Five monkeys are caged together and there are some bananas hanging from the top of the cage. Some scientists attach an automated device for sensing if the bananas are moved; once a monkey tries to get any, an electric shock travels through the cage so that all monkeys get shocked. In the beginning, a single monkey climbs up to the bananas, touches them and every monkey gets shocked. So he doesn’t try anymore, but the other four monkeys try the same thing and the result comes to be the same. Therefore, the monkeys learn something in common: that is, do not get the bananas! You’ll get a painful electric shock! The scientists then replace one of the original monkeys with a new one. This new monkey sees the bananas and wants to get them right away, but the other four monkeys beat it when they see its actions. Since these original four monkeys think the new monkey will make them get shocked, they stop the new monkey from getting the bananas. This monkey tries a few times and the others beat it every time without it ever getting the bananas. Of course, all five monkeys don’t get shocked. The scientists then replace another of the original monkeys with a new one. This second new monkey sees the bananas and you bet it wants to get them immediately. But, sadly, the others beat it and the first new monkey beats the newest one even harder then the others (for the newest one is the rookie and has the lowest social status). Just like before, the newest monkey tries several times to get the bananas and is stopped by the others when they attack him. The scientists continue to replace all the original monkeys until no monkeys who actually felt the electric shock remain. Now none of the five new monkeys dare to touch the bananas yet none of them know why. They only know whomever wants to get the bananas will be beaten.
Frequently I write about doing what matters most and not getting caught up in the stuff that makes the least amount of difference. The tale above is a great story that leads on from that; Making sure you know why you’re doing something.
This recently came up in a conversation about re-designing the homepage of viewshound.com. One person thought the front page should be laid out one way, while another thought it should be laid out another way. The problem was, neither answered the question of firstly, why the homepage needed to change and secondly, what did we want to achieve by changing it. The naive answer to the second point is that we want to “increase page views”, but really in essence the answer is a lot more in-depth than that. Are we looking to drive first time visitors to individual articles or are we looking to drive people to category pages? Are we optimising for new arrivals or optimising for frequent readers? Once you rule out these sort of low-level questions, the route you take becomes a lot clearer, and changes for the sake of making changes becomes a problem of the past.