The “mosquito effect”

If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.

Daniel Egger

5/24/20194 min read

a mosquito fly insect insect insect insect insect insect insect insect insect
a mosquito fly insect insect insect insect insect insect insect insect insect

Originally published in the Playbook of the American Management Associations (July 2016)

Imagine you check into an exclusive hotel at a breathtaking beach resort, eager for a memorable vacation. Feel excited if you spot an attractive person you’d like to meet during your stay. When you open the door to your room, you see it has a devastatingly beautiful and vast ocean view, instantly putting you at ease. You are relaxed and deeply happy. After a pleasant dinner, you turn in early as you plan to watch the sunrise and explore, already envisioning the adventures ahead.

Then it starts. You haven’t realized it at first, but mosquitoes disrupt your peace in the room. You hate mosquitoes, having been traumatized by them in the past. So you can’t sleep, and frustration grows. Whenever you think you’ve caught them all, more appear, testing your patience. Overbooked, the hotel can’t help by moving you to another room, leaving you feeling helpless. With no other choice, you give up and try to sleep. Exhausted, you finally fall asleep at 3 a.m. and wake up too late to go through with your original plans, disappointment settling in. Your arms and legs are covered in bites, adding physical discomfort to your emotional turmoil.

To cleanse your mind, you open the terrace doors to see the ocean, hoping to find solace in the view. As the waves gently lap against the shore, you feel calm once more. You watch as a cab approaches the hotel entrance, and the person you’d wanted to meet gets in, luggage in hand, a missed connection. You realize you’ve lost the opportunity to get to know the person, and your heart sinks. The hotel staff can’t give you a name, and you didn’t take a photo to post on social media, leaving you with a sense of loss. “Worst vacation ever,” you say to yourself. “A terrible experience.”

“If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.” Kevin Roberts

The story illustrates the challenge we face in designing meaning and perception and the power of small details to impact experiences. Could we reduce the possibility of mosquitoes? For sure, through better pest control measures. Can we design for better matchmaking? Possibly, by creating opportunities for social interaction. Can we design a certain meaningful experience or even delight? Most likely not, as individual emotions and expectations shape experiences.

Meaning is about perception, the context, and the previous individual story — it is complex and unpredictable. We might explore a more holistic, yet incomplete, perspective, imagine the possible actions the guest could take, collaborate and generate a set of new ideas…still, we would prioritize. We would have resource restrictions to implement all solutions, as perfection is elusive.

There is no certainty in design, no “equation of the world.”[1] Too many unknown variables exist, and it would make a living in the present much more difficult — and boring. Embracing uncertainty and change allows for growth and adaptability.

Meaning results from the emotional and cognitive moment in a specific setting and time. Value Perception is illustrated in the story as both complex and singular — one small detail can change everything. The moment of consumption fades fast, so our emotional and cognitive load — the total amount of mental effort and emotional balance necessary — defines our patience and tolerance for not-so-perfect experiences and ultimately shapes our memories.

So the question isn’t if we can design meaningful experiences or even delight, but if we can design for it (with many options), providing various opportunities for memorable moments.

As we cannot offer certainty, we offer alternatives that might create surprises, reward interactions, and engage different behaviors. This also means that we design not just the interaction but also an ecosystem that perfectly incorporates relationships, products/services/brands, and experiences — and if we are lucky, we generate meaning, leaving a lasting impact on those who partake.


Question: How does the story illustrate the power of small details in designing meaningful experiences?

Answer: The story highlights how small details, such as the presence of mosquitoes, can significantly impact experiences. While often overlooked, these minor elements can alter an individual's perception, underscoring the importance of meticulous design in crafting meaningful experiences.

Question: What does the narrative suggest about the challenges of designing experiences?

Answer: Designing experiences is complex and unpredictable due to individual emotions and expectations. It's about understanding perception, context, and personal history and acknowledging the need to embrace uncertainty and change to allow adaptability and growth.

Question: How is the concept of Value Perception depicted in the story?

Answer: Value Perception is depicted as both complex and singular. It emphasizes that one small detail can drastically influence an experience. The emotional and cognitive load required during a specific moment impacts our patience and tolerance for bad experiences, shaping our memories.

Question: Can we design meaningful experiences or delight according to the story?

Answer: The story suggests that while we can't directly design meaningful experiences or delight, we can design for it. This entails providing opportunities for memorable moments, offering alternatives, and designing interactions and ecosystems that incorporate relationships, products/services/brands, and experiences.

Question: What does the phrase "equation of the world" imply in the context of design?

Answer: The "equation of the world" refers to a hypothetical certainty in design deemed non-existent. The presence of numerous unknown variables and the need for present living to be interesting underscores the need to embrace uncertainty in design.

[1] Nassim, Taleb. 2001. Kindle Location.4075