The Skinny on Life Insurance

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.

Categorized as Writing

What We Know About Failure So Far

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.

Another Readability Business Model

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.

Finally, The Iraq War Ends

Iraq War Ends

…not really, unfortunately. But that was the headline on a “special edition” of the “New York Times” today. The credibility was in question from the start, as the paper was handed out free at the subway which is never the case with the Times. The production is quite accurate, but a quick glance at the date reveals July 4, 2009.

I love it as a clear example of a tangible future. But the editorial is so far to the left that we’re not really fooled. Only those that already hold these positions will think, “Yes! This is what we could create by July of next year!” So essentially, it’s propaganda. Personally I would have liked to see an editorial stance much closer to reality but with enough difference to be inspirational. (Just for the record, I’m fairly progressive socially, and excited about the results of the elections.)

Of course, we’re talking about the future, so I could be completely wrong about what happens.

Three Resources for Learning Web Analytics from Marko Hurst

A friend is contracting with a design firm for work that will include web analytics, so I asked my colleague and expert Marko Hurst for resources that would provide a gentle introduction, mostly from a marketing perspective. He recommends:

  1. Web Analytics DemystifiedA bit more technical, but not a tech book geared for someone who wants to learn analytics
  2. Call To ActionGood mix of marketing & analytics
  3. Waiting For Your Cat To BarkMore of a marketing first, then analytics, but a fantastic read that everyone should read regardless. Introduces Persuasion Architecture, very cool stuff.

btw, congratulations to Marko and Lou Rosenfeld who are teaming up to write the Search Analytics book.

Categorized as Writing

New Article on Concept Design Tools

The nice folks at Digital Web Magazine published my new article on Concept Design Tools. It’s already received some nice reviews in the Twitterverse…

For those of you who haven’t seen Victor Lombardi’s new article on concept design tools, it’s a must read…

…it’s brilliant stuff and super accessible. It’s great to see solid thinking around the topic. There isn’t enough of it.

…great article on concept design!!!!

Here’s some reactions from bloggers I keep hearing over and over, confirming why I think this topic is important for digital designers. Steven Clark asks, Where is the breadth of our design?

where is our design process preceding the implementation phase? The moment we receive the brief we’re practically falling over ourselves to push forward, and implementation seems to go on at the same time that we’re figuring out what the product should do. This is as applicable to web solutions as to applications, we jump in boots and all with predetermined assumptions.

And Martin Belam writes

One strong theme that came out of it for me personally though was that, unlike industrial designers, when we make web applications and sites we tend to rush to wireframes and ‘colouring in’ before we have explored multiple potential solutions. Victor’s championing of questioning the brief looked like a good way to try and break out of that vice.

Since writing it I’ve already discovered similar work that’s been done over the past several decades. My approach is different in that the tools are simple and fast enough for any designer to use without having to learn a lot about method, but I will be spending some time with the masters to learn how I can climb onto their shoulders.

selective memory design concept tool

A Schedule for Planning a Presentation

I tend to think and think and think and think and, at the last minute, throw together slides that represent what I want to say. This time I resolved to be more prepared. Here’s my deadlines:

  1. Aug 29 – Make schedule; list all potential points I could make; filter points to ones I should make
  2. Sept 3 – Outline talk
  3. Sept 6 – Collect/make audio/visuals
  4. Sept 13 – Complete draft of presentation
  5. Sept 19 – Revise draft
  6. Sept 21 – Rehearse presentation
  7. Sept 22 – Leave for Amsterdam

In reality, the outline talk and collect/make audio/visuals steps are happening together, which is feeling like a nice way to craft my story for a conference. Establishing intermittent deadlines gets my ass motivated, and knowing I have time to iterate assures me I can get the quality to where I want it.

See also How To Tell A Story.

Storyboarding Instead of Writing

head first storyboard

I’ve been doing a lot of “writing” lately, but in an attempt to emulate great, bestselling computer books that are highly visual and concise, I’ve been thinking about layout first and writing second, because we want to learn and not necessarily read. I’ve started mocking up the piece on index cards to get a feel for the flow of content. As it turns out I’m not the first to go this route

…pretty much every page of every Head First book first exists as a scribbly drawing on paper before it ever makes its way into page layout software. Same deal with my book. In fact, my entire book was written on paper in pencil before I ever laid out a single page electronically. That version of a Head First book is known as storyboards, or boards for short. The idea is that you sketch up the core visual elements of each page in the boards. And by steering clear of software layout tools with fancy visual effects, you’re forced to stick within the realm of concepts. No characters, no cute graphics, just core visual concepts and whatever your artistic ability can muster. It’s all about focus.

Here’s some of the principles behind the Head First Formula:

  • Instead of repetition, use novelty to tell the brain something is important
  • Use pictures, because your brain is tuned for visuals, not text.
  • Place words within the pictures they describe (as opposed to somewhere else in the page, like a caption or in the body text)
  • Use redundancy, saying the same thing in different ways and with different media types, and multiple senses, to increase the chance that the content gets coded into more than one area of your brain.
  • Use concepts and pictures with at least some emotional content
  • Use a personalized, conversational style, because your brain is tuned to pay more attention when it believes you’re in a conversation than if it thinks you’re passively listening to a presentation.
  • Include many activities, because your brain is tuned to learn and remember more when you do things than when you read about things.
  • Use multiple learning styles, because you might prefer step-by-step procedures, while someone else wants to understand the big picture first, and someone else just wants to see an example.
  • Include content for both sides of your brain
  • Include stories and exercises that present more than one point of view
  • Include challenges, with exercises, and by asking questions that don’t always have a straight answer, because your brain is tuned to learn and remember when it has to work at something.
  • Use people. In stories, examples, pictures, etc., because, well, because you’re a person. And your brain pays more attention to people than it does to things.

It’s about making books fun. In some ways, it’s about making adult’s books more like children’s books.

Kathy Sierra expands on these ideas in the below interview. Some key points:

  • Make readers feel like “I Rule” — identify where people feel guilt and fear and alleviate it.
  • They used the Save The Cat screenwriting book
  • Don’t start at the beginning, chop off the first chapter (introductory stuff) and put that at the end. Then spend a lot of time on the new first chapter to suck people into the action right away.
  • Amazon reader reviews of Head First book are more about their experience with the book than the book itself. Also, they referred to authors by the first name instead of the last.

Print Media I Like These Days

  • The Week is a compilation of world news in a thin weekly magazine format comprised of tiny articles. You can read the whole thing every week and stay current. The Week is smaller than newspapers and with more breadth than traditional weeklies.
  • Monocle might be the best example of a business design journal because it doesn’t try to be one, it just naturally combines business, culture, and design issues with a serious, authentic voice.
  • Play is the New York Times occasional magazine of sports. If, like me, you don’t have time to follow sports, or think you might like knowing more but need an intelligent introduction to the games and personalities, Play is a great read.
Categorized as Writing

Reviving How We Used to Think and Write

Richard Powers, winner of the 2006 National Book Award, reports how his speech recognition software has altered his experience of writing to be more like that of traditional oral culture…

…I can write lying down. I can forget the machine is even there. I can live above the level of the phrase, thinking in full paragraphs and capturing the rhythmic arcs before they fade. I don’t have to queue, stop, batch dispatch and queue up again. I spend less mental overhead on orthography and finger mechanics and more on hearing my characters speak themselves into existence. Mostly, I’m just a little closer to what my cadences might mean, when replayed in the subvocal voices of some other auditioner.

Planning a Writing Day

My friend Harry received this useful piece of advice from his writing coach. She suggested you follow this schedule during a day of writing:

  1. Spend 10 minutes planning your work
  2. Write and write until you are out of ideas and energy
  3. Reward yourself with fun work like research

Two New Biz Mags: IN and Portfolio

I believe IN launches as an insert inside BusinessWeek today, while Conde announced Portfolio (also see the NY Times introduction). The editors say the latter will be serious, long-form journalism. We’ll see if it’s more Wired or more New Yorker.

Categorized as Writing