Why America gave up on mass transit

Jonathan English’s article on mass transit in America starts off sad, and just gets worse from there:

One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world. Today, outside a few major urban centers, it is barely on life support. […]

At the turn of the 20th century, when transit companies’ only competition were the legs of a person or a horse, they worked reasonably well, even if they faced challenges. Once cars arrived, nearly every U.S. transit agency slashed service to cut costs, instead of improving service to stay competitive. This drove even more riders away, producing a vicious cycle that led to the point where today, few Americans with a viable alternative ride buses or trains.

It’s important to note that this is not an accident. It is a direct result of urban design:

The story of American transit didn’t have to turn out this way. Look again at Toronto. It’s much like American cities, with sprawling suburbs and a newer postwar subway system. But instead of relying on park-and-ride, Toronto chose to also provide frequent bus service to all of its new suburbs. (It also is nearly alone in North America in maintaining a well-used legacy streetcar network.) Even Toronto’s suburbanites are heavy transit users, thanks to the good service they enjoy.

Likewise, in Europe, even as urban areas expanded dramatically with the construction of suburbs and new towns, planners designed these communities in ways that made transit use still feasible, building many of them around train stations. When cities like Paris, London, and Berlin eliminated their streetcar networks, they replaced them with comparable bus service.

Some further reading that digs into pedestrians and cars a little more:

The benefits of buttons that don’t do anything

CNN has an interesting article about placebo buttons:

In New York City, only about 100 of the 1,000 crosswalk buttons actually function, confirmed a spokesperson from the city’s Department of Transportation in an email.

The article quotes Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer for the reasoning behind this:

According to Langer, placebo buttons have a net positive effect on our lives, because they give us the illusion of control — and something to do in situations where the alternative would be doing nothing (which explains why people press the elevator call button when it’s already lit). […]

In the case of pedestrian crossings, they may even make us safer by forcing us to pay attention to our surroundings. And ultimately, pressing a button doesn’t require much effort.

The BCC had a similar article a couple of years ago. Press me! The buttons that lie to you also quotes Ellen Langer, because there is nothing new under the sun:

But instead of framing this as an irrational delusion, Langer described the effect as a positive thing. “Feeling you have control over your world is a desirable state,” she explains. When it comes to those deceptive traffic light buttons, Langer says there could be a whole host of reasons why the placebo effect might be counted as a good thing. “Doing something is better than doing nothing, so people believe,” she says. “And when you go to press the button your attention is on the activity at hand. If I’m just standing at the corner I may not even see the light change, or I might only catch the last part of the change, in which case I could put myself in danger.”

Prioritize themes, not features

Mind the Product has a good write-up of C. Todd Lombardo’s talk called Roadmaps are Dead! Long Live Roadmaps! I’m also in the “prioritize themes, not features” camp:

Every theme on your roadmap should have a problem, an objective, and even some potential ideas you have to solve those problems. In practice, this changes how your roadmap looks. Rather than being a list of features, it might start from an objective of reducing support costs, and then show themes that might help reach that objective such as improving invoicing options or expanding payment types. By removing the details of what features will be built to fulfill these themes, it gives the team the freedom to figure out how best to solve the problems presented.

This is similar to some thoughts I had in a 2011 post called Product roadmaps are safe.

Data mines vs. data factories

Nicholas Carr discusses the importance of using the right terminology when we talk about how companies use our data in his essay I am a data factory (and so are you). On the problems with the “data mining” metaphor:

Data does not lie passively within me, like a seam of ore, waiting to be extracted. Rather, I actively produce data through the actions I take over the course of a day. When I drive or walk from one place to another, I produce locational data. When I buy something, I produce purchase data. When I text with someone, I produce affiliation data. When I read or watch something online, I produce preference data. When I upload a photo, I produce not only behavioral data but data that is itself a product. I am, in other words, much more like a data factory than a data mine. I produce data through my labor — the labor of my mind, the labor of my body.

On extending the “data factory” metaphor to the platform companies:

The platform companies, in turn, act more like factory owners and managers than like the owners of oil wells or copper mines. Beyond control of my data, the companies seek control of my actions, which to them are production processes, in order to optimize the efficiency, quality, and value of my data output (and, on the demand side of the platform, my data consumption). They want to script and regulate the work of my factory — i.e., my life — as Frederick Winslow Taylor sought to script and regulate the labor of factory workers at the turn of the last century. The control wielded by these companies, in other words, is not just that of ownership but also that of command. And they exercise this command through the design of their software, which increasingly forms the medium of everything we all do during our waking hours.

The factory metaphor makes clear what the mining metaphor obscures: We work for the Facebooks and Googles of the world, and the work we do is increasingly indistinguishable from the lives we lead. The questions we need to grapple with are political and economic, to be sure. But they are also personal, ethical, and philosophical.

This brings up a point I haven’t given much thought to. It’s not just that platforms use the data we create to further their business interests. It’s that they are also invested in having us create a very specific kind of data. Data that can be as useful as possible to advertisers. That changes our behavior and gives rise to the prevailing wisdom that people are not being authentic on social media.

Real Work vs. Imaginary Work

The key point here is: imaginary work doesn’t count. Get to running code early. Or a rough interface. Or an outline of the copy. Whatever it is, the way to get uphill is to roll up your sleeves. Show evidence that the approach works and seek out the things that might go wrong. Then when you get over the hill, your team can trust that the work is really going to ship as planned.

— Ryan Singer, Real Work vs. Imaginary Work

When friction in software is not a bad thing

Clive Thompson digs into software that aims to add friction to our lives in his Wired essay We Need Software to Help Us Slow Down, Not Speed Up:

It’s certainly possible to slow our software, and thereby ourselves. But it’ll happen only when we become too unsettled by the speed of our journey.

His post reminds me of some other ideas I’ve read about this in the past. Chris Palmieri in A Practice of Ethics:

But some friction is borne of respect, when we present information about the choices available to users and help them make better decisions. An emailed invoice could remind a customer they were paying for a service they no longer use. A checkbox could assure a user of their current content privacy settings before posting a sensitive photo. Recognition of a past purchase can save a customer the hassle of having to return a book they already have, or confirm that they are re-buying exactly the same shampoo.

And here is Andrew Grimes in Meta-Moments: Thoughtfulness by Design:

Meta-moments can provide us with space to interpret, understand, and add meaning to our experiences. A little friction in our flow is all we need. A roadblock must be overcome. A speed bump must be negotiated. A diversion must be navigated. Each of these cases involves our attention in a thoughtful way. Our level of engagement deepens. We have an experience we can remember.

Not all friction is bad…

Vinyl Me, Please and the power of product thinking

I’ve been a Vinyl, Me Please customer since January 2015. Back then things were pretty basic. For roughly $25/month they would send you a “Record of the Month”, along with a custom art print and cocktail recipe. It was cool, and helped to expand my musical palate quite a bit.

But sometime over the over the past year or so they kicked things into high gear. VMP now offers a “Classics” track (my favorite!) and a “Hip Hop” track in addition to their “Essentials” track (the original “Record of the Month”). But what’s even more apparent now is how Vinyl Me, Please has grown into a role model of how to provide value to music lovers in the digital era. The thought and care that went into this month’s “Essentials” release proves it once again.

I noticed yet another example yesterday. The Vinyl Me, Please store now shows the “nutrition content” of each record they sell:

Vinyl nutritionn facts

Ask any vinyl collector and they will tell you how much this small detail improves the shopping experience. This is all the information we usually have to hunt for on product pages and do multiple Google searches about — but presented in a consistent, easy-to-read format. It’s such a relief and a breath of fresh air.

I’ve seen quite a few attempts to define “product thinking” lately. This example, to me, sums it up perfectly. “Product thinking” means gaining a deep understanding of what users need and what kind of friction they experience, and then providing a product solution that makes that friction go away in a delightful way.

Teens, cheap Instagram marketing, and our weird future

I continue to be fascinated by Instagram’s cultural and economic impact. Taylor Lorenz writes in Posting Instagram Sponsored Content Is the New Summer Job:

Helen Boogzel, CEO of Boogzel Apparel, said her company receives a steady stream of messages from young people — almost universally girls — looking to make extra money, and that teen marketing has been critical to the young company’s growth. “Some companies buy positive reviews or try to get into fashion magazines,” she said. “That’s fake and it kills your brand. It’s better to work with teenagers directly and know their honest opinion about your brand. Our clothes are inspired by culture and the internet. Young people create this culture.”

They also, crucially, don’t charge much: Depending on the teen’s audience and experience, most shops typically pay $5 to $20 for a post.

“Teenagers are more affordable to work with because of their follower count and age,” said Christy Oh, an 18-year-old who handles marketing for DouxLashes, which sells fake eyelashes. “They’re not doing insta as a full time thing, they’re just trying to make extra money, so it’s not super expensive to partner with them.”

Here are a few other interesting articles about Instagram’s impact and… bizarreness:

How not to run a remote team

In their article 5 Best Practices for Running a Successful Remote Team, “Sparky” writes:

All team members should have their working hours posted publicly, so colleagues know when they’re “on the clock,” so to speak. If you have a hybrid environment where some people are remote and others aren’t, this will help alleviate pressure on the remote employees to feel like they always have to be available. […]

It’s also a good idea to schedule daily syncs with remote people, as well as weekly feedback sessions where you can dive deeper into anything that needs a course correction.

I’m excited about this awful advice because I get to tell you one of my favorite Wildbit stories.

I joined Wildbit a week before our yearly in-person retreat. It was a little daunting but really exciting to meet everyone I would be working with mostly remotely. Anyway, one of our team sessions was a discussion about the tools we use, and specifically Slack. Up to that point we had this unwritten convention where everyone would say “Hi!” and “Bye!” in the #general room when they come and go. Remote workers went a bit further with messages like “Stepping away to make coffee!” During our discussion it became clear that no one — no one — liked this. It caused noise, didn’t add any value, and just felt like a chore.

At that point I spoke up and mentioned that I think the reason why remote folks tend to tell everyone when we’re getting coffee or lunch is that we don’t want it to look like we’re slacking off. I said something to the effect of, “I don’t want everyone to think I went to a movie in the middle of the day, or something!” The answer I got to that statement was not what I expected. Someone said, “Well, what’s wrong with that? Maybe you needed to go to a movie to clear your head so you can come back later, refreshed and ready to go!”. If I recall correctly, my response to this was, “Uh, this thing where you guys all trust each other? It’s really weird…”

We all had a good laugh together, but I learned pretty quickly that this is just how the company works. The two things that make Wildbit’s remote culture different are:

  1. We all implicitly trust each other.
  2. We optimize for asynchronous communication.

We do this because we learned something that should be painfully obvious. When people have the freedom to work when they are feeling their best, they do their best work, and they enjoy the work more.

So anyway, back to “Sparky”. I don’t want to tell people how to live their lives, but that advice really is terrible. It’s the type of advice you give when you believe the purpose of remote work is to replicate an office. Once you realize that the purpose of remote work is to enable everyone to do their best work, everything changes.

I guess my one piece of advice for remote cultures is this: try trusting each other first. Imagine what your work environment would look like if every employee is trustworthy. And if that’s too difficult to imagine, maybe ask why you’re not able to trust your employees.

Products as functions

I’ve been really intrigued by Ryan Singer’s thinking around Products as Functions:

Products are easier to reason about when you think of them as functions. They transform an input situation into an output situation.

This lets you describe what the product does as a transformation of the user’s circumstance instead of a bundle of features.

I’ve been using this thinking on a new project we’re working on at Postmark. I like this approach because it gives us a framework to communicate why something is a good idea to work on, and it focuses on the benefit for customers. If our answer to the question “How much better is this new outcome?” is “Not better enough”, then we need to define a better Output situation, which would lead to a better Process.


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