Category Archives: Design

Poetry and the Mobile Form

The joy of poetry lies in the distillation of an emotion into a tight, condensed, intense form.  As someone said, “poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”

Design has also been enhanced by the tight time, bandwidth, and screen space limitations of the mobile experience.  This is Bill Gurley in his latest essay:

Users favor mobile applications that are crisp, clean, and quickly responsive. My partner Matt Cohler has written that the smartphone is a “remote control for your life.” This is a clever metaphor that succinctly specifies the objectives for an ideal mobile application. Like a remote control, it should be quickly responsive, and do what you want with very few button clicks. The Uber* experience is a great example. Press a button, receive a ride, and everything else disappears – even payment is automated. Websites do not always have this same “one-click” usability expectation, and as a result web designers can easily come up short by building mobile applications that are overly complex. The limited screen real estate , and limited user-attention on the smartphone forces better design decisions. Lastly, lower mobile bandwidth (versus the desktop) increases the consumer benefit of pre-cached content and UI.

Finding Critical Mass

Seth Godin reminds us today that the critical mass of users depends on the idea.

For a site directed at consumers whose tastes pass quickly, critical mass may be millions of users; for a site directed at professionals who are herd-like, critical mass may be in the single digits of the right people.  Seth says:

In the idea business, critical mass is the minimum size of the excited audience that leads to a wildfire. People start embracing your idea because, “everyone else is…”

For every idea that spreads, it turns out that the critical mass is different. For example, if I want to start a yo-yo craze at the local elementary school, critical mass might be as small as a dozen of the right kids yo-yo-ing during lunch. In an environment that small and tightly knit, it’s sufficient.

On the other hand, the critical mass for a better word processor is in the gazillions, because the current standard is so deeply entrenched and the addressable market is both huge and loosely knit. The chances that you will launch a new word processor that catches on because everyone else is using it are small indeed.

Creating that reaction also requires smarts from the entrepreneur.  Godin says, reminiscent of Paul Graham’s “building something a small number of people want a large amount”:

If your idea isn’t spreading, one reason might be that it’s for too many people. Or it might be because the cohort that appreciates it isn’t tightly connected. When you focus on a smaller, more connected group, it’s far easier to make an impact.

The Judge, Jury and Executioner School of Product Design

I can’t seem to get enough of lessons by Steve Jobs, so here is what the designer of the iPod took from working with Steve:

For his part, Mr Fadell says Jobs taught him the importance of looking carefully at all the ways in which consumers interact with a device, including seemingly minor things like packaging and customer support. He also developed a healthy respect for his boss’s habit of “point-of-view editing”, which involved spelling out in detail to employees the reasons for changes he made to products. And he got to witness at first hand Jobs’s instinctive feel for great design. Mr Fadell is firmly convinced there needs to be “one judge, jury and executioner” who makes the final call on how products look, rather than a committee of equals.

The Geometry of Design

From a too short essay in the New York Times this weekend, an underlying understanding of geometry and mathematics in nature and history is linked to good design:

Simple geometry is leading to similar revelations. For more than 2,000 years, philosophers, mathematicians and artists have marveled at the unique properties of the “golden rectangle”: subtract a square from a golden rectangle, and what remains is another golden rectangle, and so on and so on — an infinite spiral. These so-called magical proportions (about 5 by 8) are common in the shapes of books, television sets and credit cards, and they provide the underlying structure for some of the most beloved designs in history: the facades of the Parthenon and Notre Dame, the face of the “Mona Lisa,” the Stradivarius violin and theoriginal iPod.

Experiments going back to the 19th century repeatedly show that people invariably prefer images in these proportions, but no one has known why.

Then, in 2009, a Duke University professor demonstrated that our eyes can scan an image fastest when its shape is a golden rectangle. For instance, it’s the ideal layout of a paragraph of text, the one most conducive to reading and retention. This simple shape speeds up our ability to perceive the world, and without realizing it, we employ it wherever we can.

Certain patterns also have universal appeal. Natural fractals — irregular, self-similar geometry — occur virtually everywhere in nature: in coastlines and riverways, in snowflakes and leaf veins, even in our own lungs. In recent years, physicists have found that people invariably prefer a certain mathematical density of fractals — not too thick, not too sparse. The theory is that this particular pattern echoes the shapes of trees, specifically the acacia, on the African savanna, the place stored in our genetic memory from the cradle of the human race. To paraphrase one biologist, beauty is in the genes of the beholder — home is where the genome is.

LIFE magazine named Jackson Pollock “the greatest living painter in the United States” in 1949, when he was creating canvases now known to conform to the optimal fractal density (about 1.3 on a scale of 1 to 2 from void to solid). Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all of our brains?

From Poets to StoryTellers

Another way, other than poetry, to conceptualize building the business is storytelling — “breathing life into your product.”

This is from a Barron’s feature this week on Howard Schultz of Starbucks:

The journey of where coffee comes from and how it is grown captured my imagination. It provided me with this blank canvas on which to be able to create.

I’ve always viewed myself, above all else, as a merchant, and we are storytellers. We have to be able to bring a product to life through the romance and the language of the story, and the story has to be authentic and has to reveal something to the customer.

Bezos’s Ding

We have talked about the impact of Jeff Bezos, in particular with AWS last year. I wrote:

To put a number on it, what Amazon has done is help cut the cost of launching an application by 99%.  Not only is Amazon’s cloud services an amazing business for it, Amazon,along with others surely, but with significant credit due to it, has made the world an innovation platform, enabling the low-cost, lean, prototyping innovation culture of today.

The NYTimes, a year later, is just catching up, yesterday writing about AWS’ role as an enabler of innovation. I particularly like this quote from David Risher, a former Amazon executive, at the end, implicitly tying Bezos to Steve Jobs:

Jeff thinks on a planetary level. A.W.S. is an opportunity, as a business. But it is also a philosophy of enabling other people to build big systems. That is how Amazon will make a dent in the universe.

Giving People Superpowers

A recollection of Dennis Crowley as a bonus from the Clay Shirky interview from the last post.  One of the things that stands out about Dennis is how he has been obsessed with the same issue forever, manifesting itself in two companies, one which is continuing to evolve.  Here is Shirky’s perspective on that.

Wired: Dennis Crowley was a student of yours at NYU. What do you remember of him?

Shirky: Dennis was on fire when he got there. I mean, most students I meet because they sign up and show up in one of my classes. Dennis I met because in the middle of his first semester there he built as part of a one-week long project for a class a database for students to characterize their interests and skills to one another. It was a full on social application built in 2001, 2002, prior even to the launch of Friendster.

So I said, “Who is this guy?” So I went and met him and we had coffee. It was clear that the guy was going to take whatever we had to offer and just use it in ways that were more interesting than the stuff we could have been thinking of ourselves. He has always been outgoing, he has always wanted to meet new people, he introduced people he knows to each other, and I think his native interest is in taking the social possibilities that adhere particularly in city life and making them work better. Dennis is in the business of giving people superpowers. You use, first Dodgeball, latterly Foursquare, to literally see through walls. I am standing here, and my friends are 55 yards in that direction. It’s hard now to remember, when mobile social software and geo-located X are all just part of the background noise of using our devices, but he built that shit in two thousand and three!

Telling Your Story

Certainly one of the most crucial skills in life is storytelling, the skill at the heart of touching others’ emotions and then persuading them.  As in other things, this is true in entrepreneurship as well where you are selling vision to customers, investors, employees, and the world.

One of the greatest storytellers of our time is Pixar, maker of some of the best animated stories of all time, including my Pixar favorites Ratatouille,  The Incredibles, and Up.  Like it literally did in Toy Story, Pixar takes the inanimate and makes it deeply human.  And perhaps proving the connection, Pixar was nurtured into what it was in significant part by Steve Jobs, one of the greatest entrepreneurial storytellers of our time, and possessor of the reality distortion field.

Consequently, I found this listing of the 22 rules of Storytelling by Pixar’s Emma Coats worth sharing:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Keeping these in mind as you create and evangelize will help you breathe life into your product.

Small Adjustments, Big Gains

Esther Duflo is a young superstar economist – MIT professor, MacArthur genius, and winner of the John Bates Clark medal – and she works on the economics of fighting poverty. One of the lessons from her work in development economics on addressing bad outcomes in human behavior is:

Fourth, poor countries are not doomed to failure because they are poor, or because they have had an unfortunate history. It is true that things often do not work in these countries: programmes intended to help the poor end up in the wrong hands, teachers teach desultorily or not at all, roads weakened by theft of materials collapse under the weight of overburdened trucks, and so forth. But many of these failures have less to do with some grand conspiracy of the elites to maintain their hold on the economy and more to do with some avoidable flaw in the design of policies, and the ubiquitous three is: ignorance, ideology and inertia.

The way i read this is that bad outcomes often have to do with some flaw in the system which leads to massively bad outcomes. In policy, it can be small adjustments that, if implemented, can lead to much better outcomes. Making a systematic change that addresses the flaw, often linked to taking on ignorance or inertia, can give better results, because, and not to be too naive, people want those better outcomes.

The same rule applies in other complex systems including those tackled by great technology businesses.  Technology is just another mechanism for fixing on massive systematic failures.  And like in the policy world, it’s a small twist of a screw in the system that could lead to much better outcomes. So, for example: people want to communicate better, and better, simple, and more interactive interfaces like Twitter and Facebook exploded by designing systems that fit that desire better than existing ones. Other solutions can fix poorly performing markets by taking advantage of market mechanisms such as easier supply, better price transparency, or more perfect information.

Like with policy, as entrepreneurs, it’s looking for the simple elegant solutions and mechanisms to fix big systems that are likely to be the best way to yield massive results.

Design: Do Things That Don’t Scale

It’s too easy to write off pursuing the perfect experience on the assumption that it will not scale.  This Airbnb story provides a great lesson, why this can be self-defeating and, instead, why you should perfect the perfect user experience and then figure out how to scale.  This is an important less for us all.  From FastCompany:

Gebbia’s and Chesky’s [design] training pushes them to seek right-brained solutions to every problem. Early on, Airbnb was not getting much traction in New York. So the team flew out and booked rooms with two-dozen hosts to learn why. Users, they found, had no idea how to present their listings. “The photos were really bad,” says Gebbia, who typically sports Twizzler-red sneakers and thick-framed glasses that resemble lab goggles. “People were using camera phones and taking Craigslist-quality pictures. Surprise! No one was booking because you couldn’t see what you were paying for.”

They crafted a very untechy solution. “A web startup would say, ‘Let’s send emails, teach [users] professional photography, and test them,’ ” explains the jockish Chesky, a former bodybuilder who wanted to play pro hockey. “We said, ‘Screw that.’ ” The pair rented a $5,000 camera and snapped high-resolution photos of as many New York host apartments as they could. Bookings soared. By month’s end, revenue had doubled in the city. “Rinse and repeat,” Gebbia says. “When we fixed the product in New York, it solved our problems in Paris, London, Vancouver, and Miami.”

Airbnb now offers its hosts free professional photography services from more than 2,000 freelancers who have visited 13,000 listings across six continents. The startup realized the long-term benefits–such as improved aesthetics and verified property addresses–far outweighed the costs. Travelers are two and a half times more likely to book these enhanced listings, which earn their hosts an average of $1,025 per month. “Do things that don’t scale,” Chesky says, a sentiment that would be considered blasphemy at Google or Facebook. “We start with the perfect experience and then work backward. That’s how we’re going to continue to be successful.”