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

Technology breeds impatience

Two recent articles about technology and our perception of time make some interesting related points. From the clickbaity (yet surprisingly good) Feeling More Antsy and Irritable Lately? Blame Your Smartphone1:

Our gadgets train us to expect near instantaneous responses to our actions, and we quickly get frustrated and annoyed at even brief delays. I know that my own perception of time has been changed by technology. If I go from using a fast computer or Web connection to using even a slightly slower one, processes that take just a second or two longer—waking the machine from sleep, launching an application, opening a Web page—seem almost intolerably slow. Never before have I been so aware of, and annoyed by, the passage of mere seconds. [...]

More interesting is [a recent study of online video viewing's] finding of a causal link between higher connection speeds and higher abandonment rates. Every time a network gets quicker, we become antsier. As we experience faster flows of information online, we become, in other words, less patient people.

Turns out this phenomenon isn’t new — technology just makes it worse. We’ve always adjusted to our circumstances quickly, and we respond by wanting more. From Elizabeth Kolbert’s No time:

“Most types of material consumption are strongly habit-forming,” Gary Becker and Luis Rayo observe in their contribution to Revisiting Keynes. “After an initial period of excitement, the average consumer grows accustomed to what he has purchased and . . . rapidly aspires to own the next product in line,” they write. By Becker and Rayo’s account, this insatiability is hardwired into us. Human beings evolved “so that they have reference points that adjust upwards as their circumstances improve.”

The more we have, the more we want. The faster the internet gets, the faster we want it. What can we possibly do with 1000Mbps that we can’t do just as well with 50Mbps? It doesn’t matter. 50Mbps is the standard now. We’re adjusted. And so up we go…

  1. This is at least better than the original title, which was — I kid you not — You are an impatient monster—but you weren’t born this way. Guess what’s to blame? 

Using technology for healthcare intake

Tom Jacobs discusses some new research that shows people are more comfortable sharing their medical information with virtual people in I’d Never Admit That to My Doctor. But to a Computer? Sure. The implications are interesting:

When it comes to fixing our healthcare system, very few people would agree that part of the answer lies in less human interaction. Patients generally want more, not less, contact with health professionals. Yet this study suggests that, at least for the intake interview, a little less of the human touch — and a little more perceived privacy — may be precisely what the doctor ordered.

It was all yellow

Two articles on the color yellow caught my eye this week.

The first is Object of Interest: The Yellow Card — Rob Walker’s history of the yellow card as it’s used in soccer. In a 1966 World Cup game a referee apparently failed to adequately communicate a penalty warning, which resulted in the birth of the card:

As objects go, it doesn’t look like much. It’s, you know, a yellow card. But when theatrically brandished by an official, almost literally in the face of a player who has done something uncool, it has wild power. It sets off a stadium-full of whistling, and cartoonish arm-flailing from the carded player and his colleagues. A yellow card has real consequences: Possession, a free kick, and the possibility that if the carded competitor blunders again he’ll leave his team understaffed for this match, and will sit out the next. [...]

The cards are a such a brilliant solution to the problem of making sure a penalty has been adequately signaled — they transcend language; they’re clear not just to everyone on the field, but in the stadium, or watching on a screen — that it’s hard to imagine the game without them.

The second is Dan Saffer’s ode to a ubiquitous object in cities: The Hidden Genius and Influence of the Traffic Light.

The yellow light is by far the most sophisticated and cognitively challenging part of any traffic light. Red and green lights have had to consider timing, namely: how long should one side of the intersection remain green, the other red. This creates the “capacity” of a signal: how many vehicles can move through on a single change of the light. [...]

The yellow light doesn’t really control capacity, but instead creates an ephemeral Zone of Decision around the intersection. When a light turns yellow, nearby drivers have a choice to make, quickly: do I speed up and drive through the yellow light, or do I slow down and stop? Driving instructors will of course always tell you that a yellow light means slow down and prepare to stop, but on the street, that’s not always how it works. Sometimes it really would be more dangerous to stop than to run the yellow. And sometimes those driving instructors are right: running the yellow is a terrible, dangerous idea. How do you know which is which?

So here we have two yellows, the one extremely clear (“I’ve made a huge mistake…”), the other an object of anxiety (“Should I stay or should I go?”). And yet we all know what the color means based on history and context and common understanding. I don’t know why that strikes me as fairly remarkable, but it does.

Also, apropos of nothing, does anyone else remember this?

Mello Yello

Maybe we don’t appreciate the Internet as much as we should

Ian Bogost wrote a pretty controversial viewpoint on the Net Neutrality fight. He asks, What Do We Save When We Save the Internet? In short, he thinks it might be time to blow the whole thing up and start over, because we haven’t been very responsible with it:

Another day’s work lost to the vapors of reloads, updates, clicks, and comments. Realizing that you are hyperemployed by the cloud, that you are its unpaid intern. Wondering what you’d have accomplished if you had done anything else whatsoever. Knowing that tomorrow will be no different.

Harsh words, but worth a read even just to think about how we spend our time online. Perhaps we have grown a little bit entitled about our access to a medium that we’re mostly using for messaging and the weather, as opposed to improving people’s lives?

The real problem with Facebook’s latest ad targeting move

Cotton Delo in Facebook to Use Web Browsing History For Ad Targeting:

But what Facebook is now enabling is far more expansive in terms how it uses data for ad targeting. In a move bound to stir up some controversy given the company’s reach and scale, the social network will not be honoring the do-not-track setting on web browsers. A Facebook spokesman said that’s “because currently there is no industry consensus.” Social-media competitors Twitter and Pinterest do honor the setting. Google and Yahoo do not.

There’s going to be a lot of handwringing about this over the next few days. And then we’re going to forget about it and move on. I’m guilty of this myself — the number of times I’ve quit and rejoined Facebook over the last few years is embarrassing. But I do think this might be the time I unfriend Facebook1 for good. Here’s why.

I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how online data collection is driving product decisions. If a product’s sole source of revenue is advertising, then the design is going to reflect that. The product is going to be optimized for data collection so that it can provide better accuracy for advertisers. And if a product’s direction is driven by anything other than user needs, that product becomes worse for end users. That is inevitable. Nothing you can do about it.

This is why the “Well, what’s wrong with better ads?” argument doesn’t hold water. It’s not that I want to see less relevant ads (or no ads at all). It’s that I don’t want a company’s design decisions to be driven by a need to get as much data out of people as possible (as apposed to how to meet their core needs better).

I think Nicholas Carr summarized the problem with this type ad targeting very well in his post A complicated courtship:

Anyone who has a car accident today, and mentions it in an e-mail, can receive an offer for a new car from a manufacturer on his mobile phone tomorrow. Terribly convenient. Today, someone surfing high-blood-pressure web sites, who automatically betrays his notorious sedentary lifestyle through his Jawbone fitness wristband, can expect a higher health insurance premium the day after tomorrow. Not at all convenient. Simply terrible. It is possible that it will not take much longer before more and more people realize that the currency of his or her own behavior exacts a high price: the freedom of self-determination. And that is why it is better and cheaper to pay with something very old fashioned — namely money.

I want to use products that I pay for, so that I can say with reasonable certainty that those products are designed based on my needs, not to satisfy the never-ending data hunger of a faceless entity.

(link via Daring Fireball)

  1. Sorry. I’m putting myself in internet time-out for that joke. 

An abundance of digital flotsam

Jessica Pressler wrote an article called “Let’s, Like, Demolish Laundry”, and it’s a wickedly funny (and, unfortunately, very accurate) look at the tech world’s obsession with solving First World problems:

We are living in a time of Great Change, and also a time of Not-So-Great Change. The tidal wave of innovation that has swept out from Silicon Valley, transforming the way we communicate, read, shop, and travel, has carried along with it an epic shit-ton of digital flotsam. Looking around at the newly minted billionaires behind the enjoyable but wholly unnecessary Facebook and WhatsApp, Uber and Nest, the brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems. The marketplace of ideas has become one long late-night infomercial. Want a blazer embedded with GPS technology? A Bluetooth-controlled necklace? A hair dryer big enough for your entire body? They can be yours! In the rush to disrupt everything we have ever known, not even the humble crostini has been spared.

Or as Mike Monteiro said, slightly more succinctly:

We used to design ways to get to the moon; now we design ways to never have to get out of bed. You have the power to change that.

Related post on Elezea: Legacy

What motivates us

Managers, take note:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

This isn’t rocket science, but an important reminder. It’s similar to Jocelyn Glei’s conclusion in What Motivates Us To Do Great Work?:

For creative thinkers, [author Daniel] Pink identifies three key motivators: autonomy (self-directed work), mastery (getting better at stuff), and purpose (serving a greater vision). All three are intrinsic motivators. Even a purpose, which can seem like an external motivator, will be internalized if you truly believe in it. [...]

As creative thinkers, we want to make progress, and we want to move big ideas forward. So, it’s no surprise that the best motivator is being empowered to take action.

The role of design managers in corporate environments

The post I wrote this weekend on software development belief systems in corporate environments has been in my head for quite a while, I just hadn’t been able to write it up until yesterday. As often happens with these things, I noticed three articles in that past 24 hours that tie in really nicely with that post.

The first is Jeff Weiner’s Avoiding the Unintended Consequences of Casual Feedback, which talks about the kind of feedback executives should give to their teams:

Years ago, a former direct report of mine helped bring this point home. While he and his team welcomed my input, he observed that oftentimes what I thought was a take-it-or-leave-it remark would create a massively disruptive fire drill. Up until that moment, I had no idea my opinion was being weighted so heavily.

To address the issue and to ensure that the team and I were on the same page with regard to situations like that, we developed three categories to describe any feedback I provided (either in conversation or via email): One person’s opinion, strong suggestion, or mandate.

Next is Michael Lopp’s Chaotic Beautiful Snowflakes, which talks about the unintended work that managers often create without even knowing it:

The fact is that you significantly underestimate the amount of work that you generated this morning. You could document and communicate the obvious work, but you can’t document all the unexpected side effects of your actions. In a large population of people, it’s close to impossible for an individual to perceive and predict the first order consequences of their well-intentioned actions let alone the bizarre second order effects once those consequences get in the wild.

Finally, there’s John Maeda and Becky Bermont’s Building a Design Culture in an ‘End-Up’ Technology World, which talks about the elements of a good design culture in larger corporations:

In the end, building a great design culture is not the goal in and of itself. What it does is allow a company to recruit great designers, and then supports their ability to build great products, along with their counterparts in product and technology. Start-ups and end-ups may each think that they other has an easier time building or sustaining a design culture, but it takes work at any stage of the game.

All three articles are great companion pieces to what I wrote yesterday. I realized this morning that even though the traffic on yesterday’s post wasn’t huge, it will always be a personal favorite of mine, because it documents a lesson learned from a lot of sweat and frustration. And those are often the best lessons you can teach yourself.

Software development belief systems in corporate environments

Executives in corporate environments have one of three belief systems about software development. To build successful products it is essential for product managers to understand what belief system their executive team subscribes to.

  • Belief system #1: We have to build these features and they have to be live by this date.
  • Belief system #2: We have to be live by this date — what features can you get done by then?
  • Belief system #3: We have to release these features next — how long will it take to get that done?

Belief system #1 is the most common, and it is poison. It usually goes along with a distorted Steve Jobs “reality distortion field” complex, and the only thing it produces is crappy software and burnt-out teams who feel distrusted and undervalued. A product manager’s first job is to move the executive team away from belief system #1.

Belief system #3 is the ideal scenario for most large corporations1. Software development and the product manager’s role are usually well understood in such environments. The product team gets to present their market-driven ideas to the executive team, who can focus on what they do best: providing perspective, vision, and assistance with prioritization. This allows product teams to set their own schedules based on what everyone agrees needs to be done as they balance what’s best for users, the business, and the technology.

Belief system #2 is not ideal, but it is certainly better than #1, and I’ve learned that it is impossible to move executive teams from belief system #1 to belief system #3 without the interim step of belief system #2. The logical jump from #1 to #2 is easier to influence since product managers only have to deal with one variable: the constraints of time.

If a release date is fixed2 product managers shouldn’t spend time trying to move out the date to accomplish everything the executive team wants them to. Instead, spend time explaining that the release date is a horizontal line. All features above the line gets done by the date, and all features below the line don’t, and will have to wait for a future release. Explain that the development team can only do a limited number of things in a given time frame, and if some feature suddenly becomes a must-have, one of the other features have to move “below the line”.

This might seem like a trivial concept, but that’s because we’re software people. Most executive teams have a really difficult time with this because software development in agile environments is fairly new to them.

It bears repeating that one of the biggest mistakes a product manager can make is to try to change people’s belief systems from #1 to #3 without first taking them through the logic of #2. That said, once a project has been completed successfully using #2, the shift to #3 is usually fairly easy to make. That’s because the executive team had the opportunity to get a glimpse of how much better the software can be if “required” features aren’t shoved down a funnel that cannot withstand the pressure.

If you work in a large corporation, identify your executive team’s software development belief system, then guide them to #3. Your product, your business, and your team’s morale will be better for it.

  1. I.e., most practical and pragmatic. I’m talking specifically about corporations with >100 employees, not startups. 

  2. And don’t get me wrong, there can be legitimate reasons for fixed release dates. 

Turning ourselves into memes

Rob Horning’s Me Meme is not an easy read, but it’s worth the investment. He doesn’t waste time with a fluffy intro, he just jumps straight in:

With social media, the compelling opportunities for self-expression outstrip the supply of things we have to confidently say about ourselves. The demand for self-expression overwhelms what we might dredge up from “inside.” So the “self” being expressed has to be posited elsewhere: We start to borrow from the network, from imagined future selves, from the media in which we can now constitute ourselves.

There are too many great quotes in here to choose from, so I’ll go with one more and then just encourage you to read the whole thing:

We shift from consumerist pleasures of fantasizing about how owning certain branded goods would make us into a certain kind of person and secure us a certain sort of affirmation to fantasizing about triumphant moments of social quantification, about getting likes and retweets, having lots of Tumblr activity, etc. [...] Without viral content, you are in danger of becoming a blank.