Faux DIY

I spent a couple of hours on Sunday putting together some IKEA furniture – a table, some chairs, a couple of cabinets with toy bins. My five year old son unexpectedly took an interest, my wife and two year old got in on the action, and a tedious process turned into a full family adventure. There’s a certain satisfaction you get from constructing something physical, something solid, and even though we were just assembling pre-fab furniture, it felt like we’d accomplished something. As we finished each piece and I felt that little dopamine rush, I wondered – is this part of the plan? Does IKEA have lower return rates because customers feel personally invested in the final product?

Food science is incredible. You can make tasty foam, print edible sushi with a dot matrix printer, and just generally make anything taste like anything else. Which is why it’s a little astonishing that Betty Crocker requires you to add real eggs to their cake mixes. Eighty years since the first cake mixes appeared, and they still haven’t figured out how to integrate powdered eggs into the mix! Except, um, no. Actually, adding powdered eggs to the mix was easy – the innovation was to require the consumer to add fresh eggs (and later, to ice the cake elaborately), in order to make them feel like they were part of the creative process.

The blog platform Ghost recently published a post describing how they increased conversion by an order of magnitude. It’s a great post, and I strongly recommend it, but the tl;dr is that by encouraging people to personalize their blog with a custom theme, they were able to dramatically increase their conversion of trial users to paying users.

We’re attracted to faux DIY because it lets us pretend that we’re doing something real. We aren’t really building furniture, baking a cake, styling our blog – we’re at a dude ranch, on a Disney ride, having a prepackaged experience in which the hard work’s been done by someone else.

Nor is this a bad thing. We don’t need to be experts at everything, and Disneyland is fun. More importantly, it’s also the pathway to deeper knowledge. Starting a newbie off with an easy, reinforcing experience is the best way to encourage her to take the next step. When you learn a new language, you start by memorizing simple phrases long before you understand the grammar behind them. When you first start piano lessons, they teach you chopsticks, not Bartok. When you learn a new programming language, you start by following the tutorial to the letter, only branching out when you start to understand what’s going on. We all start by playing with toys left behind by the older kids, until we know how, and are ready to make some toys of our own.

2 thoughts on “Faux DIY

  1. The article you link to about cake mix makes a bigger point that the eggs: decorating the cakes is a key psychological driver in selling cake mix.
    “There was this faux creativity to make up for fact that you’re not actually baking a cake,” Shapiro says. “This decorating obsession sold the idea that, this way, you’re making this cake yours.”
    I wonder though, how does real egg vs. powdered egg compare in taste tests?

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