Sleightly designed: Your business through the eyes of a magician

December 7 2017

Justin Liwag

Playing cards

Magic is one of the oldest professions and art forms. It has its roots in street con artists to stage acts in vaudeville all the way to the street magic of David Blaine. Magic’s history is one that is rooted in deception and delight. Magic is one of the most fascinating art forms to study and learn from. Over the next couple of articles, I would like to share some of the principles and tactics that magicians have passed down and shared within the community over the years.

As an art form, magic is unique because many people only see the end result, or what you are supposed to see. The fascinating part of magic to me is what happens behind the scenes. The meticulous thought that goes into every trick and illusion can at times be mind boggling. When you peel back to layers of a card trick, you can see the immense value of what it means to perform magic in a meaningful way. This value is something that I hope you take away and learn from.

Why is magic important?

During the last couple of years, magic has made a resurgence. Magicians are everywhere: television, movies, social media, etc. This rise is not an accident or random. In today’s culture, attention is the new currency and metric for many businesses. Each business is looking for ways to grab your attention, hold it, and direct it. By doing this, businesses are able to provide a better and more tailored experience for an individual.

By grabbing your attention naturally (more on this later) you as the customer feel more connected and delighted by whatever you buy or use. This inherent value is something that companies realize are priceless.

Mind the gap

The human brain is a liar...sort of.

In today's day and age, we absorb so much information on a daily basis that it would drive you crazy if you had to actually think about what to do for everything. Many tasks, such as driving, are done on a somewhat autonomous basis. Most things in life work on an if A then B principle, in that if I encounter or do something, I can reasonably assume that this will happen. If you go to a bookstore, you can be reasonably sure that there will be books in it, and within those books will be pages with words and pictures on them. This heuristic is what helps us function without being overwhelmed.

Magicians use this way of thinking and almost all magic tricks use this to their advantage. By recognizing what your assumptions are, magicians are able to play within those boundaries and change all kinds of variables. As an example, we will explore the most basic card trick of picking a card out, replacing it, shuffling the deck, and locating the card again.

There are a hundred ways to do this trick, but a very basic way you might accomplish this is to have a deck with all the same cards. Now, I know that this does not seem like it would be very convincing and you would be right, this rarely fools anyone. However, if you added 3-4 cards of different values to the bottom of the deck, the trick takes an entirely new dimension. If, at the beginning, you casually show the bottom cards without even mentioning it, the audience now believes that this deck is normal deck of cards. Their assumption is that since they see a couple of different cards, this deck must be a normal deck of cards. They have no reason to believe otherwise. This internal dialogue happens within a matter of seconds and is something that they register without even thinking about it.

How does this play out in a practical sense? If you are able recognize the start and end points of a customer interaction, you can change and improve an experience without being disruptive to the expectations of a user. One of my favorite examples of this is the $300 million button. One company wanted to redesign their website to get a higher conversion rate. They recognized that the customers’ starting point was browsing the store and adding things to the cart, and the ending point was checking out and entering their payment and shipping information. There are many ways to go about improving this, but what they did was simple and brilliant. This company recognized that the beginning and ending of a customer’s interaction on their website was not the problem. It was the transition from shopping to paying that caused friction. So what did they do? They simply changed one button from saying “Register” to “Continue as Guest.” This change improved their conversion rate, which increased their sales by nearly $300 million per year.

This many seem like a minor change, but if we follow the principle of minding the gap, we can see why this works so well. If you look at every ecommerce store, we can see that every customer expects to do the same thing. Browse, add items to their cart, and add shipping information. If you were to change these pieces of the interaction, it would not necessarily increase your customer conversion because it is what the customer expects going in. By making the transition easier and simpler, the customer doesn’t necessarily register this change. But by removing this friction, they are now converting at a higher rate. This barely imperceptible change had a huge financial impact on this company.

Don’t direct attention, lead it

One of the biggest misconceptions about magic is that “the hand is quicker than the eye”. Magicians encourage this belief because it makes their lives easier. It is a popular saying because when magic is executed well, it often feels like something extremely fast just happened and you simply missed it.

In reality, your attention was just pointed at the wrong space at the right time. The greatest skill that most magicians learn early on is how to lead attention. This is very different from directing attention. When you direct someone's attention, they can feel you doing it, consciously or subconsciously. This is most often thought to be how magic operates. Amateur or new magicians will often tell you where to look and try and hold your attention to an object or place while they try to accomplish something secretly. This will often be extremely transparent and almost comically obvious. A much more skilled magician often does not tell you what to look at. He or she will just know where your attention is at and will go about shifting it around to wherever it needs to be to fool you.

When you lead someone's attention, the person being led feels in control, and therefore, is easy to direct. How this plays out during a magic trick is that every movement being made is something that was given a tremendous amount of thought. Every movement down to pointing at someone, moving something on a table, or even shaking someone's hand has meaning and motivation. Each movement pulls your attention in a certain way and becomes fluid and predictable.

The way you can think of attention is that it is like a spotlight. Where the light shines is where your attention is at at the current moment. When something interesting happens, you shine the light at it, and take in the information. The “magic” element happens outside wherever the light is. Many magicians will do a move out in the open because they know that no one is paying attention.

If we were to apply this in a practical sense, we can draw parallels to website user experience. One of the most common aspects of many websites is the dreaded popup. The reason why it is considered annoying is because it is often used poorly by forcing your attention on something right away. Websites often show you a popup asking for your email address right when you visit the website, many times without even showing you the content of the website. Why would I give my email address without even knowing what the website is about?

While looking for ways to make this better, I have started liking time and page delayed popups. Time and page delayed popups are when the popup does not appear until a certain amount of time is spent on the website or when a certain amount of content is consumed. This has been showing up more and more and is something that seems to generate a better quality of experience due to allowing users to first experience the content, then be prompted to interact and find out more information after a reasonable time has passed, allowing the users to make a judgment on whether the content is relevant or interesting.

The power of incremental change

One of the most powerful tools that magicians employ is the use of time. Time is so powerful because it can alter a memory of what actually happens. To break this down, when you are given a lot of new information at a fast pace, you can only remember so much for a certain amount of time. As the amount of time grows from when you learned something to the present, you begin to forget less relevant details. Magicians use this concept to create unique experiences.

One of the earliest things that magicians learn is something called the criss cross force. The basic premise is that you place a card that you want the spectator to pick on the bottom of the deck (secretly, of course). You then hand them the deck and tell them to cut the deck around the middle and place those cards on the table. You then instruct them to place the remaining cards on top of the rest of the cards at a slightly angled position.

Now, if we take a step back and look at what happened we can see that this is fairly straightforward: the card that you want the spectator to pick is on the bottom of the top block of cards. This was the bottom of the deck. At this point this is where the magician would use his secret weapon.


By talking, the magician moves your attention away from the deck for just a couple of seconds. These couple of seconds are so valuable.

This is what this would look like:

Magician: Do you feel like you had a free choice? I didn’t force you to cut at any specific point right?
Spectator: Yes. Of course.
Magician: And you saw that this was a normal deck?
Spectator: Yes. I looked through it and saw that it was normal.
Magician : Good. Now pick up the top packet where you cut to and look at the card at the face.

This may seem insignificant but this accomplishes so much. In this short conversation, you began to chip away at the memory of which packet is the top and bottom of the deck by making them think about whether it was a free choice and if the deck is a regular deck of cards. They either agree or disagree. The answer doesn't really matter. What matters is that they are thinking about these questions.

By delaying the trick by even 10 to 15 seconds, it makes it almost impossible for them to think back to the moment that they cut the cards and piece together how the trick was done.

A real world example of this is Pinterest. In the early days of Pinterest, they wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to try their product. So they decided when customers registered to their website, Pinterest would only collected the essential information and asked the customers to pick 5 categories of things that they liked. They then collected the rest of the user profile information at a later time. By breaking up the registering process into more manageable parts and delaying the collection of more burdensome information to a later time, the experience became quick and easy.

Looking ahead

As we start to delve deeper into these topics in the following articles, I hope you can see how these principles can be valuable to the way you approach your business or even daily life. These principles, while small, can make all the difference and will change the way you think about your customers for the better.

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