Why cargo cult thinking is preventing your product reaching its potential

The Second World War brought huge disruption to the Pacific Melanesian islands. Troops were stationed there and supplies and military equipment were landed on hastily constructed airstrips. When anthropologists visited the area after the war, they discovered a curious religion had grown up. Locals were building runways and airports out of tree branches and twigs and making the sounds of aeroplanes in the belief that these actions would bring about the arrival of ‘cargo’ from a mystical place.

Such religions are known as Cargo Cults, centring on the belief that imitating a process will bring about the observed result of that process. You see someone building a runway and a plane arrives with untold riches; you conclude that if you build your own runway you’ll attract your own plane.

But don’t be too hasty to write off the Cargo Cult as a quaint practice found among remote tribes. Take a look at your own business, and you may well find that the Cargo Cult approach is alive and well closer to home. “If we do what they’re doing, we’ll have the same success’; it might sound logical, but it’s a risky fallacy. Here’s why you should beware of Cargo Cult thinking.

The Cargo Cult Fallacy

It’s healthy for businesses to look at what their competitors are doing for inspiration. But simply imitating what you see in the hope that it will bring about positive effects for your business is misguided. You spot a cool-looking widget on a competitor’s homepage apparently collecting customer information. You ask your designer to whip up something similar in the hope that customer data will start rolling in. But you might as well be building a runway out of sticks.

You don’t know how your competitor’s widget actually performs. What if people are using it in the wrong way? What if they’re not using it at all? Social sharing buttons are a good example; your competitor may well have them prominently displayed and it might seem like a good way to boost engagement, but you’d be missing the crucial information that only 0.2% of people actually click the things.

Without access to data, how do you know? Imitation is not a valid design strategy because it relies on surface appearances only, without deeper understanding.

Looking under the bonnet

When you look at something a competitor is doing you’re only seeing it from the outside. Judging a website based on how it looks is highly risky because the most important criterion is how it works and how it affects revenue.

The widespread use of carousels on homepages is a great example of this. Land on a flashy website these days and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see a carousel on the homepage scrolling through a series of options or images. But we’ve done thousands of hours of user testing on these and have access to analytics data from plenty of clients and we’re yet to see a carousel feature pull its weight, considering the prominent position they’re used in. Choosing a carousel is often a manifestation of conflicting internal priorities in a company where no one can agree what should be in that space, and the result is a space that’s not earning its keep. But it’s tempting to look at an attractive feature on a competitor’s site and assume that’s the best thing for your own homepage.

The other issue with imitating something based on looks alone is that your competitor’s customers are probably different to your customers; they may want different things and behave differently. So even if you manage to successfully imitate a product or service, there’s no guarantee it will have the same impact that it does for someone else.

Playing with big guns

It’s tempting to look at the big players in your marketplace and assume that you can take a slice of their success by doing what they do. It’s a common tactic in ecommerce, where businesses look at the daddy of online sales, Amazon, and try to imitate its site structure and mechanics. But it’s highly likely that your business makes money in a different way to Amazon, and so the site optimisation that works brilliantly for their business model may not have the same effect on your bottom line. In fact, the best way for many businesses to compete with Amazon is to be different to them, to offer customers other rewards for shopping with you.

Herd thinking

‘Everyone in our space is doing this. We need to do it too.’ This kind of thinking is known as the appeal to common practice; the assumption that because lots of people do something it’s the right thing to do; and digital design is rife with it. But often that thing everyone does is out-dated or ineffective.

Take those annoyingly familiar ‘Confirm Email Address’ fields. You’ve just typed your email once and now you’ve got to type the damn thing again. These fields are everywhere. Maybe they were inspired by masked password fields that made a confirmation necessary, or maybe they’re a hangover from the time before form validation could highlight obvious issues with email addresses. But they’re just not needed these days, and yet designers are still putting them into new sites.

The same is true for the familiar ‘Click Here’ that’s littered over the web; a relic of the days when users needed guidance on how to use hyperlinked text. (Go on, Click Here and we’ll rant some more about that one.)

Password rules are another one; they’re everywhere; users hate them, and they aren’t necessary. That irritating mix of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols make passwords frustratingly difficult for humans to remember and easy for machines to guess. (Heads up – using four random words is more secure than all that stuff.)

Breaking out of Cargo Cult thinking                                                               

We’re not saying that you shouldn’t take inspiration from successful competitors. After all, as the saying (sort of) goes, good designers copy; great designers steal. But imitation has to be backed up by evidence otherwise you’re building your own personal Cargo Cult.

There’s a simple remedy – user testing. Steal an idea from a competitor and we can test it for you to find out if it gets the results you want. We can even carry out competitor user testing; testing someone else’s site or product in the same way we test yours and comparing the results. So you’ll know whether that cool-looking homepage widget actually delivers the data you want. And if it doesn’t we can help you work out what to change so that it works.

The hidden bonus of this kind of user testing is that you can learn from your competitor’s mistakes and end up doing it better and more effectively, giving you the edge. Copy the hell out of them, sure – but understand and improve on what you’re copying and you have a good chance of bringing that cargo of results and ROI into land.

Image credit

Thank you to Bexx Brown-Spinelli for the image. We used it under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0).