“The next time a project is being discussed in its early stages, grab a marker, go to the board, and throw something up there. The idea will probably be stupid, but that’s good! McDonald’s Theory teaches us that it will trigger the group into action.”
“Confirmation bias is probably the single biggest problem in business, because even the most sophisticated people get it wrong. People go out and they’re collecting the data, and they don’t realize they’re cooking the books.”
-Dan Lovallo (as quoted in Decisive)
“In software engineering, internships and self-directed projects have become far more valuable to the students… than any university class. And they have become more valuable to employers… than any formal credential, class taken, or grade point average.
“[Students] will be motivated to formally learn about linear algebra when working on a computer graphics apprenticeship at Pixar or Electronic Arts. They will want to learn accounting when working under the CFO of a publicly traded company. [...] One of the primary roles of the college itself would be to ensure the internships are challenging and intellectual; that they truly do support a student’s development.”
-Salman Khan, What College Could Be Like
“User Centered Design (UCD) is not about answering requirements alone, but also includes defining requirements. When we practice UCD end-to-end, we pretend we know little… because assumptions close us off to new possibilities. We prefer to allow some design research to create a viewpoint and then form a hypothesis as to what we might build. In this regard, we cross into the realm of product managers, producers, program managers, business analysts and the like, trampling toes with gay abandon and meeting resistance all around. Facing confinement to defining the boring old business need (distinct from the user or customer need), these folks would prefer we constrain our UCD work to usability testing on designs meeting the requirements they set out.”
When Bill Gates demoed the Tablet PC in 2001, he predicted it would become the most popular form of PC within five years. But by the end of 2006, Tablet PCs still accounted for less than 2% of all laptops shipped, with about 1 million devices sold that year. Tablets seemed destined to remain stuck in niche markets.
Then came the iPad in 2010. During its first year on the market, 15 million iPads were sold. After two and a half years, over 100 million had been purchased. Worldwide shipments of tablet computers shot up from being 3% of the computer market in 2010 to 25% of the market in 2012. In Apple’s stores, iPads now outsell Macs by more than 5x, despite the product being less than three years old.
Gates’ prediction had finally come true, but something was amiss. “It’s just a big iPod Touch!” Analysts didn’t think it fit the definition of a PC. It appeared to be, at best, just a media consumption device – not a personal productivity tool. Most technology pundits believed that the iPad would fail. (Some still do.)
“Why is the iPad a disappointment? Because it doesn’t allow us to do anything we couldn’t do before. Sure, it is a neat form factor, but it comes with significant trade-offs, too.” -David Coursey, PC World, 28 January 2010
The iPad was indeed disappointing to technologists. Compared to a PC, it could hardly do anything. All of the apps were stripped down to the bare minimum features. The web browser didn’t support plugins such as Flash. You could only run one app at a time. It was hard to get data from one app to another. The on-screen keyboard felt awkward. The list went on. In sum:
“It’s a nice reader, but there’s nothing on the iPad I look at and say, ‘Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it.’” -Bill Gates, February 2010
The surprise was that non-technologists saw things very differently. They walked into an Apple Store and found to their delight that the iPad was a computer they could actually understand. It was far simpler and easier to use than a traditional PC (tablet, laptop, or otherwise). Want to do email? Tap the email app. Photos? Tap the photos app. Press the home button at any time and you’re back to a familiar place. No need to worry about window management, battery life, files or folder hierarchies.
In other words, many of the shortcomings that remain infuriating to technologists are precisely what makes the iPad delightful to consumers. Apple’s engineers and designers did many things right, but the most important reason for the product’s widespread appeal is its radically simpler user interface.
The iPad is a classic disruptive technology. It competes on new dimensions of quality and does not appeal to the best customers of traditional PCs. Instead of processor speed, flexibility, and power, it prioritizes simplicity, size, and convenience. But as tablet computers improve, they will incorporate more and more of the features that currently require a PC. For example, new versions of the iPad have already added video chat, limited multitasking, tabbed browsing, basic Microsoft Office integration, and many other improvements. Eventually, traditional PCs will be overkill for most people, most of the time.
“PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by one out of X people.” -Steve Jobs, June 2010
Almost all of the companies in the Fortune 500 are already testing or deploying iPad, despite their historical risk aversion when it comes to adopting new technology. Why? Because it’s also simpler, cheaper, and more convenient for many business tasks, such as giving presentations, assisting customers, and accessing information at the point of need in a hospital, farm, construction site, etc.
Plenty of iPad apps for doing these tasks are just as complex as their PC brethren. But the most successful apps are those that maintain the iPad’s radically simple interface standards. If it isn’t easy to get the job done on the spot, users might as well wait until they’re back at their desk computer – or give up entirely because they have other work to do.
Shawn Otto makes several interesting historical observations in the November 2012 Scientific American article, “America’s Science Problem“. First:
The steady flow of federal funding [for science after WWII] had an unanticipated side effect. Scientists no longer needed to reach out to the public or participate in the civic conversation to raise money for research. [...] University tenure systems… provided strong disincentives to public outreach, and scientists came to view civics and political involvement as a professional liability.
Second: While scientists were disappearing from public view, their growing knowledge of technological problems (such as DDT poisoning) increasingly “led to new health and environmental regulatory science. The growing restrictions drove the older industries… to protect their business interests by opposing new regulations.”
It turned out that a powerful way to undermine environmental regulations was to deny the legitimacy of environmental science. This stance aligned industrialists with “religious fundamentalists who opposed the teaching of evolution” and were skeptical of science more broadly. Together, “industrial money and religious foot soldiers” not only proved effective in blocking regulations, but also “gave fundamentalism renewed power in the public debate.”
This antiregulatory-antiscience alliance largely defines the political parties today and helps to explain why, according to a 2009 survey, 9 out of 10 scientists who identified with a major political party said they were Democrats.
“Overcome any bitterness that may have come because you were not up to the magnitude of pain that was entrusted to you.”
-Pir Vilayat Khan (via Megan Carroll)
“Creativity is not a process… It’s people who care enough to keep thinking about something until they find the simplest way to do it. They keep thinking about something until they find the best way to do it. It’s caring enough to call the person who works over in this other area, because you think the two of you can do something fantastic that hasn’t been thought of before. [...] So just to be clear, I wouldn’t call that a process. Creativity and innovation are something you can’t flowchart out.”
- Tim Cook (interview)
“[Innovative people] act in unusual ways, as it’s the only way they know how…. They are honest, cheeky, questioning, amusing, disruptive, intelligent, and restless.”
- Richard Branson
“If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal.”
-Anne-Marie Slaughter (in her Atlantic article)
I’m going to pretend for a moment that I’m being interviewed.
Q: Which products have influenced your thinking the most?
A: The mechanical typewriter and the TI-83 calculator.
I was born in the 80′s and went to elementary school in the 90′s, so I grew up with word processors. As a kid I also played with programming languages such as BASIC and LOGO, advancing as I got older. Then, sometime in high school, I discovered a mechanical typewriter in a box in the basement. It was a revelation. I couldn’t believe how ingenious it was. Metal rods and gears were shaped exactly right to swing up to hit an ink strip and then shift the page horizontally for the next letter. Pressing the “shift” key literally shifted the entire typing mechanism so that a different part of the rod hit the ink strip. Incredibly, the shift key accomplished this without even being difficult to hold down.
By contrast, it was so rare to see truly ingenious software designs. Computers were so powerful that it didn’t matter much whether they were well designed. A poorly-made spreadsheet program on a PC was still far more useful that a spreadsheet on paper. In comparison to the typewriter, software seemed like a crutch. Programming made it easy to manipulate numbers and graphics any way you liked. When you don’t know how to write programs, software seems like magic; but I knew how to code, and I knew that you could kludge together impressive-looking apps without doing anything particularly clever.
I was humbled before this typewriter. It immediately set my gold standard for elegance.
I had a longer history with the TI-83. I received one in eighth grade and immediately started exploring its depths. By the end of the year, I knew the product inside and out. I was creating ASCII racing games using its built-in programming language. I gave these games to my friends and marveled at my ability to entertain them with a bunch of pixels blinking on and off.
The information architecture of a TI-83 is extraordinary. There is no pointing device — just buttons and a small black-and-white screen. The extensive feature set of the calculator is stored within a giant submenu system, accessed by pressing buttons in the right order. Today this kind of limitation on a user interface sounds like a recipe for disaster. But the TI-83 was so carefully engineered that the interface worked. The grouping of submenus made sense. Function-graphing capabilities were together; trigonometric operators were together; statistical routines were together; everything had its place.
There was still a learning curve — you didn’t pick up a TI-83 and immediately know how to graph y = sin(x). But this learning curve had been optimized. You only had to learn a few concepts to understand the organization of the entire device. There were some shortcuts and power-user features that I occasionally looked up in the user manual, but the answers were never surprising. They seemed obvious, in retrospect, and were easy to remember. The design was truly thoughtful and clever. It remained virtually unchanged over decades of use in math classrooms across the country.
Like the typewriter, the TI-83 set the bar high.
C. Christensen and M. Raynor, in a footnote in The Innovator’s Solution (p. 144), explain why it is rational for large existing firms to have (or fund) scientific research laboratories.
Disruptive innovations usually do not entail technological breakthroughs. Rather, they package available technologies in a disruptive business model. New breakthrough technologies that emerge from research labs are almost always sustaining in character, and almost always entail unpredictable interdependencies with other subsystems in the product. Hence… the established firms have a strong advantage in commercializing these technologies.
In other words, incumbent firms are more likely than startup companies to successfully bring breakthrough technologies to market (even if those breakthroughs are published and visible to all). So it makes sense for a large incumbent company to encourage new breakthroughs via a research lab, as a channel for new successful products or features.
It strikes me as crucial (and counterintuitive) to remember that startup companies are more likely to succeed if the technology they rely on is not a breakthrough. This was certainly the case with internet companies like Amazon, Zappos, Facebook, and Twitter — only after they gained a foothold did they start to develop breakthrough technologies to scale up their products and add new features.
I made an animated fractal video by having the computer gradually update three rotation parameters as it renders fractals for each video frame. The three-minute video took about 45 minutes to render in fancy mode (but in normal mode, TeraFractal can display animations in real time).
(Click the preview to go to the video.)
Over the past few years, I’ve read quite a few books related to organizational psychology and culture, such as:
- Emotional Intelligence (Goleman)
- The Element (Robinson)
- Authentic Happiness (Seligman)
- Mindset (Dweck)
- Switch (Heath & Heath)
- The Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen)
- The Lean Startup (Ries)
- Peopleware (DeMarco & Lister)
All of these books use scientific evidence to support ideas that in many ways fly in the face of conventional wisdom. What’s surprised me most is that many of the clear best practices have still not been widely adopted, sometimes decades after first publication. Culture and habits are difficult to change.
But I’m still an idealist at heart, and I want to work at a place where learning is rampant, emotional support is plentiful, work-life balance is required, and creativity is allowed to flourish. Not just to pay lip service to these things, but to achieve them for real. We know that happier employees do better and more valuable work, and we know how to create this kind of environment. It just requires upsetting a lot of the assumptions of mainstream business culture.
I came up with a partial list of what I see as indicators of organizational health. These are meant to be provocative, since most companies do not fit all of these descriptions. Also, I realize that in many cases the devil is in the details, and taking these ideas to the extreme would generally be disastrous. But I stand behind the overall goals.
- Employees should goof off and be silly together.
If not, the community is weak and team members need to get to know each other better or be re-assigned.
- Employees should go home early more often than work overtime. If teams feel the need to stay late, there is too much pressure and not enough focus on long-term priorities.
- Employees should typically be working on something different than last year. If not, we have stopped learning; work will become boring and our products and culture will become stale.
- Employees should frequently make mistakes and celebrate them. If everything works on the first try, then we are not being creative enough.
- Employees should feel comfortable challenging any assumption or idea. If the boss is always right, team members feel shut out. If crazy ideas are not encouraged, the environment is not supportive enough.
- Evaluation should be qualitative. Easy metrics such as quotas and billable hours convey a lack of trust and reduce our intrinsic motivation.
Achieving goals like these will always be a work in progress, but I think they are worth striving for.
Recently a student I tutor was looking for an online graphing calculator. My brief internet search did not uncover anything satisfactory. But today I found one that really is good. It has only been available for a few months, and works on iPads too.
I’ve been thinking for a while about companies that focus on making the highest quality products. I wrote most of this essay several years ago, but didn’t finish editing it until now.
The companies that I’ve spent time thinking about are Patagonia (after reading Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard), Omni Group (because I worked there), and Apple (because it’s perhaps the most well-known company in this category). Some other examples, that I won’t cover here, are Zappos and Theo Chocolate.
I started categorizing these companies as “quality-focused” after seeing a series of industry research reports in 2009 showing that Apple is far more successful than most people assume, given their market share. For example, Apple sold less than 10% of laptops in the US, but about 90% of the laptops costing more than $1000. They sold less than 2% of cellphones worldwide in 2009, yet earned 30% of the total profit in that market. (Today, they have 9% unit share and 75% of profits.) In other words, Apple sells only high-quality, value-added products that can command a wide profit margin.
I realized that Omni and Patagonia similarly have a strategy of selling high-quality, high-price, high-value products. (And I believe the products are worth their higher cost: they last longer, work better, save time and hassle, and are plain old more fun to use than the cheaper competing products in their respective markets.)
I wondered: What else do these quality-focused companies have in common? Is it an entirely different way of doing business?
The first interesting parallel I noticed was that all three companies have gone through a “crisis” period that forced the companies to clarify and strengthen their vision (goals, values, purpose) and fully commit to it. Patagonia’s growth spiraled out of control in the early nineties and the company almost went bankrupt before simplifying their product line and clarifying their goals. Steve Jobs is widely credited for rescuing Apple from demise with his razor-sharp vision for product design and his insistence on quality and simplicity. Omni, too, went through a painful transition that resulted in the loss of a co-founder and a clarified statement of the company’s mission and values.
All of these companies also go to great lengths to treat their employees well. There are flexible working hours, plenty of vacation time, convenient and healthy cafeterias, top-notch health benefits, etc. “Let My People Go Surfing” refers to Patagonia’s policy that employees are welcome to skip work every now and then when the waves are high. Apple and Omni’s offices include game rooms, movie viewing areas, and lots of couches. Salaries are generous. The reasoning behind all this has to do with the fact that you need high-quality employees to make high-quality products. One way to attract and retain high-quality employees is to make them appreciate and enjoy working with you.
Patagonia founder Chouinard frequently points out that for many (most?) companies, the real product is the company itself. In other words, the thing that the founders, executives, board, and employees really care about is maximizing company profits, so that the company itself can be sold or the shareholders can be paid. The products the company actually makes, and the customers who buy those products, are secondary to the “bottom line.”
By contrast, for the quality-focused companies, the actual products and customers are the real bottom line. Employees emotionally care about customers. They spend time on things that might not be “worth the effort” in a strict sense, but are simply the right thing to do for people they care about. Profitability is only important as a means to this end. As Omni’s philosophy statement puts it, “Businesses that lose money can’t make good software for very long.” Note that Apple has achieved this despite being publicly traded, i.e. with shareholders who presumably demand profit above all else. Maintaining a high-quality value structure is presumably easier for privately held companies like Patagonia and Omni Group.
The primary challenge for any quality-focused company is the need to compete against profit-focused corporations who treat their employees worse and try to rip off the high quality products. How do the quality-focused companies succeed in facing off this threat?
The first requirement is to keep the products truly high quality in a way that customers can trust. Customers will only pay extra if they trust that the high-quality claim is true. There are many ways of establishing that trust, such as always being honest (duh), establishing a consistent brand image to associate with that honesty, and having domain experts recommend your products. World-class rock climbers, skiers, etc. recommend Patagonia equipment. And computer experts in various professions recommend Omni software to their colleagues.
A second requirement is consistent innovation. You have to do this to stay ahead of the copycat competitors. In economics parlance, this gives you temporary monopolies because you have a unique product. Innovation requires creativity, and creativity requires happy employees. Research shows that people under stress, depression, pessimism, and poor health are simply not very creative. This is another part of why caring for employees is so central to making high-quality companies work.
A third requirement is that you protect your innovations, which can be done via speed to market, secrecy, and intellectual property law. Apple is notorious for the lengths to which they go to achieve secrecy. Employees working on yet-to-be-released products have to pass through four layers of security doors to get to their offices. Some emails are sent with identifiable patterns of spaces so that if the message leaks out, the perpetrator can be pinpointed. Apple also applies for dozens of patents each year. It’s harder for smaller companies to maintain a patent portfolio, so secrecy and speed to market are key.
The last requirement I will list (though there are probably many others) is the ability to focus on a narrow and exclusive set of products. Apple has an exceptionally small number of product lines; Steve Jobs has said that he is just as proud of the products he decided not to make as he is of the ones that actually made it to market. Patagonia similarly found that they had to simplify their product line to be profitable. Making high-quality products is difficult and time-consuming. The fewer products there are, the more time can be spent improving each.
My goal here is not to show that these companies are essentially the same; they have many important differences. Still, it seems that the decision to focus on high-quality products has implications for many aspects of a business’s operations and culture. Traditions and common wisdom from the wider business world may well be counterproductive for companies focused on quality.
If you run a company, make sure you understand your priorities.
“If the best designs are the least noticeable (helping yet not interfering), the real challenge is remembering that design is important.”
-me, just now
In grad school, I thought there were two types of advisors (and managers):
- “hands-on” advisors, who check in with you every day and are closely involved with the details of your work
- “hands-off” advisors, who are available for help and advice when you need it but don’t actively involve themselves in your work.
I experienced both types of advisor, and my theory was that you should go with the type that better suits your own personality. Anecdotally, students who tend to procrastinate do better with a “hands-on” advisor pushing them every day, while students who finish homework well ahead of time do better with a “hands-off” advisor who helps when needed and does not add extra pressure.
I’m now reading Peopleware, and realizing that neither style is really ideal. The ideal manager from that book tries to avoid applying pressure or being distracting (which seems hands-off) but spends much of their time actively trying to help their advisees succeed (which seems hands-on).
The real art of management, then (at least for creative/intellectual work), is helping other people to succeed in ways that ideally they will never even know you were involved.
This is analogous to how the best designs “get out of the way” so that the viewer does not even notice them (because they are focused on the function or content).
And really, we can think of management as the practice of designing an effective work environment for employees. You need to get to know your “users”, understand costs and benefits, solicit feedback, and iteratively improve the design of this environment.
I think Steve Jobs understood this, and was interested not just in designing products but in designing the company itself. It remains to be seen how well he succeeded in this latter pursuit.
I write regarding a recent article about education reform politics.
There is an entire discipline of professionals who study what works and what doesn’t work in education. They have done research for decades in every state and all over the world, and they largely agree about what improves student outcomes and what doesn’t. I am talking about education professors, people with PhDs studying schools, teaching, and learning.
In your lengthy article about education reform, and in the larger conversation about these issues, the people who actually know what they’re talking about — education professors — are not consulted or quoted. Instead it’s just a bunch of donors and politicians with “opinions”. Can you help us move towards a more fact-based conversation by interviewing the experts the next time you report on education reform (or really any issue)?
A recent thread on LinkedIn discusses how user experience professionals can answer the question “What do you do for a living?” One contributor wrote:
“I help companies make their products more user friendly.” That’s a term most people understand. If they ask follow up questions I will go into more detail.
The term “user friendly” makes me think of the nineties, as in “Mac is more user friendly than Windows.” I hesitate before using it, because as a software designer, I want to go beyond “friendly” and make interfaces that are also more powerful, more fun, more educational.
But I too have found that “user friendly” is the term that normal (non-UX) people understand. We naturally anthropomorphize computers, and want to know whether they are friendly, like a person we would choose to spend time with.
Designers create this “user experience” via methods such as “human-centered design”, “user research”, “advocating” and “interaction design”… but these are all technical terms that don’t mean much to people outside the field.
What people really want to know is whether the end product will feel like a friend.
John Gruber has written an important critique of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. To me, the following is the most interesting core of the argument:
Prior to Jobs’s return to Apple, design was what happened at the end of the engineering process. Post-Jobs, engineering became a component of the design process. This shift made all the difference in the world.
Isaacson does not understand this.
My impression is that most technologists, journalists, analysts, and certainly the general public do not understand this either. But it is fundamental, and it is indeed the core of what I have always been most interested in doing. I use engineering to solve design goals.
It’s strange that this is a point of confusion, because engineers have always been tasked with creating products that are useful for humans. Perhaps the problem is that as engineering became more complex over time, engineers increasingly focused on their subfields, analyzing the quantitative properties of materials and semiconductors, and were no longer trained in what used to be called “ergonomics.” User-centered design is really just a return to the original intention of engineering — to create technology for humans. It is a reminder that the human side of the equation is just as important as the scientific side, and that these two are intimately connected.
Gruber points out a 5-word Steve Jobs quote that Isaacson should have paid better attention to:
Design is how it works.
In Gruber’s words: “engineering should and can be part of the art of design.”
From the Gates Foundation 2012 Annual Letter:
I still find it hard to believe that 95 percent of teachers are not given specific feedback about how to improve. Even more important than a pay schedule that rewards excellence is identifying and understanding excellence so that teachers know how they can improve. In all the meetings I have had with teachers around the country, and in the surveys we have done, it is clear that most teachers want more feedback and will use it to improve, even if the financial rewards for performance are comparatively modest.
“Those who wish to protect natural ecosystems learn, to their stupefaction, that they have to work harder and harder — that is, to intervene even more, at always greater levels of detail, with ever more subtle care — to keep them ‘natural enough.’”
-Bruno Latour, in Love Your Monsters