Innovation that actually helps people: a radical rethink of working gloves

Qual research is often part of a much bigger and longer process, be it developing a new product, creating an ad or segmenting customers. So it’s satisfying when you see something you have worked on come to fruition. I’ve really enjoyed working with Swedish design agency Pond on a couple of projects now, ethnographic work looking at how people really use products and tools and helping find ways to improve them. I’ve just come across videos Pond and their end client Snickers made about the tradespersons’ gloves innovation work we did together a few years ago – I did the British interviews and creative development groups for them. Here they are: Snickers work gloves – Pond design video.

It’s a good example of how ethnographic work can lead to a big insight and, more importantly, a genuinely new and better kind of product. The insight on work gloves was a simple but radical one (watch the video!). It came through getting tradespeople to talk about and show us what their handling and grip issues were, callouses and all. It turned out, gloves were one of those issues that generated really strong views among tradespeople, but which just did not get discussed in detail in normal working life. You could see the potential for innovation immediately: this was crying out “unmet need”.

Rethinking a category: "odd" gloves
Rethinking a category: “odd” gloves

It’s not always the most talked about issue which is the most important one. Careful probing, observation and (here’s the key) lots and lots of analysis and creative thinking is how you make a product design breakthrough like this. It helps that Pond have razor sharp research-savvy designers who “get” end-users. But crucially even they realise, you have to do the legwork, you have to watch and listen and you have to think hard. You have to immerse yourself in the complexities of real life before you can distil something simple.

Too much choice?

English: The Institute of Art and Ideas logo
English: The Institute of Art and Ideas logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Peter Curran hosts an interesting debate on whether too much choice is actually bad for society, on the iai online tv channel. Making the case is Renata Salecl, opposing is Lou Marinoff and somewhere between them is Lynne Segal.

Choice: debate from the Institute of Art and Ideas

Factoid of the day: qual is worth $6.37billion a year

Raises an eyebrow ...
Raises an eyebrow …

Thanks to Italian ICG member Marcello Sasso for this, in response to a question from Sheila Keegan on the ICG email chatter thread: she asked, how much qual is done globally every year?

Marcello quoted the 2011 ESOMAR figures on this. Qual research accounts for 19 per cent of global market research turnover (of which 18% is “offline” and 1% online).
Global market research turnover is $33,540 million, so that means global qual in 2011 was $6.37billion approximately.
I’m not a numbers person but (1) when I started in qual in the late 90s, I think the figure was around $1.5billion; if so (and I haven’t checked that) that’s quite some growth; and (2) I think I need to up my rates.

Bitter-sweet at the Summer Solstice

An early Polyphonic Spree gig. This was before they brought in the new bass player.

Don’t forget, pagans and geography ‘O’ level-takers of Britain, it’s the Summer Solstice today. That is, the “longest day of the year”. Actually, I am a bit surprised we don’t all make more of this, one of the four big natural milestones of the year (with the Winter Solstice and the two Equinoxes). After all, we still very much live our lives in this country by the seasons. What could be more significant a day to mark than the peak day of daylight?

As someone who loves the sense of light and space of the summer months more than most, but who has also just scored highly for Neuroticism on a recent personality trait assessment, the Summer Solstice is a bitter-sweet moment – like just about all the rest of my moments, if this tool is to be believed. I mean the assessment tool, I wasn’t insulting myself there. (And don’t worry, I’m also high on Agreeableness and Openness, apparently*, so I’m obviously a really good bloke and just need to stop worrying).  The Solstice though is particularly bitter-sweet because of what I see as our tragic geo-meteorological fate: by the time the really warm months come in July and August, the nights are already drawing in towards the darkening of Autumn.

pagan with child
Embarrassing Dads of the World: No117 – the Weekend Pagan

I enjoyed Alain de Botton‘s “Religion for Atheists” – where he argued for having secular occasions that give non-believers some of the same thrills ‘n’ spills that religion has excelled at giving its adherents over the centuries – even if I didn’t swallow every word. His vision for communal dining left me as cold as the gazpacho I imagine people consuming there. But I am one of those people who feels an urge to mark the big seasonal milestones – if only by raising a glass or two of summer ale / winter warmer (delete as appropriate).

The Croats – and most of Catholic Europe – peak at the right time with their mid-August celebrations for Vela Gospa, just as Luka Modric plays his most telling passes deep in the second half. I’m not well versed in Catholicism but it’s something to do with the Assumption, evoking the fecundity of the Lord’s earthly mum. More to the point, it marks the high point of a summer parabola of expectation, with plenty of build-up and a suitably short winding down period afterwards. In Sali in Dalmacija where we go every summer, they also have their annual Festa (complete with a donkey race around the harbour that the RSPCA would not approve of) around the same time. The distant bell of work duties only starts to become audible once the sounds of Cro-rockers The Sexy Mother-F***ers have finally faded from the festival stage and the last Karlovacko empty has been bagged.

But we Brits have nothing really as a festive marker of late summer, except the August bank holiday. And that’s a kind of sweaty nightmare, celebrated only through the ritual family rows on the M40.

Perhaps it’s a very British thing to mark the start and end of summer indirectly, without fanfare. Summer half term in late May / early June is the start of the summer season for me. Around this time the thwack of leather against willow heralds either the English cricket season in full swing or a “party” in the basement of Max Moseley’s house. Then there’s the Summer Solstice – in many ways, really the start of the serious summer. It certainly starts well before the English school holidays, which feel very late to me in the second half of July (in my home province of Ulster, kids get June and July off completely).**

For football obsessives like me, the Community Shield marks the start of that late summer period where we all gear up again for the season ahead (i.e. the football season, August to May). Then there’s the first day back to school, for those of us who are parents of school-age kids – a movable feast these days. I’ve found the seasons have much more meaning again now that I’m a parent and move once more to the rhythms of the school year and the draconian anti-family pricing policies of travel operators.

So here’s to another summer of bored children, prime ministers swanning around Italy in big shirts, the newspaper “silly season”, road rage, dehydration, half-arsed transfer speculation, melting on public transport, uncomfortable sleep, recreational rioting and reading the odd book from start to finish. My favourite time of year.

* according to the Newcastle Personality Assessor. It has a battery of ten questions to produce a score for where you sit for the Big 5 Personality Traits (Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Openness). If I revealed the full results, I’d never be employed again, except by experimental psychologists as a case study. But I think I still like myself.
** In Northern Ireland, we have 12th July as the big summer landmark in the calendar, though actual celebration of the day itself is a minority pursuit really – and certainly enjoyed much more by some than others. The period around it is known as the Twelfth Fortnight. For most, apart from people steeped in the Orange tradition or from the most Loyalist areas, or those who enjoy baiting them, it’s a good time to go on holiday. 

StickK: Odysseus on an electronic mast

I came across this site via a behavourial economist, Dr. Ivo Vlaev (thanks!), who was a co-collaborator on a rather large BE-influenced study I’ve been helping out on over the last year. It’s one of the many sites out there using BE principles to, it is hoped, help empower people to do things they want to do.

Harnessing the power of embarrassment. Not wanting to look like a tw*t is a powerful thing (and very hard to achieve)
Harnessing the power of embarrassment. Not wanting to look like a tw*t is a powerful thing (and very hard to achieve)

StickK ( was started a few years ago by an Economics Professor at Yale called Dean Karlan, who had the idea of an online ‘Commitment Store’. One of his collaborators, Ian Ayres, has written a book about this kind of behaviour change, called Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done. The basic idea is pretty simple: it provides a vehicle for people to commit publicly to a goal, on the basis that this makes them more likely to stick to that goal and achieve it. As the founders put it:

The Commitment Contract concept is based on two well known principles of behavioral economics:

1.People don’t always do what they claim they want to do, and
2.Incentives get people to do things

Dean believed that today’s health-conscious and socially conscious market was ready for a service that would allow people a way to achieve their goals.

Doing a Just Giving page for your charity event has a similar effect – the embarrassment factor of copping out as a motivator – but what StickK does is enable people to apply this principle more widely to any aspect of behaviour where they want to make a change, and adjust the settings on each target.

For example, you can effectively set yourself a fine for failure, though this is optional. You can choose to share it widely or just involve one or two people – or it could even just be private to yourself (and StickK).

It asks participants to go through four stages in setting up their behaviour change programme:

  1. set the goal (and a time for achieving it; though it can be open-ended also)
  2. set the stakes – what is to happen if you achieve it or don’t achieve it?
  3. appoint a referee to judge success or otherwise
  4. decide which and how many people you want to be in on your endeavour as “supporters” (or Greek tragedic chorus in my case).

It’s only one of many tools out there using basic principles of psychology and behavioural economics in practical ways – it’s been interesting to see this stuff enter the popular mainstream now. We can only expect this to continue.

I was myself involved in some experimental behavioural economics interventions on a recent longitudinal study. The results are confidential but it was certainly interesting to be able to compare qualitative research experiments and see which interventions (with titles like Goal-setting and Substitution) actually made an impact on people’s behaviour over time. It’s the kind of work we were all predicting would become common when we had the first AQR training session on BE in May 2011. Very rewarding to see it fully coming to pass on that project.

You have to pity the Greek heroes – every generation puts them through their ordeals all over again. If only the well-travelled Ithacan had had access to behavioural economics insights and social media, not to mention Google Maps, he might have got home quicker and not had to have himself tied to masts to control his passion for ugly cliff singers. Though perhaps the Homeric era suited him well: I think Penelope mightn’t have hung around for him if she’d read about her absent husband’s exploits via his Twitter feed. Hard to explain that “lost year” on Circe’s island for starters …

Running Out Of Cass?

Cass Sunstein Q&A on Radio 4’s “Analysis” programme

English: Cass Sunstein Speaking at Harvard Law...
English: Cass Sunstein Speaking at Harvard Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a top-up for behavioural economics enthusiasts: Edward Stourton hosts a Radio 4 programme on how the use of Nudge theory in government has gone so far – “liberal paternalism“, if you’re into squaring circles – with Nudge co-author and erstwhile Obama White House insider Cass Sunstein.

In short, it seems it’s more tinkering at the edges still, from my reading of this, than infusing every movement of government. Still early days?

But Sunstein is surely right about the central point here. There is an inevitability to the progress of behaviourally-informed approaches to decision-making, because all it is doing in a sense is introducing deliberate thought to what the default should be where people do nothing, in areas where this was previously not really thought about.

There is no such thing as a  ‘neutral environment’, there is always a default. Much about behavioural economics is simply asking, what do you want the default to be? So in the UK, it’s a default that the NHS steps in when you get ill; in some other countries the default is that you pay for it out of your own pocket every time you get ill. You have to insure your way out of that default. This is an example of where in the UK we have thought about what happens if people do nothing and said we need to put something in place as the default is too iniquitous. But this can be applied to pretty much any area of policy-making – and BE, by examining what defaults we want, opens up huge areas of policy to greater scrutiny.

The genie is out of the bottle once the BE question is raised: you now have to make a policy choice. Not acting isn’t an escape route from this choice – because not acting is still making a moral choice: it is choosing the existing default over other possible ones, which implies the status quo default is better than the possible alternatives.

Of course, some will still complain this is the state manipulating people’s lives. But as Thaler and Sunstein say in Nudge – and being relatively politically conventional Americans (i.e. to the right in British terms), they are at pains to make this point – individual choice is still sacrosanct. It’s just within a choice architecture in which, if individuals do nothing, disaster will not befall them. People always default to something, so why not make the default a good thing? To do otherwise would be absurd.

And yes, that means policy-makers making moral judgements about what is good for society. But that is actually nothing novel. As Michael Sandel frequently reminds us, they do that anyway, it’s just that they often do it without acknowledging that they have made a moral choice. Better that important moral philosophical debates on what is good are public and open. Some politicians may shy away from this – which is fine, as long as they realise they are as much imposing their values on the public by doing nothing, as those who advocate nudging.

Different Class

BBC research: new UK “class” system

Middle Class Revolt
The other side of the counter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our traditional three classes are now seven. A research unit within the BBC, BBC Lab UK, has conducted a study delving into class identity in Britain to come up with a more meaningful, contemporary sets of groupings. Prof Mike Savage of the London School of Economics and Prof Fiona Devine of Manchester University helped design the study, with the fieldwork carried out by GfK. According to the BBC website story on this:

The new classes are defined as:

  • Elite – the most privileged group in the UK, distinct from the other six classes through its wealth. This group has the highest levels of all three capitals
  • Established middle class – the second wealthiest, scoring highly on all three capitals. The largest and most gregarious group, scoring second highest for cultural capital
  • Technical middle class – a small, distinctive new class group which is prosperous but scores low for social and cultural capital. Distinguished by its social isolation and cultural apathy
  • New affluent workers – a young class group which is socially and culturally active, with middling levels of economic capital
  • Traditional working class – scores low on all forms of capital, but is not completely deprived. Its members have reasonably high house values, explained by this group having the oldest average age at 66
  • Emergent service workers – a new, young, urban group which is relatively poor but has high social and cultural capital
  • Precariat, or precarious proletariat – the poorest, most deprived class, scoring low for social and cultural capital.

It’s worth going on the BBC website and doing the quick test to check where you come out.

The categories are really interesting, if only to provoke much needed thought about what has happened to the old “working class” and to suggest something more nuanced than the massive “middle class” we now have. This provides some interesting answers about how these groups have morphed, split and morphed again.

The New Affluent Workers and Emergent Service Workers in particular ring true as groups I’ve seen a lot without ever defining them quite like that. I’m less convinced by the distinction between Established Middle Class and Technical Middle Class, though I recognise it. I’m not sure the latter is worth its own status, it doesn’t seem quite unique enough.

Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United F.C.
Alex Ferguson, working class millionnaire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s been a bit of chat about all this today within my ICG group of research consultants (weblink: the ICG). As I commented there, I can’t help thinking the BBC calculator goes for practical over “cultural” definitions of class. I wonder if it’s really “class” at all it’s talking about, but lifestyle and financial capability. A phrase like “social sector” might be more accurate for what these categories really are.

It doesn’t seem to allow for example for people from what you might call upper middle class backgrounds who are out of work and on benefits (I’ve interviewed a few recently). Likewise, millionnaire high achiever Sir Alex Ferguson is working class Glaswegian to the core – though he would surely be classed as Elite by the BBC test, alongside the likes of Gideon Osborne and David Starkey. Are they really the same class, in the sense we all think of the word?

It begs the question, can you be in several groups at the same time? Class, while a stubborn limpet of a thing, often isn’t a single completely fixed quality, but can manifest itself in different ways in the same person. I’ve long noticed especially in C1 and C2 groups people flitting between competing forms of class identity.

That’s partly because they had out-dated models of the class system in their heads, no doubt; but also because, no matter how you redefine the class boundaries, there are many people who in reality carry several class-related identities in parallel. Myself included.

It will take a lot to dislodge the ABC1C2DE socio-economic gradings from their primacy in the research world. Not that they aren’t flawed, but they provide a ‘good enough’ system for the purpose of identifying people by social class as it is lived and experienced. As a qualitative research moderator, it is important to have a system that is roughly right, because people gel better and talk more freely in groups when they are with peers, as a rule. This is an uncomfortable truth for some I talk to outside research – isn’t it patronising to think people can only be themselves with people of their own ‘class’? We’re not all that class-obsessed are we?

Well, no we’re not – and many ‘mixed’ groups can develop a good dynamic. But you only need to witness a few times the social embarrassment and awkwardness that can happen to resolve to be very careful with this aspect of group recruitment in future. We are still so laden with assumptions about people from backgrounds other than our own – for good or ill (usually the latter) – that everyone’s negotiating around it just becomes a big distraction, when you’re actually there to talk about cheese packaging or the third runway at Heathrow.

Getting everyone into the picture
Getting everyone into the picture

At the moment, the ABC1 system provides a common, if clunky, language that is understood by recruiters and researchers alike. It’s not the be-all and end-all of recruitment, but it does a basic job. In this country, educational background and job type still count for an awful lot in the class stakes. It will be hard for a more accurately descriptive, modern system to replace it without bigger tectonic social shifts than we have seen so far – and importantly, these shifts having a few decades to solidify and establish themselves.

And I think the phrases themselves of “middle class” and “working class” will long outlive their literal usefulness as social categories. They are so much a part of how British people think of themselves, even decades after the working class / middle class borders became hopelessly blurred, that they will continue to have resonance for many decades to come, even if one that slowly fades. We’re certainly no nearer to being a “classless society” than we were when John Major talked about it in the 90s. In some ways, we’re further away than ever.

A Dickensian Present

Theatre Alibi: The Curiosity Shop

Theatre Alibi's 'Curiosity Shop'
Theatre Alibi’s ‘Curiosity Shop’

Sometimes you get a serendipitous coming together of your work with something in the culture. This week I’ve been clocking up the miles doing social research in some of the less frequented corners of the land, interviewing financially vulnerable people at home; and last night, the smell of second-hand roll-up smoke from the Welsh Valleys still in my clothes, I caught Theatre Alibi’s Curiosity Shop at the Oxford Playhouse. Both experiences provoked reflection on how people get by – and get exploited – when trying to survive below the breadline.

The play is an adaptation of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, set in contemporary East London. What’s striking is how believable the Victorian tale of human decency and spirit amidst loan sharking, penury and thwarted potential is in a modern East End setting. The transposing into the story of modern devices (both literal and theatrical) by Theatre Alibi is ingenious, from crap (or is he?) hip-hop artiste “The Swiveller”‘s YouTube video, to the village pub Kiss tribute act, to Nell’s symbolic dropping of her mobile into a pond that heralds the start of her retreat from the world. The acting and all-round artistic vision of the Theatre Alibi group was once again brilliant – living up to the high standards they set in the truly amazing Crowstarver (among the best things I’ve seen on stage). There are laughs in there too: they keep it as broad as the subject matter demands while eschewing easy clowning; it’s the sharply observed language and physical characterisations that carry this off so well.

Dickens and Little Nell (1890), a statue by Fr...
Dickens and Little Nell (1890), a statue by Francis Edwin Elwell in Clark Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years ago, it might have taken an imaginative leap for an audience to relate to the situation of Nell and her feckless if well-meaning grandfather (here, an ageing hippy running a record shop). It might have been one only for the historians, Dickens enthusiasts or Guardianista bien pensants, with only tangential relevance for mainstream modern life. But in 2013 Budget week, the tale of rent arrears and unscrupulous landlords, compounded by the hopeless Peter Shilton-esque gambling of the grandfather, seemed at the heart of the present-day British story.

As ever, I can’t write directly about the content of my research work here. But meeting people this week who have been through experiences not dissimilar from those depicted in Curiosity Shop has been hugely interesting both personally and professionally – an eye-opener at times even for a hardened old researcher like me. The play was, in a sense, picking up the strands of half-formed thoughts in my head from my interviews and weaving something dramatic with them.

And when I got home, I found Curiosity Shop had me watching Question Time a little differently too. Suffice to say, there is a certain author I find myself less inclined to read from now on (naming no names, but it rhymes with Panthony Porowitz). But whoever said being a writer made you more empathetic? It was probably me.

IFS effects of tax and benefit changes 2010-16 (from BBC News)
IFS effects of tax and benefit changes 2010-16 (from BBC News)

This isn’t placing the lives of the least well-off on some kind of pedestal, like Jarvis Cocker‘s moneyed Greek art school student in Common People. It remains crap to have not much money and it’s getting worse. Figures I looked at yesterday from the Institute of Fiscal Studies show how, while the rich are bearing a big hit from the changes to taxes and benefits, the next biggest group to be affected are the poorest. The impact of course is devastating for this group, in a way that it just isn’t for the top 10 per cent. At this end of the income scale, there is just no fat to trim. Hard times indeed.

Scarfolk: beautiful (and very funny) images of a bewitched 70s Middle England dystopia

Useful information for Scarfolkians on the Circle of Life
Useful information for Scarfolkians on the Circle of Life

Occasionally something pops into my view on twitter that’s worth a read and very occasionally I make a real discovery – or rather various illustrious twitterati have. I came across Scarfolk last night via a recommendation from Caitlin Moran‘s twitter feed, started exploring it and, well, it is just a delight: Scarfolk website.

The conceit that writer and graphic designer Richard Littler has created is Scarfolk: a 1970s place, lost somewhere in a half-forgotten nether reach of Middle England, in which things are not quite right. It’s a kind of 70s Royston Vasey meets the Midwich Cuckoos on the set of Crossroads.

The writing is brilliant but the artwork makes it – lovingly twisted recreations of public information posters, Penguin book covers and album covers made to suit a place benighted by a version of the 70s even wronger than the real 70s. And that’s going some.

Browse and enjoy – lots of laugh out loud moments in here.

Start The Week: on “big data”

Start The Week (Radio 4): Big Data

Tiffany Jenkins: some welcome sociological sense
Tiffany Jenkins: some welcome sociological sense

Here’s a link to this morning’s Start The Week, discussing “big data” and mathematical modelling of data. Well worth a listen. Contributions are from James Owen Weatherall on physicists in finance, Marcus du Sautoy, Kenneth Cukier and sociologist Tiffany Jenkins.

While there is an unstoppable logic to gathering and making sense of all the data out there to better inform ourselves, I welcomed Tiffany Jenkins’ reminders that ultimately human (non-mechanised) judgments need to be all over this and not sidelined by it.

As she points out, physics, if done well enough, may well be useful in explaining and predicting how a market functions – fine as far as that goes – but has little to say on what the market’s role is or should be. The question of whether the point of financial markets is to grow profits for investors, benefit wider society, grow GDP, increase happiness or whatever: these are questions of political and moral philosophy, which are rightly the stuff of politics and democratic decision-making. Modelled data can help inform the decision-making but ultimately both the decision and the decision-making process (which involves the prioritisation of some goods over others) is qualitative in nature. Further, the decisions about what data is to be gathered – and even to some extent what it means – are also made using holistic forms of thinking and problem-solving that draw as much on humanities-derived methods of critical analysis and sense-making as on pure ‘scientific’ methods.

No way to make sense of data, I'd suggest, especially on a wet February day
No way to make sense of data, I’d suggest, especially on a wet February day

In research, we are often divided into ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ research – and I am a specialist in the latter – but as such I have frequently worked on projects where I collaborate with ‘quant’ colleagues. The process of getting ‘the story’ from qual and quant data is not one of quant being the cake and qual being the icing on top. The two sources of data and modes of thinking work best when they interact throughout the project, from the planning, through the fieldwork design and into analysis. The numbers only help if you’re asking the right questions. And getting to the right questions is actually a qualitative process.

Even in the interpretation of the quant, qualitative judgments are made (though this is often not formally recognised). For example (and this is purely hypothetical), if data were to show that 60 per cent of 18-21 year olds surveyed were regularly browsing toys aimed at 10 year olds, quant researchers would rightly give this special attention. It would either be an anomaly that needed to be explained away, perhaps due to a glitch in the survey wording; or it could be an insight into something significant, like a fashion for indulging in a second childhood during early adulthood. But what would mark it out as significant is not inherent in the data itself. The red flag in the researcher’s mind when she sees the figure derives from the researcher’s personal wider knowledge of life and the norms of the area they are researching. Systematic deductive reasoning can only produce such a red flag after a very circuitous and laborious process, if it manages it all. Sometimes it is just quicker and better to use human brain power and experience. The concern is that to a scientist, such judgement may seem unsatisfying and the logic seems to drive us to leave more and more of our decision-making to machines. But in reality they can only make good choices for us with very close human supervision. Perhaps we should be paying more intention to that human supervision and the goals we are trying to achieve. I can recommend Michael Sandel‘s What Money Can’t Buy on the limits of how far maximising efficiency can get you before you have to engage with moral philosophy and political and social choices. It’s not very far at all.

OK, so big data's not actually that big, to be fair. I'd say it's probably about the size of Wolverhampton.
OK, so big data’s not actually that big, to be fair. I’d say it’s probably about the size of Wolverhampton.

The other issue with the mathematical modelling of data about human behaviour, as we know from Kahneman and the behavioural economists, is that sometimes the models have been based on some very outdated (and, frankly, wrong) assumptions about human psychology and how decisions are really made. The idea of humans as ‘rational actors’ is of course nonsense, though many market ‘models’ have been based on it. It’s only by grasping the nature of the myriad innate biases and barriers people work around that you can make sense of it all. And as with any system, rubbish in, rubbish out.

But big data is an opportunity for bring really useful insights to decision-making. As long as we’re not tempted to under-think what we’re using it for.

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