Making the most of time

Here are some tips for how to use time to your advantage when working on projects.

Time is often the enemy of a project, but I believe that’s because most people do a poor job managing their time and effort.  The lessons below are ones I’ve learned by approaching time management through the lens of cognitive science.  Use them to help you make the most of your time, no matter how big or small the task.


To maximize your productivity, you need to avoid all interruptions to your work.  Interruptions cost the time it takes to handle the interruption plus much more.

When you start working on something, it takes a good fifteen minutes to become fully absorbed in that task.  Once you’re in that flow, any kind of interruption — such as talking to someone or checking your email  — takes you out of that zone.  After you handle the interruption, you lose another good fifteen minutes re-absorbing yourself back into your work.

That’s why it’s essential to make your work environment as interrupt-free as possible.  Close your email, your IM clients, and your web browsers.  Put on your headphones.  Move into a conference room.  Do whatever it takes to get away — far away — from the interruptions and impediments keeping you from concentrating on the work at hand.

Evenly spaced deadlines

The best way to use deadlines is to spread them evenly over time because it maximizes the quality of your effort and likelihood that you’ll finish on time.  Committing to any deadline improves your chances of getting a task done on time and done right;  to improve those odds further, give your self several deadlines with regular intervals.

This observation comes from science.  A 2002 study researched the effectiveness of deadlines.  Three groups were asked to complete a task using one of three strategies: use a single end deadline, use three evenly spaced deadlines, or set your own deadlines.  Of the three groups, the evenly spaced deadline group had the fewest delays in completing the task and also submitted the best quality work.

If your project only has a single deadline, break it up into shorter deadlines for yourself.  And if your project is large enough to have several deadlines, spread them out as evenly as possible.  That way you’re maximizing your chances to create quality work and hit your deadline.

Impossibly short timeframe

If you want to try something a little bit different, reel in your deadline to a timeframe that you feel is unrealistically short.  The brevity of the timeframe keeps you focused on the essential parts of your work.

Plenty of great works have been created in amazingly short periods of time.  For example, Gershwin wrote Rhapsody in Blue in less than one month.*  Check out the awesomeness of Beck’s Record Club; each album is recorded within 24 hours.  Similarly, a friend of mine wrote a 50,000 word novel in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month.

When you work with strict constraints like this, don’t expect your effort to be fully polished.  Gershwin finished writing Rhapsody after its first performance; he improvised the piano solo at the premiere.  Beck’s recordings are really rough, yet it’s the roughness that makes them fun.  Also, my friend’s novel needs some editing work 🙂  You can create great things in a short time; time becomes a healthy constraint on your effort, making you focus on the parts that matter.

In short

Give these a try sometime, especially that last one. Find a task that you can’t quite get off the ground, then give yourself an unrealistic deadline for finishing a rough version of it.  Or if you’re more of the planner type, set up a project plan with several deadlines along the way.  And always, always remove any distractions that might get in your way.  I bet you’ll be amazed at the quality of your output.

*Rhapsody usually takes about fifteen minutes to perform.  My favorite recording of the piece, made in 1927 with Gershwin at the piano, was stripped down to nine minutes so it would fit on a single record (the longest recording medium of the time).  IMO, it sounds much more joyful and lively than the best modern recordings.

Seven plus-or-minus BS

If someone ever cites the “magic number seven” rule at you, most likely they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

You’ve probably heard the rule before.  If you give people a list of items to memorize, most people will recall between 5 and 9 items, hence it’s often called the “7 +/- 2” rule or “magic number seven” after the academic paper where the finding was published.

Lots of people, designers and non-designers alike, cite this in web design as the maximum number of categories you can have at the top level of a website.  I’m sure it’s used in other places too.

Unfortunately, those are bullshit applications of the rule.  The rule refers to only one thing: memorizing the exact sequence of digits like a phone number.  Most people can remember seven numbers in order before running out of short term memory.

But when you’re memorizing words instead of numbers, recall goes down to 5 plus-or-minus 2 (or less for long words).  And again, this is a very limited application of short term memory — exact, ordered recall.

Thankfully, web pages are different than phone numbers, and other researchers have done experiments that test the limits of memory. Let’s try this one; I hand you a list and give you a minute to memorize it:

trombone grammar spatula sparks heart look lab
quill radar aardvark antenna lamp share spare
wink noodle spout tan overt wall value
wild greet draft energy video statement contact

Then I ask you to recreate the list as best as you can.  You might get half of them right; you’d definitely get more than 5 +/- 2.  In fact, you would probably remember a clump of words at the beginning and a clump at the end, with some others scattered in between.

This is due to how our short term memory works.  We remember the first items we encounter (“primacy”) and the most recent items we encounter (“recency”) better than the middle crap.

Let’s try a slightly different experiment.  Instead of asking you to recreate the list, I ask you to recall where specific items showed up.  “Where did ‘trombone’ appear in the list?”  You would remember even more than the previous test.

I’d say this kind of prompted recall is the closest to how people use web pages — “where is that logout button? “I think I saw ‘checkout’ over here.” “The search bar was somewhere at the top of the page.” If that’s the case, then “7 +/- 2” is total BS as a design rule because people are capable of memorizing much, much more with the right help.

Put memory to work for you

This leads to an interesting question.  What can you do to improve experiences by taking advantage of how memory works?  Here are a few good tips.

Awesome beginnings and endings

Because we remember the first and last items we’ve encountered better than other stuff, you should put your best effort into creating awesome beginnings and endings.  Your audience will remember the beginning and end long after they’ve forgotten all that crap in the middle.


When you need someone to remember something, like a specific series of steps to accomplish a goal, use prompts to nudge them along.  A little prompt (i.e. “Where is ‘trombone’ in the list?”, “Step 1… Step 2…”) can invoke a chain of memories that people would have otherwise forgotten.


I bet you can recall all the lyrics to your favorite songs you listened to over and over again as a teen. People recall items better after they’ve been repeatedly exposed to them.  As time goes on, those items migrate to your long term memory. After a while, you’ll have the lyrics to “Mexican Radio” embedded in your brain for life.


Memorize this list:

lions tigers bears cowboys redskins eagles packers

I bet you could easily do it.  Our brains “chunk” similar kinds information together.  We can memorize chunks that we already know, like movie lines or NFL teams, faster and better than others.

If you remember anything from this post…

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering what to tell your boss when he insists that you need to cut your website’s categories down to “seven plus or minus two.” I’d say the limit is based on how many you can lay out without overwhelming the user. Try something, test it, try something else, then test it again. Repeat until all people – users and bosses alike – are satisfied.

If all else fails, just do what Amazon does. (They have 12 top level categories.) And if that doesn’t work, show that person the hundreds of other interactive items on your website. People remember how to use the site just fine despite the fact that “hundreds” vastly exceeds our short term memory limit of “seven plus-or-minus two.”

Have any memory tips appropriate for design? Please add them to the comments on this post.  In the mean time, don’t be afraid to tell someone that they have no fucking idea what they’re talking about if they spew that magic number seven crap at ya.

Like my blog?  Try my twitter feed!

The Love

One of the lynchpins of my office is leaving.  After hearing the news, a coworker asked me if I knew why.

I said, “there’s an intangible force that runs through every person in every company.  I call it ‘The Love.’

“The Love comes from two places.  There’s Intrinsic Love — that’s the love of what you do.  When you wake up in the morning, excited to get in the office and do the thing you were hired to do — that’s Intrinsic Love bubbling over.

“It also comes from Extrinsic Love — that’s the love other people give to you for doing the thing you do in the office.  They give it to you in the form of thanks and accolades.

“The Love is a finite thing, and you use it up little by little.  You have to refill it, and that refill comes from Intrinsic Love or Extrinsic Love or both.  If your work or your rewards can keep refilling The Love, then you’ve got a great thing.

“But if you’re not getting enough of The Love for your effort, then The Love runs out.  Maybe it’s because you don’t like what you do.  Maybe it’s because others don’t appreciate what you do.  Regardless of the reason, the effect is the same.

“His Love ran out.  That’s why he’s leaving.”

“I see,” my coworker said.  “It’s like a relationship.  Sometimes they go great.  But sometimes she’s a cranky bitch and the bitch wears you out little by little until you don’t ever want to see her bitch face again.”

“You got it.”

“Where are you going?”

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

And that’s the story of The Love.

Own your problems

If solving a problem is like throwing a punch, then owning a problem is like going jujitsu on its ass.

Once in the past, I was lucky enough to see a competitor’s “kill sheet”* for a product that I was involved with.  It was full of lies — blatant, demonstrably false lies.  We dealt with it internally, but that didn’t make me happy.

What would have made me happy?  Posting the document on our website and tearing their arguments to shreds.  At worst, we would address the complaints and FUD about our app.  At best, the competitor would send us a takedown notice, thereby proving they wrote that crap.

I call this philosophy “owning your problems.”  Anytime someone complains about you or does something to piss you off, turn it to your advantage.  In my case, we solved the problem but we never owned the problem.

Another example is the Palm Pre vs. Apple iTunes battle.  Palm hacked their Pre cell phone so it would sync with iTunes.  In response, Apple modified iTunes to stop syncing with the Pre.  Next, Palm updated the Pre to sync with iTunes again.  It went back and forth for a bit until Palm gave in to Apple.

If I was Apple, not only would I allow the Pre to sync with iTunes, I would let any phone sync with iTunes.  Palm’s attempt to leverage iTunes is a concession that iTunes is superior to any sync application Palm can make.  Apple may feel good about their solution, but they missed the opportunity to own the problem.

At its core, this is an issue of control.  Are you going to let your competitors control the conversation?  Or can you make the conversation your own?  There’s money in it too; Get Satisfaction and Brands in Public built businesses where you have to pay them to own your problems.

The next time you’re facing a problem caused by some external entity, ask yourself if you’re solving the problem or owning the problem.  Are you fixing it or turning it to your advantage?  Chances are you’re missing an opportunity to leap a mile instead of crawling an inch.

One last example.  A Jets player twittered about his lack of play time.  The coach responded by benching the player for a week.  Problem solved.

If I was the coach, how would I own this problem?  I would have twittered back:

@davidclowney work harder and you’ll get more play time. Now put your phone down and get back to practice.

That’s owning your problem, and with 34 characters to spare.

*A “kill sheet” is a list of points you can use to eliminate a competitor during a sales process.

Google Voice is super creepy

I signed up for Google Voice.  Mostly I wanted to see how it works.  I paired it with my cell phone, but I haven’t used it since.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine replaced his cell number with his Google Voice account.  I sent him a text from my cell phone to his Google Voice number a few days ago.

And the text showed up in MY Google Voice account too.

I tried it again to make sure.  Screenshot is below (phone number is obscured to protect my friend):

google voice flaw

Why is the message I sent from my phone to my friend’s Google Voice account appearing in my account?  That means Google decided that messages received by and sent from his account should appear in mine too.

To be clear, I didn’t use my Google Voice account when sending or receiving the message.  Google looked at the phone number, matched it up with my account, then stuck it in my inbox.  To date, the only messages in my Google Voice inbox are the welcome message and the texts to that person.

This is a ridiculous security and privacy hole.  If you swiped someone else’s phone for just a minute, you could attach it to a Google Voice account then receive all texts between that person and any Google Voice user.

I’ve been a big fan of Google’s past products, but this is the first time I’ve ever been freaked out by something they’ve done.  I hope Google realizes the flaw here and fixes it quickly.

Porn is the future again

Once again,  the porn industry is one step ahead of everyone in adapting to changing technology.

Not long ago, the New York Times covered recent changes in the porn industry.  The LA Times also covered similar changes for the west coast porn industry.  I’ll save you the trouble of reading the articles; here are the two main lessons.

Lesson 1: The internet has forever changed distribution.

But you knew that already.  For the porn industry, peak DVD revenue occurred in 2006.  Since 2007, industry revenue has declined between 30% and 50%.  The impact of the internet here is obvious.

Lesson 2: The internet has forever changed production.

The main vehicle for porn used to be the movie — VHS or DVD.  Porn was produced in movie-sized chunks.  This requires scrips, a couple of hours of content, editing, packaging, etc.

Today, people consume porn on the internet by the sex scene.  Why bother with scripts, DVD packaging, or filler content?  Instead, just film the fucking and throw it online one scene at a time.

Porn is now produced in the same format that it’s consumed.

And this has forever changed the industry.  Porn stars don’t need to read scripts or learn their lines; they just go straight into the action.

This is the newest lesson from the porn industry.  They’ve learned to change their production to match the distribution. And the porn stars, as the articles discuss, are now having to cope with less work, cheaper pay, and more competition.

From what I can tell, most industries have not come to this realization.  In fact, the music industry is working on a format for “digital albums” — a sure sign that they’re in denial about the changing nature of music production.

Meanwhile, Radiohead has figured it out.  They’ve released their last two tracks individually on the net — one free via bittorrent, the other for pay to a charitable cause.  This is a band that understands the new reality of music production.

This new production goes beyond music.  Open source software embodies this by gathering the contributions of many distributed programmers into a single project, making the “newest” product available to anyone at any time.  Compare that to businesses who throw all their coders into a room and release new versions whenever they feel like.

Similarly, this is the difference between waterfall and agile project management.  The waterfall method is great if you’re going to put software on CDs, stick them in boxes, and ship them out on trucks; waterfall emphasizes getting everything done one year after you started.

Agile development is great if you want your customers to get the newest version as fast as you can code. It emphasizes keeping the product ready to ship at any moment (and being able to ship it out at a moment’s notice).

All this is a long way of saying that our means of production haven’t caught up to our means of distribution. If you’re trying to think about the next new thing, think about how you can use technology and the internet to improve production of anything — arts, goods, ideas, bananas.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep my eye on the porn industry in case I stumble upon any new… um… revelations.

On sandwiches

This is about sandwiches. Yep, sandwiches.

A good sandwich is a work of art — where the meat is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. Any place that makes a good sandwich is worthy of a repeat visit, especially if I can make it there and back during lunch.

When I go to a sandwich shop for the first time, I check the menu.  What kind of sandwiches do they offer?  What kind of toppings?

What kind of bread?

“We have sourdough roll, multi-grain roll, and dutch crunch.”

Unless they make their own bread, all the sandwich shops in the bay area serve the same breads.  All of them.  And they all answer that question in the exact same order: sourdough, multi-grain, and dutch crunch.

What can you learn from this?  First, be a bread maker; it’s a good business to be in.  In San Francisco, if you’re eating a sandwich, you’re probably eating Wedemeyer Bakery bread.  And remember — there’s room for more than one breadmaker in a town.

Second, if you’re not a skilled breadmaker, make a better sandwich.  Mr. Pickles is good for the speed and cost, but Bonne Sante‘s chicken and prosciutto is a sandwich that I would drive for miles to get.

And there ya go. Make bread or make a better sandwich.

It’s amazing what sandwiches have to teach us.

Data-driven + design-driven + user-centered = awesome design

Did you hear the one about the Google designer who didn’t want to improve his designs with data?

The New York Times covered the story of the Google designer who defected to Twitter because Google was hellbent on testing designs to pick the best one.

Deciding which design is “best” depends on what school of design you come from. Here’s a cheat sheet for the big three — their philosophy, criteria for good design, and a phrase you might hear such a designer say.

Data-centered design

Philosophy Test everything and let the numbers be your guide.
“Best” criteria Crunch the numbers and find the best combinations.
Key quote We’ve got web tracking. What do the metrics tell us?

Design driven

Philosophy Designers know best; follow your heart and best practices.
“Best” criteria It just feels right.
Key quote That’s doesn’t work for me. Can we try it one more time?

User-centered design

Philosophy You gotta find the problem before you can build the solution.
“Best” criteria It solves their problems, and they love it.
Key quote You can’t read their minds. Can we talk to them?

But these design philosophies don’t live in separate silos. They can easily coexist.

For example, a data-driven designer should be very interested to know why the numbers ended up as they did. To find out, you can turn to your underlying design principles (design-driven) or ask people (user-centered).

Similarly, a design-driven person should make sure the designs resound with real people (user-centered) and that the results pan out when launched (data-driven).

And a user-centered designer should look at statistics to see where problems are occurring (data-driven) and trust gut feelings when translating user feedback into feature ideas (design-driven).

There’s room for everyone in the design world. How narrow-minded do you have to be to ruthlessly test everything? Or not to trust your design instinct? Or not talk to people about their problems?

One way of coping with the reality of design is to leave your company because you couldn’t find a way to balance your design sensibilities with the company goals. *cough* doesn’t play well with others *cough*

But I think there’s no such thing as the “right” way of approaching design problems. You should always look to expand your design horizons, even if you have to venture into new disciplines or combat your own opinions.

Design is as much about your opinion (design-driven) as it is your audience’s (user-centered) and your employer’s (data-driven). The best designs come from a healthy acceptance of all three.

By the way, does anyone know which line size — 3px, 4px, or 5px — worked best? I’d love to know.

Multi-touch is the new touch

in flagrante delicto — caught in the act

Here’s a quick lesson on the importance of watching people while they use your products in the context where the products are used.

Some time ago, I was leaving the movie theater in the mall when I passed by some people using the touch screen information kiosk.  There were three or four of them huddled around the screen — talking, pointing, touching — trying to find something.

Two of them in particular were the primary drivers of the touch screen.  Frequently, they would both touch the screen at the same time in different places, leading to random results; the next page that displayed was different than what either person had touched.

Unfortunately, this screen was built to operate on a single touch.  If two people touch it at the same time in different places, it records a touch at the midpoint of those touches.  The two people at the screen that day didn’t know it but their information retrieval goal was subverted by the screen’s designers.

More recently, I was using a Coke touch screen vending machine when my nephew came over and started playing with it at the same time.  The same thing happened; the screen didn’t handle multiple touches, and the result was neither my nephew or I got what we expected.

Two lessons here.  First, single-touch screens are obsolete.  If you’re building a touch-screen device, multi-touch is the only way to go.

Second, always watch people use your products in real situations.  Unless you sat and watched that kiosk all day, you would never know that single-touch was causing so many problems.

No usability test or lab setting can reproduce the infinite variety of reality.

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.