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Teachers: stop sending out antiquated elementary school report cards! Instead of assigning a row of letter grades to each student, assign a huge matrix of letters instead!

Background:

Elementary school letter grades theoretically indicate the achievement of a certain degree of competency in a subject (e.g. a fourth-grader receiving an “A” in math would have learned all of the math that a fourth-grader is expected to know).

The issue:

There are a couple of immediate problems with the way report cards present this information:

  1. There is pressure to assign a full range of grades across students; even in a theoretical world where all students in a class achieved all the expected proficiencies, there would be pressure on the teacher to further differentiate the students into “extremely proficient” (A), “basically the same but maybe missed a couple questions” (B), and “I guess mis-read a couple more questions” (C). But this is unfair to the students, who are all at more or less equivalent competency.
  2. By having the “A” and “F” be absolute maximum / minimum values, it’s unclear what competency a student actually has: a kindergartener would almost certainly get an “F” in a calculus class, but it would be easy for a reasonably competent calculus student to get that same “F” grade despite having a decent understanding of the material.

Finally, the current report card system presents knowledge as a “treadmill”: school just gets more and more difficult, until some students give up. This is not a reasonable way to depict the acquisition of knowledge, and gives an unintentional sense of futility to the whole educational endeavor.

Proposal:

Instead of just showing how the student is faring in the current grade, the proposed new style of report card is “progression based” (Figure 1): it shows how the student is doing overall, on a spectrum ranging from kindergarten all the way through Nobel-Prize-worthy research.

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Fig. 1: Here, we see a hypothetical nearly-straight-“A” report card for a third-grader. But instead of just showing “A, A, B, A, B,” this report card puts the overall amount of knowledge achieved into perspective: this third-grader would be unlikely to be able to successfully present a Ph.D. defense or obtain a Nobel Prize, so clearly there is still more knowledge that could (theoretically) be acquired.

This has at least two benefits:

  1.  It allows a student to have the satisfaction of “locking in” some progress: rather than school being an endless treadmill of increasing difficulty, it becomes obvious that skills are accumulating. This might be motivational to a student who would otherwise give up upon getting a “D” in calculus.
  2. It prevents a straight-“A” student from losing motivation by incorrectly concluding that they have learned everything in the world, just because they’ve mastered the 3rd-grade curriculum.

Implementation Detail:

Actually implementing this sort of report card has at least one difficulty: how do you assess from a 4th-grade math test whether or not a student has learned college-level math?

One possible solution would be to add a few unreasonably-difficult questions to each test: for example, in the 4th-grader’s math test, a few calculus questions could be mixed in. If the student successfully answers these, they would get an “A” in the “Intro College Math” section of their report card, but if they don’t know the answer—as expected—this will not reduce their Grade 4 letter grade.

Conclusion:

There are probably other “gamification” techniques that could be used in grade reporting to motivate students more effectively, but this would be a good start.

PROS: Since humans apparently love to see progression occur / numbers go up (as evidenced by the popularity of many mobile games and of the entire RPG genre), this “progression system based” report card would definitely be a hit.

CONS: Extremely overbearing parents would probably berate their 2nd-graders for not getting the masters-degree-level science questions right, thus making the tiger-parent experience even more stressful.

Expand the ability of your small business to collect tips using the incredible secrets of UI / UX design plus human psychology!

Background:

In the United States, certain classes of business receive a substantial amount of their total revenue in the form of tips. Restaurants are probably the most common example.

However, now that a huge fraction of transactions are done by credit card or phone, it has become feasible for additional businesses to get in on the tip-collecting process (tip-collecting tablet example in Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: A lunch truck or takeout restaurant might have a tablet like this one. If designed properly, the user interface should subtly persuade the customer to click one of the tip buttons.

For example, previously, a lunch truck might have had an anemic tip jar—obviously a repurposed peanut butter jar—with 87 cents in it. But now, that same truck can just put a button labeled “TIP: 15%” on their electronic checkout screen, and a substantial fraction of patrons will select that option.

As a thought experiment, consider how many people would tip two dollars on a $10 burrito cash transaction (very few), then compare that to the number of people who would click the “20%” button on an electronic checkout (many more).

(Please appreciate the high-quality market research that went into the preceding sentence.)

The issue:

While the best part of this system is that it allows a normally non-tip-based or non-service business to get tips, there are still stubborn holdout customers who will not include (for example) a 25% gratuity for an oil change, or when buying tomatoes at a grocery store, or when paying a traffic ticket.

But there is still a way to persuade these individuals!

Proposal:

In order to incentivize people to click the tip button (instead of just the “checkout: NO TIP” button), we can simply have a secondary screen that shows the tip amount.

People might object to this brazen attempt to shame them for not including a tip, so we will disguise it a bit by calling it an “Order Confirmation” screen, and using it to provide a customer transaction number (i.e., it is a supplement to the normal “your order is number 326, your burrito will be ready when that number is called” process).

 

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Fig. 2: Here, we see a checkout counter with the tablet from Figure 1 at the bottom, and a helpful order confirmation screen at the top, showing off a customer’s generosity to other patrons along with a reminder of their order number.

Conclusion:

People might object to having the full dollar value of their transaction visible on the “confirmation screen,” so we could potentially show only the tip percentage rather than the full value.

PROS: Increases previously-untapped revenue streams for low-margin businesses.

CONS: None!

Outrun a vicious pack of wild dogs as part of your weekly exercise routine! You won’t believe this new way to save money and promote physical fitness!

Background:

Two things that city-dwellers often require are:

  • Motivation to exercise.
  • An expensive dog-walker to walk their dog.

The issue:

Unfortunately, it’s easy to become lazy and not exercise, and dog-walkers are quite pricey! (Figure 1.)

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Fig. 1: Left: these dogs need to walk, but someone is going to have to be paid to put leashes on them and walk them around the city. What an inefficient use of resources! Right: this person needs to get some exercise (by, say, jogging), but it’s easier to just stay at home and be completely sedentary.

Fortunately, these two modern conundrums can now be solved with a SINGLE amazing plan!

Proposal:

The solution is simple: during the commute home from work, the person who thinks they should go jogging (but is too lazy to motivate themselves to do so) simply ties a dozen or so strips of bacon (or other delicious meats) to themselves.

Then, they register their commute on a ride-sharing-like web site. As the commuter walks by a dog owner’s house, the dog owner gets a text message that they should release their hounds, who will then chase the bacon-laden jogger with single-minded determination. (Figure 2.)

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Fig. 2: The pack of dogs provides ample motivation for this bacon-festooned jogger to continue running.

In this way, the pack of ravenous dogs will motivate the jogger very effectively. If the dogs are sufficiently fixated on the bacon, no leashes would even be required!

Conclusion:

The only downside is that the jogger will, at the end of their commute, need to somehow return the dogs to their owners. Fortunately, this will create a new business opportunity for an “Uber for dogs” ride-sharing company to return the dogs back to their owner: job-creation at its finest!

PROS: Increases fitness of both humans and dogs. Saves money for dog owners who previously had to employ dog-walkers.

CONS: May increase the rate of pack-of-wild-dogs-related dismemberments, which is currently at a historical low in urban areas.

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Supplemental Fig. S1: Original black-and-white drawing of this idea, perhaps for a patent application. Note the photorealistic dog at left, drawn in the style of Renaissance woodcuts. It’s hard to believe, but this was actually drawn on a modern tablet computer!

“Potemkin Maps”: Impress foreign dignitaries and out-of-town investors by following a GPS map route through a misleadingly-nice part of your city!

Background:

Phone map apps often have a few optional settings for a route, such as:

  • Avoid highways (for driving)
  • Fewer bus transfers (for public transit)
  • Avoid hills (for walking)

The issue:

Sometimes, you want drive on the most scenic route from point A to point B, without too much concern about efficiency.

For example, you might want to impress an out-of-town guest, or hide the seedier parts of a city from a visiting foreign dignitary or investor.

Proposal:

The “scenic route” to a destination attempts to route you through the highest-economic-value areas that it can find.

This method, called the “Potemkin Route” after the 1787 idea of the same name, uses the following data:

  • Tax records (to find the highest property values)
  • The police blotter (to avoid areas of high crime)
  • Elevation maps (to look for scenic views)

Then, it routes you to the optimum area to show off the most appealing areas of the region near your route (user interface mockup in Figure 1).

 

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Fig. 1: If you select both [AVOID HIGHWAYS] and [AVOID LOW PROPERTY VALUES], as the user has in this example, your route might be substantially longer.

Conclusion:

You could use this route yourself, even if you aren’t trying to impress a foreign dignitary.

PROS: Allows you to ignore the problems of your city.

CONS: Allows you to ignore the problems of your city.

Improve the grocery shopping experience by tapping into ancient hunter-gatherer instincts! You’ll never believe how much more delicious a pineapple is after you’ve tracked and hunted it for miles through the savannah.

Background:

It’s well-known that presentation affects the perceived taste of food (Figure 1). Can this be used by retailers to increase customer satisfaction?

 

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Fig. 1: Some animals, like this extremely picky snake, do not like to eat food unless it’s clearly fresh (i.e., recently alive). Top: the dead mouse meal receives only a 1-star review from the snake. Bottom: the same mouse receives a 5-star rating, simply because it’s moving.

Proposal:

In order to leverage the same instincts, we propose that all foods should be presented in grocery stores in a “natural” environment to satisfy human hunter-gatherer instincts.

In Figure 2, we show how this might work for a pineapple, which can either be shown in a sterile and unnatural environment or in a jungle-like environment that evokes the thrill of gathering an edible fruit in some ancestral jungle.

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Fig. 2: This savvy shopper is unimpressed by the non-moving pineapple, yet is excited about purchasing the exact same pineapple “straight from the tree.” This might work for other foods too, like carrots and potatoes, even though it would make no sense for them to be dangling from a tree branch.

Conclusion:

Although fruits would be the easiest products to put in a faux “natural” environment (just hang them from a plastic tree), this system could also apply to other products, such as:

  • Reach into a giant beehive while being attacked by giant plastic bees in order to obtain a box of Honey Nut Cheerios.
  • Run through the store chasing a box being pulled by a wire on an overhead track. Once you manage to grab the box and open it, you discover a delicious steak inside.
  • Hold your breath and jump into a Olympic-sized swimming pool that is chilled to a near-freezing 1º Celsius. At the bottom of the pool, you will find a treasure trove of pre-wrapped packages of salmon.

PROS: Allows humans to get back in touch with their ancient roots. Simulates a pre-civilization existence without modern amenities.

CONS: Most shoppers would probably just use an app-based service to pay “sharing economy” workers to endure the bee hives and freezing water. This has the disadvantage of making an already-harsh job even worse, while imparting no benefits on society as a whole.

Trash Can with an alarm that screams if you jenga more trash into it

TITLE: Never be annoyed when emptying an over-full trash can again, with this new “screaming trash can” technology!

The Issue:

In shared-living or office situations, there is a strong incentive to wait for someone else to empty a full garbage can: the person who discards the last piece of trash has only contributed a tiny fraction of the total can’s volume, but has to expend the trash-removal effort for the entire can.

Thus, people tend to creatively stack trash as high as possible (Figure 1), forming a “Jenga“-like tower of precariously-balanced trash.

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Fig. 1: People will often stack trash in unstable towers, as shown here, even if the stacked trash prevents the lid from closing.

Even worse, once trash is piled up in a tower, it can be difficult to fit it all into the trash bag (which makes it even less likely that someone will want to take it out).

Proposal:

The solution is simple: install a grid of “electric eyes” (the laser grids from every heist movie) that would monitor the top level of the trash can (Figure 2).

If the electric-eye beam is blocked for more than a few seconds, the trash can would know that the trash can needed to be emptied, and can take action accordingly.

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Fig. 2: The grid of sensor beams (labeled “electric eyes”) will, if blocked for more than a few seconds, trigger the “siren of shame” (bottom left). Instead of allowing the culprit to slink away in anonymity, the siren would wail until the trash-abandoner returned to take out the trash.

Gamification:

One could “gamify” the process (and help promote a dystopian 1984-esque future) with a trash can that would 1) have a camera to identify each user and 2) a weight sensor to keep track of the total amount of trash generated and emptied by that person. Perhaps stat tracking would encourage trash-can-emptying. Whether or not it actually helps, the manufacturer of such a trash can could always sell the face recognition data to advertisers and each country’s secret police, so it’s a win-win situation.

PROS: This would be a popular product for many homes and offices.

CONS: Creative individuals might be able to place trash in creative ways such that it does not obstruct the beams, but is still precariously stacked.

 

Never forget your laptop at home (or at work!) again! The ultimate briefcase / laptop bag for the sophisticated and discerning professional!

Background:

At many companies, employees take a laptop to/from work every day.

In the past, laptops were heavy enough that it would be incredibly obvious whether a laptop was in a bag or not.

The issue:

Modern laptops are light enough that it is possible to take a laptop bag (Figure 1) to work without realizing that there is no laptop inside. This can be an annoying and time-consuming mistake.

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Fig. 1: The briefcase shown here could easily weigh 5 pounds without a laptop inside, so it may not be immediately obvious whether or not a one-pound laptop is present inside or not.

Proposal:

Proposed here is a laptop bag that makes it unavoidably obvious that there is no laptop inside. The model shown in Figure 2 pops up a spring-powered flag whenever a laptop is not present.

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Fig. 2: The high-visibility “Pack your laptop!” reminder flag (A) at left protrudes from the bag when the laptop compartment is empty. A proposed mechanism is shown at right: the flag is attached to a “laptop cradle'” (B) that is supported by several springs (C). When the laptop is placed in the bag, its weight compresses the springs and pushes down the cradle-and-flag mechanism.

The flag-based approach described above makes it incredibly obvious if a laptop is not present. It also has the advantage of being easily overridden by a user who is intentionally not packing their laptop: they can simply press down on the flag while zipping the bag’s laptop compartment.

Rejected simpler Idea:

One could imagine a laptop bag with a transparent panel that would allow visual confirmation of the presence/absence of a laptop. Although this would work (and requires no moving parts), it would still be easy to grab the bag in a rush without realizing that the laptop was missing. Additionally, it has the disadvantage of advertising the presence of a (highly-stealable) laptop to fellow commuters.

Tactile alternative to the “flag” idea:

For a briefcase, the handle could change texture when the laptop is present. For example, dozens of metal spikes could protrude from the handle until a laptop weighed down the laptop cradle, at which point the spikes would retract into the handle, like they were part of some kind of Indiana-Jones-style ancient temple trap. (This could be all done mechanically, with no need for electronics, using cables that connected the handle to the laptop cradle.)

Conclusion:

You should crowdfund a laptop bag like this right now! If you are successful, it will prove that a market exists, and hundreds of much-cheaper knockoffs will flood the market before your initial prototypes are even done!

PROS: Never forget your laptop again!

CONS: Any object that is similar in shape to a notebook computer (e.g. an actual notebook) would cause false positives.