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Certainty theatrics and pachinko parlours 🎰
This week’s Design Lobster is high stakes. We’re exploring the concept of certainty theatre and we’re popping into a pachinko parlour for a quick flutter. This is design that embraces chance and dances with uncertainty – grab some poker chips and get involved 🃏🎰
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Question: What are certainty theatrics?
If you work in a large organisation you may have observed tendency, especially in high-stakes meetings, for exaggerated performances of certainty. Facts, figures, graphs and spreadsheets are presented one after the other to bolster the reassuring illusion that a given venture is virtually guaranteed to create the outcome everybody wants.
Shreyas Doshi, a software product expert, calls this behaviour certainty theatrics – in his own words:
A surprisingly high fraction of every corporation’s time & resources are spent on pretending to itself that it is a highly rational entity that is capable of creating absolute certainty even in inherently uncertain situations.
Companies that develop a culture that is intolerant of any uncertainty can end up being a very difficult place to do design or other creative work. Because no matter how much data analysis or research you have done, there will always be an unavoidable degree of uncertainty over whether a particular design will succeed or not. It’s good to be rigorous, but we also need to be careful that too-onerous requirements of certainty don’t end up suffocating promising ideas before they get a chance to shine!
Thanks to reader Cantlin for introducing me to this term.
Design takeaway: How could you shift the culture of your organisation to tolerate more uncertainty?
Object: Pachinko machine
Pachinko (パチンコ) is a pinball game that originated as a children’s toy called the ‘Corinth Game’ in 1920’s Chicago. It took off in Japan after WWII, allegedly in part due to a post-war surplus of ball bearings. To play you flick each ball into a zanily illustrated board set with tiny nails, trying to get them into a slot in the centre. The nails make each ball bounce chaotically, adding an intoxicating element of chance.
When you do succeed at getting one in the slot, sounds and graphics play and a torrent of extra balls tumbles into the basin at the bottom, which can redeemed for cash prizes. Officially gambling is illegal in Japan, but thanks to a rather absurd legal loophole, pachinko parlours are found all over the country.
The thrill of playing Pachinko is in the uncertainty of when that big reward might come. A psychologist called Frank Skinner working in the 50’s discovered that pigeons and mice could be trained to compulsively press a lever if the reward they received for doing so was large but intermittent – a phenomenon he called intermittent reinforcement. It’s the same psychological effect that makes social media feeds so addictive.
Design takeaway: Are you using uncertainty responsibly in your design?
Quote: “Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund.”
– Anthony Bourdain, chef and documentary-maker
In this week’s quote the late Anthony Bourdain implores us to embrace uncertainty. It’s only by continually asking questions and experimenting that we achieve personal growth. In design, as in life, the riskiest thing we can do is to never take risks.
Hope you can try some new things this week,
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