh. It’s been fun.

Josh: All right. So I hope you enjoyed that interview as much as I did. There are a few things I really love about the kind of work Frank talks about here beyond the fact that it’s intrinsically fascinating. So one is that it’s using what we’ve learned from psychology and cognitive neuroscience in a way that elevates the human experience. As I mentioned in the interview, I think there’s a reckoning right now in the world of technology. All of us are aware that research in the realm of psychology and human behavior has been deployed in the past decade by tech companies to great effect but primarily in pursuit of profit and growth rather than primarily in pursuit of elevating the human experience. And while this is effective in the short run, we’re not seeing a backlash where this is being perceived as a gross manipulation.

Josh: And what’s exciting is that there’s so much good that can come from integrating these ideas of integration of our current knowledge from the field of cognitive neuroscience coupled with the data-rich environment we find ourselves in, to not only build sustainable growth but to build a better world that elevates the collective human experience and creates spaces that promote the best versions of ourselves, and that drives behaviors that are associated with better health and wellbeing. And that’s a future that I think this kind of work can help create.

Josh: And as a reminder, you’ll find the show notes including all of the links mentioned at, along with a transcript of this conversation. And if you want to support this podcast, continue the discussion on this and other topics in the realm of cognitive neuroscience, optimizing brain health, developing human potential, and building a better world for each other, then I’d love to have you as part of the Brainjo collective. And you can learn more at

Josh: And if you’re enjoying this podcast, it would be fantastic if you left a rating and review in iTunes. It really helps other people find it. So thanks again for listening and I will see you in the next episode.

How Cognitive Design Can Shape The Human Experience (Interview with Frank Capek)