The Paradox of Automation

This post from Marc Rubinstein (which was shortlisted for this month’s Post of the Month vote) on the lessons from the tragic crash of Air France Flight 447 ten years ago gathered together a number of interesting concepts. One of these was the so-called ‘paradox of automation’, which is the idea that:

‘…the more efficient the automated system, the more crucial the human contribution of the operators…If an automated system has an error, it will multiply that error until it’s fixed or shut down. This is where human operators come in. Efficient Automation makes humans more important, not less.’

Marc draws on William Langewiesche’s account of the Air France crash in Vanity Fair which noted how the growing capabilities of autopilot and fly-by-wire systems had dramatically improved airline safety records, but it had also protected pilots so efficiently from hands-on flying and the need to deal with different and unexpected challenges that when difficult situations did occur pilots had little direct experience to draw on. 

In his account of the same crash, Tim Harford describes the paradox of automation as having three strands (paraphrased here):

  1. Since automated systems can be so easy to operate, automatically correcting mistakes, they can accommodate incompetence and mean that an operator’s lack of skill or incompetence can be hidden for a long time
  2. Automatic systems can erode the skills of even expert operators over time by removing the need for practice
  3. When automated systems fail, they often fail in atypical circumstances or in ways that produce unusual situations, amplifying the need for a particularly skillful response. The more capable the automated system, the worse the potential situation might be.

The fly-by-wire systems in the Airbus 330 of the type involved in the Air France crash were so effective that they had actually served to create a new type of (potentially hidden) risk. This risk has the further potential to be amplified by existing human biases and frailties such as cognitive tunnelling. Harford refers to one of Earl Weiner’s laws of aviation and computerised flight: ‘Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors’.

As automation becomes ever more pervasive this paradox has the potential to create more unexpected failures like the Air France crash. Which is perhaps why it will take many years to reach level five automation in self-driving cars, if at all.

Google Performance Firestarters – Secrets of Growth – The Event


For the latest in our series of Firestarters events for the Performance Marketing community we brought together three fantastic speakers to focus on different aspects of a critical theme – growth. Google have partnered with Econsultancy recently on a piece of research around how performance marketing agencies are catalysing their own and their client’s growth so it was an opportune time but we wanted to take a broad look at how performance marketing practice can support revenue and profit growth. On the night we had three very different perspectives which, as can often happen at Firestarters, gave a diverse set of angles on the topic but also contained some common themes. 

Phil Barden, Author of Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy, took a consumer focused view on supporting growth through a better understanding of the decision science around purchase behaviour. Using some fascinating examples, he showed how people work with the signals they get in order to make (sometimes counter-intuitive) decisions, and how our models of economic behaviour are far from perfect. Even simple heuristics like our tendency to process numbers by size congruency (the size of pricing on a label can make a big difference to sales), or to make visual-based shortcuts (some discount prices look more like discounts and so are far more effective), or to favour packaging which shows a larger number of the product on it. Phil talked about how marketers (and performance marketers) can easily miss opportunities to make simple, small changes that can have a big effect by combining learnings from psychology and behavioural economics – like the loyalty card with two out of ten occasions pre-stamped which drove a 79% increase in sales, or how playing french music in the wine store drove a huge uplift in french wine sales. If effective advertising starts with getting noticed, simple principles around how we see things, look for contrast, and how eyes like to look at other faces.


If it’s then about how we can get recognition and meaning, it becomes about how we can use association, visual cues and processing fluency to support understanding (there was an amazing example of how an ad that featured a piece of cake on a plate with a fork was much more effective when the fork was on the right hand side of the plate rather than the left – because most people are right handed). And if it’s then about action and buying behaviour, understanding decision rules and how products can serve specific customer goals can support conversion optimisation (like when guest checkout came in and dramatically increased conversion for retailers). It was a fascinating talk that opened up some interesting questions around how this kind of decision science thinking can combine with the data signals and targeting capabilities that performance agencies are increasingly adept at in order to get the right message to the right person in the right context in a compelling way.


Libby Darley, Performance Planning Director at iProspect spoke about reminding ourselves of the fundamentals of marketing – how the narrative around the fragmentation of attention and short-termism can distract us from the basics of driving growth which is ultimately about selling more, selling TO more, or selling FOR more. The understanding that we have around business objectives and the consumer and company contexts that surround them remain critical. These fundamentals, she said, haven’t changed but the context of how we can use data and targeting to deliver them have (but even here she made the point that data has always been used in some context in marketing). She used a lovely example of how she’d personally been able to help a local Theatre company to sell out an event through working within the constraints of a tiny budget but keeping to the fundamentals.


Ultimately the opportunity is for performance marketers to utilise their knowledge of data to serve a clear set of related objectives (business, media, campaign), and then also to work to a clear learning objective which can overlay great targeting with right creative, right time, right context. Be clear about what growth is/means to you, put data at the centre (not an addition) and don’t overcomplicate.

Next up, Katherine Sale from Serpico at Croud made the point that performance marketing growth has not been hard to find but emphasised just how important it is for the industry to come back to a true understanding of what will actually make consumers buy from the brands that agencies work with. She used a great example of one of the first TV ads, Claude Hopkins’ ad for Pepsodent (a story described in Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit) – which helped drive an increase in the proportion of the population that brushed their teeth from 7% to 65%, by bringing to life all the relatable reasons why people should clean their teeth and by creating a new habit. Kat then talked about the importance of relating to changing customer expectation and what people care about now, and how smart use of targeting when combined with a great product or service can really amplify effect – there was a great example here of using analytics for a business insurance business to identify core high value customers and then creating custom segments of highly relevant in-market audiences to deliver an appropriate message, driving an 8% increase in quotes and a 41% decrease in cost per quote. 

The talks brought together themes around reminding ourselves of the fundamentals of great marketing and advertising whilst also bringing in new opportunities around combining a better understanding of decision science and how customers make buying choices with the targeting, learning and optimisation capabilities that performance marketing is becoming so good at. My thanks as always to Google for hosting, Scriberia for visualising (you can see the full visualisation below, or a larger version here), and to all those who came and joined in the debate. The next Performance Firestarters will be in the Autumn, so looking forward to that already.


Post of the Month – May 2019 – The Vote

Thanks for the nominations all. So our vote this month is between:

Adapt or Die: The Nature of Brand Strategy by Charlie Ebdy

The Mediocrity of Middle Distance Insight by Richard Huntingdon

Air France Flight 447: Ten Years On by Marc Rubinstein

How to Manage Anxiety and Depression by Faris Yakob

Why indignation at reviews is so often unjustified by Jan Gooding

And you can vote below:

Post of the Month – May 2019 – Nominations


It’s time again to open nominations for Post of the Month. So if there are any posts that you’ve read over the past month that you think are particularly good please do nominate them by sending me the link direct or leaving it in the comments below. As always I have a short starting list below (which include a couple of nominations I’ve had in already) but do add to these:

Adapt or Die: The Nature of Brand Strategy by Charlie Ebdy

The Mediocrity of Middle Distance Insight by Richard Huntingdon

Air France Flight 447: Ten Years On by Marc Rubinstein

Thank you.