Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
I’m often amazed at how the people I follow online tend to talk about the same things, even if they are most likely not connected to each other. It happened again this week, with three articles about the value of starting (and finishing) something, even if you’re not sure how it’s going to work out.
First, there’s I cannot design or code a responsive website by Nick Jones:
I didn’t know how to do it right, so first I did it wrong. After I had done it wrong a few times, things started to work. It’s not perfect, but it works. I still don’t know the right way to do anything but I don’t worry about that anymore. Now I just hack and hack and trust that I’ll arrive at a solution. Sometimes it even makes sense.
By ignoring my doubts and trusting my instinct, I made myself vulnerable to attack. The attacks never came. They only ever existed inside my head. It turns out, the guys I was afraid would laugh at my new site, were the first to give respect. Most of my fears were a waste of energy. So are yours. What if you shut out all the noise and just got started?
Then Alex Maughan wrote a great piece called Making is Momentum:
I need to do more and self-criticise less. Critical analysis of oneself is of course important, but it needs to be done with a positive end in mind. I’ve just been beating the crap out of myself. There’s a big difference. It’s not only about replacing the stick with carrots, it’s also about constantly making sure I’m buying the right carrots from sources that prove themselves to be the most trustworthy and wholesome. […]
I need to start being nicer, both to myself and those around me. Making is momentum. Perfection is spurious and stifling.
And finally, here’s Brian Bailey in The Smallest Way Forward:
In the case of a creative project like a novel, the most important thing to do is to write another page. It will be that way every day until it is finished. To be successful, though, you have to allow for other ways to make progress. Pauses are healthy, but it’s important to pause a specific task like writing the next chapter or implementing payment processing, without pausing the project itself.
It’s not the most important thing each day; it’s anything that moves you forward, that brings this new thing a little closer to being a real thing.
That’s three essays in the space of one week, all about the same thing. About not letting the fear of failure or defeat or imperfection stand in the way of creating something. Perhaps we can sum up this whole topic using the King’s words in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.
Frank Chimero speaks the truth about writing:
Most writers are frauds. We are ignorant and learning out-loud. The written piece is the useful by-product of figuring things out, like how churning butter makes buttermilk. More writing comes from doubt than expertise.
I’ll add that this is a good thing — this doubt. I write when I’m uncertain about something, because it helps to clarify my thinking. Sometimes the words become an argument I believe in, and I hit Publish. But often the foundations start to crumble after a few paragraphs, and I hit Delete instead.
Both outcomes are fine. One gives me the confidence to expose my thinking to the fires of public scrutiny. The other ensures I don’t make a complete fool out of myself by starting a thought that I realize too late has absolutely nowhere to go.
Jesse McKinley explores a fascinating trend in industrial design in the article The Cult of Disappearing Design:
Part interior illusionist and part aesthetic anorexic, Mr. McInerney is a practicing member of the cult of disappearing design, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t ethos that aims to secrete away anything that needs a button, a cord or a subwoofer to work.
Kevin Kelleher in Facebook’s Growing Silent-Majority Problem:
This third group – the silent majority of Facebook users – hold the key to the company’s future. Facebook is never going to win over its harshest critics, and it’s unlikely to alienate the people who see it as part of the fabric of their everyday lives. If the company can persuade that silent majority to become more engaged in the site – interacting with bands, liking consumer brands, clicking on the ads targeted to their surfing habits – its future looks pretty bright.
I always find it useful to think about engagement metrics on the web in terms of the three A’s:
- Acquisition. Getting new users to sign up for a site/service.
- Activation. Getting those new users to make their first contribution/purchase.
- Activity. Getting the first-time contributors/purchasers to repeat that activity over and over.
Facebook certainly doesn’t have an acquisition problem (yet), and their ramp-up process is very good, so I also don’t think they have an activation problem. But I can definitely see the argument that they might have a serious activity problem on their hands. Kevin shares some interesting engagement stats, as well as how he thinks Facebook can solve this problem.
(link via @mobivangelist)
Yesterday I read an opinion piece on a local news site that was just one long, scathing attack on the writer of another opinion piece on the site. No substance at all. You don’t have to go far on the web to see that kind of behavior. There is something about the false sense of anonymity provided by web sites, blogs, and comment sections that just bring out the worst in us.
Don’t get me wrong — I love disagreements. I believe that an essential quality of a good designer is the ability to balance his or her confidence in their proposed solution with an openness that they might be wrong. But we don’t disagree online any more, we just attack. I’ve often thought that new users of the Internet should be forced to read Paul Graham’s How to Disagree before they’re allowed to go any further. When it comes to online discourse we are, for all intents and purposes, locked in an Eternal September.
It is with these types of thoughts on my mind that I wrote a talk about how I think we can do better. I also turned the talk into an article for Smashing Magazine, which was published today under the title Making A Better Internet. The summary:
In this essay, I’ll weave together a story about the current state of Internet discourse. At the end, I’ll tell you how I think we can make it better. And then, we’ll most likely all go back to what we were doing and forget about it. Despite the probable futility of this exercise, I’ll carry it out anyway, because I love the Web and I really don’t want us to destroy it.
I don’t know what the reaction to this piece is going to be. I’m quite nervous about it, but we’ll see how it goes. If you’d like to see the slides from the talk, which I gave at a recent Cape Town Content Strategy Meetup, they are embedded below:
An Elite for Everyone is another thought-provoking piece from Callum J Hackett, whose excellent blog I just recently discovered. He makes the case that maybe we should let go of this idea that everyone can be creative if they just try hard enough:
While monetary elites are deceptive and damaging, a creative elite is arguably essential to artistic culture. For art, literature and music to have any significant purpose in our lives, they depend on the relationship between a handful of creators and a much larger, consuming audience. I think this should be an argument against the incessant drive to democratise creative talent, and the trope that everyone has a novel in them, because not only is it likely biologically impossible (again shifting the blame from lack of possibility to individual failure), it’s also undesirable. I think there comes a time when we have to embrace our own mediocrity, and instead recognise our important place as part of the audience. This might seem bleak and self-defeating, but it sits more comfortably with the real world, and wouldn’t feel like such a bum deal if we weren’t continually titillated with the distant, unlikely prize of publication and fame.
The air of ‘meh’ surrounding Apple’s iPhone event this coming Wednesday is almost palpable. A wave of pre-disappointment is sweeping much of the tech blog world, with proclamations like this one from Andrew Couts:
As bored as I am by the new iPhone’s purported growth spurt, I’m not particularly interested in any of the other realistic features Apple might add to some “dream phone” either. NFC? Yawn. Quad-core processor? Psh. Wireless charging? Whatevs. All these features would be great, I suppose — but they have been done before, and will be done again and again and again by the time the iPhone 6 makes its way into the world around this time next year.
I’ve been wondering why so many people have gone all “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” on Apple with this particular event. And I think the answer lies in an unlikely place: a product development theory called the Kano Model.
The Kano Model, developed in the 1980s by Professor Noriaki Kano for the Japanese automotive industry, is a helpful method to prioritise product features by plotting them on the following 2-dimensional scale:
- How well a particular user need is being fulfilled by a feature
- What level of satisfaction the feature will give users
The model is generally used to classify features into three groups:
- Excitement generators. Delightful, unexpected features that make a product both useful and usable.
- Performance payoffs. Features that continue to increase satisfaction as improvements are made.
- Basic expectations. Features that users expect as a given — if these aren’t available in a product, you’re in trouble.
Here is a visual representation of the Kano model:
Now, let’s look at the iPhone in this context. When it was first introduced it was all Excitement generators all the way. From the touch screen, to the scrolling, to the tiniest of UI details, the thing was just a joy to use from start to finish. And since no one had seen anything like it before, we thought it was a piece of magic that could do anything:
(Image source: Cyanide & Happiness)
Eventually the novelty wore off and the iPhone’s Excitement generators became Basic expectations since everyone started doing it (oh hi, Samsung!). But there were still plenty of Performance payoff features to work on. Continued UI refinements, 3rd party apps, enterprise support, push notifications… as those features were introduced and improved, we kept liking the device more.
This couldn’t go on forever, though. The natural evolution of most products is that the Excitement generators become harder to find, so you tend to spend more time on the Performance payoffs and Basic expectations1. For example, by the time cut-and-paste came to the iPhone, it was no longer an Excitement generator, but the most basic of expectations. All the features Andrew Couts talks about in the piece I quoted above are Basic expectations as well. John Gruber wrote about this back in May:
iOS is by no means feature-complete. But it’s getting harder to identify the low-hanging fruit — the things you just know Apple has to be working on, not just the stuff you hope they are.
There is nothing wrong with this. It’s a natural evolution of a product, and we should be happy with the incremental progress. But that’s just not good enough for us. We can’t move beyond the amazing 2007 keynote where we first saw the iPhone. That’s where Apple set the bar, and now it’s almost impossible to reach it again. So, even though every year the iPhone and iOS keep getting better and better, we become less and less impressed because we have an unrealistic expectation that everything Apple does has to fit into the Excitement generator category. It’s impossible. No one can do that ad infinitum.
We should stop hoping for an avalanche of Excitement generators in this week’s announcement of the new iPhone. Instead, we should realise that Apple is doing what any company should do with a mature product: focus on ways to increase customer satisfaction steadily with Performance payoff and Basic expectation features, without getting caught up in a wild goose chase to re-invent a product that already re-invented an industry.
I’m a big fan of Clive Thompson’s writing, and in The Hidden Truth of Counterintuition he explores the increased popularity of what he calls “a seemingly unending series of tomes claiming to upend everything we believe about talent (Talent Is Overrated), decisionmaking (The Upside of Irrationality), motivation (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us), personality (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement), and dozens of other subjects.” He ultimately believes that the popularity of these books is a good thing:
Perhaps our willingness to have our basic beliefs overturned is a sign of intellectual health. This mindset is, after all, key to the scientific method. Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein were all purveyors of a “hidden side” to reality, right? (The Principia could have been subtitled Why Everything You Know About Gravity Is Wrong.) Good scientists understand that there’s a good chance today’s knowledge will eventually be proven wrong. And the really good scientists welcome that prospect — they’re thrilled by it.
Even though I usually agree with Clive, In this particular case I’m going to side with Callum J Hackett’s counterargument entitled The Popularity of Counterintuition:
First, it’s important to distinguish between two conceptions of “skepticism” that are often conflated. There is ‘Skepticism’ as a mode of rational inquiry — the kind that relies on logic, evidence, and varieties of scientific consensus — and then there is ‘skepticism’, almost synonymous with ‘cynicism’, that is a mere compulsion to question everything, no matter what logic and evidence underpins it. This is an undiscerning, shotgun skepticism — it questions sound scientific knowledge as much as bad ideas, and is perhaps the cause of problems like climate-change denial in reasonably well-educated people.
If the readers Thompson is talking about have any kind of skepticism, it’s only cynical skepticism — it’s not driven by the urge to reveal the truth without bias, it’s driven by that same urge which craves the unmasking of conspiracies wherever they can conceivably exist.
I recommend both articles, if for no other reason than to witness how it’s possible to disagree respectfully with another human being on the Internet.
Joshua Gross’s post Nothing is Quite What it Seems struck quite a nerve for me:
In this world of constant communication, it’s easy to feel as though everyone else’s life is amazing, while you’re still sitting there eating cereal in your underwear.
Of your 2,000 Facebook friends and 300 people you follow on Twitter, it’s inevitable that some small percentage are doing something interesting at any given moment.
Looking at it the other way around, though, the vast majority of people are sitting around wondering why they seem boring, just like you.
As a father to a 3-year old, I feel particularly boring these days as the exotic photos fly by on Instagram. Joshua’s post reminds me of Sherry Turkle’s phrase “Who will hold a brief for the real?”, which I referenced in this post.
I’ve had Esther Dyson’s article Technology’s Mental Frontier on my mind for a few days now. She raises some great points about education and technological advancement:
Indeed, perhaps the biggest culture/value challenge of all is short-term thinking. Around the entire planet, we are approaching some kind of singularity, with the market pandering to our fundamental short-term natures by offering us instant gratification and long-term destruction.
Education does the opposite. It enables us to improve our lot by building things — using first fire and wood, and now computers and machines — to overcome our physical limitations and to create technology to extend and enhance our lives. Will technology and learning prevail, or will our susceptible, long-evolved weaknesses overcome us?
I think she raises a question that is more important than we might think. One of the things I worry about is that the instant gratification Esther talks about is making us less likely to be curious about increasingly difficult problems. I’m not arguing that Google is making us stupid. Instead I’m arguing that the ability to get answers to almost any question we can dream up has consequences. By filling our brains with easy answers we become less likely to go after those wicked problems — problems that are “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize”.
To combat this issue we need to cultivate curiosity in our schools and workplaces. Cap Watkins recently mentioned how curiosity is one of his hiring requirements:
If you’re intensely curious, I tend to worry less about other skills. Over and over I watch great designers acquire new skills and push the boundaries of what can be done through sheer curiosity and force of will. Curiosity forces us to stay up all night teaching ourselves a new Photoshop technique. It wakes us up in the middle of the night because it can’t let go of the interaction problem we haven’t nailed yet. I honestly think it’s the single most important trait a designer (or, hell, anyone working in tech) can possess.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher also talks about this in her article On Content and Curiosity:
Curiosity keeps us hungry. It leads us to tackle new challenges when the easy questions have all been answered. It makes us wonder how things could be better — even when they are, if we’d just pause to admit it, pretty damn good already.
If answers come to us too quickly too often, we lose that essential sense of curiosity that drives us to solve difficult problems. If you don’t believe me, just spend some time with a 3-year old. Sometimes when I build puzzles with my daughter I get carried away and help a little bit too much. My daughter always responds by slowing down her own efforts, eventually declaring that she can’t do it. But when I hold back, and give her just enough guidance instead of solving the problem myself, her curiosity — the need to see that final picture — takes over until she forces herself to figure it out.
We need to cultivate this on two levels. First, we need to guard ourselves against a loss of curiosity. Skip Google and think instead. Don’t use an app to help you with Words with Friends (it’s ok, we’ve all done it). Solve the problem the long, hard, stupid way every once in a while.
Second, we need to do everything we can to grow curiosity in those we have influence over — employees, co-workers, kids, etc. And how do we do that? I think Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it best in his French poem Dessine-moi un bateau1:
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
I’ll let your curiosity drive you to figure out what the “endless immensity of the sea” looks like for your situation.