A game of inches

When you treat life as a game of inches, you’re going to lose by miles.

Take my morning commute.  In the midst of morning rush hour traffic, one driver always tries to get that extra inch ahead — swerving between lanes, cutting off others — in the hopes of getting to work that much earlier.*

What are you going to do with that extra minute once you get to the office?  Or if you get home one minute sooner?

If that driver was really eager to get started with work, he could take the commuter train and work on the way.  Or he could work from home.

Or he could take a helicopter to the office.

When everyone is playing the game in the same way (driving to work), the only reliable way to beat everyone is to find a new way to play (flying to work).

Take the newspaper industry.  They treated the internet as a game of inches; they found incremental ways to incorporate digital into their plans.  They moved at the speed of paper.

Meanwhile, the Internet moved at the speed of light.  News business models came and went several times over while the newspapers were looking for the forest where the digital trees grow.

(because you need digital trees to print a newspaper online, right?)

In life, business, driving to work — you can’t treat these things as games of inches; something new and unexpected will come along to blow you away while you’re still stuck in traffic.

Whether you’re a company or individual, here are a few good questions to see if you’re playing the game by inches or miles:

  • What was the last change I made that sent out shockwaves to everyone?
  • If I didn’t exist, how would people get by without me?
  • What would I do differently if I was brought in to replace myself?
  • Am I incorporating the newest and best practices in my work?
  • Is everything around me thriving while I’m floundering?

If you’re playing by miles, these should be trivially easy to answer.  If you’re not, you probably struggled with this.

Admittedly, they’re pretty tough questions.  Thinking about what you would do if you were replacing yourself takes some gray matter power to think through.

Take a minute to look around you.  Are those things are moving by inches (the auto industry) or by miles (foreclosed homeowners)?

Which are moving the ocean and which are just moving with the tide?

Which one are you?


*Yeah, maybe one of those asshole drivers has a legitimate excuse like an emergency, but most are just assholes.

Why do people suck at saying what they want?

I can’t believe the crazytown that’s erupted over Facebook and their attitude towards the people who want Facebook to kick more ass.  Doesn’t Facebook understand that it takes a special person to talk to people and distill their real needs?

I’ve covered "users" and usability before and I hate being forced to cover it again.  However, I hate it even more when stupid people dismiss peoples’ feedback because they’re "stupid".

People are horrible at articulating their wants. It’s the lunch problem. You’ve been through this scene before:

You: Where should we go to lunch today?
Me: I don’t know…
You: How about Thai?
Me: No, I had Thai yesterday.  How about pizza?
You: I’m having Italian tonight, so I’d rather not.  What about a sandwich?
[and so on for 5 minutes]

By the time you’ve decided, you’re frustrated with the other person’s ability to decide on a place to eat.  It turns a harmless scene into unnecessary hatred.

So why do people suck at saying what they want?

Here are a few reasons why we’re so poor at explaining our wants:

Frames of reference
Most of the time, the people you’re talking to are from a different world than yours.  You may both speak English, but you use different words to explain the same thing (the vocabulary problem).  So when you try to explain something to the other person, he can’t understand you (the conduit problem).

Learn his vocabulary and speak to him in it.

Asking for solutions
Sometimes interviews go ok, but people offer solutions in your frame of reference like, "when I click it, it should do this." Likewise, bad interviewers solicit those solutions — "what should it do when you click it?"  That’s like asking a gardener’s advice on bridge building.

Avoid asking for solutions; always revert to the interviewee’s frame of reference.

We call asking for wants "whining." Most people have been successfully conditioned not to whine by the time they’re adults.  Getting people to break that training is difficult.

Save the hard questions until after they’ve warmed up to you and the fact that you’re listening to their desires.

"Users are stupid"
Because of the reasons above, many people are biased against talking to people altogether; they dismiss feedback as "stupid."  People are actually pretty smart.  But if you read my explanations, you’d understand the reasons behind the bias.

It’s your fault for not understanding them, not their fault for saying something you don’t understand.

How to correct your stupidity (and learn from people using your product)

Here’s what people are really good at telling you (and what you should have asked in the first place):

What their problem is
Everyone wants to tell their side of the story; that’s why we have lawsuits and psychiatrists.  If you’re willing to dig in, most folks are willing to explain their problems in gory detail.  You’ll need to filter it down to a digestible level to find the gold in the rubble.

Ask them to explain the problem’s they’re having, and they’ll be your BFF by the time you’re done.

What they don’t like
Just like the lunch example above, people are great at saying, "no." The bad news is that a "no" isn’t very helpful in deciding on where to go for lunch; the good news is that a "no" narrows the options by telling you what to avoid.

Even a "no" is a good answer; collapse the realm of possibilities whenever possible.

What they love
I’m talkin’ about passion here.  It comes out as something like, "there’s this great new restaurant you should check out."  When you love something, you want everyone to know about it.  It’s a great way to warm up an interviewee.

Believe in their passion as much as you believe in yours.

What they want to do
Call this the magic wand theory of desire.  "If you could wave a magic wand, what kind of food would you have?"  That question keeps people focused on their goals and away from the mechanics of how it’s done.

People have strong imaginations; activate it by invoking their desires (while avoiding the details).

Design versus people skills

The value you assign to user feedback is highly dependent on the quality of the people collecting your feedback. You wouldn’t use a lawyer to design your website. That’s why we have fields like information architecture, interaction design, and usability testing.*

So why would you send a designer to interview people? That’s why we have fields like anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

Don’t send a designer to do an interviewer’s job; an interviewer will do much better. If you send the wrong person, you’ll get answers as bad as sending a lawyer to design a web site.  And bad answers reinforce the opinion that "users are stupid."  It’s a downward spiral.

Users are not stupid.  You’re stupid for thinking they are.  Instead, hire someone with good people skills.

Maybe Facebook could have avoided this redesign debacle if they had spent more time trying to understand how people on their site are trying to be awesome instead of getting in their way.

*Sadly, people still hire marketers and graphic designers to design online interactions. Would you hire an interaction designer to do your marketing or graphic design? Then why would you hire a marketer or graphic designer to do your interaction design?

The Death of Physical

Nothing new here… just my observations on why so many brick-and-mortar stores are dying a slow death.

I went to the closings of nearby Circuit City and Tower Superstore stores recently.  Even with the 20% off "We’re Closing" discount, their copy of the Wall-E three disc special edition was $10 more than Amazon’s everyday price.

And the DVDs that usually go for $15 each — Amazon is still $2 cheaper on all of ’em after Tower’s Final Sale price.

No wonder they’re closing.

This reminded me of some very important reasons why physical is dying.  First, digitally you can almost always find it cheaper somewhere else, especially if you have your internet-enabled phone in your pocket.

Second, no brick-and-mortar store will undersell every internet store.  Amazon can sell any DVD they want cheaper than any four-walled retailer and still pay 2 to 15% per item in their affiliate program.

Third, physical will be dead soon enough.  Steam, Valve’s digital game publishing platform, noted that every decrease in price created a huge increase in sales.  No physical store could match digital’s everyday price much less that price cut.

After the revolution, you’ll be able to count the industries that require "physical" on your hands:

  • clothes
  • food
  • transportation
  • housing
  • utilities

Ok, you can count ’em on one hand, leaving your other hand free to… surf the web.

Circuit City closed 567 stores, putting 34,000 out of work.  Tower closed 6 stores with 1,000 employees.  Blockbuster is trading for less than $1.

Amazon made $1.3 billion in profit last quarter.  Netflix made $126 million.

Who will you bet on?

In Quotes — An Umbrella

I like quotes. There always seems to be a good one that fits any situation.

Take this website. Recently, I thought about changing the tagline for my site from:

An umbrella in the desert

to something a bit more digestible:

Life absurd

but then I remembered I’m a rather absurd person, so why should I draw a straight line for people to follow?

Speaking of which, let me tell you about that umbrella line. People ask, "what does it mean? It doesn’t rain in the desert."

Those people are thinking in a straight line. Why draw a straight line when curves and jagged lines are so much more fun?

If you ask,

What’s an umbrella in the desert?

then the tagline makes sense…

It’s the only shade for miles.