This blog has been quiet for so long because I’ve been working on my first book, and it’s finally published. Why We Fail: Learning from Experience Design Failures is about websites and consumer electronics that were successfully launched and hailed as great designs, but failed unexpectedly when people used them, plus my attempt to explain why that happened and what people who make them can do to avoid failing.
As I work on Nickel I realize that normal people don’t understand life insurance. It’s so important to protect our families from financial problems and yet frustratingly difficult to understand.
So I tried setting down in as few words as possible the process of getting basic coverage. Here’s my first draft:
Life insurance pays your family a large sum of money when you die (or pays you when your spouse dies). These days most of us have some sort of debt (for example, a mortgage) and expenses (children’s college tuition) that our family could have trouble paying without our salary. Life insurance solves this problem.
It works like other insurance: you get a policy, you pay for it every year, and when something bad happens the insurance company pays up.
How to buy life insurance:
1. Figure out how much life insurance you need so your family doesn’t have to pay it all off without you. Add these together:
* How much you owe on your mortgage
* How much you owe on any other debts you have
Then figure out how much more insurance you would like. Add these together:
* The cost of big expenses now or in the future, like college tuition
* Extra money to help your spouse. Remember, she/he will be grieving after you die and not necessarily ready to start hunting for a better job.
Add all of the above. That’s the “coverage” you need, the amount of the policy. For some people $100,000 is enough, others need $1 million or more.
2. Ask friends and family for a life insurance agent or financial planner they trust. Buy the insurance through them. Do not pay them. They are paid a commission by the life insurance company, so you are essentially getting free advice. Also, ask him or her to explain how to deduct the cost of the insurance on your taxes.
3. Sign up for a simple “Term Insurance” policy (start simple; you can always get more coverage later). You’ll fill out some forms, answer questions about your health, and maybe have to get a physical. Answer all questions honestly. And pay your bill every year.
In another case of it’s the experience not the design, Consumer Reports found that BMW and Harley Davidson motorcycles were three times more likely have have serious mechanical problems versus a Japanese brand, but their owners were more likely to buy that brand again.
On the other side of the coin though, when asked whether they would buy their bikes again, 75% of Harley-Davidson owners said “definitely yes” while 74% of BMW and 72% of Honda owners made a similar remark. Meanwhile, only 63% and 60% of Yamaha and Kawasaki owners, respectively, said the same about their motorcycles.
We don’t know if this surprising correlation is due to brand loyalty or a different overall experience of the product that goes beyond reliability, but it’s an interesting data point.
I just heard a talk at Lean Startup Machine NYC by Jonathan Fields, author of the book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance. It was only about 20 minutes but had maybe the highest useful content density of any talk I’ve ever heard. Here’s a few notes:
A startup at the beginning is filled with uncertainty about your product, market, everything. We experience uncertainty as pain. Usually we react by changing speed: we slow to a crawl because we’re paralyzed by imperfect information, or we rush to the end to make the pain stop.
As you conduct experiments, data replaces uncertainty; the process eases us down the uncertainty curve.
So, don’t freak out. Get data, Focus conversations on the data.
Other excellent advice:
- We are not made to concentrate for more than 90 minutes. Our brain is wired to take breaks, that’s why ideas come to us in the shower. So, do 90 minutes of work, then 20-30 minutes of something unrelated. This reminds me of the Pomodoro Technique which helped me crank out several book chapters.
- We can manipulate intelligence by priming the brain, either positively or negatively. You could say to a group of men, “Men do 50% worse on this test you’re about to take” and they will! So, create positive priming, e.g. start meetings with 60 seconds of a story about something cool that happened today.
- Meditation and exercise are the two best innovation techniques anyone can practice, but ironically people in startups give them up first to do more work. Instead when we’re working hard we should double down on meditation and exercise. Spending quality time away from work improves the work, helping us do better work in less time.
Diane Loviglio, FailCon’s Associate Producer, interviewed me for the FailCon blog. We chatted about why it’s a good time to learn from customer experience failures, how one company recovered from failure, and my advice for startup founders.
John Cassidy penned a powerful piece for the current issue of the New Yorker titled, Mastering the Machine: How Ray Dalio built the world’s richest and strangest hedge fund. Part of Dalio’s success in creating massive financial returns while controlling risk stems from his financial wisdom, but the success of his 1000-person organization that runs their three funds has been attributed to how he’s created a culture of “truth and transparency” which helps them (among other things) avoid and learn from failure.
My summary of the key characteristics as described in the article:
- Discussing issues by citing evidence and experience rather than mere educated guesses
- Expressing opinions in a transparent way, and giving forthright feedback to anyone else in the organization
- Removing the emotional reaction to mistakes so people understand clearly why they happened and can logically discuss how to avoid them next time
And one quote from Dalio:
What we’re trying to have is a place where there are no ego barriers, no emotional reactions to mistakes…. If we could eliminate all those reactions, we’d learn so much faster.
I’m in the research phase of my book on customer experience product failures and I’m pleased to find several books on failure that will inform my work. I’m collecting them in a list on UX Zeitgeist: Oh Noes! Books About Failure. I’ll be adding reviews of each book I read. So far, Being Wrong is my favorite, Kathryn Schulz brings both philosophical rigor and great stories.
If you like the list, please Like it.
…Real Stories and Practical Lessons from Experience Design Failures“. Learn more at the book site.
One of the most important things I learned when becoming a product manager was being able to see my product as an equation. In the startup phase it’s easy, there’s just costs and they’re often tangible: people, hardware, software. Then you add marketing in various forms each with a different cost/revenue profile, then revenue streams and revenue sharing, then business overhead in myriad forms, and so on.
Developing a mental model of this equation (particularly the more volatile variables) and designing with that equation in mind is a fun part of managing a product. Maybe writing it down and posting it on the wall would be an educational tool for the team?
I’m a huge fan of the ‘old’ Readability — I hit a button which sucks out the content of a web page into a nicely formatted view, then I usually hit the Evernote button to save it for reading on my Macs or iPhone.
The Readability folks recently amp’d the feature into a business. They added the ‘read later’ function of Instapaper/Evernote, and most notably a subscription revenue model from which they pay 70% to the content creators or publishers to compensate them for the ads Readability sucked out.
There’s a lot I like here, from their reader-first philosophy to the fine folks they’ve chosen as advisors (a few are friends of mine). But I can’t help thinking it’s not going to work. My doubts:
- They’re competing with ads. Large organizations that depend on ad revenue have huge investments in ad serving and tracking. Readability to asking publishers to give that up for what Readability gives them. 70% sounds generous, until you do the math and realize 70% of not much is not much (see They’re small below)
- They’re competing with free in the form of their free Read Now offering, the open source version, and Evernote. And Evernote is very, very good.
- They’re small, so besides the fact that what they pay publishers won’t be much, they haven’t revealed any way to scale to the size necessary to make a material difference in how the publishing industry works. They have an API for developers, but they need to focus on the publisher side of the equation.
- They’re not giving publishers control. Sophisticated ad serving systems let publishers tweak ad buys based on calculations of page views, content costs, clicks, etc. Readability simply offers a set percentage. And Readability is hoping publishers will do the work of coming to the Readability site to sign up, just to get the deal Readability dictates.
- The legality is questionable. If I’m an asshole publisher (you can be sure they exist) I only see someone who is stripping out my revenue stream as a threat to my livelihood, and I call my lawyers for their opinion. Chances are the big media houses have more lawyers than Readability.
- 30% is expensive. Apple takes 30%, but has gorgeous devices and stores and the iTunes marketplace and credit card numbers galore. Publishers can bitch about Apple, but they offer a lot for their 30%. The value that Readability adds is small in comparison.
I could be wrong, there could be a huge infusion of this function into every reading tool. And once it gains a critical mass of readers the publishers get on board. But I don’t think the product is quite positioned for that yet. Here’s an alternate business model leading the same, and sometimes better customer experience:
Readability develops an ad network-facing API and partners with the biggest ad serving networks to integrate the API. When a publisher serves a page, the ad network checks the visitor’s machine for a cookie and if present serves a ‘clean’ page to Readability subscribers and a normal page to everyone else. The impression is recorded and Readability pays the ad network who in turn pays the publisher. In this model publishers don’t have to configure anything new and get paid automatically, the ad networks get paid and get a new revenue stream, Readability gets paid, and Readability subscribers get beautiful, clean pages often with zero clicks.
In one of the darker corners of my mind I imagine a future where there are a set of laws and industry standards that dictate the acceptable usability of digital products and services, much like medical or engineering standards. I have to think that as we grow increasingly reliant on computer technology for our safety and well-being, minimum usability standards must follow. This kind of regulation has already happened for the food we eat, any electrical appliance, and our cars. It’s hard to imagine it won’t happen for software, hardware, and digital services. But it will need to be a different kind of regulation.
Here’s how it might happen: we first create this standard and find ways for people to voluntarily start using it. Perhaps a pro-consumer organization takes on the role of applying it, and consultancies provide testing services. Maybe that’s enough, or maybe industry organizations formally adopt it, and legislators make it mandatory in certain cases.
What does a universal usability test look like? Here’s a sketch:
- The basics of the process and the results are simple enough for the average consumer to understand, in the same way as the UL mark or the Consumer Reports harvey balls. As a standard, the results should simply indicate the product has met the standard or not.
- The standard is described in terms of the user’s experience:
- Time: there’s a maximum amount of time* designated to a task. Seven random people from the product’s user population are asked to complete the task and all must successfully do so in the time allotted.
- Emotion: each test participant rates their emotion using the product using a standard measure of feeling like the Wong-Baker Facial Grimace Scale. If the total score of the seven participants exceeds 25 the product fails the test.
* How do we determine the maximum allowable time? I haven’t figured that out yet.
Part of my research into concept design is to look at where successful products and services came from. Today, it’s Twitter.
Lately I’m also perusing Stephen Johnson’s thoughts on Where Do Good Ideas Come From. In this context it’s interesting to read here and here about Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s years of experience creating software to dispatch messages, and how this interest goes back to his childhood, so in Johnson’s terminology, the idea for Twitter looks like a slow hunch not a eureka moment, typical of many good ideas in Johnson’s view.
Fast forward to 2006 via Dom Sagolla:
“Rebooting” or reinventing [Odeo, the struggling podcasting startup] started with a daylong brainstorming session where we broke up into teams to talk about our best ideas. I was lucky enough to be in @Jack’s group, where he first described a service that uses SMS to tell small groups what you are doing. We happened to be on top of the slide on the north end of South Park. It was sunny and brisk. We were eating Mexican food. His idea made us stop eating and start talking.
I remember that @Jack’s first use case was city-related: telling people that the club he’s at is happening. “I want to have a dispatch service that connects us on our phones using text.” His idea was to make it so simple that you don’t even think about what you’re doing, you just type something and send it. Typing something on your phone in those days meant you were probably messing with T9 text input, unless you were sporting a relatively rare smartphone. Even so, everyone in our group got the idea instantly and wanted it.
When it became clear that Odeo was not going to become a huge success in the podcasting space, there was a period of soul searching and hack days. One of those hack days, Jack, Noah, and Florian (another rails dev at Odeo), created Twitter. The initial version seemed interesting, Noah, Jack, and Florian kept working on it for several months, while the rest of the team stayed focused on Odeo.
We were limited until 2005-2006 when SMS took off in this country and I could finally send a message from Cingular to Verizon. And that just crystallized — well, now’s the time for this idea. And we started working on it.
At that time, one of my co-workers introduced me to SMS (short message service), which I had never seen before. She used it all the time. Once I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome!’ This communication blew my mind, and the way she was using it blew my mind. I thought, What if we simply set status, archive it on the Web, use SMS to do it, and it all happens in real time? We all kind of went into a corner, wrote out a bunch of user scenarios, and started inviting co-workers in. They fell in love with it. We knew we had something.
There’s a few lessons here for anyone creating product or service concepts. One is that slow hunches are slow and take time to evolve. Two, sometimes technology needs to catch up to ideas. Three, nurturing company environments like Odeo help these concepts take shape.
Four, obviously Twitter is a very emergent concept and less goal-oriented than even many startups would attempt; it feels more like a demo you’d see on a Labs page, except it just wouldn’t work on a Labs page. And it’s different than how we usually create concepts that require making money; the New York Times profile states, They freely acknowledged that they had no idea how people would use it or how it would make money. But they thought it had potential…
After studying concept design for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that the single best thing designers can do to come up with better concepts is to do more of them. Generating more options increases the chances we’ll find better ideas.
With that in mind, I perked up while reading What Is I.B.M.’s Watson?, part of the NY Times’s series on artificial intelligence, which incorporates a similar process as great designers I’ve seen…
Watson’s speed allows it to try thousands of ways of simultaneously tackling a “Jeopardy!” clue. Most question-answering systems rely on a handful of algorithms, but Ferrucci decided this was why those systems do not work very well: no single algorithm can simulate the human ability to parse language and facts. Instead, Watson uses more than a hundred algorithms at the same time to analyze a question in different ways, generating hundreds of possible solutions. Another set of algorithms ranks these answers according to plausibility; for example, if dozens of algorithms working in different directions all arrive at the same answer, it’s more likely to be the right one. In essence, Watson thinks in probabilities. It produces not one single “right” answer, but an enormous number of possibilities, then ranks them by assessing how likely each one is to answer the question.
Of all the images to come out of the iPad announcement, the one struck me the most was less about the device and more about the experience of it:
Lying back on the sofa — isn’t that a nice way to be?
And sitting or lying on the sofa with a 9.7 inch screen means we’ll typically hold this about 2 feet (.6 meter) away from our eyes, versus 1 foot with an iPhone, which means you can rest it on your lap. While some may buy the dock, putting the iPad on a surface means having to uncomfortably lean over it. I think lounging will be much more common. We can do this with a laptop, but the separation of output (display) and input (keyboard and trackpad) is disjointed in comparison. And the iPad will be a little awkward and heavy to hold aloft like a phone.
Consequently the mood while interacting with an iPad may be more relaxed. The interaction has the potential to be more passive, though not necessarily. We’ll make bigger gestures and pivot at the elbow and shoulder rather than the wrist. We’ll scroll/size less than on a phone, using more eye movement to scan the screen. And while Apple has had to succumb to menus to make more functions available, we have the potential for powerful new forms of direct manipulation.
As a designer I’m tempted to display more, denser visual content at one time that a person can sit back and absorb, and offer control with fewer, grander gestures.
Given the physical similarity, it’s tempting to look at the iPad and call it a big iPhone. But I think the posture we adopt and interaction with the device will make it an experience unlike a phone or a laptop.
Aside: how long until someone designs a lounge chair specifically for optimal iPad use?!