Cupcakes and Faulty Conclusions

If we’re not careful, it’s easy to reach the wrong conclusions from accurate data. I want to share a recent experience that struck me as an allegory for how we assess ‘experiences’.

This is a simple story about cupcakes.

Following a recent design team event I helped plan, a group of us were reflecting on what went well, and what didn’t go so well.

Person 1: “Not very many people ate the cupcakes.”

Person 2: “We should try donuts next time”


Out of context, one might conclude that the cupcakes were a failure. We bought three dozen cupcakes; only four were consumed. Or something abysmal like that. It is a fact that very few people ate the cupcakes. Engagement data would say there was low engagement, therefore the cupcakes were a failure. In this case, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

So what was the context?

The design group I work with has been trying for the last several quarters to shift what was once a quarterly design ‘review’ to a proper design celebration. Of course, perceptions are hard to change. With a change in leadership earlier this year, combined with a shift in format, we (the planners of this quarterly event) also had a hypothesis that the addition of things typically associated with a celebration might aid with this shift in perception. Cupcakes, confetti, whistles, and cheap party favors were all added this time round. In cognitive terms, we might classify these things as social signifiers, things that might — simply through presence and prior associations — play a crucial role in shifting perceptions.

So back to the cupcakes.

Yes, it’s true that very few people ate the cupcakes. But in this case, consumption is the wrong measure of success. We were after a shift in perception. The hypothesis was that these additional ‘delighters’ —utilized or not — would contribute to an overall experience.

How did the rest of our conversation go?

Person 1: We should try donuts next time.

Me: Donuts makes sense for next time [Sidenote: this was a morning meeting]. But, I have no regrets about all these leftover cupcakes — not for this first relaunch. I believe they served an experiential need, reinforcing that this is meant to be a celebration.

P1 & 2: Oh, totally agree. No regrets. Just what are we going to do with these cupcakes?!

Later that day, I had a one-on-one with one of my direct reports, an attendee at this meeting.

Him: That felt a whole lot more like a celebration.

Me: Yeah, why do you say that?

Him: Well, I dunno. Just the feeling. The confetti, the cupcakes — I didn’t eat any cupcakes — but it certainly made things feel more like a celebration.


There it is. Yes, it’s only a signal of one — I’d need to hear the same feedback from others to validate any conclusions. But, this puts the cupcakes in context. They were a contributing part of a larger experiential goal, a part that can’t be measured in isolation without missing the point and measuring the wrong thing.

Take this however you want. But, I’ll close with a simple question: Are you counting how many people eat cupcakes, or whether the presence of cupcakes contributes to some broader experience?

Speaker, educator, and design leader. On a mission to make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.

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