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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Software is sometimes done

In the midst of the recent brouhaha about Markdown1, Craig Mod posted an interesting tweet about the nature of software. In response to John Gruber’s assertion that the original version of Markdown doesn’t need a significant amount of work, he said this:

This gave me pause, because it flies in the face of a very common mantra in the design world. Sure enough, it didn’t take long for another big name in Design to throw down the words many of us have said over and over:

This happened a while ago, but I can’t stop thinking about it. Craig is one of my favorite thinker-writers (hey, if singer-songwriter is a real word, this is totally a real word as well), so I didn’t want to treat it as just another easily-refuted throwaway comment.

The fact is that it isn’t that long ago that software was actually done when it came out. It’s only a couple of decades ago that software showed up on a CD-ROM and we made videos about how to use it:

Windows 95 video

When Windows 95 came out, it was done. Yes, there were some patches to it, but they were few and far between, and in general quite difficult to come by. But of course, then the Internet and App Stores happened in full force, and suddenly we decided that “Software is never done”. In some sense this is certainly true. There are always bugs to fix, things to improve, more features to add, unused features to remove — and of course, the SaaS model makes it all so easy. But I wonder if we’ve taken this a bit too far.

A fairly recent example that comes to mind is email software Sparrow’s acquisition by Google. Man, did we freak out about that one. The thing is though, the software didn’t suddenly stop working just because it was “done.” It was still there, it was still great, and it still works to this day. But that’s not good enough for us any more. Things have to keep getting better and better. And that’s fine — I’m not arguing against progress. In fact, I deliberately turn off automatic app updates on my phone because I love updates and release notes so much.

But I also wonder if our obsession with the never-doneness of software — the inherent throw-awayness of our MVP and test-and-learn culture — is having a negative effect on the quality and lasting meaning of the software we make. I’m reminded of Jennifer Fraser’s words in her article What I Bring to UX From … Architecture:

As an architect, the implicit permanence of designing a building carries with it a sense of responsibility… I can’t help but wonder if we would have better designed products if some of that responsibility and sense of permanence of architecture found its way into what we do as user experience designers.

And here’s Tony Fadell, talking about the creation of the Nest thermostat:

Fadell looks out at the Manhattan skyline and says that he always wanted to be an architect; that buildings stay beautiful forever but digital devices are quickly obsolete. “You look at hardware or software five years later? They’re crap. You would never use them again. People use architecture all the time.”

His voice rises. “What is our form of architecture? What is the thing that lasts of beauty?”

Or consider Dmitri Fadeyev’s words in a discussion about Russian architecture:

What’s interesting about this type of architecture is that its aim goes far beyond that of creating a functional underground system. Its aim is to promote a political ideal, and it does it through beauty by enriching lives of the people who get to experience it. The question here isn’t: how do we solve the problem of creating a metro station in an efficient manner – instead the question is: how do we create a station that elevates people’s mood and inspires their lives. This architecture isn’t there just to help you live – it makes life worth living.

I do wonder what would happen if we felt the weight of responsibility a little more when we’re designing software. What if we go into a project as if the design we come up with might not only be done at some point, but might be around for 100 years or more? Would we make it fit into the web environment better, give it a timeless aesthetic, and spend more time considering the consequences of our design decisions?

Coming back to Craig Mod’s tweet, I have to say that on reflection I agree with him. We need more software that’s done — not all of it, just more of it. Just like we’re always going to have prefab buildings to serve a particular function at a particular time, software that continues to change and improve pushes us forward and is absolutely necessary. But maybe it’s ok for Markdown to be done. Or Sparrow. Or that app you’re working on. And by going into it with a realization that this is going to be done some day, you might even make something that lasts for decades.


  1. The details of the Markdown argument between John Gruber and Jeff Atwood isn’t the point of this article, so don’t worry if you missed it. 

Coffee and Craft

Coffee and Craft

This essay originally appeared in the 8/1/2014 issue of The Loop magazine. It’s a publication worth paying for, and it’s run by Jim Dalrymple, a gentleman with a fantastic beard and an even better laugh. Thank you, sir, for giving me an opportunity to write for The Loop!

1.

My favorite story about coffee is from the year 1600, when Pope Clement VIII was the head of the Catholic Church. As the story goes, the Pope’s advisers urged him to make coffee a forbidden drink for Christians. They argued that since Muslims were not allowed to drink wine, Satan invented this “hellish black brew” as a substitute. In a moment of remarkable foresight the Pope asked to try a cup before he made his decision. He was so enamored with the concoction that he came up with a different plan. “This Satan’s drink,” he declared to his advisers, “is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it.”

And so it came to be that despite our vast ideological differences across regions and cultures, we can at least all agree on one thing: coffee is a deeply spiritual experience.

2.

It’s not that I didn’t always have a strong connection with my eldest daughter. It’s just that recently, as she’s running headlong into her fifth year of life, we’ve started to connect in ways I didn’t expect. For example, this weekend we spent most of early Sunday morning building Lego models together. How did that happen? How did she suddenly get into stuff I remember liking as a child?

I know everyone always talks about how quickly kids grow up. I don’t agree with that at all. Growing up takes a long time. But I do find these sudden jumps in growth quite surprising sometimes. I feel like I should be better prepared for each jump so I can catch her if she stumbles. I guess that feeling will never go away — especially when she starts dating. Man. That’s going to be rough.

Anyway. A few weeks ago my wife brought the girls to our office for a visit one morning. I made my daughter a Babycino (frothed milk + hot chocolate sprinkles), and myself a Cappuccino. While I was making the coffee drinks my daughter sat at the table and asked me questions about what I’m doing and how the espresso machine works. I talked to her about bean extraction and crema and milk steaming, thinking that it would bore her to tears. But she was really into it. So I kept going and we ended up having a conversation about craft and why it’s cool to take your time to learn how to do things well and how good it makes you feel when you really master a skill.

3.

I can’t remember when my obsession with coffee started. I just know that one day I started reading books about coffee history, and the best ways to brew a good cup. Then I bought an AeroPress and starting Googling for recipes. Next I bought a grinder, and a Chemex, and became annoyingly picky about beans. And before I knew it, I was that guy at dinner parties. The guy who makes you stop what you’re doing to explain where the coffee came from, how I was going to prepare it, and what they should look for when they taste it. But mark my words: when you do eventually taste the coffee you instantly forget how weird I am, and instead start talking about the unexpected party in your mouth (A guest once remarked that it tasted like angels peeing on his tongue. It is, perhaps, my proudest moment).

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord — the Prime Minister of France during the early 1800s — once wrote a completely over the top description of how coffee made him feel. Even though he was very likely under the influence of a vast amount of caffeine when he wrote these words, I swear when I’m drinking a great cup of coffee I want to nod in vigorous agreement:

A cup of coffee detracts nothing from your intellect; on the contrary, your stomach is freed by it and no longer distresses your brain; it will not hamper your mind with troubles but give freedom to its working. Suave molecules of Mocha stir up your blood, without causing excessive heat; the organ of thought receives from it a feeling of sympathy; work becomes easier and you will sit down without distress to your principal repast which will restore your body and afford you a calm delicious night.

Yes, the taste of a good cup of coffee is amazing, but it’s about so much more than that. Most of the joy of any craft — and coffee is no exception — is how you get there. My obsession gave me much more than the ability to make a decent cup. The process — the grind, the bloom, the slow pour — is now a comforting ritual that I associate with mindfulness. It’s a deep mental breath to allow my brain to process what’s going on around me. Most of us spend our days being outlandishly busy. But as with all crafts, during the 10 minutes it takes to make a pot of Chemex, nothing else exists. Time slows down, and I’m focused on getting every detail right. Making coffee keeps the chaos out for a few minutes every day — and it helps me focus when I return to my work.

What is your craft? It doesn’t have to be coffee. But is there something that takes you away from this world for a few minutes every day? Something that’s hard enough that it takes such intense concentration that you (gasp!) even forget to check Twitter? Something with a knowledge well deep enough that you’ll never reach the bottom? Those kinds of obsessions are healthy and necessary because they keep us on our toes, curious, always growing, always learning, always grounded because you can’t win a craft. There is always more to learn.

4.

What you get from craftsmanship is not the end of the story. Despite its many personal benefits, I’ve found craft to be surprisingly social. Hours after my family’s visit a few weeks ago I was still thinking about the brief time I had with my daughter that morning. I couldn’t help but feel like it was significant, and that I should create more of those types of moments with her. And not just with her, but with friends and colleagues too. A discussion about craft — especially if it happens around that craft — usually leads into a discussion about passion, and that easily spirals out of control to anything from a new appreciation of life to brilliant product ideas. As people who create software, those discussions can be invaluable for the work we do.

So here we are: our lives intertwined with a drink that had the potential to divide nations, but instead ended up being the catalyst for the creation of many newspapers and universities; the common element in countless debates, first dates, and last dates; and the ever-present, unassuming ingredient to any everyday conversation or meeting. This hellish heavenly brew might just be the perfect ambassador for the value of learning and practicing a craft. It doesn’t just show us how much we personally have to gain from constant learning and a focused mind. It also shows us how a big part of the joy of craft is found in the gathering of people around its edges, and the ideas that are sparked and shared as a result. Let’s actively create and seek out those moments of shared passion for the world and all we get to do in it.

Preferably around a cup of coffee.

Book Excerpt: Making It Right

As I’m sure you’re extremely tired of hearing by now, I recently wrote a book on Product Management. For those of you who are too cheap to buy it (I kid, I kid1), there is now an edited chapter excerpt up on Smashing Magazine. In Why Companies Need Full-Time Product Managers (And What They Do All Day) I give my definition of Product Management, and go into some of the characteristics of a good PM. Also:

The truth is that, to be effective, the role of a manager for a particular product or area must not be filled by multiple people. It is essential for the product manager to see the whole picture — the strategic vision as well as the details of implementation — in order to make good decisions about the product. If knowledge of different parts of the process resides in the heads of different people, then no one will have that holistic view, and all value will be drained of the role.

Enjoy the freebie!


  1. But not really. PLEASE BUY IT

What 11 technology books tell us about our moment

Monica Guzman spent the summer on a tech book binge. She read 11 technology books to get a sense of our current technological moment. In the short article How my summer tech book binge changed the way I think about tech she explains some of the things she learned:

Tech serves us best when we create rather than consume. Where [Nicholas] Carr saw the worst of tech’s impact, Clive Thompson, in “Smarter Than You Think,” saw the best. One difference was that Carr — in arguing, for example, that the rise of short, fast media makes our contemplative muscles weak — all but ignored how tech boosts creation. It’s a common oversight: We’re transitioning from a world where public creation was difficult to one where it’s a cinch.

The same goes for public collaboration. Great things happen when we swirl together and build. Think Wikipedia. Blogs. The Internet itself.

This is, if nothing else, a great reading list.

[Sponsored post] Wearable Tech Hits the Road, the Waves and your Wardrobe

This post is sponsored by Rackspace Digital, the digital marketing infrastructure specialists.

In recent months, wearable tech has shown signs of emerging maturity. Not only are wearable devices getting smarter and more powerful, they’re also becoming more practical and beautiful. As batteries and sensors continue to get smaller, and with Google releasing the Android Wear operating system back in March, a slew of new wearables will hit the market before the end of the year. Smart watches, glasses, shoes, shirts, even jewelry. According to ABI Research, 90 million wearable devices will ship before the end of 2014. Here are a few of the new arrivals.

Riding Big Waves and Big Data

Rip Curl, an Australian company and an iconic brand in surf wear, is currently trialing its own smart watch with 200 surfers around the globe. Some surfers, like zealous runners, want to track all their stats—from the number of rides to top speeds, miles paddled and time spent in the water. Due to hit stores mid-September, the GPSSearch will be the world’s first GPS-powered surf watch. It uses satellite positioning and other sensors to obtain data and measurements that are then processed in the cloud using a cutting-edge database service. All the user information can be synced to an iPhone, iPad or desktop for visual analysis.

Google Maps in Your Shoes

Indian startup Ducere Technologies is launching a pair of “smartshoes” known as Lechal shoes. The shoes connect to your smartphone with Bluetooth, using vibrations and Google maps to alert you when you need to make a turn. The left or right shoe vibrates depending on which way you need to turn. Not only is this a boon for runners or walkers in an unfamiliar city, it also has big payoffs for the visually impaired. Reportedly, Lechal shoes have already received 25,000 orders, even though the company won’t make them available until the end of the year. The shoes will cost between $100 and $150.

Making the Wearable More Wearable_

While Under Armour and Omsignal are leading the way with making smart shirts with built-in sensors for tracking workout data, there’s a new plan to take over the rest of your wardrobe. Ministry of Supply has launched a new line of men’s dress shirts using the same technology that NASA has implemented in its spacesuits for temperature regulation. The shirt absorbs heat when you’re hot and releases it back when the temperature dips. The good news is that it looks like a real shirt, not a space shirt.

Wearable Experiments, meanwhile, has released the Navigate Jacket for both men and women. A companion smartphone app stores destinations and feeds them to your jacket, turn by turn. LEDs and vibrations on the sleeves ensure you never make a wrong turn.

And finally, if vibrating jackets aren’t your style, consider the latest in wearable tech from Cuff, a manufacturer of smart jewelry. Now available for pre-order, the bracelets, necklaces and key chains come in a variety of styles and finishes that look more like accessories than tech hardware. Each piece of jewelry uses a small component called a CuffLinc that acts as an alert system. Using Bluetooth technology, the CuffLinc will sync up with a smartphone app to handle alerts and push notifications that can be customized for a personal network of friends and family.

Sponsored via Syndicate Ads

App circulation

I’ve done quite a bit of writing here on architecture and design (see this, for example), so I really enjoyed Melissa Mandelbaum ‘s Applying Architecture to Product Design: Lesson 1 – Circulation:

As an architect, I learned circulation systems including stairs, hallways and elevators are very important in helping people navigate buildings. Similarly, as a product designer, I’ve learned circulation systems such as list menus and tabs are necessary for helping people navigate products.

She goes over some really great examples of helping people “circulate” through an app. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

[Sponsor] Tiles for Wireframes & Flowcharts V2

My thanks to Greg Heade for sponsoring Elezea this week to promote his excellent wireframe stencils.

If you use Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks or Omnigraffle, you’ll love volume one and volume two of Greg Heade’s tiles for wireframes and flowcharts. These stencils are 100% vector-based and editable, and it allows you to put together page layout and flowcharts quickly so you can focus on adding the details — not drawing the skeleton.

These tiles include standard layouts like home pages, product pages, and error pages, but it goes beyond that to give you a framework for shipping and payment flows. These are an invaluable resource — so check his store out!

Tiles

Sponsored via Syndicate Ads

Avoiding undiscoverable features: examples and tips

I need to tell you about a conversation I had with my 4-year old daughter this morning. You’re going to have to stick with me, because despite the potty talk this is going somewhere, I promise. The backstory is that lately she’s been forgetting to wipe after going to the bathroom (this is the type of stuff you’re here to read, right?). So when she got up this morning, this happened:

Me: “Did you go to the bathroom?”

Her: “Yes.”

Me: “Did you wipe?”

Her: “Oh… no. I don’t think so…”

After a few seconds of silence, she said something that’s pretty obvious, but hasn’t occurred to me before as the cause of the problem:

Her: “The toilet paper is behind me so I forget. We should put it in front of me so I can see it.”

Well, of course. Mystery solved. See, a few weeks ago I accidentally broke our toilet roll holder (yes, I’m pretty sure this is the kind of thing you come here to read…), and since then, we’ve been putting the toilet roll on the back of the toilet. And that was the cause of my daughter’s sudden “forgetfulness” in the wiping department.

This immediately made me think of product design, and in particular, the all-important principle of recognition vs. recall:

Showing users things they can recognize improves usability over needing to recall items from scratch because the extra context helps users retrieve information from memory.

It also reminded me of a great story Marco Arment once told in Right versus pragmatic. You should read the whole thing, but the gist is that at a previous job people kept dropping trash at the door before they left the bathroom (what is it with me and bathrooms today?), despite increasingly passive aggressive signs being put up by “management” to please throw trash in the bins. Here’s Marco’s illustration of the problem:

Trash

Source: Marco Arment

The solution that worked in the end? Put the trash can by the door. Seems obvious, but it still took them quite a while to figure it out. Instead of trying to change behavior — or to get people to remember to do something they’re not used to — they put a trash can where people are already throwing stuff, and that solved the problem.

Ok, enough with the bathroom examples. I recently had a discussion with a health plan who has a tool for their members to find doctors who are in their network. They mentioned that they get a lot of customer service calls from users who complain that they can’t search by a doctor’s name. This frustrates the health plan because the interface clearly lets you do that. But when you look at the interface you can see why they are having this problem. Here’s the home page:

Provider search

Can you see where to go to search for a doctor by name? Not sure if you guessed it, but you have to click on the “Advanced Search” link under the Doctors icon:

Provider search

Here’s the point of all this. Just because a feature is in the interface, it doesn’t mean users will find it. Just because an option is in a menu, it doesn’t mean users will know how to access it. And just because the toilet paper is somewhere in the bathroom, it doesn’t mean my daughter is going to find it.

The lesson is pretty simple, but there are enough everyday examples out there that it’s something we should continue to remind ourselves of. The next time you design an interface, say this to yourself over and over: If I want people to use toilet paper, I should put it where they can see it.

Know thy (entire) audience

Lauren Chapman Ruiz shares an interesting viewpoint about the role of empathy in design in Inside the Empathy Trap. The issue is that we can’t just have empathy with one person, we need to have an understanding of a wide variety of goals and needs:

When we design, we pursue a broader type of empathy. As a colleague once said to me, designers need to identify with the whole user base. User-centricity is about the ability to recognize that there are a number of personas, each with different goals, desires, challenges, behaviors, and needs. We design for these personas, recognizing that each has different goals they’re trying to accomplish and with different behaviors in how they go about achieving them.

This is another good argument for why personas aren’t dead — they help us to keep our entire target audience in mind without getting overwhelmed.

The trough of social media disillusionment

As usual, Frank Chimero manages to capture what a lot of people in our neck of the woods are thinking in From the Porch to the Street. It’s an interesting, considered lament about how Twitter has changed, but it’s this part in particular that caught my attention:

Have you heard of evaporative social cooling? It says the people who provide the most value to a social group or organization eventually burn out and leave, undermining the stability and progress of the group. Most of my internet friends have been on Twitter since 2008, so they probably fall into this group. How much more is there left to say?

The linked post is Xianhang Zhang’s The Evaporative Cooling Effect, a broad article from 2010 that covers the design flaws in most social platforms. It’s definitely worth reading the whole thing — I’ll just quote this interesting way to classify different online communities:

There are two fundamental patterns of social organization which I term “plaza” and “warrens”. In the plaza design, there is a central plaza which is one contiguous space and every person’s interaction is seen by every other person. In the warren design, the space is broken up into a series of smaller warrens and you can only see the warren you are currently in. There is the possibility of moving into adjacent warrens but it’s difficult to explore far outside of your zone. Plazas grow by becoming larger, warrens grow by adding more warrens.

It feels like Twitter started as a warren and morphed into a plaza, which is where most of the current discontent is coming from — “This isn’t what we signed up for!”

Going even further down the rabbit hole, Zhang links to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s 2007 piece Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs, which has some further interesting thoughts on how to create healthy online communities:

My own theory of Internet moderation is that you have to be willing to exclude trolls and spam to get a conversation going. You must even be willing to exclude kindly but technically uninformed folks from technical mailing lists if you want to get any work done. A genuinely open conversation on the Internet degenerates fast.

It’s the articulate trolls that you should be wary of ejecting, on this theory—they serve the hidden function of legitimizing less extreme disagreements. But you should not have so many articulate trolls that they begin arguing with each other, or begin to dominate conversations. If you have one person around who is the famous Guy Who Disagrees With Everything, anyone with a more reasonable, more moderate disagreement won’t look like the sole nail sticking out. This theory of Internet moderation may not have served me too well in practice, so take it with a grain of salt.

On Twitter there is no way to exclude trolls — there are just too many of them. So there is this huge problem that inevitably appears once a community grows sufficiently large:

  1. Conversation moves from small warrens to large plazas.
  2. Many people loiter in the plaza and are only there to make trouble and ruin it for the rest of the community, and since it’s a public space there’s no way to chase them away.
  3. The people who created the original culture of the community leaves, and before long the broken windows theory kicks in and the plaza falls into disrepair.

All this to say that designing effective online communities is much more difficult than it might have appeared at first. We couldn’t see into the future when Twitter became a thing, so who knew what would happen once the growth monster grew too big? It reminds me of Gartner’s 2014 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies:

Hype Cycle

I think we’re firmly in the trough of disillusionment with social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I think we’ll get through it, but it feels like we’re all waking up right now going, “Wait, that’s what this has become?” We can — and will — do better. But it’s going to take time.