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

Product managers and difficult decisions

Steven Sinofsky wrote some excellent advice for product managers in his post Shipping is a Feature: Some Guiding Principles for People Who Build Things. I especially like this part:

A decision means to not do something, and to achieve clarity in your design. The classic way this used to come up (and still does) is the inevitable “make it an option”. You can’t decide should a new mouse wheel scroll or zoom? Should there be conversation view or inbox view? Should you AutoCorrect or not? Go ahead and add it to Preferences or Options.

But really the only correct path is to decide to have the feature or not. Putting in an option to enable it means it doesn’t exist. Putting in an option to disable means you are forever supporting two (then four, then eight) ways of doing something. Over time (or right away) your product has a muddled point of view, and then worse, people come to expect that everything new can also be turned off, changed, or otherwise ignored. While you can always make mistakes and/or change something later, you have to live with combinatorics or a combinatoric mindset forever.

The flip side of this is, of course, that the organization needs to agree that product managers have the autonomy to make these kinds of decisions.

How to change destructive behavior

In What If Doctors Could Finally Prescribe Behavior Change? Sean Duffy explains why behavior change is so difficult, particularly in healthcare:

Whether it’s for weight loss, smoking cessation, diabetes, or otherwise, the best research shows that meaningful behavior change outcomes require not just guidance from a trusted health professional, but also positive social support, easy-to-digest insights about their condition, a carefully orchestrated timeline, and a process that follows validated behavioral science protocols. That’s hard to squeeze into a phone call. Or a doctor’s visit, for that matter.

The good news is that this research is resulting in a new field called Digital Therapeutics, and despite quite a bit of snake oil out there, some apps are having success:

Another example is Jenna Tregarthen, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology and eating disorder specialist. She rallied a team of engineers, entrepreneurs, and fellow psychologists to develop Recovery Record, a digital therapy that helps patients gain control over their eating disorder by enabling them to self-monitor for destructive thoughts or actions, follow meal plans, achieve behavior goals, and message a therapist instantly when they need support.

It’s ok to take a break from work email

We all know how destructive interruptions at work are, and how a constant pressure to always be online increases stress levels exponentially. The thing is, we can fix this problem. Clive Thompson asks Are You Checking Work Email in Bed? At the Dinner Table? On Vacation? and reports on a recent study to measure the effects of changing that behavior:

[Harvard professor Leslie] Perlow suggested they carve out periods of “predictable time off”—evening and weekend periods where team members would be out of bounds. Nobody was allowed to ping them. The rule would be strictly enforced, to ensure they could actually be free of that floating “What if someone’s contacting me?” feeling.

The results were immediate and powerful. The employees exhibited significantly lower stress levels. Time off actually rejuvenated them: More than half said they were excited to get to work in the morning, nearly double the number who said so before the policy change. And the proportion of consultants who said they were satisfied with their jobs leaped from 49 percent to 72 percent. Most remarkably, their weekly work hours actually shrank by 11 percent—without any loss in productivity. “What happens when you constrain time?” Lovich asks. “The low-value stuff goes away,” but the crucial work still gets done.

More of this in our workplaces, please.

Screens don’t have to melt our kids’ brains

Melt

Mat Honan’s Are Touchscreens Melting Your Kid’s Brain?1 set off the latest in what has become a recurring tech theme over the past few years:

I’m perpetually distracted, staring into my hand, ignoring the people around me. Hit Refresh and get a reward, monkey. Feed the media and it will nourish you with @replies and Likes until you’re hungry and bleary and up way too late alone in bed, locked in the feedback loop. What will my daughter’s loop look like? I’m afraid to find out.

This has been a difficult topic for me for a long time. In 2012 I wrote an article for Smashing Magazine called A Dad’s Plea To Developers Of iPad Apps For Children, in which I aired some of my frustrations with apps for kids. That piece brought out a lot of anger, including a comment that I’ll never forget:

Wow really?? great parents here.. having a kid under 7 stare at a screen, really?? come on!! no kid under 7 should use an iPad for what?? play outside, play with your toys, your friends, read. People who have a 2yr old use an ipad/iphone, shouldn’t have kids in the first place! shame on you

I started writing a passionate reply, explaining our reasoning and the rules my wife and I have for screen time, but I ended up just dropping it. No one has ever changed their opinion based on a comment they read on a blog, so why bother.

Anyway, I digress. I tend to agree with Robert McGinley Myers’ response to Mat’s article. In Screens Aren’t Evil (which you should read in its entirety) he says:

But we need to get beyond worrying about whether “screens” are melting our kids’ brains. What we need to be conscious of is encouraging our kids, and ourselves, to engage in activities that enrich us. Sometimes that’s interacting with each other, sometimes that’s a hike in the forest, sometimes thats a great book, and sometimes that’s an incredible video game. It’s not the medium that matters, but what we take from it.

Now that’s a moderate stance I can get behind.

“If people don’t like a flavor, they’re right, we’re not right.”

I love this quote from Suzanne Slatcher, who worked at Pixar in the early years. From the really interesting article Building The Next Pixar:

“Business is just an idea, like a movie,” says Slatcher. “What if we did this in this place at this time, in this style of packaging, with this choice of flavors? Would it work? There’s still a back and forth between creative and the audience, and you can’t be like ‘if I build it, they will come.’ No, we’re in a democratic world where everyone has opinions. If you’re making your cartoon and your joke’s not funny, it’s just not funny, it has to go. If people don’t like a flavor, they’re right, we’re not right.”

That last sentence is a key concept in product development as well. If people don’t like our “flavor” of product, they’re right and we’re wrong. We have to fix it, not try to convince them that they don’t “get it”.

Sketching as Sensemaking

I’m a big fan of sketching, and this post by Jacob Rader does a great job of explaining why it’s such an important part of the design process:

Sensemaking is the active conversation we have with the events that we encounter; it’s our ability to take in information, process it, and derive meaning and action from it.

Rather than focusing on the external, sketching provides us a sensemaking process for our own creative flux. When we’re presented with a problem our minds go to work to create this cloud of ideas, populating it with information and attempting to form connections. This facilitated sensemaking turns that abstract concoction into a concrete reality. This works because sketching forces us to make decisions and apply structure to our ideas. By externalizing we pass those fragments through a filter of our own experience creating a foundation to build our ideas from.

When we externalize the pieces of an idea through a sketch we’re making a testable “design move” which we’re able make judgements around. This positions us to make further moves that iteratively cycles and builds an idea.

Surrender your eyes and ears!

Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit by taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.

Marshall McLuhan

In other news, Google Glass is on sale today.

Audacity, courage, or madness?

John Maeda on The Great Discontent:

I’ve never met anyone who is good at what they do creatively and is super-confident.

Well, that’s a relief. Because I’m not feeling particularly confident right now. He goes on to say this:

If you have audacity and take on a risk, it means you don’t know what you’re getting into; you’re walking through a door, into a dark room, with no idea what’s there. If you have courage, it means that you know exactly what’s behind that door; there’s something dangerous, hard, and it’s going to make you really uncomfortable.

I don’t know if I’m audacious, courageous, or just plain crazy, but in case you were wondering why it’s been so quiet here over the past couple of weeks, it’s because I just moved from Cape Town to Portland, and today started a new job as Director of Product at HealthSparq. I’m excited about the move and the role, but also pretty nervous about the dark room I’m walking into. But I guess that’s what makes life exciting. That not knowing that keeps us pushing to find our own limits so we can break through them.

I expect things to stay a little bit slow on Elezea for another week or so. This week is obviously crazy, next week I’m speaking at Industry Conf, and after that things will hopefully return to a reasonably regular posting schedule. I just felt that I probably owed you guys an update.

Thanks for caring.

Silence!

I had a particularly noisy weekend, so I’ve been thinking about silence quite a bit. This morning I came across Chloe Schama’s How Silence Became a Luxury Product, and it really resonated with me:

Unwanted noise is perhaps the most irksome form of sensory assault. A bothersome sight? Close your eyes or turn the other way — eyesores are, generally, immobile. An annoying taste? Spit it out. (Why was it in your mouth?) Sound, on the other hand, is ambient, elusive, enveloping. Even the softest drone can echo cacophonously if it worms itself into your head. Ulysses was not seduced by the sight of the sirens. Poe’s telltale heart does not torment with its smell. “Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption,” groused the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought.”

The article goes on to explain how silence has become a commodity — one that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. I found the article through Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s Enjoy the Silence, a great piece on the proliferation of noise-canceling headphones:

I also discovered that an artificially imposed lack of noise can make perfectly normal sounds—the hum of a fan, or a colleague’s phone conversation—feel like an assault on the senses. The quiet becomes habit-forming, and I’m not entirely convinced that that’s desirable. What good is it to live in the world if we just choose to ignore it?

The articles reminded me of Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston’s exploration of imposed silence in How Silence Works: Emailed Conversations With Four Trappist Monks. Here is how one monk answered the question What do you feel like silence adds to your actions?:

The silence does make me aware of my inner workings — what we call in the monastery, “self-knowledge.” I can’t pretend that I’m always a nice guy, always patient, always calm and receptive. I have to admit that I can be abrupt, cold to offenders, or would often prefer efficiency to the messiness of other people’s moods. Silence seems to keep me from idealizing myself.

Since we’re on the topic of silence we might as well look back to Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts about it in his message for World Communications Day back in 2012:

Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist. In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.

Secret, Whisper, and the lure of annonymity

Austin Hill wrote what is so far the best critique I’ve seen of apps like Whisper and Secret. Here’s the general point from his essay On your permanent record:

When a participant in iterative prisoners’ dilemma has no identity or feels free from the responsibility of their actions in social interactions communities quickly degenerate into a race to the bottom. This is when trolls, abusers and the worst part of our humanity starts to become a strategic advantage in seeing your actions get more attention by continuing to push the envelope of acceptable behaviour.

And about those apps specifically:

Out of all the problems on our planet that need our skills as entrepreneurs, out of all the incredible opportunities to improve the lives of our customers or fellow human beings — we need to fund & waste engineering talent to build a better TMZ?

I do not doubt that voyeurism and rumour mongering are popular leading to profitability. It’s the reason why every grocery store check-out isle is packed with tabloid magazines and not Popular Science or The Economist. But really?

This point led me to tweet this the other day in response to a question about the VCs who fund these apps:

Mark Suster added his voice in another good article called How do I Really Feel About Anonymous Apps Like Secret?:

My general instinct is that most anonymity apps breed car-like behavior. Intolerance. For all the terrible things people have said over the years about me on Hacker News simply because they didn’t agree with my opinion on some topic I feel certain that if most spent an afternoon with me they would feel very differently. It’s like racism or prejudice. It’s very easy to hate a group with whom you never interact and when you live in a big city where there are many ethnicities and sexualities you realize we are all just human. Same wants. Same needs. Same goals. Even VCs.

I’ll leave the final word to Tim Fernholz in When it comes to secrets, Wall Street titans and Silicon Valley VCs see eye-to-eye:

So if you’re an ardent believer in anonymity, be careful: If you reveal something important enough to be legally protected on one of these platforms, your anonymity might not be secure. The only secrets you can safely reveal on these platforms (and even then, only as long as they’re not crimes) are your own.