The “mosquito effect”

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

Daniel Egger

5/24/20193 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. You spot an attractive person whom you’d like to meet during your stay, feeling a spark of excitement. 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 sun rise and do some exploring, already envisioning the adventures ahead.

Then it starts. You hadn’t realized it at first, but there are mosquitoes in the room, disrupting your peace. You hate mosquitoes, having been traumatized by them in the past. So you can’t sleep, frustration growing. Every time 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. You feel calm once more, as the waves gently lap against the shore. 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, as well as 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 experiences are shaped by individual emotions and expectations.

Meaning is about perception, the context, and the prior 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 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 besides, it would make 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 it’s our emotional and cognitive load — the total amount of mental effort and emotional balance necessary — which define our patience and tolerance for not-so-perfect experiences, and ultimately shape 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 a variety of opportunities for memorable moments.

As we cannot offer certainty, we offer alternatives that might reate surprises, reward interactions, and engage different behaviors. This also means that we design not just the interaction, but also an ecosystem that in the perfect sense incorporates relationship, product/service/brand, and experiences — and if we are lucky, we generate meaning, leaving a lasting impact on those who partake.

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