People care about stories, not products

Here’s an important reminder that tools don’t matter as much as we think they do. What matters is how the tools enable people to accomplish their goals. From Chana Joffe-Walt’s Why Legos Are So Expensive — And So Popular (my emphasis added):

But Lego did find a successful way to do something Mega Bloks could not copy: It bought the exclusive rights to Star Wars. If you want to build a Death Star out of plastic blocks, Lego is now your only option.

The Star Wars blocks were wildly successful. So Lego kept going — it licensed Indiana Jones, Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story and Harry Potter.

Sales of these products have been huge for Lego. More important, the experience has taught the company that what kids wanted to do with the blocks was tell stories. Lego makes or licenses the stories they want to tell.

No one cares about your product as much as you do. But they do care about their stories. And understanding that can help you make better products.

Design as path-dependent process

Speaking of Ryan Singer, I recently re-read his answer on the Quora startup thread Should I focus on a good user experience, or push something out quickly? He makes a really good argument for investing in design very early in the product development process:

Design is a path-dependent process. That means the early moves constrain the later moves. On the very first iteration the design possibilities are wide open. The designer defines some screens and workflows and then the programmer builds those. On the next iteration, it’s not wide open anymore. The new design has to fit into the existing design, and the new code needs to fit into the existing code. Old code can be changed, but you don’t want to scrap everything. There is a pressure to keep moving with what is already there.

Our early design decisions are like bets whose outcome we will have to live with iteration after iteration. Since that’s the case, there is a strong incentive to be sure about our early bets. In other words, we want to reduce uncertainty on the first iterations.

This is why variation, not just iteration, is so important during the early phases of a product.

Looper, UI design, and capability vs style

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally saw Looper last night. It is, of course, as brilliant as everyone says it is. After watching the movie I went back to all my Instapaper’d articles about it, and my favorite so far is an interview with the director called Noir to near-future: ‘Looper’ director Rian Johnson talks sci-fi, Twitter, and the fate of film. This answer, in particular, jumped out at me (my emphasis added):

The minute you say “science fiction,” the question of world creation comes up. Was that something you were thinking about when you were writing?

No, that was the production designer. When I was writing I was really just disciplining myself to focus on getting the narrative as tight as possible. To tighten the screws on everything, and to make sure that it ticked and that it ran from start to finish and that it had a solid spine.

And so I was focused on that and I wasn’t even thinking about the world-building elements at all. Which I think was good because it meant the designers and I just worked together. Every design decision, it wasn’t preconceived, it came out of the needs of the story. And so making the world seem like such a desperate place was a way of accentuating that feeling of “you better hold on to your slice of the pie, or else it’s destitution,” you know?

I love that approach, and I think we need more of it in web design as well. Start with the story — the core functionality of the product. Then look at that functionality, and only add the “production value” (styling) that will help tell that story. Nothing more.

It reminds me of a point Ryan Singer makes in his article UI and Capability. In the excerpt below, think of story as “capability”, and production design as “style”:

Affording a capability and styling it are both important. But it’s essential to know which one you are doing at a given time. Style is a matter of taste. Capability and clarity are not. They are more objective. That person standing at the edge of the chasm cares more about accomplishing their task than the details of the decor.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that, just as we’ll forgive a movie’s shoddy special effects if the story is great, users will forgive a style they don’t love if a product helps them to accomplish a goal effectively.

Follow people rather than topics

Callum J Hackett gives some good advice in Reading the Unexpected:

This is why I prefer to follow people rather than topics. I’m able to get a good sense of their character and interests, and while I know what kind of wonderful links and commentary to expect 90% of the time — all part of the initial attraction — I also look forward to that remaining 10% which I’d never have predicted or sought out myself, but which I still enjoy reading.

We need that kind of spontaneous discovery. We need to be exposed to the unfamiliar and the unexpected, even if it’s only truly interesting one time out of a hundred. If all our interesting content is redirected from individuals to subject-specific sources, we will inevitably place subtle, unnoticed restrictions on the things that we see, and we will continue to reinforce our prejudiced ideas and interests without thinking.

This ties in well with a very interesting discussion between Susan Greenfield, Maria Popova, and Evgeny Morozov with the New York Times, weirdly titled Are We Becoming Cyborgs? Here’s Maria Popova:

The Web by and large is really well designed to help people find more of what they already know they’re looking for, and really poorly designed to help us discover that which we don’t yet know will interest us and hopefully even change the way we understand the world. […]

When you think about so-called social curation — algorithms that recommend what to read based on what your friends are reading — there’s an obvious danger. Eli Pariser called it “The Filter Bubble” of information, and it’s not really broadening your horizons.

I think the role of whatever we want to call these people, information filters or curators or editors or something else, is to broaden the horizons of the human mind. The algorithmic Web can’t do that, because an algorithm can only work with existing data. It can only tell you what you might like, based on what you have liked.

Longing for an open(er) web

At first glance, Anil Dash’s The Web We Lost might come across as typical nostalgia for times gone by. But he makes some really good points about the changes we’ve seen over the past few years that have closed down the web in significant ways. I especially like this conclusion:

I know that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and LinkedIn and the rest are great sites, and they give their users a lot of value. They’re amazing achievements, from a pure software perspective. But they’re based on a few assumptions that aren’t necessarily correct. The primary fallacy that underpins many of their mistakes is that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth. And the second, more grave fallacy, is the thinking that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks.

Let’s briefly look at the two fallacies Anil points out.

The fallacy that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth

I think designers and product people were so traumatised by the aesthetic crimes committed on MySpace pages by giving too much flexibility and control to users that the pendulum has swung way back into the opposite direction. One of the things that are cited as a core component to Facebook’s early mass market success is the complete lack of flexibility when it comes to the design of “your page.” By taking that choice away Facebook not only introduced consistency, but by making everyone’s pages look the same they also took the burden away from users to spend countless hours making their pages unique just to impress their friends. Instead, they could focus on the content.

But times they are a-changin’. There is a renewed expectation for customisation (Android!) and personalisation (Zite, Flipboard, Prismatic). Read Frank Chimero’s The Anthologists, where he talks about users looking for “new ways to select, sequence, recontextualize, and publish the content they consume.” The challenge for designers now is not how to hide complexity, but how to work through complexity and arrive at what Karen McGrane calls “appropriate visibility” in her essay for The Manual called Ear Trumpets and Bionic Superpowers:

Designs that make technology completely seamless to the user often deserve admiration. But can we balance our desire for intuitiveness with a wider recognition that some tasks are complex, some interactions must be learned, and sometimes the goal isn’t invisible technology but appropriate visibility?

We have to figure out how to provide flexibility and control without hurting user experience. And like Fred Wilson says, “Just because something is hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do it.”

The fallacy that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks

On this one I agree with Anil unreservedly. The best analogy I can think of to illustrate the problem is to look at online publications’ link policies. Some publications make a point of linking to source articles prominently and early on in any piece they’re writing, while others hide the source link (if it’s there at all) at the bottom of the article in the hopes that no one will see they’re not actually the ones who wrote it. Matthew Panzarino explains the difference this way in Stop Not Linking:

If you truly believe that what you’re writing is worthwhile then you’ll trust that your readers will come back to you the next time you have something to share. So please, start sharing more liberally and encouraging your readers to view the source materials if they feel that they want to, without making them dig for them.

They will appreciate it and, if you’re honest and passionate, they will still happily read what you have to say. You are not diminished by the fact that other people have original thoughts as well.

The same goes for social media sites, ecommerce sites, everything. If you are confident in the value you provide to users, you don’t have to try to control them and lock them in with fancy tricks. You’ll just provide the value and know that if you meet a real need, those people will be back, and they will be the most loyal customers in the world because you respect their freedom.

And if they don’t come back, you’ll learn from it and tweak your offering until they do. By doing things the long, hard, stupid way you’ll sacrifice short-term returns for a long-term sustainable business with happy customers. And I think we can all agree that’s something worth pursuing.

E-commerce sites as editorial outlets

Marcelo Somers is in the process of writing a great series on e-commerce. Part 2 is called Sell the Hole, Not the Drill – A Guide to eCommerce Content Strategy:

The failure of eCommerce is that the functionality has been designed to sell, but sites have overlooked the opportunity to build relationships with their customers and genuinely make their lives better. Most online shopping engagements only make customers’ wallets lighter. […] eCommerce sites must start blurring the line between being an editorial site and a place for commerce.

I completely agree with this. I’ve written about it before, and called the approach context-based e-commerce:

[Where product-based e-commerce sees the product as the unit of measure], context-based e-commerce sees a customer’s unique situation as the unit of measure, and the user experience is built around delighting them based on who they are and how technology can help improve their lives. Quality, personal, context-based content serves as the bridge between product and customer.

How to do what you love, the right way

Every time I start a new job I take my dad to see my office. He loves seeing where I work, and I love showing him. It’s a thing. As much as I enjoy this unspoken ritual of ours, there’s always a predictable response from my dad that serves as a clear indicator of our large generation gap. At some point he’ll ask a question along the lines of, “So… no one has an office? You just sit out here in the open?” I’ve tried many times to explain the idea of co-location and collaborative work, but I don’t think it’s something that will ever compute for him.

This isn’t a criticism on how he’s used to doing things (especially if he’s reading this… Hi Dad!). But it shows how our generation’s career goals have changed from “I want the corner office!” to “I just want a space where I’m able to do good work.” We’ve mostly gotten over our obsession with the size and location of our physical workspaces. But we haven’t completely managed to let go of that corner office in our minds: the job title.

Even that’s starting to change, though. This tweet from Jack Dorsey has received over 1,700 retweets so far:

In episode 60 of Back to Work, Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discuss what they call “work as platform”. The basic idea is that we need to stop looking at work as a thing you do for a company. If you view your career like that, your success will always be linked to the success of the company, as well as your ability to survive within that particular culture. You will be at the mercy of people who are concerned about their own careers, not yours.

Instead, if you think about your work as platform, your attention starts to shift to using whatever job you are doing to develop your skills further, so that you’re never at the mercy of one company. Here’s Merlin, from about 31 minutes into that episode of Back to Work (edited down slightly):

If you think just in terms of jobs, you become a little bit short-sighted, because you tend to think in terms of, “What’s my next job?”, or “If I want good jobs in my career, what do I put on my resume?” So in terms of what you can do to make the kinds of things you want, and have the kind of career you like, I think it’s very interesting to think about what you do in terms of having a platform for what you do.

There’s always this thing about “doing what you love.” Well, doing what you love might not ever make you a nickel. And if doing what you love sucks, no one is ever going to see it, like it, and buy it, which is problematic. That’s not a branding problem, that’s a “you suck” problem. So the platform part is thinking about what you do not simply in terms of what your next job is — it’s a way of thinking about how all of the things that you do can and should and do feed into each other.

I think it’s worth giving yourself permission to take a dip into the douche-pool, and think a little bit about what platform thinking might mean to you. Because if you are just thinking about how unhappy you are with your job your horizons are going to become pretty short, and your options are going to be very limited.

So here’s how I want to pull this all together. Just like we’ve moved on from the idea that the big office is a big deal, we have to let go of the idea that a big enough title is equal to a successful career. Much more important is that we figure out what it is that we want to spend our time and attention on — and then working at our craft to make that our platform.

I was really inspired by Jason Santa Maria’s interview in The Great Discontent, in which he said the following:

One of my greatest fears is being at a big company and rising through the ranks to become a manager of people. That’s an art and there are people who are really good at energizing others and getting the best work out of them, but the thing I most enjoy is being hands-on and seeing something through to the end. I want to keep making things and not just talk about making them.

That resonates with me. It doesn’t have to resonate with you, and that’s the point. We don’t all have to follow the same path. You don’t have to run out and learn how to code. But be curious enough to find out if coding is your platform. Build your own platform, and make your own work. That’s what it means to “do what you love.”

Apple innovates, Samsung follows fast

The Economist has a fascinating piece on what makes Samsung’s strategy so effective. From Samsung: The next big bet (my emphasis added):

Samsung’s successes come from spotting areas that are small but growing fast. Ideally the area should also be capital-intensive, making it harder for rivals to keep up. Samsung tiptoes into the technology to get familiar with it, then waits for its moment.

When it pounces, the company floods the sector with cash. Moving into very high volume production as fast as possible not only gives it a price advantage over established firms, but also makes it a key customer for equipment makers. Those relationships help it stay on the leading edge from then on.

The strategy is shrewd. By buying technology rather than building it, Samsung assumes execution risk not innovation risk. It wins as a ‘fast follower’, slipstreaming in the wake of pioneers at a much larger scale of production.

This is in direct contrast to Apple’s strategy, which is to look for a mature, stale market, and then innovate to deliver a solution that’s several orders of magnitude better than what incumbents are selling.


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